Marilyn and the Therapists

Marilyn by Cecil Beaton

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.

Marilyn Monroe was certainly a candidate for therapy. She came from a long line of manic-depressives and suicides. In fact, although she had a mother, she grew up mostly in foster homes and orphanages, as her mother was in psychiatric care. Norma Jean, as she was then, married at 16, to the first man who looked like a safe pair of hands, but as she had been seriously abused at least three times in her youth, it seems likely that her personality was already in trouble and it would have taken a miraculous marriage to save her. She suffered from a stammer and terrible nightmares, had very little sense of decorum, and she was reckless with her body and with her material possessions. When she began working in films she suffered dreadful stage fright and found keeping studio hours almost impossible, she was so unreliable.

She was treated by five different psychoanalysts between 1955 and her death in ‘62, one of whom was none other than Anna Freud, who described her as: ‘Emotionally unstable, highly impulsive, and needing continuous approval from the outside world; she cannot bear solitude and tends to get depressed when faced with rejection; paranoid with schizophrenic elements.’ However, therapy began initially on the recommendation of her performing arts coach, Lee Strasberg, who was teaching her method acting. The idea was that actors dug deep in their souls to use past emotional dramas to inform their stage performance. Psychoanalysis was all the rage in Hollywood in the 50s, and it was considered quite normal that she should go into therapy to improve her acting. Unsurprisingly the orthodox Freudian method was hard for Marilyn to take. Five times a week she would be called on to resurrect past traumas and confront her absence of parental figures. This would be followed up by acting lessons in which she would be asked to identify with starving children and abandoned orphans. Little wonder, then, that her drug abuse increased.

The therapist who made the most impact on Marilyn was Ralph Greenson, who began life as Romeo Greenschpoon, born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Greenson was a cultured and kind man, a great favourite of the Hollywood crowd and liked by everyone who knew him. Marilyn seemed enthralled by his help, and called him her ‘Jesus’.  But she had to leave him to film a movie in New York. This turned out to be a dreadful time for her. She was in the throes of divorcing Arthur Miller and The Misfits had bombed. She spent her days sleeping in a darkened room, living off tranquillisers. Her New York therapist decided that a spell in a psychiatric ward was needed, little realising this was the worst thing she could do. Most of Marilyn’s nightmares revolved around incarceration, and once she was locked in a padded cell, she went berserk, finally managing to smash the window in the door with a chair. Of course, the more Marilyn protested at her treatment, the more severe the treatment became. She got a note out via a sympathetic nurse and her former husband, Joe DiMaggio, threatened to take the hospital apart brick by brick unless the authorities released her. Free again, Marilyn wrote a letter to Ralph Greenson, describing the intolerable treatment she had been subjected to, and berating the cavalier attitude of doctors, who saw only the symptoms of the textbook and never the person.

Vulnerable Marilyn

Quite possibly for this reason, then, Greenson altered the therapy in ways for which he has been severely criticised. He made himself endlessly available to Monroe, and their sessions lasted for up to five hours, with telephone calls in between. She became almost a member of his family, befriending his grown-up children and staying to have lunch (after which she always helped with the washing up). Greenson was trying to provide her with the family life she had missed, with the stability and normality that her current stardom undermined. The endless switching of therapists, although motivated by travel, repeated the pattern of her endless love affairs, with loving faces passing through in quick succession, supposedly nurturing figures who tended to make things worse. Greenson suggested Marilyn take a housekeeper, a woman called Eunice Murray whom he knew and who kept a close watch on her, reporting everything back to Greenson.

More carefree – if only she could have been

Ralph Greenson was one of the last people to see her on the day she died, and he was the first on the scene when Eunice Murray rang him in the early hours of the morning, worried about Marilyn. To add to the bizarre circumstances, when a speeding car was stopped in Beverly Hills just after midnight on that same day, it turned out to contain Bobby Kennedy, his brother-in-law, and Ralph Greenson. There are many weird and disturbing theories about Marilyn’s death, but Greenson seems to feature in all of them, the latest being that Greenson was a member of the American Communist Party, using Marilyn to get information from JFK, with whom she was having an affair.

Why do things have to be so complicated? Marilyn’s life would have been hard even without the fame and the fortune and the manipulation of Hollywood. The conditions for a cure – that she access her wounded feelings in safety and security – were always undermined by using them for her screen work. And anyway, her emotional life held no stability as she tore through marriages and affairs, and repeatedly switched therapists. She was on a huge cocktail of drugs – why did anyone think she could live under such an accumulation of pressures? But Marilyn interests me because she shows up the inherent difficulty of orthodox psychotherapy – the need to go through feelings that are excruciating to tolerate. Whenever a doctor gets involved, it seems to me, no matter what kind of doctor, there is a dreadfully cavalier approach to side effects. I wonder how often the side effects are almost worse than the illness?

27 thoughts on “Marilyn and the Therapists

    • Lilian, I knew nothing about her at all, I realised. But once you start reading, her biography is quite extraordinary. I’d certainly like to read some more now, and some different perspectives.

  1. Once upon a time, before Joyce Carol Oates wrote Blonde and Marcel Schneider, Marilyn dernière séance, I wanted to write a novel about her. I haven’t read both novels although I have them here. She has always been special to me, not so much as an actress, although I like her screen presence but precisely for the vulnerability and for many more personal reasons. … Maybe I’ll write it anyway, some day. First I need to read the other two books though, or maybe not…

    • Caroline, you should definitely write your novel! Marilyn’s life is so rich and bizarre that there must be material there for many books, and certainly no definitive perspective has emerged thus far. I think you should read the other novels, but then let them settle for several months in your brain. I imagine they would probably help to firm up the angle you wanted to take.

  2. Really a fascinating post — and I share your question about the fallout of “therapeutic” intervention; it’s something that is nearly always misunderstood and underestimated.

    • David, it’s exactly this: that you open a person up, bring them close to demons they have been working extremely hard to avoid for many years, and then… out that person goes at the end of the 50 minutes, to return to their own house, all vulnerable, all undone….? It’s just a problematic part of the process as far as I can see.

  3. litlove, may I recommend another movie you’ll be interested in: My Week With Marilyn. It’s not the in-depth psychological exploration of psychoanalysis like in A Dangerous Method, but it’s a whimsical, and dreamlike capture of a week she spent in England, having had to put up with Laurence Olivier… and vice versa. Michelle Williams got a nom for Oscar Best Actress with her role as MM, and Kenneth Branagh nom for Best Supporting Actor for LO. In the movie, we sure can get the despondence and inner turmoil of her psyche. I think MW did a good job there. And then there’s Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, equally intriguing role in Iron Lady… also psychologically portrayed. You have a few good films to watch all of which I think you’ll enjoy.😉

    • Arti – you are wonderful at earmarking films that would be just right for me! We are talking now about having a book store outing to see My Week With Marilyn when it shows over here. That would be fun. And I would like to see Meryl Streep in Iron Lady as well as A Dangerous Method. I need to get a move on with these films, don’t I?🙂

  4. As someone married to a psychotherapist I can say categorically that a proper psychotherapist has one over-riding rule “the client comes first”. People who abuse their clients in that way have no right calling themselves therapists and I would question anyone describing their methods as ‘orthodox psychotherapy”. No one should be forced into any form of therapy – it should be there for them if they want it. Sadly, there are a lot of people out there calling themselves psychotherapists and counsellors who are not qualified to do so – either because of lack of qualifications or through total failure to apply that one basic rule.

    • I realise, reading your comment, OAL, and some others, that I should have added a few extra sentences to make my own position more clear. I’m a fan of psychotherapy generally, as I think it offers the only method we have of addressing certain serious problems. And I do think that most psychotherapists are highly ethical. I think that Ralph Greenson acted in what he believed would be his patient’s best interest and he was gutted when Marilyn died. He was depressed for most of the rest of his life, and plagued by guilt. But I do think he was trying to put Marilyn first by giving her as much of a normal, family life as he could, given that she suffered dreadfully from her demons when alone. This was the fifties, after all, when there was much enthusiasm for psychotherapy, but far less understanding about it than there is now. I don’t expect he realised how many boundaries he would cross by being a therapist and a stand-in relative. But there was this genuine problem with Marilyn – how to support her when her life outside the therapy room was so strange, and when she was so very vulnerable? I think that therapy didn’t damage her, but it failed in its bid to save her, which is quite a different thing.

  5. Fascinating post, Litlove. I had no idea about Greenson. You also make an excellent point about accessing our vulnerabilities in safety and security. Marilyn is such a larger-than-life figure so it’s very interesting to see the other side of her.

    • Pete – this must be a problem that you are uncovering from time to time (as I do in my work). You see your student for the hour or half hour, and maybe for that time you can give them support and help. But how to prevent their spirits from plummetting the moment they leave your company and return to the situation that drags them down? I often wonder how or if we can ever get a handle on that.

  6. This was really interesting. Your question about how often the side effects are worse than the illness is a good one. So often I think it is left to the patients to determine and they are the ones least able to make those kinds of choices.

    • I always shudder at the advice leaflets inside some prescription pills from the doctor which note as side effects: coma and death. Side effects?? I think you’re right and this whole area is fraught with difficulties over who is in control. It just isn’t an easy situation to manage.

  7. I knew she had a tragic life but didn’t understand the extent of her issues or how psychotherapy may have helped usher in her demise. She always seems such a sad person to me and one that really need care and she just didn’t get it. If she were alive today she would have been fodder for the paparazzi and probably would have died even sooner from a drug overdose. You have certainly piqued my curiosity about her and have made me want to do further study.

    • You’re quite right, Kathleen. What’s really sad is that if Marilyn Monroe was alive today, she would be getting no more sensitive treatment from the media and her managers than she did all those years ago. That is nothing to be proud of! But Marilyn is a fascinating character and I would also like to read more about her now.

  8. Wow, I had no idea about all of that. What a sad life–it sounds like everyone just took advantage of her and she was already so fragile. It makes you wonder what would have helped her. Imagine having to live in the sort of situation you find the most bearable, and That is meant to cure you? Fascinating stuff!

    • Danielle – that’s just it. It seems like everyone did take advantage of her, whether unwittingly or not. One of the therapists pointed out that Marilyn set herself up to be abused, quite often. What’s sad is that she knew hardly anyone who wasn’t more than ready to do the abusing. She really is a fascinating character, and I would like to know more about her now!

  9. Pingback: Marilyn and the Therapists | ES Updates

  10. I’ve read this post having just learned that Whitney Houston has died – another woman lost to her demons, I’m afraid. It’s all very sad. I didn’t know anything about this Greenson fellow until your post, LL, but it’s SO depressing to think that even this trusted figure was manipulating and using Monroe in the service of some other end.

    • Di – I was so upset to read about Whitney Houston! She was at the height of her fame when I was a teenager and into my early twenties and I have fond memories of her as an iconic singer. It seems so very sad to think that she’s died, and needlessly. I should have been clearer about Greenson, and it’s entirely my fault for not saying enough. I don’t think he was manipulating her exactly – I think he was trying very hard to help her, without entirely realising that there were disadvantages too to what he was doing. He was gutted by her death and terribly depressed afterwards, for years. As for the Hollywood studios, though, I don’t think there are words bad enough to express their behaviour! They were not compassionate.

  11. While it is clear that the psychiatrist clearly was deeply involved in her story and death, from a wider perspective the whole of modern society is surely implicated in these events. The immense commercial potential of Monroe surely drove her story, the desire to exploit her as a commodity in the market place bringing with it the necessity to somehow solve her difficulties with the world which sought to manipulate her for all its own monetary and sexual purposes. If she had had less charisma, beauty, appeal, she may have had better if less notorious/greed-driven treatment. Looking at today’s version of celebrity culture things have not changed.

    • Bookboxed, you say it true. I can’t disagree with a word of what you’ve written here, and you’re right, what’s really depressing is that nothing has changed as far as celebrities go. Why DO people want to become famous, when there are so few examples of anyone actually enjoying fame? It’s quite a mystery. Perhaps just as people who volunteer to be chairmen should never, ever be alllowed to do so, perhaps all the people who long for fame should be prevented from having it. Getting what you want does not always spell happiness.

  12. For obvious reasons, when we look back at the life of Marilyn Monroe we view it as tragedy.

    Yet I read an novel article a couple years ago by a female journalist who knew her, and she wrote of Marilyn not as a victim, but as having had genius. She had created the persona, after all–born Norma Jean, she crafted the alluring image which hadn’t been seen before. While Mae West also cultivated a sexpot persona, she had a wisecracking edge; MM rarely even took an ironic tone.

    Similar to the Beatles–who felt trapped by Beatlemania, a phenomenon they had kicked off then been overwhelmed by–the fame she crafted delivered far more than she bargained for.

    I saw the director Billy Wilder at a film festival many years ago. He was pretty funny when he spoke of working with Monroe. Her unpredictability drove him crazy. He vowed not to work with her again, she was so difficult. And then he looked at her work, and saw there was no one else who could deliver what she did. So he would try again. He said this of her:

    Whatever she threw away, we printed it, and it was very good. It was very, very good. She had a kind of elegant vulgarity about her. That, I think, was very important. And she automatically knew where the joke was. She did not discuss it. She came for the first rehearsal, and she was absolutely perfect. She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. Fright. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through.

    • That’s a really good way to think of it, Ombudsben. You’re right that it’s too easy to become caught up in all the machinations surrounding Marilyn and to overlook all that she gave of herself and her extraordinary charisma. Thank you for sharing the wonderful quote.

  13. Health wise, both mentally and physically, fame is the worst thing that could have happened to her.

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