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VIRGINIA WOOLF a report on a presentation 1 by Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., 2 Smooth Sailing, Spring 1997

Celebrated writer Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882. She had manic depression, and the disease could be traced through three generations in her family. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, inherited manic depression from his father and had been hospitalized three times for it. Virginia Woolf wrote that being with her father was like "being shut up in a cage with a wild beast." Her two brothers and her sister had recurrent bouts of depression, and other members of her family had affective disorder. A cousin died of manic exhaustion and a refusal to eat.

The many pictures of Virginia Woolf shown during the presentation indicated that she had a very expressive face. She was described as "having laughter like a child's" and having a "great capacity for joy," although "an undertow of sadness" was also noticeable in her presence. Her father's death in 1904 triggered the first of several nervous breakdowns that darkened her adult life.

In 1912, she married Leonard Woolf, also a writer. This devoted man would take her temperature and weigh her in the attempt to predict her moods. During their marriage she would "pass from sanity to insanity" many times. While in her manic episodes, she became violent and had delusions (persistent false beliefs) and auditory hallucinations (she heard voices). Dr. Jamison mentioned that during one manic episode, Virginia Woolf talked for three days without stopping, and during another she believed she heard birds talking in Greek in the garden. When she was in a depressive state, she barely spoke or ate, and during several of these episodes, she tried to commit suicide. She felt she was a failure and ex-perienced overwhelming, irrational pain. She described her moods as "wild waves of emotions."

Virginia Woolf believed that her "madness" inspired her and made her a better writer. Her disease probably gave rise to the nontraditional narrative techniques and definitions of reality in her stream-of-consciousness style of writing. A friend said, "A dull moment in her company was not likely . . . her mind was a rich kingdom to itself and her going was the end of an age."

Virginia Woolf wrote two suicide notes telling of her certainty that she would become manic and that she "cannot fight it." In both notes she expressed gratitude to her husband. She believed she owed the happiness in her life to her husband and she did not want to spoil his life. She wrote that they "were happy until this disease came on." On March 28, 1941, sensing the beginning of another manic episode and a flight into madness, she drowned herself.

In 1949, only eight years after Virginia Woolf's suicide, lithium was found to be useful in treating manic depression.

1 Presented at the DRADA/Johns Hopkins symposium, Baltimore, Maryland, April 1997


1 Comment

  1. you can’t believe how much useful it was to me and my research on her.

    Comment by mahsa — October 31, 2011 @ 12:39

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