Marilyn: A Proto-Synaesthete?

Norma Jeane by Richard C. Miller, 1946

In an article for the New Yorker, no less, Robin Wright says, ‘I have something in common with Marilyn Monroe – and you might, too.’ That shared condition, she claims, is synaesthesia…

“Marilyn Monroe had a condition called synesthesia, a kind of sensory or cognitive fusion in which things seen, heard, smelled, felt, or tasted stimulate a totally unrelated sense—so that music can be heard or food tasted in colors, for instance. Monroe’s first husband, Jim Dougherty, told Norman Mailer about ‘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,’ Mailer recounted, in his 1973 biography of Monroe.”

While Marilyn was never diagnosed with synaesthesia, there’s a good reason for that – it wasn’t an established concept during her lifetime, although Wright believes it has been described in literature for centuries, noting that many artists, musicians and writers exhibit aspects of synaesthesia.

Maureen Seaberg first suggested that Marilyn might have been a synaesthete in a 2012 article for Psychology Today – a hypothesis supported by Mona Rae Miracle. (It would be interesting if a psychologist could examine other incidents from Marilyn’s life from this perspective.)

Marilyn photographed by Milton Greene, in costume for ‘Bus Stop’ (1956)

“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.'”

Shining a Light on Marilyn

Photo by Hans Knopf, 1956

In an article for the Biography website, Sara Kettler sheds light on some lesser-known aspects of Marilyn’s personality including her struggle to overcome a traumatic childhood and mental health problems; her passion for justice and equality; and her charitable nature.

“Monroe was generous throughout her life, a trait that was apparent even as she spent time in institutions and foster homes. She gave an acting teacher a valuable fur coat and offered money to people in need; shopping companions would often find Monroe had sent them items she’d ostensibly purchased for herself. She was especially generous with children, and offered assistance to child-focused charities like the Milk Fund for Babies and the March of Dimes.”

Marilyn: A Sex Symbol’s Anger

A scene from ‘The Misfits’

In an intriguing article for the feminist magazine, Bust, author Dana Burnell suggests that Marilyn’s reputation for ‘difficult’ behaviour  was a manifestation of her suppressed anger at the Hollywood system’s exploitation and disregard of her talent.

“The sense of watching a trapped butterfly permeates her best performances; it’s the quality that the starlets set up to compete against her were missing. They might have had more professionalism, but they lacked Monroe’s self-lacerating perception. That Monroe was angry, there can be no doubt. All of her actions speak to it: The lateness, the passivity, the pills and the booze, the relationships. The paralyzing depressions that are the rage of those who feel they are not allowed rage. The pills just damped down the anger and became the only thing that killed it — and her. For only half a moment did fame do what she thought it would, and make her happy.”

Marilyn: Story of a Stutterer

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Marilyn at home in 1962

Theologian Gerald McDermott has written an article about Marilyn’s stutter for the multi-faith website Patheos, suggesting that the iconic breathy voice she used in her movies helped her to control it.

“If stuttering was a recurring pattern in this troubled actress’s life, how was she able to perform?  How did she become such a famous movie star that people are now surprised to hear that she was a stutterer?  The answer is not crystal clear, but there are strong clues.

We know that for many of her years in Hollywood Marilyn had an acting coach named Natasha Lytess, who taught the young actress to breathe and move her lips before she actually spoke.  A focus on breathing helps many stutterers.  But Natasha also instructed Marilyn to enunciate every syllable, especially final consonants.

This exaggerated diction might have helped distract Marilyn, as stutterers are sometimes helpfully distracted, from her problem with starting words.  But at the same time the staccato style can produce a stopping and starting that makes it more likely the speaker will block on words starting with difficult consonants or vowels.

We also know that in the 1950s ‘breathy breathing’ was a popular therapy among speech therapists.  Charles Van Riper, for example, taught stutterers to slow down speech and prolong their words, and to use gentle breathing.

Wherever she learned it, this method worked for Marilyn most of the time.  She made many movies, and her stutter was never readily apparent once the movies got to the screen.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  Her breathy speech became famous, and in fact is known today among speech therapists as a technique called the ‘Marilyn Monroe voice.'”

Patient Remembers Payne Whitney

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Marilyn was briefly committed to New York’s Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital by her analyst, Dr Marianne Kris, following a severe depressive episode in 1961, but was so disturbed by the experience that she called upon ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, who demanded her immediate release. She then spent six weeks recuperating in another hospital.

Author Steven Gaines has described his own five-month residency at Payne Whitney after a suicide attempt in 1962 when he was just fifteen years old, in an interview with Michael Musto for Out magazine.

“You thought Payne Whitney was going to be basically a fancy hotel.

I was shocked because it turned out the first week you go there—this is why Marilyn Monroe signed herself out—you go on the seventh floor and there were 24 patients, and a lot of them were in shock therapy and very ill. They put me in a quiet room, and I was kicking the door, so they shot me up and put me in a padded cell the first night. But the third floor was entirely different, and I spent most of the time there. That was very much like a hotel.

But very regimented.

Yes. You had to have breakfast at a certain time, make your own bed, and have therapy every day.

When Marilyn died a year and a half after her release from Payne Whitney, how did you react?

When it happened, I was in the hospital. Everybody was so upset. We thought, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’

So you were allowed to walk out of the establishment, but not go home?

Right. When you got to the fourth floor, you were allowed walk privileges. On the fifth, some people even went to work and were allowed to go home for weekends. At my grandfather’s shop—a corset emporium that also sold a full line of women’s clothing—my grandmother would say, ‘She’s a Friday customer.’ That would mean the mental home let you out for the weekend.”

Norman Farberow 1918-2015

farberow-obit-master675Norman Farberow, the psychologist who contributed to the official report (or ‘psychological autopsy’) on Marilyn’s untimely death, has died aged 97, the Telegraph reports. With colleague Dr Robert Litman, who also participated in the inquiry, Farberow founded the pioneering Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Centre. Ironically, he passed away on September 10 – which also marked World Suicide Prevention Day.

Norman Farberow (left) with Dr Theodore Curphey and Dr Robert Litman announce their findings after an investigation into the death of Marilyn Monroe (August 17, 1962)
Norman Farberow (left) with Dr Theodore Curphey and Dr Robert Litman, announcing their findings after a medical investigation into the death of Marilyn Monroe (August 17, 1962)

“Marilyn Monroe’s fatal drugs overdose in 1962 had shone a very public light on the issue of ‘unpredicted death’. Farberow was at the head of a team of psychiatrists tasked with producing an ‘autopsy’ on the actress’s likely state of mind. By questioning those in contact with her in her final weeks, Farberow learnt that she had made previous attempts on her own life and had struggled with fluctuations in her mood. The team’s report recommended a verdict of suicide.”

Sex, Lies … and Marilyn Monroe

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Fans of the Loving Marilyn website will already be familiar with the lively, perceptive writing of MM superfan and vintage style queen Shar Daws. Shar has now written a scintillating new piece for Tease and Cake, a UK-based burlesque magazine. Illustrated with several gorgeous photos of MM, ‘Sex, Lies…and Marilyn Monroe’ debunks some common myths and reflects upon Marilyn’s timeless sex appeal. Tease and Cake can be ordered here for £6.95, plus shipping to the UK, Europe and beyond. (Please note: this magazine contains some mild nudity.)

What ‘Fragments’ Taught Us About Marilyn

 

Writing for the Huffington Post, psychologist Romeo Vitelli considers a new study by Spanish psychiatrist Mercedes Fernandez-Cabana. Originally published in the medical journal, Crisis, the article speculates on what Marilyn’s personal writings, as collected in Fragments, may tell us about her possible suicidal intentions in the years leading up to her death.

But most of the writings date from the mid to late 1950s, and as far as we know, Marilyn left no suicide note when she died in 1962. These are Vitelli’s own thoughts on the investigation:

“Studying Fragments was made easier by the dates of the letters and notes left behind by Marilyn Monroe. Using the dated material as a timeline in the years leading up to Monroe’s death, Fernandez-Cabana and her colleagues were able to group the Fragments materials into four time periods ending in 1962. Statistical analysis showed a significant rise in health concerns, death issues and personal pronoun use over time. Also, the period just before her death showed a significant decrease in negative emotions, anxiety, and religious ideas.

Though there were no clear indications of suicidal intention in any of Marilyn’s Monroe’s writings, the notes written shortly before her death suggest a strong sense of isolation. The LIWC evidence does not reflect what has been typically found that depressed individuals but may indicate that her suicide death was an impulsive decision rather than a planned act.

In discussing Monroe’s death, Mercedes Fernandez-Cabana and her fellow authors avoided commenting on the elaborate theories that were raised about her possibly being murdered for political reasons. Also, the lack of any notes written in the critical few weeks leading up to Marilyn Monroe’s death means that important data may be missing from the final analysis.”

Marilyn and the Therapists

A very insightful post at Tales From the Reading Room on Marilyn and psychoanalysis:

“It wasn’t until I realised that Marilyn Monroe is considered (among other things) as one of the great failures of psychotherapy that I started to look into her life. Like most people, I knew the general outline of her life: fame, films, love affairs and early death. My PhD supervisor had been keen on her and papered the walls of her bathroom with pictures. If we wanted to use it, her students uttered the code phrase ‘I’m just going to visit Marilyn’. So I’d seen pretty much all of the pictures. But when I began to read her story, it felt like a novel gone wrong, written by someone who couldn’t resist putting too much over-the-top plot in it. And the thought that one of her last, and most influential, therapists was implicated in her death seems extraordinary.”