My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf

My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf, is a retrospective psychoanalysis of the life and death of Virginia Woolf by the iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Szasz presents his views on Virginia Woolf’s life and suicide as a counterbalance to the prevailing view that she was a genius writer tormented by mental illness. In contrast, Szasz maintains that: “Persons have reasons for their actions, regardless of whether they are said to have or not have mental diseases.”1 It is from this vantage point that Szasz analyses the life and death of Woolf.

One of the most prominent features of Szaszian psychoanalysis is that: “Action, behavior, conduct—call it what you will—is goal-directed and meaningful.”2 Szasz insists that we must understand human action in human terms. We cannot understand something as complex as human behavior without introducing goal-directed human actors. People will often call behavior that they disapprove of, “crazy”. Szasz says that if we look at the details of a person life, we can uncover the meaning behind their actions. It is only when we seek to view a person’s life through their eyes that we seek to understand so-called crazy behavior.

Szasz views so-called mental illness through what he calls the Shakespearean model. He says: “I view mental patienthood as, typically, a role into which a person is cast by his family and society, which he then assumes and plays, or against which he rebels and from which he tries to escape.”3 For Szasz, we tend to underestimate the extent to which life is a theater.

Far from being a victim of madness, Virginia used psychiatric labels to her own ends. She wanted to be seen as the mad-genius-writer, and she embarked on such a journey to make herself such a person.

Virginia had few options open to her. Her father died when she was the age of 13, which had a big impact on her. He left her with a considerable sum of money to live on, but not enough to become an heiress. What would she do with her life? She had not gone to school but was educated at home. She spent the next eight years working to become a writer. Szasz writes: “Existentially, she was an uneducated, unhappy, confused adolescent. What was she to do with her life? She was familiar with the life of the literary person, her father, and decided to embark on the voyage of such a life.”4

Marriage to Leonard

Virginia used her marriage to Leonard Woolf to assist in being seen as the mad-genius-writer. Leonard enthusiastically accepted the role of caring for his mad patient-wife.

mongoose
Leonard the Mongoose

Virginia chose to marry someone of lesser social standing than her because she wanted to marry someone whom she could control. She was not interested in sex or a loving relationship. Virginia despised Leonard who was a Jew. Writing about the Jewishness of her husbands she says:  “My husband… poor devil, I make him pay for his unfortunate mistake in being born a Jew.”5

She also referred “lovingly” to him as a “mongoose”, which is: “a weasel-like carnivore native to Africa, Asia, and southern Europe, is best known as a skilled killer of snakes. Canada and the United States bar the importation of mongooses because of their destructiveness. Such were the “endearments” Virginia and Leonard exchanged in their private language.”6

At times, however, it seems that Virginia realized she had made a mistake by marrying Leonard.

Szasz writes:

Virginia suffered from “postmarital psychosis,” the realization of having made an irreversible, life-altering decision, a choice that, in retrospect, she regretted and with which she felt unable to cope. It dawned on her that she had acquired a husband she did not want but lacked the strength to leave.7

Szasz writes that Virginia did not want to be known, intellectually or sexually. This was one of the reasons why she never went to see a psychoanalyst. Even though Freudian and Jungian analysis was popular at the time, she refused to be analyzed. Even her brother-in-law was a psychoanalyst, yet she never sought psychoanalytic help for her “madness”.

As part of Leonard’s role as the psychiatric caretaker of Virginia, he became obsessed with her eating habits. Interestingly, Szasz analyzes the situation as thus: “Leonard and his psychiatrists acted out their therapeutic fantasy of turning Virginia into a stuffed and stupid goose. In their marital relationship, Leonard and Virginia have, in effect, replaced the vaginal-sexual penetration of coitus with the oral-alimentary penetration of feeding.”8

Suicide

As part of her role in being a mad genius, Virginia committed suicide in an extreme and unusual fashion. By placing stones in her pockets and drowning herself, she convinced others around her that madness had finally taken over. In reality, Virginia was lonely and unhappy. She could not bear the burdens of daily life with Leonard any longer. Instead of choosing an alternative way of living, and leaving Leonard, she chose to end her life.

Conclusion

Szasz’s aim of this book was: “to show, through a study of the life and marriage of Virginia (Stephen) Woolf, that the function of the term “mental illness” resembles the function of a term such as “love,” rather than of a term such as “leukemia”.”9 Szasz completes this task and more. In a concise, entertaining, and thoughtful way, Szasz helps us think about life and the meanings we ascribe to our actions.

For those interested in Szasz or psychoanalysis, I highly recommend this thoughtful analysis.


  1. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 6). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 6). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  3. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (pp. 3-4). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  4. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 17). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition 
  5. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 34). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  6. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (pp. 4-5). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  7. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 27). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  8. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 33). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 
  9. Szasz, Thomas. My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf (p. 12). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

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