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Virginia Wolf: Ravaged by the Wolves of Childhood Trauma and Unresolved Grief

Those of the more introspective bent, as most writers tend to be, are vulnerable to being held hostage by their own negative thoughts which can become patterns of negative thinking. Wolf’s need to write may well have been a natural inclination to relieve this negativity through escapist fantasy and cathartic activity of applying pen to paper.

Trauma can come in many shapes and sizes. In Wolf’s case, she suffered the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. According to her, this happened to her between the ages of 6-23. Not only was this a prolonged period, but her two half-brothers were the accused perpetrators. Wolf’s posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder would explain her need to split into two personalities in order to cope with this attack on her childhood innocence, on her very soul and within the confines of her home which should have been a place of safety. Where else would she be able to feel safe if not in the creations of her own mind? Hence was birthed her calling to be a novelist – forged in the fires of mental anguish and the compulsion to escape from these torturous memories.

Wolf suffered the loss of people close to her, also in her formative years. Her mother died in 1895 when she was 13. This was followed by the death of her half-sister two years later, then her father – all within a period of less than 10 years. Her father’s death was followed by her first suicide attempt. Another of her siblings passed away in 1906.

Virginia felt the wolves of madness creeping ever closer. Who is to say whether their bark would have been worse than their bite. Having suffered several bouts of depression and mental breakdown during her life, she would have been justified in thinking “No, not again”, “I simply can’t bear this any longer”. Who’s to say whether, had she held on in hope, there would have been an epiphany of life-transforming proportions, in that dreaded episode. If there were to be an eleventh command to support the spiritual well-being of humanity, it would be “thou shall not dread”.

Over the years subsequent to her death, a lot of emphasis has been put on her last piece of writing – her suicide note. Much has been made of Virginia’s suicide note to her husband, Leonard. No one could question her love for him; in fact she clearly did not want to put him through another episode of her madness. Despite her obvious wish to reassure him as her last act of kindness, he was devastated and inconsolable at the news of her death. People who are miserable invariably hand on their misery to others. She stated that “if anyone would have been able to save her, it would have been him” – meant as an expression of gratitude for all the love he had shown her. But this may have been interpreted by Leonard as an abject failure, thus leaving him with survivor guilt for the rest of his life.

Are you going to kill yourself or go to new depths of yourself? We have to be willing to go to uncomfortable places in order to be reborn. This may involve revisiting the trauma of our past so that we can finally come to terms with our sadness and loss, and be psychologically liberated from the ghosts of our past.

The ghosts of my past loom high

I wish to wave to them goodbye

But they return to strangle me at the neck

Left up to them, I’ll be a wreck!

Exorcise them, exorcise them

With the power of thy pen

We’re on the road to freedom, and the making of amends.”[Carla Cornelius]


Gifted writer though she was, her pen proved inadequate to achieve this much desired psychological liberation. Perhaps talking therapy would have been more effective. In Woolf’s tragic case, she became exhausted by life before exhausting her options.

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