By Thomas Szasz; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006 154 pages $29.95
A tremendous gap in the literary world has existed for 65 years and Thomas Szasz has filled it. Was Virginia Woolf mad?
In this 30th book by Szasz, he argues convincingly that Virginia Woolf, albeit boorish, meddling and nasty . . . a first class snob and coward, was not mentally ill. His conclusion, the product of extensive and meticulous research, runs counter to the opinions of most nonmedical authors and of psychiatrists who have suggested that Virginia Woolf was mentally ill. He shows with abundant proof that her spurious suicidal gestures, and even the act that ended her life at age 59 in March 1941, were not the acts of a madwoman but simply the choice of a relentless self-dramatizer, who, in the end, was convinced that she had a right to kill herself and that by so doing, was committing good, not evil.
It is unclear why Szasz devotes so many pages to his already well-known denunciations of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and fake neuroscientists—attacks not specifically related to the case of Virginia Woolf. Perhaps Szasz believes there are some readers who are unfamiliar with his views. But there is no doubt that his digressive anti-psychiatry fulminations will weaken the ability of psychiatrists to grasp readily the fact that Szasz's criticisms of psychiatry are particularly applicable to the psychiatrists who treated Woolf. Szasz makes clear that these psychiatrists, some highly regarded and distinguished, indeed merit condemnation.
The attacks—really diatribes—against psychiatry undermine the author's insightful and well-founded views concerning Woolf. Still, even the most ardent critic of Szasz's anti-psychiatry extremism must acknowledge the comprehensive research he has undertaken and that Szasz's criticism of Woolf’s psychiatrists is no more than warranted.
As an added bonus, we are treated to 2 chapters entitled Appendix I and Appendix II, in which Szasz cogently and deftly debunks the myth that creativity and genius are inextricably linked to madness.
This is a book that I believe will be thoroughly enjoyed by the psychiatrist who is interested in learning the truth about Virginia Woolf. It will be necessary, however, for the reader to disabuse himself of the notion that all of Szasz's anti-psychiatry proclamations are wildly unwarranted exaggerations that should be dismissed out of hand.Dr Halpern is professor emeritus of psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla.