Suicidal Risk Factors in Lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath
by Ida Kodrlová
January 1, 2006
Both Woolf and Plath experienced depression during their life and were hospitalized in mental institutions, but still there is a lot of similar as well as different risk and protective factors in their lives forming the individual course of a suicidal process that led them both to the same final choice of the voluntary death at the age of 30 in case of Plath and at the age of 59 in case of Woolf. Literary works of these authors are not taken into consideration in this paper; the attempt is to look into the biographical data and to track and compare risk and protective factors for suicide in lives of these two creative women.
The study was supported by the Grant Agency of Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic under the project title Life Story and the Artwork, code number IAA 7025402. The author would like to thank Ivo Čermák and Pavel Machotka for the helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.
In this paper, I would like to describe similarities and differences in the lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath—the two authors who committed suicide and who never stopped to fascinate their readers, critics, biographers and other people who have studied their art and lives. Woolf and Plath both experienced depression during their lives and were hospitalized in mental institutions, but still there is a lot of different risk and protective factors in their lives co-forming the individual course of the suicidal process that led them both to the same final choice of the voluntary death at the age of 30 in case of Plath and at the age of 59 in case of Woolf. Literary works and inner conflicts of these authors are not taken into consideration in this paper, the attempt is to look into the biographical data trying to track and compare risk and protective factors for suicide in lives of these two creative women.
According to many authors (e.g. Dally, 1999), Virginia Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder. According to Jamison (1993), this disorder - together with depression - accounts for at least three-fourths of all suicides. On the other hand, one of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which was most probably the disorder that would be diagnosed today in case of Sylvia Plath, is the chronic suicidality. One in ten patients with borderline personality disorder can be expected to complete suicide, which is a rate similar to the patients with major mood disorders (Paris, 2002). If judging according to their diagnosis, we might say that both Plath and Woolf were in a similar suicide risks. Still, Woolf lived till her 59th year and Plath only till her 30th. How come? We might say that Sylvia Plath most probably had experienced two major depressive episodes in 1953 and in 1962/1963 and the combination of the borderline disorder with depression made her more vulnerable. On the other hand, there were a lot of other risk factors for suicide present in the life of Virginia Woolf. In this paper I try to examine these factors in an attempt to describe the vulnerability of these two distinguished authors in an attempt to estimate the suicidal risk that brought them to their premature deaths.
2. Protective Factors for Suicide
First two protective factors for suicide are "Effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance use disorders" and "Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for helpseeking". From the perspective of our time, the clinical care provided to Woolf and Plath would be most probably considered as inefficient, but from the perspective of the first half of the last century and the 1950s, it might have been perfectly appropriate. Modern psychopharmacology was not yet providing drugs to halt depression and new methods in psychotherapy were just being developed at the time of Virginia Woolf’s life. Although from the early 1920’s Virginia and Leonard Woolf were Sigmund Freud’s publishers and Virginia’s brother, Adrian and his wife Karin Costelloe were both qualified psychoanalysts, Virginia Woolf never sought the help of a psychoanalyst and rather consulted so-called "nerve specialists" (Leaska, 1998). In comparison to Woolf, Sylvia Plath had better access to psychotherapy. After her first suicide attempt in 1953 she met her therapist Dr. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse Beuscher (Dr. Nolan from The Bell Jar), with whom, as Paul Alexander (in Maroda, n.d.) wrote, she stayed in more or less constant contact from September 1953 until February 1963 either by mail or by telephone.
The evaluation of the third protective factor—"Restricted access to highly lethal means of suicide" depends on a definition of the words "highly lethal". Are only fire guns highly lethal or can also kitchen knives or sleeping pills be considered as highly lethal? Both, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath tried to use means with the similar lethal risk (drowning, pills, gas) to commit suicide, but they were in the same risk as the majority of population that use psychopharmacs considering this protective factor for suicide.
The fourth factor—"Strong connections to family and community support" is slightly connected to the above mentioned third factor, since when a suicidal person is surrounded by caring people, it gives him/her less space for the act of suicide than when he/she is living alone. Leonard Woolf was for example also watching over the dosages of Virginia’s barbiturate Veronal (prescribed to her by Dr. Savage) keeping it in a locked case so as she could not abuse it. With Leonard sand other supporting figures at her side, this protective factor seems to have played a great role in Virginia Woolf’s life. Sylvia Plath was from this point of view at much more risk, since she lived alone with her kids at the end of her life and might have felt kind of isolated the last year prior to her suicide. Also during her life with Ted Hughes Sylvia did not receive the support comparable to that Leonard Woolf provided to Virginia. Leonard (unlike Ted who let Sylvia to take her own responsibility over herself) took his wife’s illness so seriously, that apart from other things like supervising her eating habits, he kept records of her menstrual periods for ten years after the suicide attempt because Virginia suffered from amenorrhea. This was really "an unusual activity for a husband in Edwardian times" Ingram states (n.d.). The relationship between Leonard and Virginia itself is so interesting, that it became a subject of few psychoanalytically oriented books or their chapters.
The fifth protective factor for suicide—"Support through ongoing medical and mental health care relationships" was not sufficiently evolved in the lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as was already mentioned above and will be discussed further below. Although Virginia Woolf was in the care of various specialists for most of her life, she was never treated in psychotherapy. "Woolf was attended by psychiatrists [. . .] at various times between 1904 and 1915," (Ingram, n.d.) her first psychiatrist was Sir George H. Savage (1842-1921) who was more a family friend than a doctor. Dr. Savage and Dr. Seton were family physicians to the Stephen family throughout their lives. Another psychiatrists consulted by both Leonard and Virginia was Dr. Craig, first consulted by Leonard in 1913 over the possibility of childbearing. He never asked about Virginia’s feelings, concentrated on her weight and sleeping habits and saw fatigue as major cause of mental illness that he cured by hypnotics (Dally, 1999). Ingram (n.d.) thinks that Dr. Craig was the main model for the doctors in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. On the other hand, Dally (1999) sees Sir William Bradshaw's character, who, as Woolf (1990) writes, "made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion", as a conglomerate of Dr. Craig and Dr. Savage. Dr. Craig was first called in after Virginia’s overdose in 1913, then during her 1915 breakdown and was consulted for his advice until his death in 1935 (Ingram, n.d.). There is no record that Woolf would see some other psychiatrists after 1920 (Dally, 1999). In 1937 Leonard first consulted Dr. Wilberforce, a pioneer woman doctor, who used to live with an actress Elizabeth Robins (Dally, 1999; Ingram, n.d.). When Elizabeth left to the US in 1940, Virginia and Octavia become more acquainted (Dally, 1999) and on the 27th of March, 1941 Virginia was persuaded to consult Octavia. Nevertheless, Virginia would not answer Octavia’s questions frankly and was 'generally resistive' (Ingram, n.d.). The following day she killed herself.
While Virginia Woolf was mainly treated by barbiturates and hypnotics and for most of her life consulted only male doctors with specific views on gender roles, Sylvia Plath was for most of her life in touch with her therapist Ruth Beuscher. However, Sylvia Plath was one of the first patients of Ruth Beuscher who still had not gone through analytic training and did not have her personal experience with therapy at the time she started to treat Sylvia (Maroda, n.d.). Plath was first hospitalized in 1953 in Framingham Hospital in Wellesley after her suicidal attempt. Then she was immediately moved to the closed psychiatric wing of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where she undertook insulin shock treatment before being moved to McLean hospital, where she was given ECT and where she met Ruth for the first time. After returning to Smith College, Sylvia kept visiting Ruth in Boston at least monthly (in Maroda, n.d.). Ruth supported Plath to attend Fulbright Scholarship program in Cambridge in 1956. There without monthly visits to Ruth, Plath developed physical as well as emotional symptoms and in January she reached the point when she had to visit a psychiatrist finally. Another period of therapy with Ruth was in 1958-59. The problem was, that the relationship between Ruth and Sylvia transformed into the friendship more then an effective therapeutic relationship over the time. Ruth even accepted an invitation for the tea with Sylvia and Ted in their apartment during Sylvia’s treatment (in Maroda, n.d.). Also Ruth have not tried enough to support Sylvia in finding another therapist available for face to face sessions during the times Sylvia stayed in England.
While treatment of both of these women were entirely different, it still reflects similar problems. Both Virginia and Sylvia had similarly negative relationship towards their male doctors and became too close with their female doctors. Both Woolf and Plath, with their therapists Octavia and Ruth, crossed the borders of therapeutic relationships.
The sixth protective factor for suicide is described as "Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution and nonviolent handling of disputes". As for Plath, it is reported by her biographers (e.g. Butscher, 1976), that she had problems to control her anger, tried to suppress it, thus transferring it into the depression and then bursting into anger in an inappropriate manner. Virginia Woolf on the other hand could be openly rude at times, but she never experienced the difficulty in communication with others (Ingram, n.d.). She used to hide her depression and her friends remember her as a nice and cheerful companion. With the help from Leonard, Virginia seems to have been skillful in hiding her inner conflicts. Nevertheless, there is not enough records about handling of interpersonal conflicts by both Plath and Woolf and thus it is hard to judge this factor retrospectively.
The last protective factor for suicide—"Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self preservation" was not present in lives of Woolf or Plath. Neither Plath, nor Woolf were religious. On the contrary, in the period when Woolf must have been considering suicide her friends and family talked about possibility of suicide as a solution to the war situation, since German troops were approaching the area where Woolfs lived.
3. Risk factors for suicide: biopsychosocial
Risk factors for suicide can be divided into three groups of factors—biopsychosocial, environmental and sociocultural. The first of biopsychosocial factors—Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders (depression), schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and certain personality disorders—is of great importance, since both of the authors had a diagnosis of having the disorders with a high risk of suicide. I haven’t found any record to support the presence of the second factor—Alcohol and other substance use disorders—in either the life of Virginia Woolf, or in the life of Sylvia Plath, although a doctor who treated Virginia at the end of her life was suspicious about Virginia’s abuse of alcohol (Bond, 1989).
The third factor—Hopelessness—probably played an important role in the lives of both Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Both of them experienced feelings of hopelessness at the very end of their lives. Virginia Woolf had written in her suicide note to Leonard: "I shall never get over this; and I am wasting your life" (Woolf in Dally, 1998, p. 182). She also felt her writing was useless because in war people do not take time to read fiction. Since she started to hear voices she might have also felt that this time the episode of psychotic depression would become so severe that she might have never recovered. On the other hand, Sylvia Plath felt she had written her best poetry just before her suicide. Unlike Virginia who had Leonard at her side till last days of her life, Sylvia felt great hopelessness over losing Ted Hughes. For Plath, Ted was an object confirming her own value and identity and such an object-loss may facilitate the suicidal process.
The fourth biopsychosocial factor is described as Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies. Virginia Woolf could be sometimes seen as hostile and highly critical rather then aggressive. Quite the opposite, she opposed male aggression that made her angry and frightened (Dally, 1998). At the time when Leonard proposed to her, she criticized him as violent and savage (Dally, 1998), but this can be considered more as a defense against the fear from sex then aggression, also, during Leonard’s disputes with his employees, she sometimes criticized him as ‘a tub-thumper, intolerant, arrogant‘ (Dally, 1998, p. 148). Aggression plays a great and important role in the poetry written during the last months of Sylvia Plath’s life, in her poetry, the aggression is oriented towards formerly idealized objects—her father and her husband and finally in her life, as a result of the intrapersonal struggle the aggression might have been in accord with former psychoanalytic theories turned inwards, toward Sylvia Plath herself.
Regarding the fifth factor—History of trauma or abuse or family maltreatment—bereavement before ages 13-15 (Cutter, n.d.) is considered as a traumatizing factor. Virginia Woolf’s mother died when Virginia was 13 years old and Sylvia Plath’s father died when she was 8. Virginia Woolf has also confessed that she had been sexually abused by her half-brothers—she said, that 12 years older Gerald explored her private parts when she was 6 and that her 14 years older step-brother George Duckworth used to caressed her in her bed after her mother died. Virginia made them kind of responsible for her frigidity with Leonard, but some authors as Bond (1989) question the reliability of the reports of the supposed abuse or the justifiability of calling "fraternal affection" (Leaska, 1998) like that abuse.
Regarding the sixth factor—Some major physical illnesses—both Virginia Woolf as well as Sylvia Plath did not suffer from any major physical illness, although Sylvia Plath had experienced one miscarriage (1961), an appendectomy and suffered from chronic sinus infections. Virginia Woolf on the other hand experienced influenza and various physical problems in the winter of 1922/1923. When influenza occurred, in the next 8 months one symptom followed another and specialists were sought to treat the physical illness. These "specialists" pulled out Virginia’s three healthy teeth since they fought that septic infection was the source of the trouble, then swabbed and grew microbes from her throat and made them into a vaccine, which was then injected into her, then they fought it might be tuberculosis, vaccinated a guinea pig with her spittle and it died, but not from TBC, finally also heart and lung disease were discussed (Dally, 1998). Thus it seems that physical symptoms of Virginia Woolf as well as Sylvia Plath’s chronic sinus conditions had a psychological trigger rather than physical.
The seventh factor is Previous suicide attempt. As far as we know from the biographies, Virginia Woolf first attempted suicide on September 9, 1913 when she was 31 years old (i.e. one year older then Plath at the time of her suicidal death) taking 100 grains of Veronal (barbiturate) pills from the case that Leonard usually kept locked (Ingram, n.d.). The attempt was almost successful. It is also possible that Virginia tried to kill herself by drowning few days prior to her suicide, when she returned home soaking wet, claiming that she had "slipped and fallen into one of the dykes" (Dally, 1998, p. 180). Sylvia Plath attempted suicide for the first time in 1953 when she was 20 years old, also swallowing sleeping pills.
The last eight factor is Family history of suicide. In Virginia Woolf’s family there is a long and rich history of mental illnesses, with her cousin James Stephen having bipolar disorder and committing suicide when he was 33 years old. We do not know if there was a history of suicide in Sylvia Plath’s family, although she perceived the death of her father as suicide, since he avoided seeing the doctor for such a long time that he died of his diabetes.
4. Risk Factors for Suicide: Environmental
The first factor is Job or financial loss. Both Woolf and Plath suffered from poor financial situations at the end of their lives. Woolf poor finances were due to the war, Plath’s were due to her staying at home with her two children.
The second factor—Relational or social loss played an important role in the suicidal development of Sylvia Plath’s life. Because of the death of her father in her early age, Sylvia was very vulnerable to abandonment. When Ted Hughes left her for his mistress Assia Wevill and Sylvia stayed alone with her kids, she tried to cope and resolve her situation through poetry. Nevertheless, at the end she was driven into depression and committed suicide. Virginia Woolf on the other hand lost a lot of her close friends the last decade prior to her death and felt, as Bond (1989) wrote, that Leonard might be in love with some other woman. However, she still have been surrounded throughout her life with caring significant others who supported her and were able to serve as mirroring others sustaining Virginia’s will to live.
The risk within the third factor—Easy access to lethal means—was already discussed above within the protective factors for suicide. The fourth factor is Local clusters of suicide that have a contagious influence. Series of deaths appeared during the war in Virginia Woolf’s surroundings. In last ten years of her life, her friends Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry and her half brother George Duckworth and many others died and her nephew Julian Bell was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Leonard as well as many other friends of Woolfs became rather pessimistic in 1940 and talked also openly of suicide. However, when Leonard told Virginia in the summer of 1940, that he had enough ‘petrol in the garage for suicide should Hitler win’—Virginia resisted and responded: ‘I don’t want the garage to see the end of me.’ (Dally, 1998, p. 170). On the other hand, I haven’t managed to find any documentation on occurrence of suicides that might have contagious influence for Sylvia Plath.
5. Risk Factors for Suicide—Sociocultural
The first of sociocultural factors of suicide—Lack of social support and sense of isolation —plays an important role in the lives of both authors. Although Virginia Woolf always had good social support, that have already been described above, she felt isolated in the suburbs where she lived at the end of her life. In comparison to Sylvia Plath, whose children for some time were protecting and preventing her from suicide, Virginia Woolf had no children to "live for". But till her last days, there were many caring people to keep Virginia away from suicidal thoughts. Sylvia Plath on the other hand felt a distinct lack of social support at the end of her life. She in fact, felt abandoned. Also during her life she did not have as supportive relationships with her mother Aurelia Plath and with her brother Warren as Virginia had with her parents and siblings.
The last four sociocultural factors are: Stigma associated with help-seeking behavior; Barriers to accessing health care, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment; Certain cultural and religious beliefs - for instance, the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma; Exposure to, including through the media, and influence of others who have died by suicide. I will not discuss these four factors in details, since the data found in the biographies that could refer to them are rather hypothetical or since I have written about them already within the above mentioned factors, such was the belief of Woolf’s friends that suicide might serve as an acceptable response to war or that Sylvia Plath was not encouraged by her therapist Ruth Beuscher to attend other therapists when not living in Boston and thus without the possibility to visit Ruth in person etc.
As I have just demonstrated, it is possible to find the same, yet different risk factors for suicide in the life of Virginia Woolf and in the life of Sylvia Plath. What I have no time to touch upon during this solely biographic presentation is the question of the role of creativity and art in the suicidal process. Both of these women were great artists with high mastery of literary methods, but the question is what the drives behind their creations were. The art can be understood as a pure aesthetic entity if we try to understand it separately from the personality of its author, but on the other hand, art can serve also as a means for coping with the individuals’ life events and problems.
What was important for both Woolf as well as for Plath was writing for an audience for it is the audience that can confirm the author’s identity. This might be interpreted with the use of Lacan’s concept of desire for the "other" that is to give love, be close and serve to confirm subject’s existence and integrate it. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1940 (In Leaska, 1998, p. 424): "It’s odd to feel that one’s writing in a vacuum—no one will read it...the audience has gone." And just 15 days before her death she added: "It’s difficult, I find, to write. No audience. No private stimulus, only this outer roar." There is a difference between Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. They both longed for public approval for their identity as writers, however, unlike Virginia Woolf, who felt there was nobody to write for at the end of her life during the roar of World War II and felt her writing is useless, Sylvia Plath felt she had written the best poems of her life that would be read after she was gone. Hence, the drive for external confirmation being the same, the feeling about the writings created at the end of their lives (Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel) different. As if from all the protective and risk factors of suicide, the one of the social support, was most important, although Sylvia Plath felt good about her writings at the end of her life, still she has lost that confirming other (i.e. her husband Ted Hughes) and had nobody else who would provide her with the sufficient and efficient care and potentially functioned as the important superego, the role of which Leonard Woolf was taking over throughout the critical moments of Virginia Woolf’s life that lasted twice longer then that of Sylvia Plath.
Also we must take into consideration the style of Woolf’s and Plath’s writings. Virginia Woolf has never written a line of verse and had never been driven to write poetry. "But the decision to write prose and not verse was made without any deliberation," Woolf wrote (In Leaska, 1998, p.331). We know that poets are more vulnerable towards suicide than the writers are (Kaufman, 2001). Why is it so? Kris (1952) argued that artists use the regression to reach the unconscious contents to create new original forms of art. When dealing with such unconscious material, the elaboration of the resulting form (with a critical detachment and use of cognitive abilities) is an important stage in creative process, without it the mind might get entangled into the unconscious associations with possible damaging effects on psyche, resulting even in a suicide. Such a detachment from ones’ work is more difficult when one writes poetry.
Another similarity between the authors is that both Virginia as well as Sylvia had been thinking a lot about their families at the end of their lives. Presumably, Virginia had not read any of Freud’s books until January 28, 1939 when she and Leonard visited a dying Freud in his London apartment. After this visit she begun to read him seriously, "finding much in Freud that was both fascinating and disturbing" (Leaska, 1998, p. 407). It seems that while reading Freud Virginia started to explore the depths of her own unconsciousness in a similar way Plath examined it while writing her Ariel poems and journals. Unfortunately there was no one to help them to rise up to ground and reach stability again at this time, no one who they would be able to turn to. It seems as if at the age of 59 and at the age of 30, both artists reached the point when they thought they had nothing more or better to offer to the readers and felt their illnesses, traumas and injuries are overrunning them. Both were also preoccupied by their dead autocratic fathers. Dr. Octavia Wilberforce whom Virginia was seeing at the end of her life, became convinced together with Leonard that Virginia was "haunted by her father" (Leaska, 1998, p. 434). Sylvia Plath was also haunted by her father as many of her late poems, the often cited of which bears the title "Daddy," prove.
Virginia Woolf experienced severe problems with elaboration of her last novel Between the Acts, which she had rewritten many times without reaching satisfying version of it. Thus we might say that it is possible that in case of Woolf as well as in case of Plath, the ability of elaboration was lost at the end of their lives leaving them in a trap of unconsciousness and probably becoming one of the accompanying factors driving them to the suicide.
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Received: January 1, 2006, Published: January 1, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Ida Kodrlová