Not every incestuous relationship is consenting. Some occur as a type of sexual abuse, visited upon the victim by members of their own family. Such was the case of Virginia Woolf who was assaulted by both of her older half-brothers when a child and a young woman- actions which may well have been at the root of the mental health problems Woolf suffered for her whole adult life.
Virginia was born on January 25, 1882, to Julia and Leslie Stephens. Both of her parents had been previously married, and each had children from these earlier relationships. Julia had three other children besides Virginia, her sister Vanessa and their two brothers: George, Stella and Gerald Duckworth. Julia and her new husband were distant parents – which probably explains why they had no idea what was happening with their youngest daughter.
Virginia recorded her incestuous abuse in her diaries and later in her novels and memoirs. The abuse began when she was six, with her eighteen-year-old brother, Gerald. Virginia later recalled in “Moments of Being” how Gerald would stand her in front of a mirror just outside the dining room and explore her private parts. These events had a profound effect on Woolf. They stayed in her memory and left her with an intense distaste for sexual contact.
After the death of their parents, George took over the abuse of Virginia. He was then twenty-nine. She was thirteen. In âReminiscences” which she wrote at age twenty-five, Virginia recalls her initial hero worship for this brother, which declined over the years, taking him from someone thought of “strong and handsome and just” to “little better than a brute.”
It was clear that Virginia felt this abuse bitterly because it made a lie of the person she had believed her brother to be, as much as anything else. She began to satirized George, likening him to a pig.
The effects of sexual abuse by her much older brothers, one at least who had been well-loved, had a profound impact on Virginia. She suffered depression from a very early age, as well as anorexia and body dysmorphia. On her marriage, the strain brought on by her distaste of sex brought about a breakdown. Such illnesses are common amongst abuse victims. In the light of her history, the mental illnesses that blighted Virginia Woolf’s life- but never her writing- can be seen as a direct result of her incestuous abuse.