Showing posts with label abuse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abuse. Show all posts


On the Double Humiliation of Standing Inside and Outside of the Vernacular

It's humiliating to speak only in code, only in a punished, subaltern idiom; but it's humiliating to stand outside that vernacular, too, and not comprehend it, and feel its disrespect.
Wayne Koestenbaum, Humiliation, pg. 151


Childhood Sexual Abuse and the Binary of Body/Mind in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

In this post by Greig Roselli, Virginia Woolf's fiction is looked at through the lens of childhood sexual abuse.
A photographic portrait of Virginia Woolf as a Child
Virginia Woolf, Childhood Portrait
There rushes at once through my flesh tingling fire,My eyes are deprived of all power of vision,My ears hear nothing by sounds of winds roaring,And all is blackness. -- Sappho
Thick of waist, large of limb, and, save for her hair, fashionable in the tight modern way, she never looked like Sappho, or one of the beautiful young men whose photographs adorned the weekly papers.  She looked what she was ...
-- Virginia Woolf in Between the Acts
But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing -- nothing at all.            -- Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf and Violet Dickinson (Top); Virginia Woolf
     Louise DeSalvo’s book on childhood sexual abuse and Virginia Woolf describes how as a young girl, Virginia Stephen was abused by her half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (children from her mother’s first marriage) -- the extent of which, we do not know much – although much contested and controversial, we do know that something happened to Woolf that deeply marked her as an adolescent, a young woman and throughout her adult years and influenced her subsequent body of writings, essays, and novels, especially.[1]  While not the whole story, the account of abuse by George and Gerald Duckworth is a reliable source we have concerning Virginia Woolf as a sexually abused child and adolescent.  George and Gerald, as recounted in biographical sketches 22 Hyde Park Gate and A Sketch of the Past, abused Virginia until she was in her twenties.[2]  In A Sketch of the Past, she writes that as a child (she was about five years old) Gerald Duckworth, the youngest of the Duckworth boys, lifted her up on a high ledge when she was sick with flu and explored her body, even her private parts (Moments of Being 69).  Woolf would write, reflecting on this incident, how this tarnished her view of her own body and her distaste for mirrors.  In 22 Hyde Park Gate Woolf disturbingly describes (she was a young woman at this time) how George Duckworth crept into her room one night after an evening dinner party and crawled into bed with her; the disturbing part of her retelling is not the actual incident itself, but Woolf’s coy attitude about it, because she knows the scandal it would bring if the society ladies knew she was her half-brother’s lover (Moments of Being )![3]   There is a definite shift in mood from Hyde Park Gate, written at the height of Woolf’s career and A Sketch of the Past written at the end of her life.  The former is separated from the events – as if they were another story, not really happening to her, Virginia – her body being violated – but the latter piece is in touch with the incest that happened, bitterly cognizant of how it disconnected her from her own body, her own freedom to feel and live spontaneously.  This was due in part to the oppressive patriarchy she felt under the ruling monarchy of her father, Leslie Stephen.  The most explicit image of Woolf and the affects of the abused body can be seen in contrasting images of her.  Consider the more beautiful images of Woolf one sees in biographies or in film. Nicole Kidman’s Woolf in the Hours, even with the prosthetic nose is plainly beautiful, but when you notice one photograph (figure 1, top) from 1902 of Woolf in biographies it seems her soul has been dug out of her body; she looks hollow and alone and profoundly insecure, clinging to Violet Dickinson for protection radically contrasted to this photograph from the same year (figure 1, bottom), a profile shot that is highly publicized in books, web sites and magazines about Woolf.[4]
            Of course, it is dangerous and misguided to pinpoint one event as the source for Woolf’s most revealing writings about abuse and the body, for one could point out that the subjugation she felt as a woman – not able to procure a degree from the University like her brothers -- embittered her, as well as the role her mother and father played in her life (for better or worse) – her mother’s illness, her subsequent absences, her father’s patriarchy and then, of course, their deaths, her move to Bloomsbury and her marriage to Leonard Woolf.  
            Psychologists will point out that children who suffer from sexual abuse often express their inchoate feelings and fears in art -- painting and writing.  Controversial even today, research on sexual abuse and children relies on the Rorschach test, the artwork of children, the TAT test, children’s’ own stories and other measures designed to assess whether or not a child has been sexually abused.  There is no universal sorter to determine sexual abuse of a child but most mental health professionals will agree that a child abused “speaks out about the abuse” in ways not always decipherable by language.  It oozes out of them from every corner of their creative side, in their language and their very bodies.  And probably, in this way, as a girl, Virginia Stephen learned to suppress her feelings and memories, possibly not feeling she had a safe space to express her feelings openly – except, save, for her art.  In her writings, perhaps, she explores dimensions of her own coded body – unconsciously or consciously (it doesn’t make a difference) – in a way that was safe for her to express what was going on inside of her.[5]  
            We do not need to know the details of Woolf’s traumatic childhood experiences to find in her novels examples of abused, neglected children and wounded individuals.  Nor do we need evidence that she was actually sexually abused.   The text deconstructs itself, laying bare the unprivileged body in the mess and midst of mind.  DeSalvo mentions that every one of her novels describes a child abandoned, a child ignored, a child at risk, a child abused, a child betrayed (see DeSalvo pg. 14).[6]   In Woolf, there is a pervasive feeling that the very self has been invaded from all sides – the woman questioning her position in society in A Room of One’s Own or a boy bitterly confused by his father’s sharp disavowal of his wishes in To the Lighthouse or a woman’s wish to eradicate her own body for another in Mrs. Dalloway or the androgynous awareness of body that metamorphoses in Orlando.  For fear of being too ambitious, this paper will only focus on one of Woolf’s work, Mrs. Dalloway – not precluding the possibility of applying this thesis to her other works as well.