We forget that the subjects of our myths are humans. Whether we ridicule or exalt them, idols of the American Dream (or Global Dream) float like symbols through our consciousness. We hear their voices, see their faces, and absentmindedly play through a narrative of their lives we’ve heard, an anecdote, a quote. They are embedded in us, but when we try to pick apart what they mean to us and why they mean it, we see a shivering person there, not an untouchable god or monster at all.
Actress Megan Fox got a large tattoo of Marilyn Monroe on her arm and then went through painful laser treatments to have Marilyn’s face eradicated from her flesh. The reason? She had learned too much about Marilyn, or maybe she reevaluated what she thought about what she’d learned about her. “I’m removing it,” she said. “She was a negative person; she was disturbed, bipolar. I do not want to attract this kind of negative energy in my life.” So many people are sad, have bipolar disorder or other diagnoses, struggle with addiction, are wounded by childhood abuses, are these brands against them? Marilyn’s self-destructive actions shouldn’t be exalted, but was the woman, as complicated and tortured as she was such a negative force? Does ignoring her issues make them go away?
If you look deep into the myth of Marilyn, you’ll find a troubled woman who wanted to understand herself, her institutionalized mother, and her chaotic childhood. She wanted to understand her pain and be released from it. Her whole family had seemed to succumb to madness, so the threat of “insanity” stalked her at every turn. She sought to educate and get cutting edge treatment to stave off what she feared was an inevitable disintegration. Most of her life she was not the glamorous starlet we envision her as, slinking around in golden gowns. Under the glitter and circumstance was a regular girl just trying to get a grip on things, constantly trying to learn and improve. She read extensively and treated everyone she encountered as a teacher. Poetry was her favorite. She would luxuriate in words, seeking to frame and define her tortuous and glorious emotions.
Gloria Steinem was one of the first biographers to look for Marilyn, the person. After she wrote a relatable article about Marilyn in Ms. Magazine, floods of letters poured in from women who identified with Marilyn in some way. They, too, had suffered miscarriages, domestic violence, childhood molestation that no one believed. They had been overprescribed painkillers, sleeping pills and tranquilizers for common problems, they, too, struggled with the difference between their internal identity and the way others perceived them.
Marilyn represented something so big on the scream, something so unattainable and fantastic, that her vulnerability could seem aggressive. “How dare she be just as vulnerable and unconfident as I felt?” Gloria says she asked herself when she was younger before she started trying to understand who Marilyn was. Gloria later attended a class at the Actor’s Studio, where Marilyn studied but never tried out, and saw how small, plainly dressed, and unassuming she was in person. She got to witness Marilyn as a diffident actress who was intimidated by her place in the world. She wasn’t always a confident caricature oozing sex and power. Gloria later published a small biography, Marilyn: Norma Jeane, mostly using Marilyn’s own words to accompany photographs taken by George Barris near the end of her life.
Gloria observed that Marilyn’s image personified the “secret hopes of men and the secret fears of women.” She was scary to women not only because she represented a mythical, unattainable sexuality, but because at the same time she reminded them how vulnerable it can feel to be a woman. The outward manifestation of womanhood is quite different than how girls feel inside. Inside we feel like a person, just, a person, a self, whatever that is, but the moment we walk outside we can feel the difference in the eyes and voices of all who encounter us. We come to understand it in the differing thoughts and feelings, and sexual impulses we have toward the people we encounter.
The question of gender, of what really separates us, is difficult to answer once you start to unpack it. Marilyn doesn’t answer it at all, what she does is present an expert sketch of it, a sculpture, a image. Here is femininity, she seems to be saying, serving it up to the culture on a platter. It’s up to us make what we will of it. Megan Fox once said she’s read all the biographies of Marilyn Monroe, and after plowing through several myself (the one by Lois Banner is so far my favorite,) I’m more fascinated by her than I ever was. The myths, the stories surrounding Marilyn are practically infinite, but for her more sensitive and culturally educated biographers, the person of Marilyn shines through, even if most of the details are a little hazy. Was she bipolar? Probably? Was she even more disturbed -Did she hear voices? Possibly. Did she have what we now call borderline personality disorder? It certainly seems that way. Marilyn lived in a time when psychology and psychiatry was still very new. These sciences are still new now, they seem to be going through an adolescent/young adult phase, but in Marilyn’s time the study of the mind was a toddler, barely able to totter on its own feet. Whatever she would be diagnosed with today, the nature of her madness isn’t something to shun, to dehumanize her with. In fact, her struggles make her more relatable and fascinating to me. Learning about them shatters this fixed idea I had of her in my head, a cultural idea that was very present, but which I hadn’t really given much thought to for years.
When I was a teen, I did give some thought to Marilyn, though I didn’t quite know why I was so drawn to her. It was around the time the HBO movie Norma Jean and Marilyn came out, and I was interested in her humble beginnings and her seemingly split selves. I was intrigued that she took the idea of glamour to new heights, and by doing so exposed the emptiness of it. I may have read a biography, one of the less humanizing ones, my interest in Marilyn gradually faded. It was a school girl crush, but it did impact my development, probably very deeply. Marilyn gave me a cultural narrative and context that illustrated how complicated and confusing it is to be a person, and how much our outer manifestations really are a kind of costume, even our own skin. If I had gotten a Marilyn tattoo back then, and if I was getting tattoos I might have, I certainly wouldn’t remove once I came to understand her better. Still, I understand Megan Fox’s desire to erase her childish romantification of Marilyn. Like all tragic figures, sometimes we misunderstand their destruction stories. Sometimes we idealize the decay and pain instead of using it to better understand ourselves and others. Many successful creative people end up with crippling addictions and mental health struggles. Success and fame can be a gilded rope we can use to hang ourselves, and we can get blinded by the sparkle of it.
Medicine is usually poison when taken incorrectly, and truth can cut us if we don’t handle it properly. The Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck showed disturbing footage of Kurt Cobain nodding off on heroin while playing with his baby daughter Frances Bean, a scene that Kurt’s closest friends and family objected to being shown. Director Brett Morgen insisted, though, because he thought it was important to Kurt’s legacy that his drug use be un-romanticized. In a way, watching Amy Winehouse’s constant, public paparazzi nightmare helped punch holes in her myth exactly as it was spinning. Artists are not lesser artists because of these struggles, but being a drug addict is not what makes a person great. In fact, it usually strips away at their piercingly pure talents. Sometimes, people take the warning and clean themselves up, but when an addiction takes the life of an artist in their prime, the death itself solidifies the myth of the person in a dangerously gossamer place. They are forever suspended at a young and precious age, the promise of who they could have been decimated. We’re left with only the arresting beauty of youth, and the sharp, green power of an perspective on art that didn’t have the chance to mature. It’s easy for young minds to take these seductively abrupt narratives as outcomes preferable to the relatively mundane triumphs of a long, meandering life.
I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else. — Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn was a very modern kind of artist, an artist of personality. She is a creature of mass media, of the birth of mass technology. She was an expert PR manipulator who mastered some of the tropes of mime and burlesque to harness the imagination of the world, not just of her age, but of future ages. She played with gender, sex, and what it means to be a woman in a way that was part parody and part deconstruction. She put on a mask to reveal herself. Many people fall in love with her because they see that not only is she masquerading as a sexpot and pushing the boundaries of what we should consider is acceptable behavior as a society, she is openly displaying a vulnerability that transcends all that. It’s like she’s desperate for us to see her, and if you look closely enough, you can, as much as anyone can ever see anyone else. Because of sexual abuse and a fragmented childhood that rocketed her from from family to family, at one time even spending a year in an orphanage, identity was a bigger issue to Marilyn than to people who grow up in safe and stable environments. Our parents and community tell us who we are, and that’s comforting.
When Marilyn was a young girl, she fell in love with the movies because they were fantasy, but also maybe because it was a stable cultural influence that she could hold onto. The rest of the world is watching these movies too. Mass media and popular culture, as much as they are maligned, serve a very valid and important role for us: they make us feel connected to each other. Film and TV show us that other people have internal worlds and that connection with whatever brains may have watched (and created) the same flickering lights is a powerful and touching one. We watch people going through a spectrum of emotions and say things we’ve never heard said before, but that maybe touch on something we’ve thought or felt. This is the greatest role of art, to remind us that we’re all in this together, and to make the individual feel like less of a freak for having a vast and fragile internal world. But, still, for all the saviors Marilyn sought out, she still never seemed to find peace. As an adult, she seemed to recreate her childhood by embedding herself in the family homes of others for brief stints of time.
This time, of course, it was Marilyn who chose who she got to live with. Childhood experiences map out for us who we’re going to be, and where we feel most comfortable, so we usually seek out similar patterns whether we know it or not, with an eye for improvement. We’re always looking for home, and for Marilyn, the feeling of home was married to a feeling of instability. Marilyn’s mother Gladys, who had always been unstable, had a breakdown when Marilyn was only seven-years-old, and was placed in a hospital for basically the rest of her life. Her main diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia because she heard voices, but she also had intense mood swings. We now know that whatever mental illness is, it definitely runs in families, and Marilyn was valid to be wary of potential problems she’d possibly face. She definitely experienced mood swings, and some close to her have even reported that she heard voices, but it’s unclear if these were negative rumination, or, as in schizophrenia, voices that seem to be coming from outside the person’s head.
In an attempt to flee the same fate as her mother, to give herself an antidote, she dove into extensive psychoanalysis at the height of her fame. At the time, she was also studying intensely with Stanislavski-inspired acting coach Lee Strasburg, and both endeavors asked her to delve deep into her childhood traumas. Unfortunately, instead of assuaging and diminishing them, these activities seemed to aggravate and magnify them. “It’s not too much fun to know yourself too well or think you do—everyone needs a little conceit to carry them through & past the falls,” Marilyn writes in diary entries that were published in 2010, questioning whether or not all this intensive deep digging is doing any good. Sometimes opening up about our past can give us relief and healing, but it can also lead to dwelling there, circling around in painful ruminations that steal the promise of our present lives right from under us. She’s oft-criticized for being a drug addict, and by the time of her death she was doctor shopping and administering to herself massive amounts of sedatives and painkillers, but in the beginning she was dosed uppers and downers like most in the studio system. Because of her mental health needs and a medically documented severe case of endometriosis, she was given additional sedatives and prescription pain pills.
These medications at first seemed to help quiet and calm down her troubled mind, but just led to worsening symptoms as her body adjusted to them. Her search for relief in the medicine just turned out to to lead to a more terrifying nightmare. During a brief stay at a high security mental health facility Marilyn was diagnosed as borderline paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis that’s no longer used, but which laid the groundwork for what we now know as borderline personality disorder. It’s characterized by mood swings much like bipolar, unstable relationships, paranoia, and a shaky sense of self, all which Marilyn seems to have in spades. After the diagnosis congealed in the psychiatric community, for a while it carried possibly the highest stigma. Now, BPD is seen as a treatable condition, and thankfully people diagnosed with this disorder are, for the most part, treated with a greater degree of dignity by professionals than they have been in the past.
In her diaries, Marilyn relates a dream that illustrates her sense of emptiness and loss of identity. In the dream one of her father figures, Lee Strasburg, is a surgeon tasked with cutting out whatever mysterious “dis-ease” is sucking the life from her.
“Best finest surgeon—Strasberg to cut me open which I don’t mind since Dr. H has prepared me—given me anaesthetic 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—
They cut me open … and there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is deeply disappointed but even more – 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 – devoid of every human living feeling thing – the only thing that came out was so finely cut sawdust – like out of a ragged ann doll.”
It’s interesting that Marilyn compares herself to a doll here. It represents a feeling of nothingness, of unworthiness. Everyone else expects Marilyn Monroe to be a doll filled with glitter, she perceives herself as a doll filled with sawdust. She really was just a confused, troubled person, searching, like us all, for a moment of satisfaction, love and peace. We take her for granted, often missing in our Madonna/whore characterizations of her the questions she was asking about sexuality, about what a woman could do and what she could be. She had ideas about sexuality that would become more accepted and internalized by the public in the coming decades. She was on the forefront of feminism and free love. In her diaries and her life she was constantly asking whether or not we can free ourselves of the pain of our past and the torment of mental illness, of whether we can ever truly find ourselves. She was at turns earnest with and winking at the public, challenging us to accept her, to love her, to understand her, and all the time afraid that if we truly dissected her all we would find would be sawdust.
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