Virginia Woolf, neuroprogression, and bipolar disorder

Manuela V. Boeira Gabriela de Á. Berni Ives C. Passos Márcia Kauer-Sant’Anna Flávio Kapczinski About the authors

Abstract

Family history and traumatic experiences are factors linked to bipolar disorder. It is known that the lifetime risk of bipolar disorder in relatives of a bipolar proband are 5-10% for first degree relatives and 40-70% for monozygotic co-twins. It is also known that patients with early childhood trauma present earlier onset of bipolar disorder, increased number of manic episodes, and more suicide attempts. We have recently reported that childhood trauma partly mediates the effect of family history on bipolar disorder diagnosis. In light of these findings from the scientific literature, we reviewed the work of British writer Virginia Woolf, who allegedly suffered from bipolar disorder. Her disorder was strongly related to her family background. Moreover, Virginia Woolf was sexually molested by her half siblings for nine years. Her bipolar disorder symptoms presented a pernicious course, associated with hospitalizations, suicidal behavioral, and functional impairment. The concept of neuroprogression has been used to explain the clinical deterioration that takes places in a subgroup of bipolar disorder patients. The examination of Virgina Woolf’s biography and art can provide clinicians with important insights about the course of bipolar disorder.

Mood disorders; bipolar; suicide; stress; sexual assault; cognitive neuroscience


Family history and traumatic experiences are factors linked to bipolar disorder (BD). It is known that the lifetime risk of BD in relatives of a bipolar proband are 5-10% for first degree relatives and 40-70% for monozygotic co-twins.11. Craddock N, Sklar P. Genetics of bipolar disorder. Lancet. 2013;381:1654-62. It is also known that patients with early childhood trauma present earlier onset of BD, increased number of manic episodes, faster cycling pattern, and more suicide attempts.22. Leverich GS, Post RM. Course of bipolar illness after history of childhood trauma. Lancet. 2006;367:1040-2.

Additionally, we have recently reported that childhood trauma partly mediates the effect of family history on BD diagnosis.33. Jansen K, Cardoso TA, Fries GR, Branco JC, Silva RA, Kauer-Sant'Anna M, et al. Childhood trauma, family history, and their association with mood disorders in early adulthood. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Jan 30., doi: 10.1111/acps.12551. [Epub ahead of print]
10.1111/acps.12551...
It is noteworthy that sexual abuse was associated with BD in our study, but not with major depressive disorder.33. Jansen K, Cardoso TA, Fries GR, Branco JC, Silva RA, Kauer-Sant'Anna M, et al. Childhood trauma, family history, and their association with mood disorders in early adulthood. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Jan 30., doi: 10.1111/acps.12551. [Epub ahead of print]
10.1111/acps.12551...
Moreover, other authors have reported that illness trajectories are largely variable in bipolar disorder.44. Passos IC, Mwangi B, Vieta E, Berk M, Kapczinski F. Areas of controversy in neuroprogression in bipolar disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Apr 21., doi: 10.1111/acps.12581 [Epub ahead of print]
10.1111/acps.12581...
It seems that a subset of patients may develop a neuroprogressive course associated with poor outcomes, such as suicide attempts, hospitalization, and functional and neurocognitive impairment.44. Passos IC, Mwangi B, Vieta E, Berk M, Kapczinski F. Areas of controversy in neuroprogression in bipolar disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Apr 21., doi: 10.1111/acps.12581 [Epub ahead of print]
10.1111/acps.12581...
In light of these findings, we reviewed the biography and work of Virginia Woolf, one of the most renowned female writers of the 20th century and amongst the finest British novelists ever, and who, according to biographers, suffered from bipolar disorder.55. Caramagno TC. The flight of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California; 1992.,66. Bennet M. Virginia Woolf and neuropsychiatry. Netherlands: Springer; 2013.

Mental illness in Virginia Woolf’s family can be traced back to James Stephen, her grandfather on her father’s side. James was allegedly cyclothymic and, according to Bell, also given to self-mortification and depression.77. Bell Q. Virginia Woolf: a biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1972. He was eventually institutionalized, after running naked through Cambridge. He died in an asylum. Virginia Woolf’s parents also suffered from mental disorders - her father was what at the time was called cyclothymic, whereas her mother suffered from depression.66. Bennet M. Virginia Woolf and neuropsychiatry. Netherlands: Springer; 2013. Sir George Savage, a prominent psychiatrist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, diagnosed Virginia’s father Leslie with “neurasthenia,” a common medical term used in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.88. Beard G. Neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion. Boston Med Surg J. 1869;80:217-21.

9. Taylor RE. Death of neurasthenia and its psychological reincarnation: a study of neurasthenia at the National Hospital for the relief and cure of the paralysed and epileptic, Queen Square, London, 1870-1932. Br J Psychiatry. 2001;179:550-7.
-1010. De Salvo LA. Virginia Woolf: The impact of childhood sexual abuse on her life and work. Boston: Beacon; 1989. Her half-sister Laura, who spent most of her life at the Priory Hospital Southgate in London, is believed to have had some type of psychosis. Her specific mental illness (or illnesses), however, is yet unknown.66. Bennet M. Virginia Woolf and neuropsychiatry. Netherlands: Springer; 2013. Amongst Virginia’s other siblings, both Vanessa and Adrian appear to have been cyclothymic, and Thoby was known to have hypomanic episodes.66. Bennet M. Virginia Woolf and neuropsychiatry. Netherlands: Springer; 2013. Hence, Virginia’s BD symptoms appear to be strongly linked to her family background.

Virginia’s biological inheritance translated into great risk of developing mental illness. Nevertheless, it could be argued that her disease would have been milder had she not been exposed to childhood traumatic experiences.1111. Williams LC. Virginia Woolf’s history of sexual victimization: a case study in light of current research. Psychology. 2014;5:1151-64. Virginia Woolf was sexually abused by her half siblings, George and Gerald Duckworth, for nine years.66. Bennet M. Virginia Woolf and neuropsychiatry. Netherlands: Springer; 2013. According to De Salvo, “these experiences had spoiled her life before it had fairly begun.”1010. De Salvo LA. Virginia Woolf: The impact of childhood sexual abuse on her life and work. Boston: Beacon; 1989. When she was only six, Gerald molested her while the Stephen family was vacationing in St. Ives, Cornwall. George’s advances would not come until seven years later, after their mother Julia had passed away. The age difference between Virginia and her brothers should be noted - Gerald was 16 years her senior, and George was 15 older. Below is Virginia’s account of Gerald’s first sexual move towards her.1212. Woolf V. Moments of being: a collection of autobiographical writing. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace; 1985.

There was a slab outside the dining room door for standing dishes upon. Once, when I was very small, Gerald Duckworth lifted me onto this, and as I sat there he began to explore my body. I can remember the feel of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower. I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But it did not stop. His hand explored my private parts too. I remember resenting, disliking it - what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling? It must have been strong, since I still recall it. This seems to show that a feeling about certain parts of the body; how they must not be touched; how it is wrong to allow them to be touched; must be instinctive. (Poole,1313. Poole R. The unknown Virginia Woolf. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University; 1996. p. 25)

Virginia Woolf also left written accounts about how, after the death of her mother Julia, her half-brother George would enter her room and enthusiastically lie next to her and take her into his arms. She later wrote about his “violent guts of passion,” and that his behavior was “a little better than a brute’s.”1313. Poole R. The unknown Virginia Woolf. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University; 1996. In “22 Hyde Park Gate,” Virginia describes George sexual advances towards her. Virginia noticed that someone had entered her room as she was lying in bed trying to sleep. Her account is as follows:

Who? I cried.

Don’t be frightened, George whispered. And don’t turn on the light, oh beloved!

Beloved - and flung himself on my bed, and took me in his arms. (Poole,1313. Poole R. The unknown Virginia Woolf. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University; 1996. p. 111)

De Salvo suggested that1414. De Salvo L. Writing as a way of healing: how telling our stories transforms our lives. Boston: Beacon; 2002. Virginia Woolf later attempted to “heal her childhood wounds” through writing.1414. De Salvo L. Writing as a way of healing: how telling our stories transforms our lives. Boston: Beacon; 2002.

Such issues may have emerged in her writing of the novel The Wise Virgins, which was started during her honeymoon. The novel’s main character, Camilla, bears enormous resemblance to Virginia Woolf in her attitudes towards sex, such as fear and sometimes aversion to it.1515. Woolf L. The wise Virgins. London: Persephone; 2003. Even so, Virginia hoped to have children. Shortly after her wedding, Virginia was heartbroken when her doctors advised her to refrain from motherhood on account of her ongoing mental health issues.1616. Lee H. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage; 1990.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, early trauma is associated with increased number of suicide attempts in patients with BD.22. Leverich GS, Post RM. Course of bipolar illness after history of childhood trauma. Lancet. 2006;367:1040-2. Virginia Woolf’s first suicide attempt happened when she was 22 years old, after her father’s death.1616. Lee H. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage; 1990. Having withstood her mother’s and Stella’s death, her father’s departure triggered an even greater depression that seemed too much to bear for someone who was already in the doldrums. She tried to jump out of a window in the family’s home in London. Fortunately, the window she jumped from was not high enough to cause her any major injuries. She was hospitalized for a short period but soon returned home.1717. Panken S. Virginia Woolf and the lust of creation: a psychoanalytic exploration. Albany: The State of New York Press; 1987. Her second suicide attempt was very serious and happened in 1913, when Virginia was 31 years old.1818. Franklin I. Virginia Woolf’s veronal overdose, 1913 [Internet]. 2014 Dec 02 [cited 2016 Mar 04]. wellcomehistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/the-near-death-of-the-novelist/
wellcomehistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/02...
This time she attempted suicide by taking 100 g of barbital. She would have died if it weren’t for Leonard and two physicians, Henry Head and Geoffrey Keynes, who came to the home and pumped Virginia's stomach with a pump borrowed from St. Bartholomew's hospital. Henry Head was an English neurologist whom Virginia was supposed to see in London, and Geoffrey was the brother of an acquaintance from the Bloomsbury Group who lived in Brunswick Square. Throughout her recovery, her writing and reading were rationed, and she was only considered fully recovered in August 1914.

From 1910 to 1913 Virginia was hospitalized several times for suicide attempts, and was submitted to “rest cure therapy” at a “private nursing home for women” in Twickenham.1919. Woolf E. The joyful, gossipy and absurd private life of Virginia Woolf [Internet]. Newsweek. 2015 [cited 2016 Mar 04]. newsweek.com/2015/02/27/joyful-gossipy-and-absurd-private-life-virginia-woolf-306438.html
newsweek.com/2015/02/27/joyful-gossipy-a...
,2020. Mulvihill ME. Dancing on hot bricks - Virginia Woolf in 1941 [Internet]. Rapportage. [cited 2016 Mar 04]. carlkohler.se/pdf/Mulvihill-Woolf-PDF.pdf
carlkohler.se/pdf/Mulvihill-Woolf-PDF.pd...
The therapy consisted mainly in gaining weight, sleeping, and “rest of the intellect.” Virginia loathed her institutionalizations but somehow agreed that they were her only way towards recovering her sanity. Virginia went through several severe depressive and manic episodes until she committed suicide. Many of the episodes preceded the release of her books, always a cause of anxiety and self-doubt. Leonard often had her “institutionalized at home,” cared by one or several nurses, depending on the severity of the episode.2121. Szasz T. My madness saved me: the madness and the marriage of Virginia Woolf. New Jersey: Transaction; 2006. It seems that Virginia had decided to end her life, and some scholars believe she tried to drown herself one week before finally “succeeding at it.” One evening, she arrived home soaking wet after a failed suicide attempt. According to Leonard, she looked ill and shaken but she told him that she had slipped into a dyke.1616. Lee H. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage; 1990.

One week later, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with heavy stones and headed to the River Ouse to never return. She died at the age of 59. At that time the couple was living at Hogarth House in Roadmell, East Sussex. She had been severely depressed. Despite Leonard’s attempts to keep her sane (he himself was also depressed), and despite the involvement of Dr. Octavia Wilberforce’s, his efforts were, sadly, of no use.

Towards the end of her life, Virginia’s mental health deteriorated even further. According to her biographer’s account, she became suspicious, even paranoid.1616. Lee H. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage; 1990.,1717. Panken S. Virginia Woolf and the lust of creation: a psychoanalytic exploration. Albany: The State of New York Press; 1987. She started to doubt her publisher’s praise of her soon to be published Between the Acts. She wanted to revise it further, but mentions in her diaries that she felt that she could no longer write, that she was “losing her art.”2222. Bell AO, Mcneillie A. The diary of Virginia Woolf. Orlando: Mariner; 1979. Apparently there was some truth in her editor’s lack of certainty towards her work.2323. Reese SJ. Recasting social values in the work of Virginia Woolf. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University; 1996. It is known that some of her publishers started to become ambivalent towards her work, which was a major blow to her ego. Her inability to read and concentrate, and also to perform “the simplest of tasks” such as holding a pen for long periods time was clearly unbearable to her.2323. Reese SJ. Recasting social values in the work of Virginia Woolf. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University; 1996. Throughout the last years of her life, symptoms of mood episodes typical of BD occurred increasingly more frequently, despite the fact that they were not new to Virginia. The episodes would start with sleeplessness, progressing to hearing voices.

The course of BD is highly variable, but it seems that Virginia Woolf presented a pernicious course, associated with hospitalizations, suicidal behavior, and cognitive impairment. Recently, the term neuroprogression was proposed in order to explain why a subset of BD patients might experience a worsening of their mental health over time.2424. Berk M, Kapczinski F, Andreazza AC, Dean OM, Giorlando F, Maes M, et al. Pathways underlying neuroprogression in bipolar disorder: focus on inflammation, oxidative stress and neurotrophic factors. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2011;35:804-17. Neuroprogression has been hypothesized as the pathological rewiring of the brain that takes place in parallel with cognitive, functional, and clinical deterioration in the course of BD.44. Passos IC, Mwangi B, Vieta E, Berk M, Kapczinski F. Areas of controversy in neuroprogression in bipolar disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Apr 21., doi: 10.1111/acps.12581 [Epub ahead of print]
10.1111/acps.12581...
In this sense, reductions in the volume of the fronto-limbic system and cognitive impairment have been reported as a function of previous manic episodes and hospitalizations.2525. Strakowski SM, DelBello MP, Zimmerman ME, Getz GE, Mills NP, Ret J, et al. Ventricular and periventricular structural volumes in first- versus multiple-episode bipolar disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2002;159:1841-7.

26. Mwangi B, Wu MJ, Cao B, Passos IC, Lavagnino L, Keser Z, et al. Individualized prediction and clinical staging of bipolar disorders using neuroanatomical biomarkers. Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2016;1:186-94.

27. Cao B, Passos IC, Mwangi B, Bauer IE, Zunta-Soares GB, Kapczinski F, et al. Hippocampal volume and verbal memory performance in late-stage bipolar disorder. J Psychiatr Res. 2016;73:102-7.
-2828. Rosa AR, Magalhães PVS, Czepielewski L, Sulzbach MV, Goi PD, Vieta E, et al. Clinical staging in bipolar disorder: focus on cognition and functioning. J Clin Psychiatry. 2014;75:e450-6. In addition, it has been proposed that trauma and number of mood episodes may show sensitization to themselves and cross-sensitization to one another, leading to residual vulnerability to further occurrences of mood episodes and faster illness progression.2929. Post RM, Kalivas P. Bipolar disorder and substance misuse: pathological and therapeutic implications of their comorbidity and cross-sensitisation. Br J Psychiatry. 2013;202:172-6. The progression of Woolf’s BD seems to fit the model proposed by the hypothesis of neuroprogression - this is supported by some of her final diary entries and the suicide note she left to Leonard:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of these terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. (Glendinning,3030. Glendinning V. Leonard Woolf: a biography. Berkeley: Counterpoint; 2008. p. 323)

Acknowledgements

ICP is supported by a scholarship from Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES), Brazil. FK and MK-S are research fellows from Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq).

References

  • 1
    Craddock N, Sklar P. Genetics of bipolar disorder. Lancet. 2013;381:1654-62.
  • 2
    Leverich GS, Post RM. Course of bipolar illness after history of childhood trauma. Lancet. 2006;367:1040-2.
  • 3
    Jansen K, Cardoso TA, Fries GR, Branco JC, Silva RA, Kauer-Sant'Anna M, et al. Childhood trauma, family history, and their association with mood disorders in early adulthood. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Jan 30., doi: 10.1111/acps.12551 [Epub ahead of print]
    » 10.1111/acps.12551
  • 4
    Passos IC, Mwangi B, Vieta E, Berk M, Kapczinski F. Areas of controversy in neuroprogression in bipolar disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2016 Apr 21., doi: 10.1111/acps.12581 [Epub ahead of print]
    » 10.1111/acps.12581
  • 5
    Caramagno TC. The flight of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California; 1992.
  • 6
    Bennet M. Virginia Woolf and neuropsychiatry. Netherlands: Springer; 2013.
  • 7
    Bell Q. Virginia Woolf: a biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1972.
  • 8
    Beard G. Neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion. Boston Med Surg J. 1869;80:217-21.
  • 9
    Taylor RE. Death of neurasthenia and its psychological reincarnation: a study of neurasthenia at the National Hospital for the relief and cure of the paralysed and epileptic, Queen Square, London, 1870-1932. Br J Psychiatry. 2001;179:550-7.
  • 10
    De Salvo LA. Virginia Woolf: The impact of childhood sexual abuse on her life and work. Boston: Beacon; 1989.
  • 11
    Williams LC. Virginia Woolf’s history of sexual victimization: a case study in light of current research. Psychology. 2014;5:1151-64.
  • 12
    Woolf V. Moments of being: a collection of autobiographical writing. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace; 1985.
  • 13
    Poole R. The unknown Virginia Woolf. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University; 1996.
  • 14
    De Salvo L. Writing as a way of healing: how telling our stories transforms our lives. Boston: Beacon; 2002.
  • 15
    Woolf L. The wise Virgins. London: Persephone; 2003.
  • 16
    Lee H. Virginia Woolf. New York: Vintage; 1990.
  • 17
    Panken S. Virginia Woolf and the lust of creation: a psychoanalytic exploration. Albany: The State of New York Press; 1987.
  • 18
    Franklin I. Virginia Woolf’s veronal overdose, 1913 [Internet]. 2014 Dec 02 [cited 2016 Mar 04]. wellcomehistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/the-near-death-of-the-novelist/
    » wellcomehistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/the-near-death-of-the-novelist/
  • 19
    Woolf E. The joyful, gossipy and absurd private life of Virginia Woolf [Internet]. Newsweek. 2015 [cited 2016 Mar 04]. newsweek.com/2015/02/27/joyful-gossipy-and-absurd-private-life-virginia-woolf-306438.html
    » newsweek.com/2015/02/27/joyful-gossipy-and-absurd-private-life-virginia-woolf-306438.html
  • 20
    Mulvihill ME. Dancing on hot bricks - Virginia Woolf in 1941 [Internet]. Rapportage. [cited 2016 Mar 04]. carlkohler.se/pdf/Mulvihill-Woolf-PDF.pdf
    » carlkohler.se/pdf/Mulvihill-Woolf-PDF.pdf
  • 21
    Szasz T. My madness saved me: the madness and the marriage of Virginia Woolf. New Jersey: Transaction; 2006.
  • 22
    Bell AO, Mcneillie A. The diary of Virginia Woolf. Orlando: Mariner; 1979.
  • 23
    Reese SJ. Recasting social values in the work of Virginia Woolf. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University; 1996.
  • 24
    Berk M, Kapczinski F, Andreazza AC, Dean OM, Giorlando F, Maes M, et al. Pathways underlying neuroprogression in bipolar disorder: focus on inflammation, oxidative stress and neurotrophic factors. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2011;35:804-17.
  • 25
    Strakowski SM, DelBello MP, Zimmerman ME, Getz GE, Mills NP, Ret J, et al. Ventricular and periventricular structural volumes in first- versus multiple-episode bipolar disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2002;159:1841-7.
  • 26
    Mwangi B, Wu MJ, Cao B, Passos IC, Lavagnino L, Keser Z, et al. Individualized prediction and clinical staging of bipolar disorders using neuroanatomical biomarkers. Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2016;1:186-94.
  • 27
    Cao B, Passos IC, Mwangi B, Bauer IE, Zunta-Soares GB, Kapczinski F, et al. Hippocampal volume and verbal memory performance in late-stage bipolar disorder. J Psychiatr Res. 2016;73:102-7.
  • 28
    Rosa AR, Magalhães PVS, Czepielewski L, Sulzbach MV, Goi PD, Vieta E, et al. Clinical staging in bipolar disorder: focus on cognition and functioning. J Clin Psychiatry. 2014;75:e450-6.
  • 29
    Post RM, Kalivas P. Bipolar disorder and substance misuse: pathological and therapeutic implications of their comorbidity and cross-sensitisation. Br J Psychiatry. 2013;202:172-6.
  • 30
    Glendinning V. Leonard Woolf: a biography. Berkeley: Counterpoint; 2008.

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    14 June 2016
  • Date of issue
    Jan-Mar 2017

History

  • Received
    14 Mar 2016
  • Accepted
    29 Mar 2016
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