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Virginia Woolf: a revisionist tale


"Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf," by Irene Coates. Soho Press. 458 pages. $25.

Every suicide haunts with unanswered questions of intent and blame. Until now, the consensus from Virginia Woolf's rich legacy of novels, essays, biographies, letters and diaries was that she was doomed by mental illness despite 30 years of devoted, anguished caretaking by her husband, Leonard. Now we hear that she drowned herself because of his brutal "left brain" oppression, and any "madness" she displayed was a deliberate artistic choice.

At least, this is the case Irene Coates makes -- badly -- in "Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf." A painter and playwright who's "written on the role of the female in biology and genetics" (no scientific credentials are listed), Coates is one of those feminists who give all a bad name, warping the facts with bitterness, stacking fantasies into a pile of "evidence" that's as grainy and blurred as the book's illustrations.

In Coates' cartoon universe, with its "male sun glaring overhead," Virginia is unfailingly pure and good, while Leonard is unremittingly devious and controlling. If he writes that he misses her, it's only guilt-induction; if her words are affectionate, it's just placating -- Coates, who knows best, claims that their daily endearments were loving only "on one level."

The book is riddled with "she would have felt" and "he must have argued" and whole scenes are invented -- including their wedding night, when Virginia "chattered like a terrified monkey" and "Leonard shot his bolt and fell asleep." (Later, she gives him vicious speeches and makes him knock the salt pot onto the dog.)

Coates evades factual niceties with constructions like "then something else occurred (but this is not recorded)" and despite her claim of "extensive research" on brain function, offers all kinds of simplistic hooey about gender incompatibility and people using half their heads at a time.

The book is also lavishly furnished with armchair psychology: We're breezily told, but hardly convinced, that Virginia associated sex with death, that the voices she heard were useful outlets and that no other stressors in her life, from her famous publication anxiety to the Nazi planes rumbling overhead, had any destructive weight compared to Leonard's.

Dismissing Virginia's pre-marital breakdowns and defenestrations, Coates insists that her psychotic hallucinations, anorexic depressions and violent screaming episodes were merely brave, voluntary defenses against "a killer male who wished her dead," since "her 'madness' was a sign of strength rather than weakness." After all, "death itself would have been preferable to being subjugated by a man and losing her creativity."

One wonders whose struggle Coates is actually describing, especially when we learn that, from observing Virginia's life, "we in turn gain the courage that enables us to watch the hard beak of the male left brain pecking into our own flesh and recognize it as a phenomenon that lacks the power to convince us that it is our fault." This stunning image is just one more example of the elastic, self-serving reality Coates creates in this tedious, messy book. By the time she says that "whether anyone else agrees with me I neither know, nor deeply, care" we've already stopped taking her "case" seriously.

Judith Schlesinger, a professor at Pace University, is a psychotherapist who holds a doctorate in psychology. Her last book was a biography on Humphrey Bogart, and she is now working on "Dangerous Joy," a book about creativity, madness and musicians.

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