My sophomore year of college, I was taking a class on Virginia Woolf and Henry James, and we were assigned Woolf’s The Waves. It was February, the most depressing month in the Midwest as far as I’m concerned. Thank God, it’s also the shortest, because this was always my bad time, when deep, black depression would come rolling in.
I fell in love with Woolf’s language, her stream of consciousness, and the way she was trying to show how six different personalities were forces of nature—first, young and marshaling their powers, then as they crescendo, and then falling back spent. I got quite obsessed with Virginia Woolf that term, rereading passages, writing about her and what her novel inspired in me, and when kept up by insomnia, I’d lie in bed awake in the dark, pondering the novel’s meaning and, in turn, life’s. I worked myself into an existential crisis.
I thought about The Waves so hard and so often that life got overwhelming, and I holed up inside my apartment and didn’t go to classes for a week because I was so convinced that my art sucked and what was the point of even trying when my imaginings, my ideas of perfection, could never match up to what I produced.
Once I put The Waves back up on the shelf, I slowly recovered and felt on steadier ground with stories that had a firmer structure, and I blamed Virginia Woolf for making me come unhinged. She’s a great writer, but life is very slippery, too slippery, when viewed through her eyes. I thought a lot of people had this affliction—this Virginia Woolf disease. For the longest time, I believed the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was about that, and I was totally shocked when I watched it and the story wasn’t about how Virginia Woolf made you crazy.
I have certain tastes for literature, like mind food, and I get cravings. Sometimes I hanker for a little Stephen King, sometimes I want Flannery O’Connor, and sometimes I want Virginia Woof. The next time I picked up her books, I was wary. I started with a few journals and A Room of One’s Own, and they were quite tasty. I felt strong, I was doing okay. Silly me, I thought. What a crazy thing to think that a writer could make you insane. But then it happened somewhere between The Waves and Between the Acts.
My senses started feeling muffled, like I was wrapped in a layer of cotton batting or living underwater. My insomnia ratcheted up to an uncomfortable level, and I was finding it hard to read or write, which is how I make my living. I talked to a therapist I was seeing at the time, asking her if she had ever heard of the Virginia Woolf disease. The therapist appreciated literature and specialized in helping creative people, so we talked about Virginia Woolf’s life and writing process.
Woolf was a famous depressive and that disease probably stemmed from her rocky childhood. She was extremely bright and devoured books in the library of her intellectual father. However, because she was a girl, not much was expected out of her. She was allowed to read and learn, but she was not formally educated like the boys in her family. Woolf was sexually abused by her stepbrother, and she wrote about those occurrences, attacking them from different angles, I believe, in an attempt to write herself well. This was done at a time when people didn’t talk about such unpleasant realities. The topic of war was okay, but not the violence that goes on inside homes.
She married Leonard Woolf, but it was more of a platonic relationship, a marriage never consummated, with Leonard taking care of Virginia when she became mentally unstable. Virginia was attracted more to women and one of those relationships helped her produce Orlando. Virginia always defined herself by writing. Sometimes, though, she was kept from it because people thought that brought on her depressive episodes.
She had a suicide pact with her husband. World War II threatened England, and the Woolfs were terrified of going through this. Leonard was Jewish, and they knew that if England was invaded, they would appear on the list of people to be done away with. This might have been one of the contributing factors to the depression that Virginia found herself slipping into when she took her life. She knew the signs of it and was very clever, pretending to be okay so Leonard, her caretaker, felt he could leave her alone at times. She wrote out her suicide notes, filled her pockets with stones so she wouldn’t float, and drowned herself in a nearby river when she was fifty-nine.
Virginia’s journals and essays can be beautiful, well-thought-out commentary and arguments, but her fiction is something completely different. She’s one of the first to use the stream-of-consciousness technique, where writing imitates a person’s thoughts, racing, loping, interrupting each other, and she wrote and planned her novels like she was painting, thinking in color and composition rather than in rising action, conflict, and character development.
My therapist’s theory is that because Virginia Woolf worked so closely with her subconscious in these novels, she ended up replicating her manic-depressive mind state. And somebody who already has a tendency to go that way, like me, is very sensitive to those impressions. Those people can get caught up in the text, Virginia’s ideas, like the undertow in the ocean. Her recommendation was to monitor my reading and put away the novels when I start to recognize the signs of depression. It doesn’t mean I can never read Virginia Woolf again. I just have to do it carefully.
While waiting for this dreary, awful March to get over with, I picked up The Waves again, wanting a little taste. But I think it might be better to wait until June.