VIRGINIA WOOLF The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work By Louise DeSalvo Beacon Press. 372 pp. $22.95 ANY BOOK that begins "Virginia Woolf was a sexually abused child; she was an incest survivor" doesn't mean to mince words. Using psychoanalytic methods, Louise DeSalvo focuses on the suffocating environment created by Leslie and Julia Stephen for the eight children in their household. Virginia Stephen, born in 1882, was the seventh of these children, and she was molested by her two half-brothers from the time she was 6 until she and her sister Vanessa established their own household when Virginia was 23. Virginia Woolf wrote about her experience of incestuous abuse in her diaries and letters, so this information is not new. But her biographers and critics have not taken much account of the impact of this extended trauma on her life and work. The importance of DeSalvo's book lies in its central placement of incestuous abuse as a biographical key and as key to Woolf's many portraits of childhood and adolescence in her fiction. DeSalvo offers readings of The Voyage Out, Jacob's Room, To the Lighthouse and The Years in addition to analyses of several juvenile writings for their illumination of Woolf's response to her abuse and the ways she used writing as therapy. The most powerful section of DeSalvo's book is its opening account of the young women in what today would be called a "blended" family. Laura Stephen, Leslie's daughter by his first wife Minny Thackeray, was banished to a separate part of the house when she was 12 (and Virginia an infant), sent to live in the country at the age of 17, and institutionalized in an asylum in York at 21 (where she remained until her death in 1945). Most accounts treat Laura as insane; DeSalvo argues that she was driven mad by the criminal mistreatment of her father. Stella Duckworth, Julia Stephen's daughter by her marriage to Herbert Duckworth, was used as a domestic servant during her mother's lifetime and forced to take her mother's place after Julia's death in 1895. Vanessa and Virginia Stephen were victimized by their half-brothers, Gerald and George Duckworth, from around 1888 to 1904. Virginia Woolf called this period her "Greek slave" years, and used a succession of disturbing images -- "looking-glass shame;" enclosure in cotton wool and inside a grape; a ship locked in ice; and frequent allusions to drowning, the method she finally chose for her suicide when she weighted her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse in 1941. DeSalvo refers to Woolf's adolescent diaries as "that landmark document in the history of sexual abuse" and believes Woolf's novels prove her "one of the greatest interpreters of the condition of childhood, of the betrayal of the child, and the history of the family who has ever written." DeSalvo attempts, not always successfully, to integrate readings of a variety of Woolf's works with recent research on child sexual abuse, and she uses Woolf's experience to refute feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan's contention that the silencing of adolescent females comes from within themselves. DeSalvo probes the nature of Victorian patriarchal family dynamics in the stifling of female dissidence and examines the disaster for young women of Victorian family mores and attitudes toward education. She compares Leslie Stephen's paternal tyranny to that of the Greek king Creon, who destroys his family by shutting up his daughter Antigone. There are organizational decisions and repetitions that seem odd in Virginia Woolf: it is not clear, for example, why the textual analyses are inserted where they appear. The most puzzling aspect of DeSalvo's book is its inadequate discussion of the impact of Woolf's childhood experience on her later affectional life. Though DeSalvo discusses Vanessa Bell's adult relationships -- with her husband Clive Bell, with Roger Fry, and especially with Duncan Grant, and the incestuous patterns that her family followed (Clive Bell had an affair with Virginia; Duncan Grant and Vanessa's brother Adrian had been lovers; Angelica, Vanessa's daughter by Duncan Grant, eventually married Grant's lover David "Bunny" Garnett, who had predicted the marriage at Angelica's birth) -- she has little to say about Virginia's marriage to Leonard Woolf and mentions only in passing the sexual nature of her relationships with Vanessa and with Violet Dickinson and Vita Sackville-West. Despite these flaws, DeSalvo has written an important book. She refutes standard notions about the idyllic, secure, affectionate household in which Virginia Woolf grew up, and questions the alleged sexual liberation of the Bloomsbury circle. Most important, she hears and believes Virginia Woolf's testimony to her childhood abuse, and in consequence offers a genuinely new account of her early life and work. Julia Epstein, associate professor of English at Haverford College, is the author of "The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women's Writing."