An interview with Joanne Greenberg

Interview by Ed McManis

Next year, 2024, will mark the 60th anniversary of Joanne Greenberg’s classic novel, I 

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Rose Garden is the semi-autobiographical story of Greenberg’s battle with mental illness during her formative years. Greenberg was diagnosed at thirteen and subsequently committed to a mental hospital at age sixteen. The novel tells of her harrowing battle and miseries in the land of Yr, the work with her therapist, and her triumphant celebration coming out the other end into a life of mental “health.” 

The book was made into a movie in 1977. Greenberg’s take on the film?  “A C+. Nice try. Whoever was the advisor on that movie was asleep at the wheel.” Rose Garden, written under the nom de plume, Hannah Green, at her mother’s insistence, was Greenberg’s second novel. (It has sold millions of copies and has been reprinted multiple times.)

She laughs when she talks about those who think she’s locked up somewhere “blowing square bubbles.”  She went on to have a “normal” life, got married, raised a family, wrote twenty novels, worked as an anthropology professor at the Colorado School of Mines, volunteered as the first female EMT in her mountain community, tutored students in Hebrew, made jam and sewed clothes…and made trouble when necessary. 

Now approaching her 91st birthday, she continues to write from her mountain top overlooking Denver. Her memoir about her career as the first woman EMT in her mountain community, On The Run, is forthcoming. She and her husband, Albert, her marriage partner for 67 years, have two grown sons, David and Alan.  (Albert, passed in November of 2022. We get the joy of hearing him also in this interview.) 

Jo: I know, you want to know, “Why in the hell did you write this book?” (Laughs)

Ed: Yeah, right. 

Jo: I’m going to tell you. I got out of the hospital and I thought, “This is it. Anything that starts with ‘p-s-y-c-h-y’ I’m not interested in, I don’t want it.” In those days the stigma was so bad that the only way out for anything was to lie like a carpet. Make up three years and put it in the slot. And the five years before that when you were sinking out of sight. And the ten years before that when you were trying to fake normal. So, it’s gone, it’s out. I went to secretarial school, and they called me a moron. (Laughs) I’ve been called a moron three separate times. They don’t use those words anymore. Now they would say what? “Intellectually challenged?” I was never challenged. A challenge is something you try to do. So, I went to college and faked it. Worked summers.

Once you’re in college, you’re a “college kid” and you’re all right. All the college kids ask you, “Where’d you go to high school? Where’d you do this and that?” Remember, all those years when people are learning stuff, I was out of it. 

Ed: You were sixteen?

Jo: Sixteen when I went in. I was thirteen when I was quote “diagnosed” and five when it all… when the train left.

Ed: So, you knew then, that young?

Jo: Oh yeah. So, all the social skills… people on a date. How do they act on a date? How do you act? What do you do? I was learning all that stuff in college. I was trying desperately to catch up. I didn’t have much of a social life until the last year. 

Ed: And that was at… American University?

Jo: American U. Yes. Then I went to England. And I got engaged—he didn’t know, neither of those guys (I was engaged to) knew, which is interesting, now that I think back on it. 

Ed: So, you were engaged twice?

Jo: Twice. Before “what’s his name.” (Laughs. Points towards Albert in the next room.)

Ed: And they didn’t know about your hospitalization—

Jo: Nooo. We (Albert) were both engaged to other people. So, we met. I was doing a favor for a friend of mine. I had a man-friend, not a boyfriend, graduate student. Ted. This guy was burning 450 watts of pure bright light. This guy was brilliant. But he didn’t care. What he cared about were intellectual things. So, he would go to Salvation army and get shirts, pants. He’d take from the stacks and you’d get the checks with the stripes. He’d kill what he ate—I used to cook for him—and he’d eat the burger or the package it came in. 

Ok. So he was attracted to this girl, and she’d say, “Look at him!” And he kept saying, “talk me up to her, talk me up.” I said, “Ted, I did.” Her name was Jana. I said to her, “You have to look beneath, clean him up! But this guy is something else.”

Well, they invited us to dinner. He and four other guys in a house. She didn’t want to be alone so she invited me and I said, sure. We went out to the house. And something happened that night. The dinner was what you would expect from five guys in a house. 

Now the person I was engaged to was a nuclear physicist. And he was everything you would want in a Jewish guy. His parents liked me, I liked them. He was set up as a Ph.D. candidate, blah, blah, blah. He was also very arrogant, he and his friends. They really thought they pissed cologne. And we’re sitting there at this dinner, and I’m sitting there, and I realized that I was never as comfortable and easy as I was right then. I wished to be nowhere else than where I was. 

And I was perfectly adequate. What a hot revelation. (Laughs) And Albert was this guy who I thought was Italian because his nose was broken. He was talking about how he worked as a night attendant in an old age home. And he was talking about jobs he had. And he said he had wanted to get a job at my hospital, but they didn’t treat alcoholics, and I said, “Yes, they do. They treat them in another building.” 

And he said, “You worked there?” And I thought, These people are better than that. They deserve better than that. I said, “I was a patient there.” Silence. Silence. Another beat. Then this guy (Albert) says, “They did a helluva’ job.”  And I thought, I screwed that up pretty good. And then he asked if he could call me. 

It was during spring break and my parents had come down and kidnapped me and took me to Florida, and I had a wonderful time running on the beach. I came back and I saw Ted again. Ted said, “What did you do to my friend? He’s been calling you and you haven’t answered. He thinks you gave a fake number.” I said, “Ted, concentrate. Look at me Ted. Concentrate. Tell him to call me again. You got that?” (Laughs) That was it.

Ed: But you were engaged.

Jo: Two weeks later I sent back the engagement watch to the physicist.

Ed: A watch?

Jo: Yes, for my engagement he gave me his father’s railroad watch. Farewell. That was it. So, you’re wondering…the book isn’t even thought of yet. But I did climb out from under with Albert. I wrote The King’s Persons.

Ed: That opened the door—

Jo: That opened the door. Now I can write a book. Now, at this time, Eichmann was captured by the Israelis and put on trial. And it was like, for all the Jews I know of my generation… you eat a bad dinner and you may have a belch or so, and in the middle of the night, you have to throw up. That’s what happened to us. We had eaten this dinner, the 40s were over, the 50s were mostly over, and when Eichmann was captured, the dinner came up. 

And you know, people’s Holocaust memories, my aunt’s memories, people’s cousins…. There were movies, it was in the news. Bruno Bettelheim, with whom I had a tangle, had written an article called, “The Forgotten Lesson on Anne Frank.” In it he said, Jews have a death wish. Now, I’d had two kids by then. And I was living here. In wonderful Colorado. There was a man named Walt P., a friend of mine, who had been in Belsen, Dachau and Belsen. 

I cornered him at a New Year’s party and I said, “Answer this. What about this death wish.” He said, Bruno had been in Dachau in the 30s (approx. 1938) and had come out and come to America and got set up. I didn’t like him, for very good reason. But, I said, “What about this article?” And Walt said, “Well, first, the guy’s full of shit.” And I said, “Why? He says this is true, this death wish.” It’s a helluva’ long death wish. We’ve been around for a long time. And I said, “How come he says this?” And Walt said, if you have this memory, or this hard thing that doesn’t fit, you do one of two things. Either you forget it or you change it. He has obviously changed it. 

What were we supposed to do? He’s going to make it fit. Change it. I haven’t forgotten it so I’m going to write it down before I change it too much. So, that was Rose Garden. 

Ed: So, in a weird way Bettelheim was a catalyst?

Jo: Yes. 

Ed: You took this notion of forget it or change it and couldn’t do either.

Jo: Right. I’m certainly not comparing my situation to the Holocaust. But it’s about changing. And of course, I’ve since seen what happens. I’m slowly getting our kids’ past, what they say we said. And I can’t say, I didn’t say it. But some of those things absolutely horrify me now. So, obviously I’ve changed stuff, and they’ve changed stuff. Your memory is very dodgy. (Laughs) 

Ed: Memory’s tricky; you change things, edit, add, disremember. It’s like you have a man and a horse and end up with a centaur. 

Jo: Yes, I get it from movies I see, and things I read when I was a kid. Especially movies. That’s not what the movie’s about. Ninny. I remember my movies, and some of my movies were better than your movies. 

Ed: Do you think you would have had a writing career without writing Rose Garden?

Jo: Oh, I don’t think there would have been…my agent told me that I had done very well considering that I am a midlist writer. Because all of these books for Holt, until the last two, earned money. The last two—and I don’t think it’s because my writing fell down. I think it was that nobody knew these books existed. Where The Road Goes, and No Re’cking Made. I didn’t make any money and that’s when Holt dropped me. I had had 16 books that had made them money. 

They wanted, of course, with Rose Garden, because KP (The King’s Persons) had won a prize, to use my name again. I said, “We can’t do that.” “Why not?” Well, I want this different name. “Why do you want a different name?” Well, I don’t really want a different name; who wants a different name is my mother. And the life that I’m presently living. 

Ed: What did your mom say?

Jo: “You wanna’ be a fool, make yourself a fool, do it out of town.” They were in New York. There was family and all of that. Albert was working in rehab at the time. State Rehab. (Colorado) So we had those people up to dinner—we sometimes did. And after the dinner, sitting around, I said. “You know a lot of you are working with people in the State Hospital, people out at Fort Logan… do you believe this thing is curable?” They all said “No.” They said you can have it but not demonstrate…oh, what the hell’s the word they used… remission! You can still have it but you’re in remission. You’re not blowing square bubbles. 

Well, remission to me means you’re doing ok until somebody mentions shoelaces or Thursday. Alan (son) had epilepsy when he was a kid—that’s all we need. So, fake name. I wanted a name that was close to my name. 

Ed: What is your maiden name? 

Jo: Goldenberg. So, I went from Goldenberg to Greenberg. Greenberg to Green.

Ed: Wasn’t there another author with that name?

Jo: Yes. There’s a real Hannah Green. Who told me that was John Williams. (Author—Stoner, Augustus) I met her, she’s nice. I got with her because I figured I owed her an apology. As soon as I found out, I had a real depression for about two days. “We gotta’ work this out.” And I had, in the meantime, gotten fan letters that didn’t make sense. 

Ed: From her books?

Jo: Yes, but they didn’t mention her book. One lady said, “You know, you deserve everything you get. The lovely way you treated your parents….” And, “I hope you have everything good, you’re a rose in the world.” I thought these people were wacko. Until John Williams said, to me, “No, I don’t mean you, I mean the real Hannah Green.” 

Oh boy. So I wrote to her and I said I just want you to know that there’s not going to be any Son of Rose Garden, Bride of Rose Garden, this is it. And she said, I’m glad you chose to let me know. She said, the publisher of the head of the House tried to make her change her name. And I said to her, “No, no.” She said she lived in New York, Barrow Street. “Next time you’re here drop in.” And I did. She said, “I’ve been getting mail about my mental illness.” (Laughs) She was married to a distance trucker. And I said, I’m sorry about the three gratuitous years I dumped on you, and there’s a lady in California who thinks you’re wonderful. 

Ed: How much of Rose Garden is fiction?

Jo: Quite a bit is compression. I didn’t make up any characters who weren’t there. Three years is a long time. Not fully three years, almost three years. Changed the name of the parents, changed the cities. 

Ed: Chicago?

Jo: Yes, I was never in Chicago. 

Ed: And then Deborah Blau?

Jo: Well yeah, Green became Blue. (Laughs) 

Ed: And then Suzy? Your younger sister?

Jo: Yes, my sister. 

Ed: Were the characters like your parents? 

Jo: My mother is a very complex woman, and this woman was far less complex. And it wasn’t her story anyway. But basically, yes. My mother was… great in the trenches. When push came to shove, the real mama showed up. 

Ed: We see that in the book when the rich girl gets pulled out by her dad and Deborah has a little epiphany about her parents keeping her in. 

Jo: That was Ch____, by the way.

Ed: Ch___?

Jo: I never told anybody that, until you. Because everybody’s dead. Probably. 

Ed: How do you spell that?

Jo: I’m not going to tell you. They took her. And she killed herself. She could have made it. Ch____ could have made it.

Ed: In the book, that was a revelation for Deborah. In a strange way, it gave her support. 

Jo: Yes. 

Ed: I wonder how other people read this? It made too much sense to me. The codes, what you say and don’t say and what that means. How those words are misunderstood by others, the “authorities.” I think maybe because I’ve done so much work with troubled kids. What they tell you isn’t always what they’re trying to say. 

Jo: Right.

Ed: How do you pronounce some of these? Yr and Yri? I was saying “year” and “year-e”?

Jo: That’s right.

Ed: And the mythology, it references Paradise Lost?

Jo: The falling. That’s John Milton by way of my grandfather’s old books that he had that I used to read. I need to say this, it’s a big deal. I know it’s familiar to you as a teacher. I would say, take the word “werewolf”. Were means man. (Old English) A werewolf is a man-wolf. There are kids in my class who would say, she was talking about man-wolf and then about garwulf and then about–the smarter kids would say–there’s a Latin intersection. And the brightest kids would say, “It’s not about wolves. It’s about an idea.” It’s about the way English is.  Well, people who go for… hallucinations are metaphors. They’re very important, but they’re important as metaphors. You can look at the hallucination, but you really need to look at the metaphor—what is it a metaphor… for?

Ed: Metaphors have to connect.

Jo: Right.

Ed: I forget which poet, but he says you can have all the personal metaphors you want, brilliant, but if they don’t connect—

Jo: (Laughs) Yes. You have to connect. 

Ed: As I read, I was trying to connect her two worlds. And at some point, she doesn’t have standing in either. There’s nothing to hold her.

Jo: Yes, I took away your hallucinations. So what? I’ll get some others. Because what all of this is, is a metaphor. 

Ed: The language too. The power of the words.

Jo: I was interested in languages. Always have been, always will be. So? Well, somebody said they’re just Latin and Greek picked up haphazardly with a little Hebrew thrown in. But that’s not where you’re supposed to look. 

Ed: That kind of parsing seems very reductionist. You talked about compression, and as I read I started to understand that dynamic in all the codes the patients used. One word or phrase stood for multiple meanings, dynamics, negative interactions and hurts.

Jo: Yes.

Ed: One of those words was what Deborah used to describe how she was poisonous. Her poisonous essence. Nganon.

 Jo: Swahili I think. Probably a little bit of Swahili.* 

Ed: Some critics have said–and I want you to speak to it if you like—that she wasn’t Schizophrenic. It was a somatization issue, some other personality—

Jo: (Interrupts) I have no stock in the term. So, whatever it is…there’s a reason why it’s in their interest that I not be schizophrenic. If I wasn’t schizophrenic, then that meant they didn’t have to do anything. 

Ed: I used to have this conversation all the time with parents. I’d tell them their son/daughter struggled with dyslexia. And they’d say “NO! They’re not dyslexic.” And they’d get very defensive. And I’d say, that’s fine. So, call it what you want, but your kid still can’t read. I’d try and explain that we can stay on the front side of the issue with the definition, or we could get over the hill to the back side and find a solution. 

Jo: That’s a very good… equals sign. Because…there’s no way to tell, as far as I know, no brain scan or nothing that tells you you’re schizophrenic. Or sometimes, or half. (Laughs) Whatever it was, it was completely debilitating…stopping—it stops everything functioning after a while. And they say, “You look terrible. We gotta’ clean you up.” 

Ed: We see that when the doctor warns the parents when they want to see Deborah. And the father is appalled, taken aback. It was hard for her parents to understand that combing her hair wasn’t number one on her survival list. 

Jo: Oh yeah.

Ed: I was working with a psychologist in college, and we were studying schizophrenia and at the time R.D. Laing was a big name on the subject. He said, schizophrenia was a reasonable reaction to an unreasonable society.

Jo: Sartre said that. That’s sheep-dip, Ed. It sounds good.

Ed: I always thought it sounded a bit glib. 

Jo: It is glib. I think it is, what do you call it…a circular firing squad. (Laughs) 

Ed: When I was studying it, the “law of thirds” always came up. One third got better, a third got worse, a third stayed the same. 

Jo: There’s more than that. I mean, there are more who spontaneously cure. Or stop. Or figure it out. Almost half. And then there are, what I call, the walking wounded. Who are ok until you mention shoelaces or Thursday.

Ed: When Deborah’s first out, she learns she can take her high school equivalency, and she has a relapse.

Jo: Well, that meltdown was… I mean I looked around and here’s this other person. I wasn’t meant for this. I was meant for total eclipse, failure. Death. And here’s this person, and later a college sophomore. Shrewww. And if you’re as long term as I was, you had to figure out a lot more than the short termers who made it in the world and then tanked. Because, I didn’t know the difference between problems and symptoms. 

Ed: It was all the same?”

Jo: Yes. 

Ed: You said by age five, you already knew. How did you get through?

Jo: Faked. Fake it. You look at the other people, at the popular girls. And you try to fake it as much as you can. And then, you always miss…what is it they always say about the devil? Stephen King says that in Needful Things. Did you ever read that? It’s very good. And it is the devil. And it has King’s fallacy. There’s a hell but no heaven. There’s a devil but no God. (Laughs) But the devil always makes a mistake. One of the characters had a bad time in California and had to go on welfare. Went back to Maine and never told anybody and says, “Wait a minute, they never knew me by that name.” So, it’s always something a little off, and that’s where you are. Stephen King, by the way, either has or knows very intimately somebody who has arthritis. Probably his parents. He has arthritis in about five of his books. And he’s very careful about hand-shaking and a lot of other little stuff you wouldn’t know or think about. 

Ed: Is anyone still around from your time in the hospital?

Jo: I was in contact until very recently. They died. Poppy died. Margaret died. 

Ed: Carla was the closest?

Jo: Yes, until very recently. 

Ed: Now, you didn’t smoke? But Deborah collects cigarettes, butts. 

Jo: Albert’s mom was a three-ring smoker. There was one in the ashtray, one in her face, and one in the pack. That’s the thing. You find the things that… medicate. For me, it was food. 

Ed: Was that after you got out?

Jo: No, that was before. I ate compulsively.

Ed: Sugar?

Jo: Oh yeah. 

Ed: Were you on medications?

Jo: Never. No. They didn’t have them. No, wait a minute. I used to drink chloralhydrate. You know what that is?

Ed: No.

Jo: It’s called, in the other world, a Mickey Finn. It’s a … you go to sleep. You get a little high, very nice, modest high, then you go to sleep. It’s supposed to be addictive. They had this other stuff, tasted like nail polish, for the alcoholics. I didn’t like it. And cold packs, which I think nobody does anymore. But I thought they were a good idea. 

Ed: Deborah’s in them a lot in the book.

Jo: A whole lot. 

Ed: Were they doing lobotomies back then?

Jo: Oh yeah.

Ed: Did that ever come up in your stay?

Jo: I met some of those (patients with lobotomies) in the hospital. You didn’t want those. You are not much of a person. I mean the guy was doing them in job lots, the guy who discovered it. And then, when people started to complain, he went around the country visiting all the people he had done and found, yes, they’re docile, but nothing else. And I don’t know what he felt at the very end. If he was defensive. 

Like shock treatments, these were started on the very worst. The violent, those who do violence to others, to themselves. You know, the real “rubber-room” folks, very few. And all of a sudden, well, this works and fewww, everybody gets one. But they didn’t invent Thorazine until I was long gone. And there was an argument among doctors. Do we use it at all? And one doctor said, well yeah, you certainly would. You have people who are totally out of it, and it might take six months of sitting therapy before anything happens. By this time they’d used up all their money, and so, yes, use drugs. Use drugs to get in touch with the patients. Well, as soon as they found out they could do that, Kaboom! Most of the people had had, what, ten sessions of thirty shocks apiece. That’s a hell of a lot of electricity going through your brain, and they were the failures, of course. Of whom there were many. 

Ed: Were the descriptions of the doctors in the book close to the ones you had?

Jo: As close as I could get. After ten years or so. 

Ed: Dr Fried?

Jo: She was long dead when someone asked me if I had gone to her funeral. I said no, I was too busy. And they just looked at me and I realized I didn’t say it right. She died the day David was born. 

Ed: There was another famous doctor?

Jo: Yes, the Englishman was actually a Slavic woman. 

Ed: As a writing technique, you’re in omniscient POV frequently. Deborah, the attendants. How did you negotiate that?

Jo: Well, that’s the job. 

Ed: Was it difficult not to stay in Deborah’s POV?

Jo: The whole thing, while I was writing it, I was living on the east side of Lookout Mountain. Albert had the car, so I didn’t have a car, and I had these two kids. It was kind of nightmarish. And my job was to stay sane. 

Ed: When did you start the book? 

Jo: Let’s see, KP took six years…this came out sixty-three?

Ed: Sixty-four.

Jo: I’m no good with numbers. It could have been forty-six. So, David was eight, and Alan was six. 

Ed: But what’s interesting, ironic, at the end of the book, Deborah’s using math as she makes her way and decides on the real world. Geometry. Full weight. When she says, “full weight” what does that mean?

Jo: The whole thing. Total commitment. No, “I’ll save this in reserve.” Which of course I think what is every mentally ill’s thought about suicide. That I can always do that. It’s always an option. 

Ed: Once you got out, did you ever go back to that world?

Jo: Yes.

Ed: Is it still there?

Jo: Oh yeah. But you never want to go back, do that. I was at one time pregnant with Alan. I was in New York City. I was feeling very depressed and I was sitting on a bus and I got a shot of it. And I thought, “What in the hell is this for?” Sweetheart, mother loves you, it’s a reminder that you don’t want to go back. This is what it was like. 

Ed: You could interpret it then?

Jo: Well, that’s the key. You put your greasy little thumb right on it. That’s the key. As soon as you start asking, “How is this helping me?” They’ve lost. 

Ed: When the book came out, what was the initial reaction?

Jo: Nothing. It got good reviews, New York Times, but not Sunday Times, during the week. Which matters. Here and there. The first letters I got were from parents who said, “I read this book and now I have a better idea of what my son/daughter is going through.” And then it hit the college kids. When it came out in paper, it was just at the time when they were doing psychedelics to give them artificial insanity. 

Ed: Late 60s.

Jo: Late 60s. And I was trying to talk about the wonders of sanity and they were trying to talk about the wonders of insanity. And I was so not where the 60s were. I had my 60s, drug free. (Laughs) I didn’t need that stuff. I had a terrible time for what, twenty minutes maybe, with nitrous oxide. Dentist office. He said, I have this new thing. Nice, controlled environment, I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair… never again. 

Ed: Did it send you?

Jo: Oof. Yeah. I mean it starts with laughing, but you are not laughing, it is laughing. Not for me. I want to be in charge. Ain’t nothing funny about this. I said, “I’ll take the pain. Drill the tooth.” 

Ed: How did the movie come about?

Jo: That movie…somebody… he came up here. Actually, it was Norman Mailer’s brother-in-law. Nice guy. And he said, “I want to option this.” Al Wasserman. Nice man. He said, he wanted to get an option on the book. He made documentaries. Fine. That was before he married Norman Mailer’s sister. I knew everybody around Norman, but I didn’t know Norman. He was a piece of work. (Laughs) Anyway. He got the option. I think he paid $1200 for it. That was money then. Well, it wasn’t MONEY but it was money. 

Eventually he had to get rid of the option and he sold it. To somebody who sold it to somebody who sold it to somebody…. I was in New York three or four times with the people who were going to do it and they never did. There was a lawsuit, and a whole bunch of crap happened, so it was years between me and the movie. 

I thought the movie might be upsetting, which it was. But for different reasons. So, I took David and Alan and his then girlfriend, and I sat in between the two of them. What upset me was not re-visiting mental illness but watching the worst physical body language ever made. For one thing, she (Movie Deborah) had the Thorazine-shuffle. Well, there wasn’t any Thorazine. And the ward was more like a college campus dorm than any ward. Anybody who had any knowledge of untreated mental illness, physical symptoms, would have laughed themselves sick at that movie. Whoever was the advisor on that was asleep at the switch. And that bothered me. And then the wonderfully svelte—

Ed: The actress?

Jo: Yes. Bibi Anderson. It’s six-thirty in the morning and I get a phone call from Bibi Anderson in downtown Sweden. “Oh, hello! This is Bibi Anderson and I’m calling from Sweden. I was talking to your publisher and he said I could call you.” She said she was going to play the psychiatrist in the movie from my lovely book. Thank you, I say. She said she tried to talk to the director and he said that I was hopelessly insane in a state hospital. And I said, “Not that I know of.” She was commiserating with the Swedish publisher a month ago. Well, I got two kids, a husband. A house. I would have told her to mess herself up a little. I don’t think anybody would have talked to anyone that… svelte. (Laughs)

Ed: Are there any movies about mental illness that you thought were done well?

Jo: Well, there’s always the Snake Pit. Olivia de Havilland won a prize for that. 

Ed: What about Cuckoo’s Nest?

Jo: Cuckoo’s Nest really pisses me off. (Laughs) Why, you ask? Mental illness is, as he (Laing) said, “A normal response to a mad world.” Free spirits. It’s a free spirit. Yes, I’m sure there are Nurse Ratcheds all over the place, that was done well. But there was only one really mentally ill person in that movie, and I think it was the guy who ends up killing himself…

Ed: Billy? 

Jo: Right. But you know, they were mostly doing fine. And they had a togetherness which we never had. I mean, I think even prisons had more togetherness than what we had. 

Ed: They had the running card game.

Jo: Yes. There were features. They had shock treatment as a punishment. It was used, but not at my hospital. 

Ed: If you wrote this today, would it be the same, or would you change it?

Jo: I don’t know. It was very difficult to read it. I read it or tried to for this interview. And it didn’t work.

Ed: Because?

Jo: I was too busy thinking what you would think I thought you thought. You know what I’m talking about? (Laughs)

Ed: I think so. It’s a “self-consciousness” thing.

Jo: Exactly. I’m not reading it the way a reader would read it. I’m reading it the way I think a reader would read it. I don’t have the IQ to cover all that. (Laughs)

Ed: What was the biggest thing you took away from the novel? Was it a catharsis?

Jo: Never. No. That’s what surprises me when people think… that’s apropos of what we just said. When you’re writing, the work is…ok, another digression. There’s this old science fiction and fantasy magazine, now defunct. There was a story about a company that makes a… you know those air-wick bottles where you pull up the stem, the wick?

Ed: Yeah. Sure. 

Jo: Ok. In the story it’s called Silenzia and it creates silence. And it also creates in you a silence from extraneous stuff. The guy takes it to the concert because he wants to feel what the violinist is feeling. And he pulls up the wick, puts it in front of him while the violinist is playing this heartbreaking piece. And he doesn’t feel heartbreak at all. What he feels is the violinist saying, “softer now, softer, now up, up!” 

Ed: So, he’s working.

Jo: He’s working. No heartbreak. 

Ed: Who wrote that story?

Jo: I haven’t the faintest idea. 

Ed: Well, I think that would be the big surprise: “If I could only read other people’s minds…” What a waste.

Jo: (Laughs) I talked to a conductor once, and I said to him. Think of walking down the street with what you know, with what you’ve heard, with what you’ve elicited. I said, “You got Bach today, tomorrow, you got Hayden.” He said, “Nothing of the kind. I’m walking down the street getting Sha-boom, na-na-na, sha-boom, na-na-na. Trying to get it out of my head. I can’t get it out of my head.” It’s an earworm. (Laughs)

Ed: I had a question for Albert. 

Jo: Albert! (Calls out) You’re up for this one.

Ed: Albert, I understand that this is the only one of Jo’s books you haven’t read?

Albert: That’s right.

Ed: How come?

Albert: She didn’t want me to.

Ed: Do you think you ever will?

Albert: I think I’ll read it before too long. She doesn’t like to think of herself with those mental problems.

Jo: At least those mental problems. (Laughs)

Ed: Last thing. Any thoughts on the state of mental health today?

Jo: Oh, plenty. Some good, some bad.

Ed: What’s the good stuff?

Jo: Well, the good stuff is the stigma—people talk about stigma today, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. When you have movie stars and top-of-the-chart singers telling you all about their addictions, their woes and hospitalizations, AA and all that… it’s almost a badge of honor. Except now, autism is in. There are people I know who are no more autistic than you are. The stigma is considerably less, and that’s good. What’s even better is the hearing voices movement. You know about that?

Ed: No, I don’t think so. 

Jo: It’s a group of people who hear voices. About 20% of the population hears voices. So, it not only de-stigmatizes it, in my opinion, it separates a vision from a hallucination. And it is a healing thing. It can also train people to interact with the voices which is good for everybody. There are groups like CHARGE and Breakthrough in Kansas, groups of people helping each other. Which didn’t exist in my day. 

What’s not good is the whole medicalization. It can be comforting; there’s a comfort in the medicalization of mental illness. Or what the Buddhists and I like to say, extreme states. In that, there’s nobody to blame. The old therapists blame the parents, that was Bettelheim by the way, the “refrigerator mother” was his. That’s what makes autistic kids—

Ed: Frigid moms?

Jo: Frigid moms. Yeah, bad mothering, according to him. Yes, there are mistakes and things that are hard to handle… I think you need to hear Greenberg’s Mushroom Theory of mental illness. 

Ed: (Laughs) Ok.

Jo: There is in Colorado an excellent mushroom, edible, gentle, kind… a decent mushroom. Which has the capacity to concentrate selenium that it pulls up from the soil. Selenium is a necessary element in human life. Without selenium, I don’t know what will fall off, but something will fall off. (Laughs) But the operative word there is concentrated. If you have any selenium in the air, you got a poison mushroom. That’s Greenberg’s Mushroom Theory. 

Ed: So, there’s a threshold? 

Jo: Yes. Selenium’s a good thing. The mushroom is a decent mushroom but the capacity can go beyond depending on this soil or that air. So, there’s no blame. You don’t want to blame somebody. God knows there are… who was… Oswald’s mother. There was a book called A  Mother in History. (By Jean Stafford) This lady was… you want to talk about blowing square bubbles…she was something else. 

But I don’t go for a lot of blaming parents or whomever. There are a hell of a lot of circumstances that happen. And nobody knows what causes them. But they want to know what causes them. So, the medical model helps that. And that means that this drug cures that, this drug cures that, and look at the brain and the brain will tell you what to think and all of that. I think we’re fooling ourselves in medicalizing this without a spiritual part. There’s a whole spiritual part that needs to go in which is why I like what the Buddhists do. 

Ed: Well, for Deborah, I think it comes to her through empathy. There’s that scene with the bone, a kind of totem, and her dream where she keeps digging and shares it with Carla, which I think was very spiritual. 

Jo: Yes. But certainly, modern psychiatry doesn’t talk about the trust factor. Or a hearer.  Somebody listening to the words I put into the air. Which is interesting. When I was teaching sixth grade, we had something called Silent April. When I took the class, there was no sound because we did it all in sign. What was interesting was that the kids would tell you anything and everything. The kids would sign I’m lonely, I feel sad… they would do it but there would be no sound. A whole different thing.

Ed: It probably felt safe.

Jo: Yes.  Even though the whole class was watching. Albert, come out here and tell the story. Your version of how we met. 

*Ngono in Swahili translates as sex.

About the interviewer: Ed McManis is a writer, editor, & erstwhile Head of School. His work has appeared in more than 60 publications, including The Blue Road Reader, California Quarterly, Cathexis, Narrative, Lascaux Review, etc. He, along with his wife, Linda, have published esteemed author Joanne Greenberg’s (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) latest novel, Jubilee Year, through McMania publishing. He has known Joanne for 40 + years. Little known trivia fact: he holds the outdoor free-throw record at Camp Santa Maria: 67 in a row.