I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is the story of gifted teenager Deborah Blau's struggle with schizophrenia. Deborah, a talented artist, struggles with a break in perception that leads her to believe in the reality of her invented fantasy world, Yr. As her mental state worsens, so does the fantasy world until even Deborah's safe haven has become a wasteland. With the help of a therapist, Dr. Fried, Deborah fights for her mind and for herself and eventually begins to turn her life around.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a semi-autobiographical account of a teenage girl's three-year battle with schizophrenia. Deborah Blau, bright and artistically talented, has created a make-believe world, the Kingdom of Yr, as a form of defense from a confusing, frightening reality. When Deborah was five, she underwent surgery to remove a tumor in her urethra, a traumatic experience that involved a great deal of physical pain and shame. During her childhood, Deborah suffered frequent abuse from her anti-Semitic peers and neighbors. When Deborah first created Yr, it was a beautiful, comforting haven, but over time the gods of Yr became tyrannical dictators who controlled Deborah's every word and action.
The novel presents the issue of mental illness from multiple viewpoints. Deborah's three years in the hospital portray mental illness as it is experienced by the patient. Deborah's parents, Esther and Jacob, are torn between their love for their daughter and their shame at the stigma of her illness. Nevertheless, they find the courage to allow Deborah to continue treatment even when there are few signs of recovery for a long while. Deborah struggles with guilt and resentment at her parents' disappointment in her, while her younger sister Suzy copes with her frustration at having to arrange her life around Deborah's illness.
Deborah's therapist, Dr. Fried, slowly wins her trust and, over the course of three years, helps Deborah gain the courage to fight her illness. Her goal is to give Deborah the ability to choose the reality of Earth, despite all its faults and problems, over the phantoms of Yr. Meanwhile, Deborah develops friendships of a kind with the other patients in the hospital despite their fear of emotional investment in other people. Although she fears the reality of Earth, Deborah eventually earns a GED and resolves to win her struggle against her illness.