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

Was Virginia Woolf mad? Thomas Szasz seeks to answer that question in his 30th book

By Thomas Szasz; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006 154 pages • $29.95

A tremendous gap in the literary worldhas existed for 65 years and ThomasSzasz has filled it. Was VirginiaWoolf mad?

In this 30th book by Szasz, heargues convincingly that VirginiaWoolf, albeit “boorish, meddling andnasty . . . a first class snob and coward,”was not mentally ill. His conclusion,the product of extensive and meticulousresearch, runs counter to theopinions of most nonmedical authorsand of psychiatrists who havesuggested that Virginia Woolf wasmentally ill. He shows with abundantproof that her spurious suicidalgestures, and even the act that endedher life at age 59 in March 1941, werenot the acts of a madwoman but simplythe choice of “a relentless self-dramatizer,”who, in the end, was convincedthat she had a right to kill herself andthat by so doing, was committinggood, not evil.

It is unclear why Szasz devotes somany pages to his already well-knowndenunciations of psychiatry, psychoanalysis,Sigmund Freud, and “fakeneuroscientists”--attacks not specificallyrelated to the case of Virginia Woolf. Perhaps Szasz believes thereare some readers who are unfamiliarwith his views. But there is no doubtthat his digressive anti-psychiatryfulminations will weaken the abilityof psychiatrists to grasp readily thefact that Szasz's criticisms of psychiatryare particularly applicable to thepsychiatrists who treated Woolf. Szaszmakes clear that these psychiatrists,some highly regarded and distinguished,indeed merit condemnation.

The attacks--really diatribes--against psychiatry undermine theauthor's insightful and well-foundedviews concerning Woolf. Still, eventhe most ardent critic of Szasz's anti-psychiatryextremism must acknowledgethe comprehensive research hehas undertaken and that Szasz's criticismof Woolf's psychiatrists is nomore than warranted.

As an added bonus, we are treatedto 2 chapters entitled “Appendix I”and “Appendix II,” in which Szaszcogently and deftly debunks the myththat creativity and genius are inextricablylinked to madness.

This is a book that I believe willbe thoroughly enjoyed by the psychiatristwho is interested in learning thetruth about Virginia Woolf. It will benecessary, however, for the readerto disabuse himself of the notion thatall of Szasz's anti-psychiatry proclamationsare wildly unwarrantedexaggerations that should be dismissedout of hand.

Dr Halpern is professor emeritus of psychiatryat New York Medical College inValhalla.