Below is a guest post by David Chirko, a psychologically oriented researcher and author who contacted Our Marilyn Monroe to discuss Marilyn’s mental health through a clinical lens. These are references held from researchers and are not necessarily the opinions of Our Marilyn Monroe.
I personally do not believe in diagnosing those who are no longer with us because the information is all second hand. That said, I am always keen to understand the science and what may have triggered certain behaviours. I found this article to be an interesting one to share. I do think Marilyn follows many of the traits mentioned but I want to clarify once again that I am not stating Marilyn suffered from these conditions officially. There is absolutely nothing wrong with suffering any sort of mental illness but I don’t like saying someone suffered an illness when I wasn’t the one treating her if that makes sense… I understand also that medical science was very different in the past and appreciate that now if Marilyn were to be treated, she is likely to have been diagnosed with the below. Please read the below with an open mind and understand that these are simply what others have researched in observing Marilyn’s psychological profile.
References, as well as a final note, can be found at the end of the article.
The foreword to Cassandra’s Daughter (1999), by psychoanalytic psychotherapist Joseph Schwartz, Ph.D. (physics), proclaims that “Psychoanalysis is arguably the… most important intellectual development of the twentieth century. It shares boundaries with literature, psychiatry, and academic psychology…” Those boundaries now extend to the motion picture arts, because many movie stars have been psychoanalyzed. One of them, Schwartz explains, like “…Marilyn Monroe…are…gods of success….” (p. 15). Schwartz compares the famous of today to Greek gods who, via their mythologies, reflected the elements of a fractured society’s experiential core. I will deconstruct part of that core, by separating the bruised and misunderstood person that was Norma Jean Baker, from the mythical, legendary goddess that was invented in Marilyn Monroe, through her involvement with psychoanalysis.
Marilyn, the Thespian
Writer and professor Sarah Churchwell, Ph.D. (English/American literature), states in her 2013 Freud Museum London podcast, The Many Minds of Marilyn Monroe (alluding to her 2005 book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe), in the beginning, Marilyn wasn’t an adroit actress. However, she had charisma, nevertheless screen moguls didn’t extol her for this and, Churchwell adds, she often wasn’t paid well, comparatively. Marilyn was sexually harassed, but sometimes arduous to work with. Miss Cellania (2011) asserts that director Billy Wilder found her “erratic” and forgetful of her lines, in Some Like It Hot (1959). Lorraine (2002), says Wilder once quipped, “It was hell at the time, but after it was over, it was wonderful”
Churchwell says Marilyn didn’t always get male support. For instance, Arthur Miller idealized her, but thought her past was opprobrious. Churchwell defends her, declaring she wasn’t angelic, but perfectionistic; not crazy, but ferocious. For Marilyn, her failures superseded everything and she was dissatisfied over having little education. No, she was not the stereotypical, dumb blonde. Although she wasn’t so fragile, being looked upon as only an icon perturbed her.
The Psychodiagnostic Bible: DSM
Marilyn Monroe, as will be shown, would probably display just about all of the symptoms necessary to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, or BPD, found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition), or DSM-5 (APA, 2013, p. 663). To meet the criteria one must exhibit five or more of the following features:
1. Eschewing imagined or real abandonment;
2. Interpersonal relationships that are intense, but not stable, with fluctuating extremes, from devaluation (belittling others), to idealization (exalting others);
3. Identity disturbance, where sense of self or self-image is unbalanced;
4. Impulsivity in a couple of areas that may damage a person, like careless driving, episodes of impetuous eating, financial overspending, improper and/or exorbitant use of drugs, and indiscriminate sexual exploits;
5. Repeated suicidal, or self-mutilating (like cutting), behaviour;
6. Emotional instability, stemming from mood, such as anxiety, dysphoria (depression), or irritability;
7. Feelings of chronic emptiness;
8. Anger management issues;
9. Passing, stress-based paranoid ideation (entertaining of thoughts) or symptoms of dissociation (disconnected mentally/behaviorally from sense of self in the here and now).
Psychiatrist Jerold Jay Kreisman, M.D., and health and medical writer Hal Straus, A.B. (history), discuss (1991), borderline personality disorder, covering its many facets and causes while alluding to how it was exemplified in Marilyn Monroe.
The roots of BPD (pp. 48-50), can be social, neurobiological, or, as in Marilyn’s case (mainly) developmental. Concerning the etiological (causative) factors, at the age of 18 to 30 months, the child attempts autonomy; their experiences and feelings are not given value by absent parents. A stable sense of self is not ratified; therefore they incessantly worry over being abandoned and crave attachment.
At two to three years, is the “individuation-separation phase,” where the child disengages from the caregiver and develops a distinct sense of self, sculpting boundaries between others and itself. This is complexified by conflictual desires of autonomy versus dependency and closeness needs, and fears of being abandoned versus fears of being engulfed.
“Splitting,” a defence mechanism, occurs; seeing an individual as two personas—i.e., the good, against the bad, mother. When absent, the infant yearns for her return. Normal integration of all mother’s bad and good traits replaces the split. Separation anxiety is overcome via “object constancy”; the good object (mother) is always there. Marilyn didn’t achieve this; not knowing who she, or her mother, was. (Kalb  says her mother sometimes denied being her mother [pp. 23-4].) Without a stable sense of self, she became dependent, feeling abandoned and always supplicating love.
Churchwell (2013) states Marilyn had a distressful childhood because she never knew her own father and her mother was consigned to a mental institution when she was eight. She experienced trepidation over inheriting her mother’s schizophrenia. Marilyn stayed in an orphanage and foster homes when young, therein was “probably” molested.
Kreisman and Straus describe (p. 36) Norman Mailer’s volume Marilyn (1973), wherein he elaborates on how Monroe sought an identity. This is quintessential to being “real,” extinguishing the emptiness in oneself, thereby releasing good, sincere feelings. When actors act a part, the “Method” is exercised as they emotionally act out, similar to what occurs in psychoanalysis. Once reaching the depths, they are encapsulated by their role and experience enlightenment, as their identity is fulfilled. This is what BPD sufferers struggle with when they are compelled to fake an identity. The authors mention (p. 40) Norman Rosten’s book, Marilyn: An Untold Story (1973), wherein the writer remembered how Marilyn loathed being alone because it propelled her into a perpetual and frightening void. Kreisman and Straus then describe how director Lee Strasberg offered her the nurturance she was deprived of as a child. Nevertheless, when a man that was a father figure deserted her, or passed on, like Clark Gable (p. 56), or when she was childless, rebuffed, and incriminated professionally, she felt devastated. Marilyn was then “found out,” becoming only Norma Jean, again—and who was she? Her persona obliterated, she plunged into depression. At least three times she attempted suicide. She manipulated her lovers later in life.
Churchwell believes that her mental illness was connected to drug use, not falling under a distinct clinical category. She supposes that, as a symptom of drug addiction, paranoia plagued her and was prevalent just before her death, but no one knows exactly when it commenced. Though hampered by depression, Churchwell wasn’t certain it was her circumstances causing it. In the end, Marilyn could not have been that depressed from being fired during the production of Something’s Got to Give, because she was rehired.
Psychoanalysts to the Rescue
Churchwell (2013) says Marilyn went to Strasberg’s acting studio at the end of 1955. He implored his pupils to undergo psychoanalysis and operated his acting workshops like they were therapy sessions. Strasberg wanted a thespian’s emotions to supplant their character. A psychologist apprises us that Marilyn “…was treated by five different psychoanalysts between 1955 and…‘62….” (Marilyn and the Therapists, 2012). Churchwell states Strasberg referred Marilyn to the (Hungarian born) New York psychiatrist, neurologist and psychoanalyst Margaret Hohenberg, M.D. (who treated her 1955-57). She further says that Hohenberg, after flying from New York to London, recommended she see Anna Freud, who was Viennese born, later emigrating to Britain. She was also the daughter of psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud. In the summer of 1956 “Anna Freud…saw Marilyn for a few sessions….” (Green, 2011, p. xxxvii) at Anna’s house, while she was filming The Prince and the Showgirl, in England.
Anna is quoted saying Marilyn was “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” (Marilyn and the Therapists, 2012).
Some, like Irish author and blogger Mary Kelly Godley (2012), believe Monroe suffered Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), admitting many with BPD are misdiagnosed with NPD, and the converse.
Churchwell avers, upon returning to New York, Marilyn saw Viennese born, British, later American, physician and psychoanalyst Marianne Kris (or Kris-Rie), M.D. Kris later recommended psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Ralph (Romi) Greenson, M.D., from Los Angeles, who was close to Anna Freud. Churchwell states, “For what it’s worth, Dr. Greenson diagnosed her (Marilyn) with borderline personality disorder” (24:49, 2013), which, Churchwell opines, in Marilyn’s case was connected to PTSD.
In early 1961, after the failure of The Misfits, Churchwell explains that a well-intentioned Kris mistakenly enjoined Marilyn to go to the Payne Whitney mental hospital in New York. During her sojourn there she was on barbiturates and threatened to hurt herself, and was thus restrained by force. Marilyn became rancorous, felt betrayed, and dejected. Joe DiMaggio got her out and she was transferred to a general care facility, Columbia Hospital in New York. Marilyn later chided Kris over her ordeal at the mental hospital, which she never completely attained recovery from.
Churchwell apprises us, after Marilyn’s passing, her bequest was made to Kris, who was a friend of Anna’s. Marianne was given instructions to gift it to her chosen charity, which was the Hampstead Clinic in England, where Anna was director. It received over a quarter of Marilyn’s estate (Asbury, 1980). The will was exacted while she was treated byGreenson. Psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Ph.D. (philosophy), states that he “…had to live with the fact of her suicide” (1988, p. 412). Greenson, therefore, sought Anna Freud for solace. Anna averred, in her January 20, 1963 return post to him, “I am terribly sorry about Marilyn… I know exactly how you feel because I had…the same thing happen with a patient…who took cyanide… One goes over and over in one’s head to find out where one could have done better and it leaves…a terrible sense of being defeated. But…in these cases, we are…defeated by something…stronger than we are and for which analysis, with all its powers, is too weak a weapon” (p. 413).
Churchwell elaborates on Marilyn’s quasi-contractual, but close, arrangement with Greenson, wherein she desired attentive care. He meant well but was too ambitious and egoistic. Greenson would have Marilyn over for dinner, wherein she advised his teenage daughter on girl issues. He suggested staff for Marilyn’s house, as well as friends and romantic partners. He even conversed with film executives, intervening on her contracts. Perhaps Greenson stepped over the boundaries to make her stronger for analysis, so the whole scenario was a skosh experimental in nature.
Clarification Through a Modern Personality Profile
In 2020, Marilyn’s BPD diagnosis was confirmed by psychologist Todd Grande, Ph.D., who analyzes Monroe’s mental condition. He declares that many spurious psychiatric terms have been applied to her that are not even in the DSM. Grande goes on to aver that, examining characteristics in her and events in her life, she: experienced trauma earlier on; had a childhood that was unstable because of its peripatetic nature, not staying with any (foster) family for long; was suicidal on a number of occasions; had quite a few stormy romantic liaisons with men and, moreover, she and the men she encountered endeavored to manipulate one another; spawned rescue fantasies—her desire to save someone–that became her de rigueur; displayed intelligence, shyness and insecurity; became addicted to various drugs; battled sundry painful physical conditions (like gall bladder disease and endometriosis [Markel, 2016]) and chronic insomnia, maintaining bad work habits perhaps connected to that lack in sleep, but could be intentionally destructive, which was not derived from a dearth of slumber; had a mother who was a paranoid schizophrenic; was “vain” (according to a letter she penned to Greenson); and attained a level of fame accompanied by intense pressure.
Next, Grande applies “The Big Five” model of personality, which goes by the acronym OCEAN, to describe Monroe’s character:
- Openness – was high; open to new experiences, curious intellectually, enjoyed art, was creative, relished adventure;
- Conscientiousness – was low; didn’t exhibit a good work ethic, consistently late to the studios and oblivious to how her actions cost them time and money;
- Extraversion – was high; outgoing, cordial, asserted herself;
- Agreeableness – moderately low; manipulated people, didn’t comply with requirements, immodest;
- Neuroticism – high; became ensnared by drugs—administered by psychiatrists (or illegally acquired
- them), suffered anxiety, depression, and experienced anger.
Grande then reviews the other diagnoses some believe Marilyn was afflicted with.
- Schizophrenia: no disorganized thoughts prevalent; paranoia was evident. No heritability through her mother;
- Bipolar disorder: only depression, no true manic episodes. In the mental hospital she acted out because of personality traits or substance abuse;
- Anti-social personality disorder: she was not responsible, and impulsive;
- Borderline personality disorder: suicide gestures, dysregulated moods, paranoid ideation stemming
- from stress, identity uncertainty, impulsivity directed to harming herself, empty feelings;
- Narcissistic personality disorder: manipulative, felt entitled, wanted adulation;
- Histrionic personality disorder: a cynosure, sexually/physically provocative, but this may have been merely the movie role she played;
Borderline is the most plausible, considering the comorbidity (bits of other disorders), paranoia, early traumas and that which caused her death when treating uncontrollable insomnia: the use of drugs (Nembutal barbiturates and chloral hydrate sedatives [Markel, 2016]).
Who was Marilyn Monroe? She was the little girl next door, who couldn’t burgeon into that adorable flower, because of childhood traumas, abandonment, and identity confusion. This spawned her borderline personality disorder, with a concomitant addiction to drugs to battle that, and the manufactured, fantastical icon she became. An intelligent, creative, generous, warm, adventurous, and beautiful woman always remained.
Finally, writer Sarah Churchwell didn’t think psychoanalysis was deleterious to Marilyn but, perhaps it wasn’t the optimum therapeutic modality for her, either. Psychoanalysts, who did their best, at least educated her and, I think in the long run, all of us, about Marilyn and Norma Jean.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Fifth Edition; DSM-5). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Asbury, Edith Evans. (1980, November 25). Marianne Kris, A Psychoanalyst, Specialized in Treating Children. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1980/11/25/archives/marianne-kris-a-psychoanalyst-specialized-in-treating-children.html
- Christelle. (n.d.). Hohenberg Margaret. Cursum perficio. http://www.cursumperficio.net/FicheAH14.html
- Churchwell, Sarah. (2005). The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. New York, NY: Picador. https://www.amazon.com/Many-Lives-Marilyn-Monroe/dp/0312425651/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3QLI6YQQUEISW&keywords=The+Many+Lives+of+Marilyn+Monroe.&qid=1645139127&s=books&sprefix=the+many+lives+of+marilyn+monroe.+%2Cstripbooks-intl-ship%2C355&sr=1-1
- Churchwell, Sarah. (Host). (2013, December 3). The Many Minds of Marilyn Monroe [Audio podcast]. https://thefreudmuseum.podbean.com/e/the-many-minds-of-marilyn-monroe/
- Godley, Mary Kelly. (2012, August 22). Marilyn Monroe and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. HubPages.
- Grande, Todd. (2020, July 23). Marilyn Monroe Analysis. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siJxE8WIGRM
- Green, Andre. (2011). Illusions and Disillusions of Psychoanalytic Work. London, UK: Karnac Books. https://icpla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Green-A.-Marilyn-Menroe-Death-of-an-Icon.pdf
- Kalb, Claudia. (2016). Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities. National Geographic. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
- Lorraine. (2020, June 22). Marilyn Remembered. Happy Birthday Billy Wilder. http://www.marilynrememberedfanclub.com/happy-birthday-billy-wilder/
- Mailer, Norman. (1973). Marilyn. New York, NY: TarcherPerigee.
- Marilyn and the Therapists. (2012, February 9). Tales from the Reading Room. https://litlove.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/marilyn-and-the-therapists
- Markel, Howard. (2016, August 5). Column: Marilyn Monroe and the prescription drugs that killed her. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/marilyn-monroe-and-the-prescription-drugs-that-killed-her
- Miss Cellania. (2011, November 9). A Few Facts You May Not Know About Some Like It Hot. Neatorama. https://www.neatorama.com/2011/11/09/a-few-facts-you-may-not-know-about-some-like-it-hot/
- Rosten, Norman. (1973). Marilyn: An Untold Story. New York, NY: Signet Books.
- Schwartz, Joseph. (1999). Cassandra’s Daughter A History Of Psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Viking.
- Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. (1988). Anna Freud A Biography. New York, NY: Summit Books.
Note from Our Marilyn Monroe: I am not qualified myself to say if any of the above sources are incorrect however when attempting to find proof of Marilyn being diagnosed with BPD in her lifetime, I came across forums which stated that there are medical records on display at the Anna Freud Museum confirming she had BPD*.
Because of this, I contacted the Anna Freud Museum to see if they had any record of Marilyn being BPD or whether they had a medical card discussing Marilyn’s mental health. The AFM responded stating there is no such card or document in their archives or on display. They also mentioned if there are documents that exist, it would be morally wrong to display such a private item. I am yet to read or see any clarification that Marilyn was diagnosed with this in her lifetime. Marilyn had been prescribed medication to assist with insomnia, anxiety as well as stimulants. Many of the medication she took was also to treat depression. This is all I can confirm!
*Borderline Personality Disorder was not officially diagnosable until 1980 (although the phrase was used as early as 1938). But other terms were used such as “borderline schizophrenia” and “emotionally unstable personality disorder” (EUPD).