A Thousand Acres is a terrible book by Jane Smiley. It is a "great american novel" and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Fiction, the book is based on an imaginary character. This imaginary character, among with others in the book, have what some consider to be obvious abnormal psychological tendencies.

The Psychology of A Thousand Acres


The character Virginia Cook in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, meets the criteria for borderline personality disorder (301.83), with added complications from sexual abuse of child (995.53) as another condition that may be a focus of clinical attention, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition. Virginia satisfies five criteria for borderline personality disorder, which meets the requirement of the disorder. Additionally, she suffers from problems related to abuse or neglect, specifically the sexual abuse of the child (where the focus of clinical attention is on the victim.) Still, an argument could be made that Virginia suffers from a “mixed personality” because she fulfills some of the criteria for paranoid personality disorder (301.0), although not enough for a full diagnosis.

One criterion for borderline personality disorder is entertaining “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” Virginia displays such activity throughout the book by not being able to decide whether her intense feelings for the people in her surroundings are love or hate. With he sister Rose, at some points Virginia sees her as her only confident, and in fact an essential companion in life. “Mostly I saw Rose as my savior.” Yet at another point her strong feelings for Rose become hateful and she attempts to murder her. “My hatred of Rose burned steadily in spite of everything that brought us together.” Virginia’s father, Lawrence, has a similar role in her life. Her views towards him often flip-flopped between positive and negative feelings. At some points she allies with Rose against their father. “She said, ‘…United front, right?’‘Right.'” At other times, despite this pact with her sister against their father, she felt like she wanted to have a positive relationship with him. “’I just want to get along, Daddy. I don’t want to fight. Don’t fight with me?’” This type of persistent instability shows that Virginia satisfies the second criterion for borderline personality disorder.

Virginia also suffers from an “identity disturbance: markedly and persistent unstable self-image or sense of self.” She finds herself unattractive and felt that others were thinking negative things about her via the image of her body. “It seemed like my father could just look out of his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable.” At other times she had her own negative feelings about her body. “I was uncomfortably conscious of my whole body, from the awkward way that the shafts of my hair were thrusting out of my scalp to my feet, which felt dirty as well as cold.” Virginia’s unstable self-image satisfies the third criterion for borderline personality disorder.

The DSM-IV calls for “affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood” and this manifested itself in Virginia in the form of anxiety and irritability. She often found herself reacting this way. “I do remember my hands trembling so violently as I tried to do the dishes that a plate broke against the faucet and I had to stop and sit down. Then I remember almost throwing up sitting there.” At other times, she experienced similar sensations. “I opened my purse and found some money. I noticed my hand trembling.” This sort of anxiety and irritability shows Virginia meets the sixth criterion for borderline personality disorder.

One of the criteria for borderline personality disorder is experiencing “chronic feelings of emptiness.” Virginia expresses this type of feeling when she explains how her father made her feel like she physically did not exist. “One thing Daddy took from me when he came in my room at night was the memory of my body.” Virginia also felt her father extinguished her mentality. “When my father asserted his point of view, mine vanished. Not even I could remember it.” These feelings of emptiness culminate in her satisfying the seventh criterion for borderline personality disorder.

Virginia also experienced “severe dissociative symptoms” throughout her life. She viewed thoughts in her head as being actual objects that weighed on her being. “I feared how I would have to store the thoughts in my brain, plastic explosives or radioactive wastes that would mutate or even wipe out everything else in there.” At another time, Virginia experienced a dissociation when listening to Rose. “I don’t remember any of what she said. It was as if she were just moving her lips.” When contemplating her new life in the city, Virginia expresses a dissociative notion about how she viewed her life. “…I forgot I was still alive.” Virginia’s persistent dissociative symptoms meet the ninth criteria for borderline personality disorder.

Still, a case could be made that Virginia suffers from some symptoms of paranoid personality disorder, although she does not seem to meet all the sufficient criteria. For example, the DSM-IV suggests those with the disorder are “reluctant to confide in others because of unwarranted fear that the information will be used maliciously against them.” Virginia often withholds information from others for just this reason. She hung up on a therapist on the phone and then refused to talk with her pastor because he was “too much himself, too small for his position, too anxious to fit in to our community, too sweaty and dirty and casual and unwise.” She also kept information about her miscarriages from her husband Ty and noted that “pregnancy could become my private project.” At other times she withheld information about her sexual experiences with her father. Although much of Virginia’s activity appeared to be secretive and perhaps paranoid, one would be quick to invoke the “unwarranted” clause of the disorder’s description. The conservative nature of her household, as well as the violent behavior of her father and others in the family suggests that Virginia’s secretive behavior was in fact warranted. Whether her description of her family was exaggerated due to her having paranoid personality disorder, or whether her actions were in fact warranted for her survival cannot be known with only a single description of her situation (offered nonetheless by Virginia herself.)

Compounding Virginia’s personality disorder is a problem related to abuse or neglect In her case, she was the victim of the sexual abuse of a child. “I knew that he had been in there to me, that my father had lain with me on that bed”. This could have led to the development or augmentation of Virginia’s personality disorder.

The character of Virginia Cook meets the criteria for borderline personality disorder with the additional condition of being the victim of sexual abuse of child. Still, Virginia’s specific personality has many characteristics of paranoid personality disorder. Whether the paranoid dimension to her personality is warranted by her lifestyle or part of a disorder cannot be answered with the limited viewpoint offered in the book. Regardless, her borderline personality disorder with a element of sexual abuse still stands.


Jane Smiley. A Thousand Acres.

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