Depending on your vantage point, Sigmund Freud’s legacy resides somewhere between father of modern psychology and misogynistic addict. As a professional in the field of psychology and a person who benefits from mental health services, I can’t wholly deny his additions to the field. As a feminist, however, my lens considers Freud from a more toxic and destructive angle. This destruction can be seen in his often-overlooked relationship with Virginia Woolf; a relationship that seemingly killed the depressed writer.
Everyone knows Woolf as a brilliant yet tortured writer who committed suicide. When others speak and write of Woolf, it’s often made to sound as if taking her life was her destiny. Frequently, she is discussed in a way that link her painful internal life with her work. People presume her suffering is what allowed her to create. It’s never been a popular notion that creating was what aided Woolf in managing her demons, and perhaps extended her life longer than we know. Woolf lives in our psyche as a morose figment of the Victorian era constructed by century’s worth of folklore and speculation. It has been less explored and under glorified how Woolf spent a great deal of her life trying to discern her psychology and pinpoint the origins of her pain in an attempt to heal.
In 1939 Woolf began a deep dive into her past experiences and family dynamics as a way to make sense of her life and construct an autobiography. She allowed herself to speak openly regarding her childhood abuse and gained insight into her early life by interviewing family and close friends. During this time, she began understanding that her childhood, which was saturated with violence, sexual abuse from her brother, and almost complete emotional neglect from her parents likely contributed to her bouts of depression and “break downs.”
Physicians during this era believed depression, anxiety, and other mental difficulties were due to something being inherently wrong with a person, so Woolf spent her adolescent years being made to feel like a “bad” child from her own family and trusted doctors. As an adult Woolf distanced herself from these notions and began to see the important role her past played in her turbulent emotional life. With a new perspective she started understanding her sadness and breakdowns were not due to a fault in her own psyche, but a manifestation of her upbringing. It’s likely that being able to link her past with her history of depression and anxiety brought Woolf a sense of relief and allowed her to view herself as something other than a broken woman.
Up until 1897 Freud touted the female condition of “hysteria” (ie; trauma/anxiety/depression) as a symptom of his then famous seduction theory. Seduction theory stated that mental difficulties arose in women who experienced early sexual abuse. Essentially, the theory matched Woolf’s own intuitive ideas. However, Freud abandoned the seduction theory in 1923 and began heavily working with the idea of the Oedipus complex, which stated women reporting early childhood sexual abuse were most likely fantasying about the instances. Furthermore, Freud’s updated hypothesis asserted the women wished these events actually occurred, and it was this fantasizing that was neurotic and needed treatment.
It’s unclear why Freud changed his theory so abruptly and in such a dismissive manner. Some have speculated Freud couldn’t accept that seemingly respectable men in Victorian society were capable of the severity and breadth of sexual assaults they were being accused of by female patients. By changing his theory, Freud and other physicians at the time began actively denying women the ability to have their truth heard, adding confusion and mistrust to their lives. Victorian women, including Woolf, were being told not to trust their own memories and intuitions.
As Woolf fastened together the pieces of her life in the form of an autobiography she fell into a deep depression. Spending time reliving and writing about her childhood was emotionally exhausting work. It was during this time she turned to Freud and his writings for comfort. Once Woolf started reading about Freud’s updated theories her depressed state worsened and her sense of self faded. As Woolf scholar Louise DeSalvo wrote in Virginia Woolf: The Impact Of Childhood Sexual Abuse On Her Life And Work, “Reading Freud, in fact, urged her to abandon her own insights into the reasons for her depression and madness.” DeSalvo added, “I believe that it eroded her sense of self. If she was right and Freud was wrong, she was not a madwoman, but a woman whose response to her childhood was appropriate, though painful. But if Freud was right and she was wrong, she was indeed a madwoman…”
Virginia Woolf took her own life not long after a visit with Freud. It’s recorded during the last weeks of her life she was referring to herself as a “madwoman.”
Freud’s work can be directly linked to the death of Woolf. As a professional person and trusted confident he traded in the comfort of his own psyche (the need to not view men as predatory monsters) to the lethal expense of his patients. The suicide rates for women significantly increased starting in 1923 when Freud disregarded his seduction theory through the 1940s when he began relying more on Oedipus complex. Woolf killed herself in 1941. While we don’t have to dismiss the entirety of Freud’s contributions, we should continue to closely examine both sides of his legacy to better understand him, the era, and how these ideas contain to impact our current culture.