‘Was Marilyn Monroe a Synaesthete?’

Marilyn photographed by Milton Greene for The Prince and the Showgirl, 1956

In ‘Tasting the Universe: Synaesthesia from the Inside Out’, a regular column for Psychology Today, Maureen Seaberg poses an intriguing question: Was Marilyn a synaesthete?

Synaesthesia, as defined by MedicineNet.com, is ‘a condition in which normally separate senses are not separate. Sight may mingle with sound, taste with touch, etc. The senses are cross-wired…People with synaesthesia often report that one or more of their family members also have synaesthesia, so it may in at least some cases be an inherited condition.’

Seaberg was approached by Dr John Michael Lennon, whose authorised biography of Norman Mailer will be published later this year. Dr Lennon brought to Seaberg’s attention this detail from Mailer’s 1973 book, Marilyn:

‘There, on p. 47, he found Mr. Mailer describing what can only be understood as Ms. Monroe’s synesthesia. In recounting her first husband, Jim Dougherty‘s recollections of her, he said:

“He recounted evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots. She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds…It also provides her natural wit…she did not have a skin like others.”

It didn’t disturb me that Mr. Mailer did not refer to Ms. Monroe’s displacement of the senses specifically as synesthesia — no one was using that word in 1973. I decided to follow up with her survivors and spent months seeking them until an email arrived from her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, who with her mother, Berniece Baker Miracle, wrote a well-received biography of her famous aunt herself, titled My Sister Marilyn.

“Synaesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as ‘extraordinary sensitivity’ and/or ‘extraordinary imagination’… Marilyn and I both studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who gave students exercises which could bring us awareness of such abilities, and the means of using them to bring characters to life. As you know, the varied experiences can bring sadness or enjoyment…Marilyn’s awesome performance in “Bus Stop” (the one she was most proud of) grew out of the use of such techniques and quite wore her out.”

Ms. Miracle believed that not only was her aunt a synaesthete, but that she, too, is one. The trait is known to run in families.’

‘Last Sessions’ on More4 Tonight

A rather controversial documentary, Marilyn: The Last Sessions, gets another airing on More4 in the UK tonight at 10.05 pm, reports The Guardian:

“It’s almost half a century since Marilyn Monroe died, but here she is in a re-showing of the documentary about her relationship with her psychoanalyst, Ralph Greenson … Despite the years, does it seem entirely all right to publicise the thoughts of someone in their most private and confidential moments? Anyway, here it all is again: the Kennedys, Arthur Miller, barbiturates, an end.”

Like many fans, I was also troubled by the documentary’s careless blending of fact and fiction. You can read my review here

Time, 1961: Marilyn’s New Role

This article, first published in Time on February 17, 1961, takes a compassionate look at Marilyn’s decision to enter a hospital, following her divorce from Arthur Miller and related emotional problems. It also suggests that in seeking help for her depression, Marilyn was setting a good example to others.

“In seeking help, she may have done more than the psychiatrists to win popular acceptance of a more modern view of mental illness and treatment for it.”

Thanks to Fraser Penney

The Doctor and the Misfit

Psychiatrist Dr Ralph Greenson’s unconventional – and ultimately, disastrous – treatment of Marilyn Monroe has long been the subject of speculation. Dr Lucy Freeman – a student of Greenson’s – published Why Norma Jean Killed Marilyn Monroe in 1993, and Luciano Mecacci’s Freudian Slipsincluding a long chapter on Marilyn – was published in English in 2009.

Personally, I found both of these accounts disappointing. However, I can recommend Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors (2009), which contains a very insightful study of Monroe.

Now the New York psychoanalyst and painter, Dr Steven Poser, has written The Misfit, a new essay on the topic, now available as a Kindle Single from Rosetta Books:

‘Greenson essentially adopted Monroe, creating psychic confusion for a vulnerable woman who lacked a sense of belonging in the first place. Poser details how, in eliding the negative aspects of the transference-countertransference matrix, Greenson lost a patient and lost his own way as a clinician.

In addition to discussing this tragic analytic dyad, Poser also shares his thoughts about psychoanalytic writing and research. He argues that then-current psychoanalytic theory did little to aid Greenson, or to help Greenson treat Monroe. That theory did not allow therapists to use their patients’ hateful feelings toward them to help said patients cohere. This important technique was not developed theoretically until the later twentieth century. Poser reminds us, then, that we are in a sense prisoners of contemporary practice, however flawed it may be.’

St Vincent Inspired by Marilyn’s Writing

Marilyn leaving hospital in 1954

St Vincent – aka musician Annie Erin Clark – performed ‘Surgeon’, a song inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s writings, now available as a free download from her forthcoming album, Strange Mercy, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, reports the Times:

‘St. Vincent ended her concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday night with an emotionally complicated plea. “Best, finest surgeon,” she sang coolly, fingers skittering along the neck of her guitar. “Come cut me open.”

The song was “Surgeon,” with lyrics inspired by an entry in Marilyn Monroe’s diary, and St. Vincent made its queasy hunger feel palpable, even, somehow, during the mounting vulgarity of the synth-guitar solo that she used as a coda.

Surgery isn’t a bad metaphor for the process by which St. Vincent, a k a Annie Clark, creates her music. But she’s rarely if ever the one being operated on. What she does is traumatic but controlled, unsentimental but not uncaring. She can seem clinical, but she knows what she’s doing in there.’

The song is based on a piece published in Fragments, the 2010 collection of Marilyn’s writing. It was written on Waldorf-Astoria stationary (MM lived at the hotel in 1955.)

This may be an account of a dream. It is filled with characters from Marilyn’s life at the time – Lee Strasberg, Arthur Miller, Milton Greene, Dr Hohenberg, the Rostens – and suggests Marilyn’s intense fear of not living up to their expectations.

Like many of Marilyn’s undefined pieces, it has the quality of a prose poem. The bolded parts denote spelling anomalies, while the crossings-out are her own.

Best finest surgeon – Strasberg

waits to cut me open which I don’t mind since Dr H

has prepared me – given me anesthetic

and has also diagnosed the case and

agrees with what has to be done –

an operation – to bring myself back to

life and to cure me of this terrible dis-ease

whatever the hell it is –

Arthur is the only one waiting in the outer

room – worrying and hoping operation successful

for many reasons – for myself – for his play and

for himself indirectly

Hedda – concerned – keeps calling on phone during

operation – Norman – keeps stopping by hospital to

see if I’m okay but mostly to comfort Art

who is so worried –

Milton calls from office with lots of room

and everything in good taste – and is conducting

business in a new way with style – and music

is playing and he is relaxed and enjoying himself even if he

is very worried at the same time – there’s a camera

on his desk but he doesn’t take pictures anymore except

of great paintings.

Strasberg cuts me open after Dr. H gives me

anesthesia and tries in a medical way to comfort

me – everything in the room is white in fact but I

can’t even see anyone just white objects –

they cut me open – Strasberg with Hohenberg’s ass.

and there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is

deeply disappointed but more even – academically amazed

that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going

to be so much – more than he had dreamed possible in

almost anyone but

instead there was absolutely nothing – devoid of

every human living feeling thing – the only thing

that came out was so finely cut sawdust – like

out of a raggedy ann doll – and the sawdust spills

all over the floor & table and Dr. H is puzzled

because suddenly she realizes that this is a

new type case of puple. The patient (pupil – or student – I started to write) existing of complete emptiness

Strasberg’s hopes & dreams for theater are fallen.

Dr H’s dreams and hopes for a permanent psychiatric cure

is given up – Arthur is disappointed – let down +

 

‘Last Sessions’ on More4

The French-made documentary, Marilyn: The Last Sessions, focussing on her relationship with psychiatrist Dr Ralph Greenson towards the end of her life, screens tonight on the UK’s More4 channel, from 10 pm.

“Based on recordings and transcripts from psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson’s sessions with Marilyn Monroe in the dark months prior to her controversial death in 1962, Marilyn, the Last Sessions tells the fascinating story of how the troubled star turned to Greenson, who attempted to aid and protect her but was later considered by many to be suspect.

The film features rarely seen archive footage of Monroe, and those who surrounded her towards the end of her career, such as the Kennedys, Arthur Miller, John Huston and Truman Capote.”

Photos of Marilyn Help Paralysed Patients

“People with a rare disorder that paralyzes all muscles except their eyes may one day communicate through computer images because of research using photos of Marilyn Monroe and Josh Brolin.

In an experiment, 12 neurosurgery patients had electrodes implanted to measure how often neurons fired in their brains. When shown fuzzy computer images of both actors, they were able to bring the ones of Monroe into sharper focus by concentrating on them, according to research published in the journal Nature.”

San Francisco Chronicle

‘I Was Marilyn Monroe’s Doctor’

“During the days immediately preceding her operation, I saw Marilyn two or three times daily. Often she would be sitting moodily as I entered, but as always she suddenly seemed cheered whenever anyone came to see her. Sometimes she would sitting and gazing out at the skyline visible from her room’s window. When she did, her mood seemed to be that of a caged wilting fawn yearning to return to a freer life outside.”

Dr Richard Cottrell, who treated Marilyn in 1961  when she had gallbladder surgery, writing in Ladies’ Home Companion (1965.)

Thanks to Suus-Marie at Everlasting Star