The night before last, I finished reading the biography of Virginia Woolf; one of my favorite writers. I enjoy reading about the lives of people whose work I feel not only that I resonate with but feel mesmerized by. Usually after learning about their lives, it becomes clear to me that the saying “one resonates with one’s tribe” is quite accurate. My bookshelves are full of Vang Gogh, Tesla, Nietzsche, Mozart, Davinci, Renoir, Beethoven, Gandhi, Osho and so many others–frankly my books are my physical treasure.
After reading Virginia Woolf’s biography I could not help but just sit there on my recliner meditating about life, her life, my life and the life of so many others. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I felt torn between anger towards those who can easily “mark” the lives of children; leaving them to battle with the aftermath of their atrocities; and an immense desire to just wrap my arms around a world so full of pain and trauma.
For those who may not know much about Virginia Woolf, she was considered one of the most important modernist authors of the 20th century, and was a pioneer in the use of streem of consciousness as a narrative device. What many people don’t know, is that sadly her life is a clear example of the terrible harm it does to people when trauma and abuse are covered up. Her life clearly reflects the serious consequences of sexual abuse; specially in children. Virginia Woolf was a woman of great talents but one whose mind and soul had been shattered and whom was made to live in silence.
Due to “reputation”, for the longest time it was maintained as fact that Virginia Woolf had inherited a serious mental illness and that she was too fragile for the shocks of life; her story was tarnished with absurdity and lies. Thankfully in this day and age we are more knowledgeable about the mechanism of our mind and body. It is true all the geniuses or eccentrics we admire or meet are people who exhibit a high IQ paired up with some form of mild to severe autism or social disorder–with that said, by now it is also common knowledge that every human being in this planet “qualifies” for some form or another of mental illness or disorder. The origin of Virginia Woolf’s disease was the incestuous sexual and psychological abuse suffered from a very tender age and not just an inherited illness or eccentricism.
Virginia was one of many children; the result of a complicated but very “well-related” marriage–both of her parents already had children from previous marriages. The life of Virginia touched me deeply as I believe it would to anyone who grew up with narcissistic, abusive or neglectful parent (s) or anyone who still has not lost their own humanity.
Virginia could not recall a single day when her mother payed attention to her as a daughter, and soon came to accept her mother had no desire to spend time with her or get to know her. We now know the horrible emptiness one is left with inside, when a mother relates to her child as if that child was a “mistake” or burden. The child; specially if sensitive; grows up feeling unwanted by the world, unable to see his or her very own beauty; even if they do, they often find themselves living with an emptiness that haunts them.
Virginia’s father was more of an intimidating figure, someone she respected and wanted to please, but was unable to feel accepted by him unless she fit the household according to what was expected; her childhood home was the meeting place for the best of the Literary world of the time–to her, it was a cage.
From a very early age, Virginia was forced to silence her emotions; after the death of her mother and sister, her father forbid every member of the household the mentioning of the names of the deceased. Shortly after her father died and Virginia was left feeling lonelier than ever. After the death of both of her parents, she moved to live with her brothers and sisters; shortly after she started exhibiting complex psychotic outbreaks–what now is considered complex PTSD with severe bouts of depression. Her outbreaks would not last long but they would happen often.
The abuse Virginia endured took place since the age of 7. Although it has been debated whether or not her parents were aware of the abuse at the hand of other family members, there is extensive data which would suggest otherwise–letters young Virginia wrote since age 10–It would seem her family chose to dismiss the abuse so as to maintain “reputation”.
As previously mentioned, she spoke and wrote openly about it since she was ten years old. It was a tremendous traumatic type of abuse, with and without penetration, that lasted until she was twenty-four.
After finishing the manuscript of one last novel, Woolf fell into a depression similar to those she had suffered in the past. The outbreak of World War II and the destruction of her London home worsened her condition, and she became unable to work.
Virginia married at the age of 30th to an older man named Leonard Woolf. The beautiful thing about that marriage, was the genuine love they felt for one another. Although Leonard always called her the “love of his life”, he was unable to reach her. Despite their marriage being solid in partnership, on March 28, 1941, Virginia filled the pockets of her coat with stones and threw herself into the river near her house–ending the silence and suffering forever. Virginia did write a letter to her husband saying
“I feel like I’m going to go crazy again. I don’t think we can go through one of those terrible times again. I know I won’t recover this time. I started hearing voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I do what I think is the best I can do. I can’t fight anymore. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. I have lost everything except the certainty of your goodness. I can’t keep ruining your life any longer. I don’t think two people could be happier than you and I have been.”
Today at last, we can speak clearly about what sexual abuse does to children. It is necessary to put an end once and for all to the dangerous attempts to minimize completely intolerable and unjustifiable behavior and situations. Many of the mental health symptoms Woolf experienced are consistent with the clinical literature of child sexual abuse. Understanding Virginia Woolf’s clinical case is important for clinicians and researchers interested in the dynamics of child sexual abuse.
With her famous essay “A room of one’s own”, Virginia Woolf took a tremendous step forward towards the fight for equal rights for women. In her essay, she made it clear for most women there was no economic independence. Women needed their independence so that they could have their own space; in the case of Virginia; their own place in which to write novels with peace of mind.
With Orlando, she dared to put a man in the shoes of a woman; she did this in order to show the world how the same person could have an easier path being a man than being a woman. She dared to challenge the society of her time and talk about taboos such as homosexuality and sexuality.
Virginia was a woman punished by the time in which she was born. She was punished because she was “different”. She was punished by a family who demanded her silence. She was punished by a society that had little idea of how to address the psychological issues a person faces after severe trauma is imposed on mind and body. I hope her story; like the story of so many others who had to suffered in silence or are still being punished for defying the stigma of silence; serves as a propeller to stop the silencing of those who were victimized.
Sexual abuse has always been with us; you probably know someone who has survived it yet has never said a word. Sexual abuse; specially in young children/adolescents; leaves a permanent scar. Let’s stop punishing those who dare challenge the stigma of silence; for when we choose to be silent, we are simply protecting the abusers.
Sexual abuse on children fragments the mind severely; let’s keep that in mind before we go judging the “eccentricities” of those who have survived it. They are standing, they are trying, they are fighting for a different world…instead of punishing them for it, how about we become more supportive and join them in doing all we can to protect future generations. We may not be able to eliminate the problem, but we can decrease the numbers by choosing not to put blinders on.
Strength isn’t the repeating of niceties but the character to stand up and denounce monstrosities, even when society will judge you for it. Kindness is not the repeating of “sweet nothings” but the ability to put oneself in the shoes of those who despite their trauma; and in their own way; are still trying to make this world a better one. We are kind when we seek to understand them instead of judging them. If you can’t bring yourself to understand them, at least don’t add more pain to their plate; honor the fact they are here not to disturb your “perfect” reality but to make you aware of reality as is for so many others; hoping to at least balance the scales.
“I don’t know myself sometimes, or how to measure and name and count out the grains that make me what I am”