The vast literature on Virginia Woolf's life, work, and marriage falls into two groups. A large majority is certain that she was mentally ill, and a small minority is equally certain that she was not mentally ill but was misdiagnosed by psychiatrists. In this daring exploration of Woolf's life and work, Thomas Szasz--famed for his radical critique of psychiatric concepts, coercions, and excuses--examines the evidence and rejects both views. Instead, he looks at how Virginia Woolf, as well as her husband Leonard, used the concept of madness and the profession of psychiatry to manage and manipulate their own and each other's lives.
Szasz argues that Virginia Woolf was a victim neither of mental illness, nor psychiatry, nor her husband--three ways she is regularly portrayed. He finds her to be an intelligent and self-assertive person, a moral agent who used mental illness, psychiatry, and her husband to fashion for herself a life of her own choosing. This is not to impute to Virginia Woolf some sort of limitless freedom of the will, nor is it to deny that the cultural and social milieu in which she grew up and lived had a profound impact on her psyche and her sense of the life choices open to her. It is only to remind us of the primacy of Virginia Woolf as an active, goal-directed, moral agent, responsible equally for her madness-badness and her genius-creativity.
Do we explain achievement when we attribute it to the fictitious entity we call "genius"? Do we explain failure when we attribute it to the fictitious entity we call "madness"? Or do we deceive ourselves the same way that the person deceives himself when he attributes the easy ignition of hydrogen to its being "flammable"? Szasz interprets Virginia Woolf's life and work as expressions of her character, and her character as the "product" of her free will. He offers this view as a corrective against the prevailing, ostensibly scientific view that attributes both her "madness" and her "genius" to biological-genetic causes. We tend to attribute exceptional achievement to genius, and exceptional failure to madness. Both, says Szasz, are fictitious entities.
Thomas Szasz is professor of psychiatry emeritus at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. His A Lexicon of Lunacy, Liberation by Oppression, Words to the Wise, and Faith in Freedom, are available from Transaction.