Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me
How a visionary woman persisted in leading a quiet revolution in mental health.
BY MARIA POPOVA
“All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life,” Anne Lamott wrote in her beautiful meditation on the life-giving power of great teachers. Those whom teachers — nor parents, nor friends, nor spouses, nor lovers — cannot reach, those whose inner turbulence has metastasized into acute mental illness and shipwrecked them on the remotest edges of the mind, are left to psychotherapists. But the most effective therapists are animated by the same unflinching conviction that within each patient lives an almost sacred person, and that no person, no matter how damaged and disturbed, is irredeemable or incapable of having a full life.
This was the animating ethos of pioneering psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (October 23, 1889–April 28, 1957), who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany, lived in exile in France and Palestine, and ended up in America to begin nothing short of a revolution in mental health care. (Adding another layer of rebellious complexity to her life was her decision to marry, while still in Germany, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm — her colleague and onetime patient, ten years her junior.) In many ways, she was the Oliver Sacks of mental health, not merely applying her robust professional expertise to the healing of her patients but bathing them in largehearted perseverance of faith in the inextinguishable light of their humanity.
Fromm-Reichmann was introduced into the popular imagination by the improbable 1964 hit novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden — the faintly fictionalized autobiographical account of Joanne Greenberg, one of her patients, who had made a seemingly miraculous recovery from what is considered the most hopeless of mental illnesses: schizophrenia. Greenberg had entered Fromm-Reichmann’s care as teenager so afflicted as to be gashing her arms with jagged tin can tops and putting out cigarettes into the wounds. She exited four years later as a fully functioning college student who went on to have a family and become a successful writer.
Although Greenberg wrote the novel under the pseudonym Hannah Green and christened Fromm-Freichmann “Dr. Fried,” details about the institution and their respective lives soon revealed their real identities. Against the odds of what seemed like an unusual and ill-advised premise for a popular novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden became a sensation, amassing a cult following through the six million copies sold in decades since. But its most enduring feat was to make its millions of readers fall in love with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and her maverick insistence that even the most tortured minds have a shot at serenity given enough attentive patience and persistence on behalf of those qualified to help them.
It was the novel that first introduced fifteen-year-old Gail Hornstein to Fromm-Reichmann’s work and planted the long-germinated seed of what would become, thirty-four years later, To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: A Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (public library) — a spectacular biography ten years in the making, which Hornstein, by then a psychologist herself, hadn’t set out to write but found herself unable not to.
Hornstein considers the seedbed of Fromm-Reichmann’s unusually tenacious and patient faith in the potential for healing:
Frieda’s capacity to wait had been honed as a child, when she trained herself to expand to infinity the time she gave her parents to tire of misunderstanding. Medical school in Königsberg was one long act of patience, designed to prove that she and the handful of other women deserved to be there. Later, working at a Prussian army hospital during World War I, she learned from brain-injured soldiers what it was like to have a shell explode in your face and still be alive. Their muteness became her measure. When she took up treating schizophrenics in the 1920s, they seemed so intact by comparison that she found the work a pleasure. Most psychiatrists, accustomed to treating the “worried well,” find the unbearably slow pace of therapy with psychotics intolerable. But Frieda could wait cheerfully through years of infinitesimal gain; the knowledge that recovery was anatomically possible was enough to keep her going. She could tolerate any behavior, no matter how disgusting or bizarre, so long as it seemed necessary to protect a vulnerable person. It was only when symptoms became ruses or habits that she started badgering patients to give them up and get better.
Fromm-Reichmann held nothing back in helping her patients — nothing of herself, and nothing of the often arbitrary rules by which her profession operated. Hornstein writes:
She was willing to try practically anything that might help them, which was a great deal more than most other psychiatrists were willing to do. She saw one patient at ten o’clock at night because that’s when he was most likely to talk. She took others on walks around hospital grounds, or to symphony concerts, or to country inns for lunch. Those too distraught to leave at the end of an hour were permitted to stay for two. If a patient was violent and couldn’t be let off the ward, she went to his room or saw him in restraints, if necessary. “She would have swung from the chandelier like Tarzan if she thought it would help,” Joanne Greenberg later observed. A colleague remarked, not admiringly, that Frieda’s patients got better because she simply gave them no other choice…