On April 28, 1957, psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the real-life basis for the psychiatrist who helps restore to mental health the severely disturbed narrator of Joanne Greenberg’s autobiographical novel “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” died. Fromm-Reichmann was German born and trained, and came to the United States shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power. There, at a private psychiatric hospital in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, convinced that there was no such thing as a psychiatric patient who was beyond help, she devoted the final two decades of her life to working with people whom other doctors had written off.
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Frieda Reichmann was born on October 23, 1889, in Karlsruhe, Germany, the first of the three girls of Adolf Reichmann and the former Klara Simon. In 1895, the family, which was Orthodox in religious observance, moved to Konigsberg. There, Adolf began working as a bank manager.
Not only was Frieda a model child in every way, she also was possessed of a sensitivity and patience that made her a natural mediator between all the other members of the family, so that, “even as a toddler,” in the words of biographer Gail Hornstein, she “transformed a thousand potentially incendiary moments into minor misunderstandings.”
Educated and refined themselves, Adolf and Klara encouraged their daughters to study what interested them, and to pursue careers, if desired. Thus it was that Frieda entered medical school at Konigsberg’s Albertina University in 1908, earning her degree five years later.
Recognizing her own natural empathy for people, Frieda decided to specialize in psychiatry. During World War I, she ran a hospital ward that cared for German soldiers who had suffered brain injuries. The experience prepared her well for her future work with psychotic patients, with whom sometimes only nonverbal communication was possible.
It was following the war, while she was training with the prominent neurologist Kurt Goldstein, that Reichmann first encountered and was drawn to the theories of Sigmund Freud, which led her to undergo a training analysis herself in Berlin in the early 1920s. Reichmann saw in psychoanalysis the potential not just for psychological treatment but also for effecting social change.
In 1926, she married Erich Fromm, who was 11 years her junior, after beginning an affair with him while he was her analytic patient. (Hornstein notes that such relationships were far more common in the early days of the field than they would become.) The relationship was short-lived, although they remained married until 1942.
Fromm, who went on to a distinguished career as a social philosopher, worked with Reichmann at the residential sanatorium in Heidelberg she had opened in 1924. Like her, he was Orthodox in his upbringing, and they ran the institution along the laws of traditional Jewish observance. Offering what was humorously referred to as “Torah-peutic” treatment, the institution, which could hold 15 patients, was characterized by “an almost cult-like atmosphere,” according to Leo Lowenthal, later a sociologist. “Each of the inmates, myself included, was analyzed by Frieda Reichmann. The aim was to combine a religious Jewish atmosphere with a deep interest in psychoanalysis.”
The sanatorium was closed in 1928, by which time Reichmann had given up her Jewish observance for belief in socialism. (Hornstein includes an anecdote about Reichmann and Fromm sneaking away from their clinic on Passover that year to guiltily share a loaf of bread on a park bench.)
Reichmann-Fromm moved to Strasbourg, France, shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power, in 1933, and to the United States in 1935. Between those stations was a brief interlude in Palestine, which she was drawn to as a Zionist, but where she felt she would be unable to make a living as an analyst.
Offered a two-month appointment at Chestnut Lodge, a psychiatric hospital in Rockville, Maryland, Reichmann-Fromm ended up staying for 22 years, living – and dying, in 1957 – in a cottage on the grounds. It was there that she became the therapist for a 16-year-old Joanne Greenberg, who had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and who, within four years, was a student at American University and went on to marry and have a career as a writer.