On Marilyn, Acting and Mental Illness

Marilyn plays a mentally disturbed woman in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ (1952)

In Actresses and Mental Illness, a new academic study, author Fiona Gregory focuses on stars like Vivien Leigh and Frances Farmer, whose psychological problems are as well-known as their dramatic talents. In her introduction to the book, she also mentions Marilyn.

“Marilyn Monroe stands as one of the best-known examples of an actress whose life was impacted by mental illness. Actors’ and directors’ accounts of working with Monroe make frequent reference to unprofessional behaviour (lateness, inability to learn lines, conflicts with colleagues), drug addiction and visits to psychiatrists. While rumours and coded reports of Monroe’s illness circulated during her lifetime, much of the detail of her particular problems and the treatments she pursued has emerged posthumously. Each further revelation – of a psychiatrist visited; a drug treatment tried; a suicide attempt hushed up – has added to the picture of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as icon of suffering. It’s a picture suffused with irony – imagine, that one of the most beautiful and celebrated women in the world, with seemingly every personal and professional opportunity, should be made so uncomfortable in her own skin by the demons in her mind!

In the biographical record, Monroe’s suffering – taking as its form chronic self-doubt, an unstable sense of self, and a seeming inability to forge healthy relationships – is framed as fundamentally connected to her professional identity as a performing woman. Above all, Monroe is represented in terms of her inability to formulate a stable, coherent identity … In such narratives, the creation of an alternate identity becomes a strategy to mask an essential emptiness. The notion of actress as cypher, evacuated of meaning unless she is performing, recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress…

In 1955, Monroe recorded a dream in which her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, ‘cuts me open’ in an operating theatre, only to find ‘… 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 ever dreamed possible in almost anyone but instead there was absolutely nothing…’

Here, Monroe becomes an eloquent commentator on the fears and insecurities of the performing woman, and on the questions of identity, ambition and meaning that circulate around her. This autobiographical artefact puts emptiness at the core of Monroe’s own psyche. The fact that it is Strasberg – the man who stood as her authority on acting – who has found her out suggests that it was in her own professional realm that Monroe desired to achieve significance but feared she would be found wanting. Monroe’s dream literalises the fear of the ‘nothing’: that the glittering surface will be revealed to mask an essential absence – a lack of talent, a lack of worthiness – that recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress and in actress’ own meditations on self.”

Petition Launched to Save Rockhaven

The campaign to save Rockhaven, the former sanatorium run by women for women, is continuing with the Friends of Rockhaven community group campaigning to have the building opened to the public. It is a site of architectural and historical note, and was an oasis of progressive healing for the mentally ill during a time of widespread ignorance and prejudice. Marilyn’s mother, Gladys Baker Eley, lived there for fourteen years, and it seems to have finally brought her some peace of mind after many unhappy years spent in and out of state asylums. Please sign the petition to save this Glendale landmark here.

Marilyn Fans Respond to Celebrity Deaths

This last week has seen at least three suicides among people in the public eye, including fashion designer Kate Spade, chef Anthony Bourdain, and Inés Zorreguieta, younger sister of the Dutch Queen. Perhaps inevitably, this tragic news has led to some rather irresponsible headlines about an alleged epidemic, with some journalists citing the reported spike in suicides among young American women shortly after Marilyn’s death.

Marilyn’s death was ruled a ‘probable suicide’, although wild rumours and conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. While I personally would never rule out any possibility, having studied the evidence over many years I consider it highly unlikely that Marilyn was murdered. (This is my own opinion, and I don’t presume to speak for the membership of Everlasting Star.)

The recent unfortunate events have led to some soul-searching within the Marilyn fan community, and a serious examination of the mental health problems she faced. At the same time, an excellent article in the latest issue of American History explores her addiction to prescribed drugs, now the leading cause of death in Americans aged under 50 (see here.)

Psychotherapist Gary Vitacco Robles, author of Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, discusses these issues in a new blog post, ‘Myth-Busting Suicide.’

“I hear the public reactions to a publicized suicide such as, ‘He seemed happy’ and ‘She was planning for the future.’ The suicide seems incongruent with a recent, apparently positive mood state. However, people are at higher risk when they appear to being doing well and planning for the future. They now have the energy to complete the suicide which they didn’t have when they were experiencing major depressive symptoms.”

Scott Fortner addresses Marilyn’s death specifically on his MM Collection Blog today:

“In spite of the evidence that proves she died of an overdose of prescription drugs consumed orally, conspiracy theories surrounding Marilyn’s death are plentiful … Sadly though, these conspiracy theories, in a way, help keep her legend alive. Fans simply can’t accept the fact it was either intentional or accidental, and I am regularly surprised at the frequency in which people I talk to bring up, and believe, the outrageous theories.”

Over at Immortal Marilyn, Leslie Kasperowicz believes that fans need to confront these issues openly to support those at risk and end the stigma of suicide.

“Marilyn’s death could have – should have – been one of the biggest blows to that stigma.  But instead, by choosing to look for conspiracies and murder, we took away her impact.  An impact that may have helped the people named above and so, so many others, had we let the blow fall.  Who were we protecting?  Not Marilyn. She is already beyond protection.”

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.”

Patient Remembers Payne Whitney

paynewhitney

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.”

Inside the Mind of Marilyn

Kalb

In her new book, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder, health writer Claudia Kalb looks ‘inside the mind of history’s great personalities’. The first chapter is devoted to Marilyn, whom Kalb believes may have suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder, as she explains in an interview with the Huffington Post. (Marilyn was never diagnosed with a specific mental illness, though some authors have speculated that she may also have been bipolar, or manic depressive.)

“Biographers and commentators have long struggled to make sense of Monroe’s contradictory personality. The actress ‘yearned for love and stability,’ and yet often lashed out at those she cared about.

‘What is clear is that Monroe suffered from severe mental distress,’ Kalb writes. ‘Her symptoms included a feeling of emptiness, a split or confused identity, extreme emotional volatility, unstable relationships, and an impulsivity that drove her to drug addiction and suicide — all textbook characteristics of a condition called borderline personality disorder.'”

‘Secret Life of Marilyn’ Trailer Unveiled

11037307_10153162863785259_5329757299694033020_ncropEntertainment Weekly has posted a trailer for the upcoming mini-series, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, on their website today. To be aired on the US cable channel, Lifetime, on May 30-31, the drama is based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2009 biography.

While the scenes between Kelli Garner (as Marilyn) and Susan Sarandon (as her mother, Gladys) look interesting, it seems to exaggerate their closeness. And while Marilyn certainly battled depression, to equate her experiences with Gladys’s far more severe mental illness (she was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, and spent much of her adult life in psychiatric hospitals) is rather misleading.