Stirring the Pot: Marilyn, the Media and Celebrity Suicide

Immediately following Marilyn’s death in 1962, a spike in suicide among young American women was widely reported. Dr. Mary V. Seeman, now a Professor Emerita at the Institute of Medical Science in Toronto, has recalled how the news led her to make a rash decision as a young trainee doctor, in an article for the Psychiatric Times.

“I was a second-year psychiatry resident in New York City at the time, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard of her death. The sad news shook the staff and dazed the patients in our all-women’s hospital ward … The women patients for whom I was responsible were particularly devastated by the news of her death because they identified with her in so many ways. Many had experienced similar childhoods in foster care, had aspired to be film stars, and had suffered through difficult relationships. Like Marilyn, they often had suicidal impulses.

As it was summertime when this happened, the head of our ward was on vacation in Europe. This left me temporarily in psychiatric charge. Once I realized how deeply Marilyn Monroe’s death had affected my patients, I knew that some form of intervention was urgently needed. I immediately invited whoever wanted to do so to join a support group that I would lead … Our group of eight got off to a good start. We cried and shared our feelings. The women talked about their suicidal urges. ‘Her life was so great compared to mine,’ one woman said. Everyone agreed, as she added: ‘She was rich; she was beautiful; she was talented. Look at all the men who loved her!’

‘This group is a catharsis,’ I proudly pronounced to my fellow residents.

But this is what happened next. Three of the women in the group attempted suicide, one very seriously. Fortunately, all three survived. The head nurse, frightened by what had happened, contacted the head of our ward in Europe. He immediately cut his vacation short and returned to New York. The first thing he did was to stop the group. Then, he gave me the worst dressing down of my life. I thought it was the end of my residency, but he allowed me to stay. What came to an end was my early confidence in myself as a therapist. Since then, there has always been a seed of doubt when I see a patient. I now ask myself, ‘By stirring the pot, am I perhaps doing more harm than good?’

Human beings are very easily influenced. What my Marilyn Monroe group had done was to bring together eight vulnerable women who, with the complicity of their group leader, had laid fertile ground for intense behavioral contagion. I had unknowingly created a suicide cluster. Out of a mix of would-be Marilyn Monroes, raw emotions, media prodding, and myself as a greenhorn therapist, the belief had emerged that suicide was the answer to distress.

Today, this is called the Werther effect after the widespread emotional reaction to the 18th century novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by the famous German writer Goethe. The story is about an unhappy lover who ends his life with a pistol. At publication, the book precipitated a massive wave of imitative suicides throughout Germany and much of Europe. This response was not unlike what took place the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death when there was a 10% increase in suicides in the United States.

Are there lessons here for clinicians? I think there are. In the wake of a celebrity suicide, it is wisest to express neither shock nor surprise to one’s patients. Patients who are at risk need to be assessed, monitored, and seen often. Their grief needs to be acknowledged. They also need assurance that you understand, are available, and that there are ways, admittedly difficult, by which one can overcome adverse circumstances and survive anguish …

My own experience suggests that overzealous intervention is not a good idea and that it is best to check with elders in the field who are more experienced before leaping into unknown therapeutic territory. Sensitive topics such as thoughts of suicide need private one-on-one discussion, not group therapy. Membership in a group transforms a person and the results of such transformations can be difficult to foresee.”



Cléo, Meet Marilyn (From 5 to 7)

In a tribute to filmmaker Agnès Varda, who died last week aged 90, Genna Rivieccio notes on her Culled Culture blog the parallels between Marilyn’s life and the tragic young heroine faced with a cancer diagnosis played by Corinne Marchand in Cléo From 5 to 7, the movie released just a few months before  Marilyn’s death, and which helped to launch the French New Wave.

“Although Cléo is beautiful and has a relatively successful singing career, the dark shadow potentially case by the reaper above her won’t go away, nor is it remedied by seeing a fortune teller at the outset of the movie, one who confirms all her worst fears about waiting for some potentially fatal test results from her doctor.

Distraught at first over the reading, Cléo insists to herself that ‘as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive,’ because ‘ugliness is a kind of death’ so how can she be suffering from it if she’s not aesthetically hideous? Even so, she is aware that if she is dying, it’s only the inside that will matter now–not from a personality or ‘good person’ standpoint, but in terms of it affecting whether or not her demise is imminent. To that former notion, however, Cléo suddenly becomes hyperconscious of the vacuity of her life. Buying hats, lounging around, cursing men. What does it all mean? And what can she do to go on preserving that vacuous little life? Thus, she tells her maid, Angèle (Dominique Davray) that she’ll kill herself if it turns out to be cancer. Angèle does little to comfort her, noting that ‘men hate illness’ and that Cléo ought not to wear a new hat on Tuesday as it’s bad luck.

So, too, did Cléo, a singer who bemoans wanting to project more poignant lyrics but then grows filled with melancholy as she sings a new composition filled with too much death imagery to bear. She wants to remain as she always has been in order to survive, to feel somewhat happy: at the surface of things. Unfortunately, like Marilyn Monroe before her, the woman endlessly preoccupied with her image and looks ends up driving any potential for real and meaningful love away. And as we all know, especially Narcissus, a reflection can’t reciprocate anything, nor love or hate you as much as you do it. Cléo’s childlike [im]maturity, is, in fact, directly related to her self-obsession. In being faced with the reality that her death is imminent, however, she is forced to come to grips with certain truths both about herself and existence that she never would have otherwise.”

PS: And if you should doubt Marilyn’s influence on the nouvelle vague, this photo taken by George Barris just weeks before her death is glimpsed briefly  in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1964 musical directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, and starring lifelong MM fan Catherine Deneuve. (According to IMDB, the film is set in 1957 which makes it a goof.) And in Demy’s 1963 film Bay of Angels, Jeanne Moreau donned a Monroesque blonde wig to play an unhappy divorcee (not unlike Roslyn in The Misfits) who becomes addicted to gambling.

Remembering Barbara Bates

Barbara Bates, ‘All About Eve’

Among the cast of All About Eve (1950), three would die in tragic circumstances: Marilyn, George Sanders, and Barbara Bates, who appears as wannabe actress Phoebe in the final scene. Although her screen time was brief, it amounts to one of the greatest endings in Hollywood history. Interestingly, her part was reportedly considered for Marilyn before she was cast as Miss Caswell. Barbara also appeared in another early Monroe film, Let’s Make It Legal (1951).

Barbara as Phoebe in ‘All About Eve’

Barbara with Marilyn in a publicity shot for ‘Let’s Make It Legal’

Barbara was born in Denver on August 6, 1925, and came to Hollywood in her teens after winning a beauty contest. There she met Cecil Coan, a publicist for United Artists. They were married, and despite Barbara’s extreme shyness, she submitted to his designs to make her a star, appearing in such films as Johnny Belinda, June Bride and Cheaper By the Dozen. Like Marilyn, Barbara alternated between bit parts and posing for cheesecake, but her career didn’t take off as Marilyn’s did.

By the mid-1950s, Barbara’s emotional instability made her increasingly unreliable, and her last screen credit was in a 1962 episode of the British TV series, The Saint. After her husband was diagnosed with cancer, Barbara gave up acting to care for him, but the strain made her depression worse. A year after his death in 1967, Barbara was remarried to a childhood friend in Denver. But sadly this still wasn’t enough to turn her life around, and in early 1969, she was found dead by gas poisoning in a car inside  her mother’s garage.

‘Let’s Make It Legal’ cast photo – Barbara at left, Marilyn at right

Barbara and Marilyn with Macdonald Carey in a scene from the movie

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.”

Norman Farberow 1918-2015

Norman 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, 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.”

Barbara Leaming on Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn

The October issue of Vanity Fair includes an article by Barbara Leaming about Jacqueline Kennedy, focusing on the aftermath of her husband’s murder in November 1963. ‘The Winter of Her Discontent‘ is an extract from Leaming’s upcoming book, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story.

“The untold story of how one woman’s life was changed forever in a matter of seconds by a horrific trauma.

Barbara Leaming’s extraordinary and deeply sensitive biography is the first book to document Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ brutal, lonely and valiant thirty-one year struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that followed JFK’s assassination.

Here is the woman as she has never been seen before.  In heartrending detail, we witness a struggle that unfolded at times before our own eyes, but which we failed to understand.

Leaming’s biography also makes clear the pattern of Jackie’s life as a whole. We see how a spirited young woman’s rejection of a predictable life led her to John F. Kennedy and the White House, how she sought to reconcile the conflicts of her marriage and the role she was to play, and how the trauma of her husband’s murder which left her soaked in his blood and brains led her to seek a very different kind of life from the one she’d previously sought.

A life story that has been scrutinized countless times, seen here for the first time as the serious and important story that it is. A story for our times at a moment when we as a nation need more than ever to understand the impact of trauma.”

This is not Leaming’s first book on the subject: Mrs Kennedy (2001) focused on Jacqueline’s thousand days as First Lady. And prior to this, another Leaming biography – entitled simply Marilyn Monroe – was published in 1999.

In her Vanity Fair article, Leaming reveals that in the months after her husband’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy considered suicide. The death of Marilyn Monroe just a year before – then widely believed to have been a clear-cut suicide – played on her mind, as she confided to a Jesuit priest, Father Richard T. McSorley, in early 1964.

“By May 19th, Father McSorley found himself growing fearful that Jackie, as he wrote, ‘was really thinking of suicide.’ The priest had briefly hoped she might be doing better, but the way she talked now spurred him to take a different view. Speaking again of the prospect of killing herself, Jackie told him that she would be pleased if her death precipitated ‘a wave’ of other suicides because it would be a good thing if people were allowed to ‘get out of their misery.’ She disconcerted the priest by insisting that ‘death is great’ and by alluding to the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. ‘I was glad that Marilyn Monroe got out of her misery,’ J.F.K.’s widow maintained. ‘If God is going to make such a to-do about judging people because they take their own lives, then someone ought to punish Him.’ The next day, after Father McSorley strove to persuade Jackie that suicide would be wrong, she reassured him that she agreed and that she would never actually attempt to kill herself.”

 

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.”

Liz Smith on Marilyn’s Last Cheque

Last week, the Huffington Post reported a forensic psychologist’s comment on Marilyn’s last signed cheque, for a chest of drawers, dated August 4th. (The cheque is due to be sold by Heritage Auctions on July 24th.)

“‘People about to kill themselves frequently engage in self-soothing behaviors,’ Dr. S. David Bernstein told The Huffington Post. Shopping sprees are definitely one of those behaviors, he said. ‘Spending — and giving things away — make us feel good,’ he said.

But this was a single purchase, Bernstein said. ‘A single item — especially something practical like a chest of drawers and of a low value like this — suggests a frame of mind of “I’m going to be here for awhile,”‘  he said. ‘If I were doing a psychological autopsy, this would be intriguing. This would be more consistent with someone who is not suicidal.’

Bernstein says buying a chest of drawers that you are going to fill up with things is an action taken by someone who ‘plans to be around awhile,’ not about to end their life. ‘It’s an inconsistent behavior’ for someone planning suicide, he said.”

The check was signed by Marilyn, but written by someone else – possibly her housekeeper, Eunice Murray. Personally, I don’t think this item tells us anything significant about Marilyn’s state of mind on that day. She had been purchasing furniture regularly since moving into a new house several months before.

Veteran columnist Liz Smith considers the story in her latest Chicago Tribune column.

“Last week, a check Monroe wrote out a day before she died was put up for auction. It was also ‘analyzed.’ The purchase was for a chest of drawers for her new home in Brentwood. A forensic psychologist chimed in and insisted this was proof positive Monroe was not ‘planning to commit suicide.’ Well, gee. Nobody ever said she was planning it. If that had been the case she certainly would have had a touch up to her roots, not to mention a manicure and pedicure. (These things were noted by the police who first saw her body.) Suicide often just ‘happens’ to people who struggle with depression, and who also have an inordinate amount of medication handy, as the chronically sleepless Marilyn did. But the ‘she was murdered’ posse are pleased with one more notch on their side.”

UPDATE: The check has been sold for $31,250 – more about the auction here