Marilyn Monroe Writes From The Depths of Depression

Norma Jeane, in better days

Norma Jeane, in better days

Marilyn Monroe was an intelligent, badly damaged, emotionally abused woman. I never found her screen image particularly appealing, but she was clearly a star like few others, and she really could act when she put her mind to it.

But she was broken, and everyone around her knew it, and most of them just kept on pushing her to Be Marilyn.

Imagine being mentally ill, with a major depressive disorder so bad you can barely function. Now imagine that while being Marilyn Monroe. It would be impossible. The stress of having to be on, to be the icon, would tear you apart. And that’s what it did to her.

She was used up by a system that only saw her as cash cow, and by men who only saw her as an object to be used, including the vile Kennedy brothers, who passed this poor soul around like a party favor. The image she projected to the world was an illusion, and she was intelligent enough to know it was an illusion.

Letters of Note has a letter she wrote during her star at Payne Whitney, a snake-pit psychiatric hospital in Manhattan. The letter is a cry from the depths of darkness, but a knowing one. She understands herself and her illness, and there’s a sad resignation to it all. This woman–who writes of reading Freud’s letters and Sean O’Casey, and quotes Milton–is clearly drawing down, and there’s a genuine sense of relief that some end may be near. She’d be dead within a year, found by the very doctor to whom addressed this letter.

There was no empathy at Payne-Whitney — it had a very bad effect — they asked me after putting me in a “cell” (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patients (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed.

The inhumanity there I found archaic. They asked me why I wasn’t happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser drawers, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows — the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and markings still remain on the walls from former patients).

I answered: “Well, I’d have to be nuts if I like it here” then there screaming women in their cells — I mean they screamed out when life was unbearable I guess — at times like this I felt an available psychiatrist should have talked to them perhaps to alleviate even temporarily their misery and pain. I think they (the doctors) might learn something even — but all are only interested in something from the books they studied — I was surprised because they already know that. Maybe from some live suffering human being they could discover more — I had the feeling they looked more for discipline and that they let their patients go after the patients have “given up”.

[The doctor in charge] told me I was a very, very sick girl and had been a very, very sick girl for many years. He looks down on his patients because I’ll tell you why in a moment. He asked me how I could possibly work when I was depressed. He wondered if that interfered with my work. He was being very firm and definite in the way he said it.

He actually stated it more than he questioned me so I replied: “Didn’t he think that perhaps Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin perhaps and perhaps Ingrid Bergman they had been depressed when they worked sometimes but I said it’s like saying a ball player like DiMaggio if he could hit ball when he was depressed. Pretty silly.

There’s a stage you reach in depression in which you’re almost looking at your illness and yourself from the outside. You can get detached. Sometimes wisdom comes with that, but sometimes that detachment presages something worse.

It’s interesting that in the text of the letter Monroe herself speculates about the propriety of reading the private correspondence of the late and famous. I have countless volumes of letters by famous figures, and defend their publication, but there’s always a sense of window-peeking. This one is no different.