To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: Pioneering Psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the Loneliness of Mental Illness, and the Healing Power of Believing in a Person’s Inextinguishable Inner Light

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

How a visionary woman persisted in leading a quiet revolution in mental health.

“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…



Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose?



Some psychologists believe suicide and depression can be strategic.

“What Should I Do About My F’d-Up Life?”


Resultado de imagem para Illustration by Chioma Ebinama.

Illustration by Chioma Ebinama.


The question that Colin Beavan just had to ask his Zen teacher is one that’s on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Even the teacher’s!

At the Chogye International Zen Center of New York, part of the Kwan Um School of Zen, where I study meditation, my fellow students and I sit cross-legged on two long, parallel rows of mats and cushions. It is completely quiet except that every so often, in another room, a bell rings. When it does, someone gets up and shuffles through the door. One at a time, we each get a chance to ask our private, personal questions of the Zen teacher.

On this particular day, though my body is quiet, my mind is loud. What’s bothering me? The same things that bother everyone. Money problems. Kid worries. Job stresses. Relationship struggles. Nothing stays still. Everything changes.

The bell rings again and it’s my turn. I unfold my legs and tiptoe to the door. I slip into the interview room and perform the various standing bows and prostrations that are part of our form. The teacher gestures toward the cushion and I sit down in front of him.

“Do you have any questions?” he asks.

Questions? Yes, the same questions probably everyone else has: How do I make the discomfort of life go away, hopefully forever? How do I face up to the fact that I am going to die, like everyone, and stop worrying about it? How do I make it so that I don’t feel the insecurity of life so keenly? How do I deal with the fact that the world is messed up and the politicians don’t seem to care?

Almost as a joke, I say to the teacher, “Okay. Let me ask this. What should I do about my fucked-up life?”

The teacher leans forward with his hands and chin resting on his Zen stick. He smiles. He says, “Make it un-fucked-up.”

Really? I think. That’s your answer?

So I ask, “Is that working for you?”

He says, “Not so far!” Then we laugh. Hard.

I like this. To be reminded that one of my Zen teachers can’t quite get his life together. He has had his fair share of money and romantic problems, I happen to know.

Maybe there isn’t something I’m doing wrong. Maybe this is just being human.

Actually, after years of trying to find someone whose life wasn’t a little messy, here is what I’ve discovered: Nowhere have I been able to find anyone who has transcended her own humanity. Gandhi had a terrible temper and could be mean to his wife. Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs. And so on.

This is no longer bad news for me. It means maybe there isn’t something I’m doing wrong. Maybe this is just being human.

Sitting with me in that interview room, my teacher says, “Now you know what it means that ‘Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.’ ” He is quoting one of the Four Great Vows that guide Zen practice in my school. This one, about endless delusions and cutting through them, like the other three, can mean many different things at different times. But to me, just now, it means, “The confused view of life that comes with being human never goes away, but we vow not to get so caught up in that confusion that we can’t do any good for ourselves and others.”

There is nothing wrong with any of us if we are having a hard time.

My Zen teacher, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., me — all human. So there is nothing wrong with any of us if we are having a hard time. The delusions never stop. The confusion, the desire, the anger that come with being born may never completely go away.

But we can detach from them enough to do a little good. That’s why it’s inspiring to know that Gandhi and King had their shortcomings. They weren’t so different from us. They got caught up in the delusion, but mostly, when it was important, they were able to cut through it. They heard the noise, but mostly, when the chips were down, they rose above it.

The Difference Between Inside Fucked Up and Outside Fucked Up

This is what my teacher, during that interview, talked about next. He said, “You have to remember that there is a difference between being inside fucked up and outside fucked up.”

Outside fucked up depends on circumstances and the changing emotions and feelings that come with them. The loss of a loved one. The end of a relationship. An unwanted change at work. Or even just the little things, like an unexpected big bill or the involuntary cancellation of a well-deserved vacation. We work moment by moment to respond to those circumstances, to put one foot in front of the other and make them un-fucked-up. That is natural.

Inside fucked up, on the other hand, is when you can’t come to terms with the fact that you will always, to some degree, be outside fucked up. It is when you are so caught up in the mistaken idea that you can somehow stop the delusions from coming and going that you put all your efforts into barricading the doors of life…