While the four members of this group project all enjoyed reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, we argue that there was more potential for this book with regards to its disability themes. The Secret Garden focuses primarily on physical disability, with three of its main characters – Mary, Colin, and Mister Craven – being disability aligned, or in the case of Mister Craven, explicitly disabled. These representations become problematic, however, as the book becomes a cure narrative for Colin, and to a lesser extent, Mary. The Secret Garden also begins to engage with mental health as well. Chapter XXVII “In the Garden” opens with the narrator discussing human discovery, and how “In the last century more amazing things were found out than in any century before” (Burnett). Assuming the setting of the book is contemporary with its publishing date of 1911, the narrator is referring to the discoveries of the 19th century. One of these discoveries is that “thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison” (Burnett). The book does not delve much further than this binary of “good and bad thoughts” and that good thoughts make a “healthy mind.” Burnett was limited by writing in the dawn of the mental health studies, which had only really begun in earnest just three years earlier in 1908 (Mandell). With the benefit of over 100 years’ more research into the mental health field at our disposal, we wish with this project to expand upon themes of mental health already present in The Secret Garden. Through a triad of short creative stories, we examine how the depictions of the mental states of the characters Mary, Colin, and Mister Craven, if written in the modern era in a modern setting, would differ from their original depictions.
Our creative writings are in the format of therapist’s forms and notes describing the interactions and “professional” assessments of two mental health professionals concerning the characters of Mary, Colin, and Mister Craven. This format not only reflects a more experimental approach to form more common in the 21st century than the early 20th, but also how in the 21st century mental health is a specialized field of study and practice, carried out by licensed professionals rather than a general doctor or going wholly unacknowledged. Research for these pieces was carried out on an individual basis by each author, with advice on starting points provided by Melissa’s father, CDR Clifford M. Madsen. Research mainly consisted of investigating potential diagnoses of these characters and how they may be accurately and sensitively represented and written. Melissa’s piece focuses on Mary, addressing the trauma Mary would have felt and experienced after losing both her parents and the servants who raised her to cholera that goes unacknowledged in the book. It also explores the implications to Mary’s character if she had had an adult who understood and supported her as soon as she had arrived at the manor. Kelly’s scenario focuses on the implied mental difficulties Colin experiences that, in the original novel, like his physical condition, are miraculously cured by the garden. Lisa’s work contemplates how a therapist might have reacted to Archibald if he had been able to seek out professional help rather than isolating himself after his wife’s death. (Rebecca is the author of this write-up.)
The goal of this project was not to disparage Burnett’s approach to mental health in The Secret Garden; her inclusion of mental health at all proves she kept up to date with the findings of her time. She was writing from the metaphorical cutting edge, and we wanted to revisit her characters and vision from our new edge. These creative writings reveal not only how far the field of mental health has come since 1911 through acknowledging the toll these characters’ collective life experiences would have taken on their psyches, but also that they would have benefited from more tangible help than the moor air or the secret garden could supply. In writing all that was known about at the time, Burnett revealed how much was left to be explored, and no doubt our work in the future would be viewed similarly. The format of our works and writing from therapist’s perspectives is indicative of, for better and for worse, the heavy emphasis on medicalization mental health receives in our time. Burnett’s work was progressive for her time, and maybe ours is too, but progress will keep going, and our writing will remain right where it is.
From the Office of Dr. Janice Gardner
Patient: Mary Lennox
Treated For: Childhood Trauma
Office: At-Home Visits
Alternate Address: Misselthwaite Manor, The Moor, England
I received a call from Mrs. Medlock last night. I was surprised that her focus was not on my usual patient, but on a girl who moved into the manor a few weeks ago. Apparently, Craven’s brother adopted his niece, Miss Mary Lennox, after an undisclosed event related to her previous home. While Mary’s physical condition had slightly improved since she arrived at the manor, she has developed a disagreeable disposition and a habit of acting out of line, which prompted her maid, Miss Martha Sowerby, to ask the housemistress to call me. Because of the girl’s history, Martha was afraid that the situation would deteriorate without my intervention, so Mrs. Medlock urged me to come to the manor for an introductory visit as soon as possible. I have learned to always trust the intuition of a Sowerby, so I accepted the invitation.
I arrived at the manor this morning to find a stubborn Miss Lennox sitting at the window with her arms crossed. The girl looked thin for her age, and glared at me when I walked into the room. We exchanged stilted introductions, then Mary promptly informed me that she does not want a governess. I promptly informed her that I am not a governess, but a therapist who was called to help her. Mary started to yell at both Martha and I about how she wasn’t crazy and that she didn’t need a therapist! She didn’t need help! She didn’t need anyone!
It took about ten minutes for Martha and I to calm her down. Once the dust settled, I asked Mary why she said she wasn’t crazy. She looked to Martha, who gave her an encouraging nod. Mary proceeded to tell me about what happened: how she heard someone crying in the night, how it became louder in the corridor, how Mrs. Medlock stopped her from going any further…
“I tried to ask Mrs. Medlock what was going on. I tried to tell her about the crying, but she said it wasn’t real. But there was someone crying – there was – there was!”
When I told her I believed her, Mary stared at me in shock; she hadn’t expected that answer. I proceeded to tell her who I am and what I do for a living – help people heal from or deal with mental wounds, trauma, and disorders. I reassured Mary that she can tell me as much or as little as she wants; I am only here to figure out if there is something deeper going on and help her as much as I can if that is the case. However, I made it clear that I would not pry or continue if Mary did not want my help. She looked over to Martha again, who gave her another encouraging nod. She accepted, and we agreed that I would come back to the manor in two days’ time for a proper appointment.
Judging by the minimal information I received from Mrs. Medlock and my meeting with Mary earlier today, Mary may be dealing with unresolved childhood trauma. She’s showing many of the indicators in her demanding and possessive behavior, the way she carries herself, and how she interacts with others. I will not know for certain until I talk with her at our first appointment, however, if this is the case, I may have a technique that can help her.
I came into Mary’s room today to find her waiting for me next to the fireplace. She still seemed hesitant, but more comfortable than before in speaking with me, so we wasted no time and immediately got to work. I started the session by asking her various questions about her life. What is her life like at the manor? Does she have any friends? What is her relationship like with Mr. Craven and the other servants?
Mary hesitated at first, but once we started talking about Martha and the gardens, her eyes lit up and her entire demeanor changed. She started talking about the manor as a positive experience so far and how her favorite activity is walking around the gardens and enjoying the moor air, something that she was not able to do back in India.
Using that answer as a segway, with her permission, I then moved on to asking questions about her past. What is her relationship with her parents? Did she previously live in India? How did she like living there? And what happened in her previous home that caused her to come to the manor?
The answer is not a pretty one. Mary used to live on her parents’ estate in India. As soon as Mary was born, Mary’s mother entrusted her care to an Ayah, an Indian nanny, who kept Mary out of her parents’ sight as much as possible and catered to her every need. However, a few months ago, most of her family’s household fell victim to an Indian strain of cholera, including her parents, her Ayah, and most of the servants. The few who survived forgot about Mary and left her alone in the estate. She was found days later by a group of officers. While she spoke of her experiences, Mary’s face shifted from impartial to fondness to discomfort to something unreadable. The rest of her body became more and more tense as her story went on. Despite her independence, her experiences have affected her more than she’s willing to admit.
Not wanting to get too deep into processing yet, I guided Mary to start talking about our plan of action. I introduced her to EMDR and how the technique allows her brain and body to process trauma by giving her eyes two moving dots to focus on while she reflects on her experience. We discussed at length what memories Mary wanted to target and in which order, and agreed that we would start with her early childhood next session.
In the meantime, I guided Mary in establishing her safe place so that she had a tool to use in between sessions to handle any annoyance or surfacing trauma brought on by the processing. I asked her to think of a place where she feels safe and, if she felt comfortable, to describe it to me. She chose a peaceful, quiet, secluded garden with tall walls made of ivy and many different flowers growing around the area, all connected via a cobblestone pathway. The rose bushes grow the tallest, almost rivaling the ancient trees that provide shelter to birds native to the moor, most prominently red-breasted robins. A wooden door is the only way in or out, and is hidden from the outside world by a wall of ivy that covers the doorway, making it blend in with the rest of the wall. Mary keeps the only key to the door on her person, allowing her to come and go whenever she pleases and unlock the door whenever she likes.
“…I can unlock the door whenever I like…”
Mary paused after that last sentence, as if she was pondering something. She put her hand in her pocket. I could see the realization slowly dawn on her face as the seconds passed. I asked her if she was alright, but she only replied with a simple yes. I decided to not push her any further, not wanting her to lose the progress she’d made so far. I asked her to think of a word that best describes this place in her mind, a word that would trigger her recollection of this place and how good she felt in this moment. Her response: garden.
This house continues to surprise me.
Mary has made excellent progress on processing her trauma. She has successfully processed much of her early childhood; the only events left are her abandonment following the cholera outbreak and her journey to the manor. It has not been an easy road, however. Mary has grown comfortable enough to let me see her most vulnerable side. In our last session alone, she expressed how she felt betrayed by the servants who left her, how she felt angry at her parents for not spending time with her, how she felt so alone in the hut after everyone had left with only a snake to keep her company. Some sessions have ended with warm feelings and closure; others have ended in tears and fluffy blankets. I was informed that this same effect has spread into the rest of Mary’s life; some days she feels joyful while others she just wants to curl up on her bed and cry. Mary has been utilizing her calm place in those moments to help her, and I can see the positive effects of our treatment finally shining through.
Mary and Martha have become close friends over the past few weeks. Mary has become comfortable with Martha helping her through her troubles; sometimes she specifically calls for Martha to be in the room during our session so she can provide moral support. I am also told that Mary has made friends with one of the gardeners and Martha’s brother, Dickon. This is wonderful news; Mary finally has a stable social circle!
At the same time, Mary’s physique has also greatly improved since I first met her. She spends every day she can out in the gardens, building her strength and developing a healthy appetite. She now has so much energy that her positive attitude almost becomes infectious. In our last session, she proudly informed me that she can now do one hundred skips and is aiming for two hundred.
Mary’s vast improvement is wonderful, of course, but it makes me wonder – what exactly is happening in that garden? If there is some sort of secret trick to all of this, Mary is certainly benefitting from these positive effects. And if Mary has shown this much improvement in so little time, is it possible for her to inspire another to do the same?
…I should introduce her to Colin.
From the Office of Dr. Janice Gardner
Patient Name: Colin Craven
Treated For: Conversion Disorder
Office: At-Home Visits
Alt. Address: Misselthwaite Manor, The Moor, England
Progress with the patient has been, regrettably, extremely lackluster. Colin is a bright young boy, but he refuses to even consider what he is capable of because of his mental disability. It truly holds him back, in more ways than one. He claims he will not live to adulthood, and worse, that everyone would be happier if he died. Time and time again I have encouraged him to rethink his fatalistic mindset, but to no avail. Colin simply sees no reason to improve, and should this behavior go on, I will have to end our sessions indefinitely. It would absolutely break my heart, but Craven needs to understand that I can only do so much for an unwilling client.
When I compare Colin’s treatment, or lack thereof, to that of Miss Mary Lennox, I notice a striking amount of similarities between the two. Both have extensive trauma that originates from the hostile environment they were raised in, but unlike Colin, Mary has gradually learned how to open up about what she went through. Colin has not yet found a sense of trust in me, because in his eyes, I am just another adult he can give orders to. That is why I wholeheartedly believe Mary, a child his age, can help. Normally I would never ask patients to get involved in cases besides their own, but I will make an exception, seeing as Colin and Mary live under the same roof. I have no doubt that, if nothing else, they are at least acquainted with one another. I plan to ask Mary for her assistance during our next meeting, and if she takes interest, I will lead her to Colin’s room. From there I will decide whether or not to continue holding group sessions based on how responsive Colin is, but let it be known that this is my last resort. In terms of outcome, I expect the worst, but hope for the best.
Prior to today’s meeting, I have kept my assumptions on the Misselthwaite staff to a minimum. How they interact with Colin, and therefore Mary, is entirely their call, and I am in no position to criticize or reprimand them. Despite that, had I known they were withholding Colin’s very existence from Mary, I would have intervened sooner. No matter how unbearable he is, Colin still deserves respect from the servants. It is unfair, and frankly insulting, to not give him the decency of acknowledgement. Hence why, upon seeing Mary’s confused expression, I realized she’d never heard his name before. I knew what needed to be done from there.
When the two children made eye contact for the first time, they were speechless. Quite literally, in fact: for a good while they just gazed at one another, in complete and utter silence. Finally, Mrs. Medlock broke the tension, asking what I had brought Mary here for. I explained to her what I had planned, and although reluctant, she conceded and left the room. We began with introductions and small talk, and once those fell flat, I prompted Mary to tell Colin about her calm place. That piqued his curiosity, but when he asked if he could visit, his smile faded. “Never mind.” He uttered solemnly. In all my time knowing Colin, never before had he seemed so excited to do anything besides wallow in lament. It was as though listening to Mary helped him forget about his disability, if only briefly. Our session ended shortly after, but not before Colin asked Mary to come back later without me. I can only imagine he wants to hear more about the garden.
Overall, I would call this experiment a success, but that does not excuse the circumstances surrounding it. It is no wonder Colin feels like a burden when everyone in Misselthwaite treats him as such, and the next time I see Craven, I intend to give him a piece of my mind.
Approximately three weeks have passed since I implemented group sessions, and the patient is showing various signs of growth. For starters, we moved our meeting location from his bedroom to the main corridor, and he no longer needs Martha’s help walking between rooms. Colin also has grown closer with Mary, as supposedly he does not “summon” her like he does with the servants. I have reason to believe she is his first real friend, and that is something the grown-ups in his life could never be.
Colin’s bond with Mary seems to have affected his trust in me, for I am the one who brought the two together. He is now a lot more honest during our one-on-one visits, and just recently he began opening up about his late mother. Because it is a very serious topic, I have sworn to keep everything confidential, and Colin may stop at any point if he starts feeling uncomfortable or upset. From what he has told me so far, his mother died shortly after giving birth to him. His father, Craven’s brother, never truly recovered from it, and has been neglecting Colin ever since. “I look too much like her…” Colin said, and did not elaborate any further.
The fact that Colin now feels safe enough to confide in both myself and Mary is a step in the right direction, and at the rate we are currently, I expect he will continue improving.
This will be my last entry for the time being, but that is not necessarily bad. Just the opposite: Colin is finally understanding how much potential he has. Of course, none of this could’ve happened without Mary; she has comforted him beyond our group meetings, and even introduced him to Dickon. I am very grateful to her, as well as Martha, who eventually realized how crudely the servants of Misselthwaite were treating Colin. “What do you suggest we do when Colin is upset?” She privately asked me after a visit. My advice was to not get frustrated: “Give him space to breathe, help him feel better once he calms down, and let him vent out any lingering emotions rather than bottling them up.” She shared my advice with the rest of the household, and by the time I returned for my next session, the hostility of the environment seemed to have declined. As for Colin’s health, he is no longer a pale and sickly boy who hates being looked at. He has managed to step outside the manor at least once or twice, and I think spending time outdoors will do him some good, like it did with Mary. He will likely need more time to learn how to properly walk, but I have recommended a physical therapist for him to try in the meantime.
Colin and I will be meeting on a less frequent basis from this point onward, but I still intend to check up on him at least once a month. Recovery does not happen overnight; for some people it can take years to properly heal, as is the case with Colin’s father. Still, Colin has come a long way since we first met, and I could not be prouder.
…Speaking of Colin’s father, Craven told me his brother is seeing a therapist of his own.
Patient: Archibald Craven
Treated for: Depression
Psychiatrist: Dr. Peggy Blackwood
I met with Archibald Craven again today. Since his brother recommended him to me for treatment a year ago, we have not made much progress. He continues to struggle with depressive episodes, often leaving home for months on end to escape the reminders of his dead wife and his sick son. Any mention of his son or the garden is likely to trigger a new episode. He has been largely resistant to any attempts to relieve his depression.
During our session today, a strange event occurred. The appointment began as normal. He has been in one of the deepest depressive episodes I have ever seen him in for the last week. Dr. Craven contacted me, concerned for his brother’s safety, and we scheduled this emergency appointment. Archibald was very despondent and barely receptive to talking with me or to my suggestions.
With forward progress halted, I changed techniques and started him on a processing treatment called EMDR. It is typically used with PTSD patients to help them deal with their trauma, but I chose to try it with Archibald since normal methods and medications weren’t working. The goal of the exercise was to keep his eyes occupied with something visual on a screen while his mind had a chance to wander and process the trauma of his wife’s death and the worry for his son’s survival in the ensuing months. I instructed him to pick a particular event to focus on.
At the beginning, he was resistant, as he is to most treatments. Then, he almost seemed to be drawn into the process, his eyes focusing on the two dots bouncing around on the screen as his mind wandered. I heard him mumble something about “a bubbling brook” as his face started to soften slightly. It wasn’t a smile, but it was as close to one as I had ever seen. His shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly. As our session ended, I tried to ask him about the experience, but he just gave me a sad, half-smile and left the room.
I notified my assistant to schedule another appointment soon. Though Archibald was difficult to pin down with all his travels, I didn’t want this development to be in vain.
Since the breakthrough two months ago, Archibald has continued to progress, with only small setbacks. He has begun attempting the various exercises I put before him. His mental health has started to improve at a slow pace but a still moving pace. He has even begun to contemplate returning home, which is unusual. The last time he returned home, it was only because his brother needed him for a few days and Archibald left as soon as he could. He also admitted that he has stopped seeing his wife as often in every window and face that he sees.
As our session started, I started him on EMDR again. This time, his face started out gentle. After a few minutes, his head started to tilt to one side as if he was listening to a faint voice.
Suddenly, he sprang to his feet.
“Lilias! Where are you?”
Naturally, I was concerned. Hearing voices is a step in the wrong direction. This was a setback rather than the improvement I had been hoping for. Then again, he had never mentioned his wife’s name. He stood there listening for several long moments before speaking again. I waited, not wanting to interrupt his trance-like state lest I injure him. He appeared as one sleepwalking.
“In the garden! But the door is locked and the key is buried deep.”
Perhaps this was a good event after all. He had never mentioned the garden before. I only knew about it from Dr. Craven. Archibald appeared to recover from his dreamlike state and looked around, startled to see where he was. He quickly picked up his briefcase and began searching through it. Pulling out a piece of paper, he read it before returning it to its previous resting place. He grabbed his coat and briefcase, told me farewell, and left.
I must remember to follow up with Dr. Craven shortly. Leaving Archibald alone in such a vulnerable state was unadvisable.
I received the shock of my lifetime today. Since our last visit, I had not seen or heard from Archibald Craven. Dr. Craven had alerted me not to be concerned, but I was still apprehensive about Archibald’s mental state. I had reached out to him on multiple occasions but there was no response.
Today, he walked through the door, as tall as I have ever seen him stand with one arm wrapped around a girl and one around a boy. The boy looked too much like his father for me not to make the connection. However, the boy was healthy. I had been told that he was in imminent danger of death.
A smile burst from Archibald’s face as he shook my hand and thanked me for everything I had done. He flooded me with information about the miraculous recovery of his boy and the wonderful garden. He promised to return in the short future to check in. I watched in a daze as he left with his small family.
I would follow up with him shortly. This recovery was impressive, but I knew that only careful work over the next couple of months and years would ensure its permanence. I would also have to check out this magical garden. If it had cured all three of them, perhaps it could help others.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. Project Gutenberg, 1994, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/113/113-h/113-h.htm, Accessed 16 Nov 2021.
CDR Clifford M. Madsen USN MC Sports Medicine Physician. Personal Interview. 4 Nov. 2021.
“Conversion Disorder: What Causes It and How Is It Treated?” WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-conversion-disorder. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.
Dr. Mandell. “Origins Of Mental Health | Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health, 1995, https://publichealth.jhu.edu/departments/mental-health/about/origins-of-mental-health.
Dr. Amira Niori. Personal Interview. 12 Nov. 2021.
What Is EMDR? – EMDR Institute – EYE MOVEMENT DESENSITIZATION AND REPROCESSING THERAPY. https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.
Word Count: 4620
We hereby declare upon our word of honor that we have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.
-Melissa Madsen, Kelly Brown, Lisa Gisselquist, Rebecca Visger
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