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.
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.
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?