ELIZABETH Garden's Tree of Lives

ELIZABETH Garden's Tree of Lives

a timeless family tragedy


The riveting story of Ruth, a promising artist and her deeply troubled family’s horrific secrets. It’s also a story of survival and triumph as this determined woman navigates her thorny life path with wit, grit, art and a little luck. Illustrated.








                           I Believe Life is Like a Garden.

                                                             For an abundant harvest, we must water abundantly (love),

                                                        thin carefully (mindful choices), nourish the soil (diet & exercise),

                                                        and watch for the uninvited weeds and pests that are inevitable

                                                       without a sturdy fence (clear boundaries).

                                                    Growing up with trampled boundaries, my life was stifled by abusive  and controlling people for over 50 years, first from my 'perfectly normal'

                                            Connecticut family in the '60s, and then from the partners I chose as an adult.

    In the 1990s I learned of a horrific family tragedy which had been poisoning the very ground I stood on all along. My story is about how I finally got to a better place by listening carefully to, and believing in, my own inner guidance.

     Though I worked in the publishing industry as an Art Director for 35 years, I am a self-taught writer. Tree of Lives is my first novel. In 2019, “Tree of Lives” entered its 3rd print edition, and was recently released in audiobook format through Audible, narrated by myself. The new edition features discussion questions designed to aid group study and book clubs.

      Tree of Lives won a Gold Medal in Women's Literature from the Florida Authors' and Publishers' Association and was a finalist in the American BookFest International Book Awards.

-- Elizabeth Garden





A Therapist’s Perspective


Elizabeth Garden’s cathartic codex: “Tree of Lives” can open difficult wounds, but this book will also cleanse them; and help bring a troubled reader to the path of healing.


Garden’s book has been a great blessing to my Adult Healing Workshops in Montpelier, France, where I host private retreats for a set of international women and men who are survivors of childhood trauma.


Our Summer workshops involve three weeks at the center, split by ten days in nature (in the Pyrenees Mountains and on the Mediterranean Coast), which gives the guests/ patients ample time to read. “Tree of Lives” is in our library at the center, and before the “dix-jours en plein air” (ten days of fresh air), I give a little introduction to the book and see who wants to take a copy on the trip.


The beginning is a bit harrowing and can be a challenge for our guests/patients as hypersensitivity is common to abuse survivors.  But usually on the second or third day, I notice a change come over the person reading this book...


Two-thirds of our guests/patients are professional women, and the rest are professional businessmen.  Many of the women and men have important and demanding executive jobs at top companies.  They come to our retreats because they know they can count on our non-judgmental attitude and complete discretion and confidentiality.  Because telephones are not permitted - their cameras are a privacy threat - and because our clinic has a very strict “no social-media” policy, our guests/patients are exceptionally vulnerable staying with us.  This is because much of their professional lives is about staying connected through technology.  This vulnerability is one factor that aids the change “Tree of Lives” inspires.


A second factor is their heightened vulnerability caused by their unfamiliarity with exposing their true selves in the company of their peer-group; (after all, emotional and physical abuse in childhood can haunt the adult lives of high achievers more than it does other people; as lower-income workers are usually able to incorporate many of their unhealthy behavioral patterns, which they learned through abuse, into their lives with complete transparency, without it raising flags or signaling alarms among their personal and professional relations.


But high achievers feel obliged to conform to the elitist standards of politeness, and need to appear irreproachable, exposing none of the individual quirks that make us human and are endearing to members of the lower-classes; whereas in their class, such quirks are seen as flaws and can carry heavy penalties.


So, taking these vulnerabilities into account, a book with the power of an author’s first-hand experience dealing with trauma, and so beautifully written, has the power to provoke catharsis.  As Elizabeth Garden is herself an abuse survivor, her words contains the necessary emotions and language patterns for what in psychology is called: “tertiary social sharing.”


While this book is capable of wetting the eyes of healthy adults, I have observed these serious professionals who are abuse-survivors while reading”Tree of Lives”; and I have seen them reach the second half of thebook... all of a sudden, these faces that are usually serious and hard as rock, melt completely and fall into tears.  It is a very beautiful thing.


The problem with most reputable books written on abuse is their authors lack of first-hand experience; which, though it is unfortunate that Ms. Garden had to be a victim of childhood emotional and physical abuse, the rest of us are lucky for this; because, her pain is what gives her book its gift to cleanse.


C. V.


Adult Healing Center / Montpelier, France


If you are in a book group, consider these questions for discussion:


1. Raymond Spang was diagnosed as a schizophrenic before he escaped from the mental institution. In those days very little was known about treating mental illness. He was given experimental medications which were suddenly stopped because he escaped. Was he still responsible for his actions? How much of the blame for the tragedy lies with the hospital? How much, if any, lies with Gertrude?


2. Polly, Ruthie’s mother was more loyal to her husband than to Ruthie. Was she neglectful or just overwhelmed by too many children? How does motherhood in the ’50s and ’60s compare with that of today’s mothers?


3. As a child, Ward, Ruth’s rage filled father, was told to forget about the tragedy that befell his only cousins, aunt and uncle. Can you draw a clear line between this and his behavior towards Ruth? Was Ruth too forgiving? How does fatherhood in the ’50s and ’60s compare with that of today’s fathers?


4. Estrangement is a theme in this story. While Ruth felt compassion for her parents' utter lack of self awareness, she ended up choosing estrangement from her siblings, and Sarai chose estrangement from her. Is estrangement always a bad thing?


5. As a ghost, Raymond wanders around until he makes sense of what happened to him. What do you think happens to us after we die?


6. As a child, Ruthie imagined saving someone from a poor country. Ironically, she tried to help Pratik but the built-in expectations from two wildly different cultures was insurmountable. If she had a supportive family, or if Pratik was more integrated in American culture, do you think the outcome would have been any better?


7.  There is a lot of imagery woven into the story. What do you think the image of a river symbolizes? The tree? What other visual metaphors did you spot? As an artist, Ruth was in touch with her imagination. How did her experience as an artist empower her?


8. Ruth unwittingly encountered race as an issue in her life experiences. Do you agree with her idea that blending races will ultimately solve racial prejudices?


9. When Ruth’s family drove past the site of the murders, Ward told the children a lie about what happened there. If you were Ruth’s father, would you have told your children anything about it, or would you have told them the truth about the tragedy?


10. Do you believe we have a higher self or guidance that is accessible?






“That Tantalizing Tree of Lives”

A Review by Zoe Papadopoulos


Question: If you were tied to a tree, how would you get yourself free?…This question may sound silly and of little consequence, but it is of great importance to the work I am about to publish. The culmination of years of study and research is my PhD thesis, titled, “The Entropy of Democracy in Western Society.”


 The riddle of being tied to a tree provides the setting and theme and initiates the pace of my thesis. It is the metaphorical glue that holds my central-argument together. And, for this cohesion, and for many enlightening ideas that influenced my thesis, I am indebted to the American author Elizabeth Garden, and to her book: Tree of Lives.


I came to America from Nafplio (Peloponnese), Greece to study sociology and American literature. My post-graduate work focuses on the ethnological differences that contribute to either the reinforcement — or the dissolution — of democracy in the West.  Books by contemporary authors are vital tools in my research, and I voraciously read to compare American ideologies (my test-group) with those of Europe (my control-group).


Garden’s book was an enlightening discovery.  It gave me a new perspective on many of the challenging ideas I was working with.  On the surface, Tree of Lives is about childhood scars and family dysfunction.  Its ‘polyptycho’ (πολύπτυχο), or multi-leveled, narrative-form illustrates several generations in the family-life of an American woman who was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused as a child and adolescent; and this woman’s efforts to make sense of the world in the aftermath of this abuse.  Through vignettes of daily-life in a comfortably-affluent 20th Century America, the protagonist (Ruth) comes to terms with the toxic familial experiences of her past, so that she can construct her adult identity.


By studying the “growth-patterns” of her family-tree, Ruth works to decipher the mysteries of her life, and answer the questions essential to her existence: Who is she is? Where did she come from? And, where she is going? These three questions, (though often disguised) are what is being asked when humans participate in sacred ceremonies throughout human civilizations.  Ceremony may take the form of a drum ritual led by tribal chieftains, where participants believe the drums will chase away evil spirits; or, in a case identifiable by Western experience, ceremony may take the form of a mother accusing her husband before courts and doctors of abuse towards her child. This Western example might not sound as sacred to us as the drums, because we are ‘within the culture’; but this mother is doing exactly what the drummers are trying to do: Chase away evil spirits. She is asking sacred questions of life: What are my values, my position in society, and what are my circumstances? And where is this taking me and what can I do about it?


There is a very emotionally moving paragraph where Garden writes:

“Throwing people off cliffs was the tragic family ethos and Ruth chose not to do that. Instead, she jumped.”


…Garden may just as easily be a Greek tragedian writing this passage.  So much of the Greek canon (Oedipus, Tantalus and the House of Atreus, etc.) is devoted to an individual’s conflict of a “tragic family ethos.”


Garden is a very fine writer, and her ability to sustain a polytemporal narrative with numerous principal characters is worthy of admiration.  But it is Tree of Lives’ ethnological importance to my own work that has inspired me to write this review.


What intrigued first and foremost is Garden’s perspective on causality and moral justice.  It is remarkable to read an American author who explores the concept of “hereditary curse” as Garden does. American Individualism, which permeates every aspect of this society, is ingrained in the American mind to a degree that is striking for a European like myself to observe.


We have a common saying in Greece: “Αμαρτίαι γονέων παιδεύουσι τέκνα” (Amartiae goneon pedevousi tekna) This can be translated to read: “The parent’s sin is the children’s strife.” The closest equivalent in American locution would be: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”; but it is rarely used and doesn’t imply what the Greek proverb specifically names; as the notion that “we are our parent’s children” is contrary to American values. Similarly, the proverb, “Like father, like son,” is only used by Americans in light-hearted banter, and would be inappropriate to justify, or explain, any consequentiality involving moral issues.  When ancestors are not admirable, Europeans will “atone,” whereas Americans will disown.”


Garden’s Tree of Lives can be read as a book about ‘atonement’ — a book about “reconciliation.” Through this interpretation, it makes for a book even more impressive, more unique, and worthier of discussion.  Garden does not have the typically American reactionary instinct to disown her unsavory past.  She intuitively knows that a parent’s sin is the child’s strife, unless, the child atones for that sin.  Yet, as Garden also shows, atonement is not a means of ‘saving’ the sinful parent; it is an act to save one’s self through a reconciliation with that greater entity that is, ‘Life.’


 “What a shame you bring to this family. A curse on you and your seven generations!”

Tree of Lives, by Elizabeth Garden


Tantalus is the classic example of the ‘hereditary curse’ in Western thought.  The word tantalize in English comes from this mythological figure.


Tantalus is a classic example of the ‘hereditary curse’ concept that pervades Ancient thought and still maintains a strong influence today over the direct-descendants of these Ancient societies still living in the Mediterranean world. Tantalus was guilty of crimes against the gods, so his ancestors, e.g., Orestes, Iphigenia and Agamemnon, were guilty due to ‘tainted blood.’ The modern Greek outlook on the ‘hereditary curse’ thrives despite modernity's lack of belief in the pantheon of gods, and in spite of our scientific way of life that would discount anything suggesting ‘tainted blood’ as pure nonsense.  It thrives because it is ingrained in our psychic foundation that we must atone for sins of our parents; it is instinctual, appearing to be as natural as other instincts, such as the natural drive of adolescent children to rebel against parents and authority.


 This ‘instinct’ is astonishingly absent in my test group for my PhD thesis: The American people of the 21st Century. And this lack of instinctual tendencies among the Americans to (a) recognize the sins of the parents, grandparents, etc.; and, (b) atone for those sins through community philanthropy, and/or, conducting themselves in a manner morally superior to that of their ancestors -- as a sort of ‘lifelong-apology’ to the Universe for being of blood that was destructive to it -- this, my thesis argues, is the reason why the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners; and why America has more addicts than any other country on Earth except for Russia, which excels America by only one-half of one-percent.


The American Life -- my thesis argues -- follows this plan: (a) Enter the world innocent, (b) either suffer child abuse in some form, either at home or at school; or else luck-out and escape it; (c) for those who do suffer abuse, to take the burden on alone rather than blaming a hereditary curse -- which makes the abused self-hating, self-destructive, and by this, turn to addiction and repeating the abuse cycle; lastly, (d) through this cycle that destroys lives generation after generation, the 'hereditary curse ceases to be a mere concept, and becomes an actual phenomenon and self-fulfilling prophecy, where the irony is shown that it is the American people’s deficit of the ‘hereditary curse’ instinct (it could be looked at as a missing gene, although this gene has yet to be discovered)... it is this deficit of this instinct and the American denial that hereditary curses could even exist, that is the *greatest factor in producing the curse to begin with!*  This cultural defect, I argue, is leading the entire world into a very bleak and dystopian future.


Elizabeth Garden’s Tree of Lives is an exceptional book, unique and important because of its original perspective on both, channeling blame for childhood trauma; and the ways that we can become health, and identify what ‘healthy’ means. Garden is applying the psychology that governed the lives of thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, to her out American value system -- a culture that is self-destructive; and -- because of its influence over the rest of the world --a dangerous entity in the Universe.


Garden’s book, as you can see, solidified the foundation of my thesis; and I am grateful for this novel. I hope that Tree of Lives will get the impact it deserves so that we as a planet can begin to finally heal from the deep and tormenting wounds that were inflicted long before we were even born.


Zoe Papadopoulos






Mending the Tree of Lives

by Jeffrey Oaks


Elizabeth Garden’s book, ‘Tree of Lives,’ was the first novel I read where I could truly “feel” the heroic transformation of the character.  It healed my soul while I was healing a bone; it may mend your soul too, if you had a bad childhood.  Or, if not, the superb, masterful writing will charm you like a breeze and brighten your mood.


I read ‘Tree of Lives’ when I was laid-up with a broken femur, and my girlfriend brought me a random stack of books from her collection at home, for me to read at the hospital.


I had never before read a book with a female main-character, but surprisingly, Ruthie and I had enough similarities that I immediately found myself relating to her.  We both had Staph-infections as babies; and now that I had a broken femur, little Ruthie consoled me by breaking her arm, her nose, etc.


Although, I didn’t suffer child abuse from parents or extended family like Ruthie did, I am extremely familiar with the abuse she received from her two cruel, older brothers.


I am the youngest of three boys. My brothers and I grew up in a ‘respectable middle-class’ East-Coast home, just like Ruthie; but my brothers were the neighborhood punks.  They beat me up daily because I tucked my shirts in, didn’t steal, and spoke with an embarrassing stutter.


My brothers’ cruelty resulted in forming in me an identity riddled with shame, insecurities, anxieties, and unmerited bouts of self-hatred that send me into periodic states of dark depression.  Like Ruthie, I am intelligent, open-hearted, generous, and sensitive; and I feel I would be a successful, respected, and highly-satisfied man today, had I been an only child.


The silver-lining is that there is still time.  I assume Elizabeth Garden is the same age as Ruthie, who was in fourth grade when JFK was shot.  Ironically, I had just finished the fourth grade when John Kennedy crashed his plane.  So, although I am nowhere near as successful, and witty, and comfortable with myself—a “complete” human—as Garden’s character finishes, I am still years younger, so I have something to work towards.


This transformation of Ruthie to Ruth is the astonishing magic of ‘Tree of Lives.’  I have never seen a writer evolve a character in the masterful way that Garden does.  Her book made me (still makes me whenever I think about Ruth) feel cleansed of the dirt my brothers stained my life with.


I don’t know if it’s just because Garden is an expert writer that this inspiring transformation of Ruthie’s character occurs – (as I know that great writers are great because they are able to pretend, and invent things) – but I like to imagine that Garden—abused as a child just like Ruth—actually ‘became healthy” as she was writing this book; that she “evolved” into her fully-realized, mature, successful adult-self while writing her story.


I like this idea because Ruthie and I have so many of the same insecurities.  And to read how Ruth has become a healthy, wonderful person, gives me an identity to aim for.


Today, having recovered from my broken leg, being a reasonably happy and self-sufficient adult—although I am still prone to depression and mild self-abuse—I feel right in the middle, between Ruthie and Ruth.


So, whenever I get down, and feel hopeless, I think about ‘Tree of Lives,’ and replay a scene, such as grown-up and healthy Ruth having “Fun in the Sun”…


“Like diving into an invitingly warm pool, […]

a refreshing and fun new reality.”

– Elizabeth Garden (“Fun and Sun” [‘Tree of Lives’])


…And I smile with the belief that if I keep going as she did, one day my own fun in the sun will come.


Jeffrey Oaks

a true story of LOST & FOUND out