#Overdose #Suicide #MarilynMonroe
This is the second installment of an interview with Author Gary Vitacco-Robles. In earlier posts, we reviewed Volume I and Volume II of his definitive biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe. In this installment, the author responds to our questions about the star, her psychological profile and her legacy among those who remember her today.
When asked, most people remember the more sensational images and episodes from Marilyn Monroe’s life. There is her famous nude photo taken in 1949 for which she was paid $50 that appeared in 1951 in the Golden Dreams calendar – tame by current standards. She was Norma Jeane Baker when it was taken but published in 1951 after she had gained recognition as a rising star. Original negatives of the shot go for six million and higher at auctions today. Back in the 1050’s, photos feminine nudity were euphemistically marketed as photographic studies. Marilyn broke through the hypocrisy with her exultant, fully nude photograph that Hugh Hefner used as a centerfold for his inaugural issue of Playboy.
Among those who were of voting age at the time, the scandal over her alleged affairs with John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy come quickly to mind.
Although it was staged without public viewing in mind, her rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the birthday party for President John F. Kennedy made an indelible imprint on many.
Finally, movie file aficionados still ponder how one so beautiful, famous and wealthy could die at her own hand. Drug over dose deaths have regrettably become commonplace. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Winehouse, Prince, and Michael Jackson – among the more famous.
Putting the weight behind of his research behind his thoughts on Marilyn Monroe’s death, Gary Vitacco-Robles responded to our direct question about the matter in a recent interview.
Do you agree with the judgement that Marilyn’s death was an accidental overdose?
The level of barbiturates metabolized in Marilyn’s liver suggests that she consumed about 45 Nembutal and nearly 20 chloral hydrate. This large dose of two medications suggests an intentional overdose and her awareness that it would kill her. There is, of course, the possibility that the overdose was accidental. Marilyn experienced severe mood fluctuations consistent with a Bipolar Disorder diagnosis. The disorder is marked by episodes of mania or hypomania and episodes of depression. At times, an episode can be mixed, having symptoms of both mania and depression.
We know Marilyn was irritable on her last day, she was struggling with insomnia the entire spring and summer; her insomnia was chronic since the mid-fifties. Marilyn’s erratic presentation on the set of Something’s Got To Give, her inability to concentrate, her memory disturbances, her paranoia, all can be linked to her mood disorder. Keep in mind, she wasn’t being treated with a mood stabilizing drug. Most of what was prescribed for her were sedative drugs, and lithium, an early mood stabilizer, was experimental at the time.
We didn’t know as much as we do now about Bipolar Disorder at this time in history, and didn’t clearly understand that it was on a continuum; we clearly knew of the manic psychosis state on the continuum of the disorder. And we also didn’t know about the brain chemistry related to severe depression; depression was believed to be a reaction to stressors and an inability to cope effectively. Hypomania can also involve impulsivity, racing and irrational thoughts.
I believe Marilyn might have been in a hypomanic or mixed episode in the end. Studies of near fatal suicide attempts that required medical intervention reveal that in about 25% of the cases, the person did not have suicidal thoughts or impulses five minutes before the attempt. About 70% report none an hour beforehand. Marilyn’s Bipolar Disorder certainly placed her at a higher risk for an impulsive suicide; the massive amounts of drugs prescribed by her internist, Hyman Engelberg, also placed her at high risk. From the spring of 1962 until her death, I was able to track over 700 units of medications. He concurrently prescribed Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate, contraindicated drugs, if taken together, can result in death.
Another high risk factor, is her Borderline Personality Disorder. This little understood disorder can manifest impulsive behavior such as the person taking her life to reduce emotional pain. In a Borderline crisis, a person might attempt suicide to express emotional pain and to cry for help or even set up a suicide attempt in order to be rescued.
Ralph Greenson (Marilyn’s psychiatrist, was clearly overwhelmed in his role, experienced counter-transference and abandoned all professional boundaries. His controversial treatment techniques were highly ineffective, and in fact, exacerbated Marilyn’s condition. His efforts very likely had an opposite effect than intended. Of course, Borderline Personality Disorder was introduced into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders nearly 20 years after Marilyn’s death, but it was described and studied since the late 1930s, and Greenson’s letters and recorded observations demonstrate that he noted Marilyn’s symptoms of the disorder.
The praise, adulation and affection for Marilyn never really got through to Norma Jeane. What prevented Norma Jeane from accepting Marilyn as her creation and recognizing the praise that was offered was for Norma Jeane as the artist who created Marilyn Monroe, just as, say, Lucille Ball could with her immortal Lucy?
Marilyn’s traumatic background impacted her by creating feelings of inferiority, shame, and worthlessness. This is the insidious nature of childhood neglect, physical and sexual abuse. She constantly looked for external validation and had very little ego strength. She was extremely resilient but nonetheless emotionally damaged, deeply and profoundly
damaged, and the treatment she received, though state of the art for its day, was ineffective, perhaps even harmful. She wrote of feeling “subhuman”, as if she was “not existing” or unworthy of existing, and she constantly searched for feedback that reinforced this negative and self-defeating belief about herself.
It was challenging for Marilyn to believe she was worthy of the adulation; at times she felt as though the fame and success was happening to or focused on someone else. Marilyn also wrote of feeling this way about Miller genuinely loving her. Her journals show she feared he would learn that she was unworthy and he would fall out of love with her.
Around the time she prepared her debut performance at the Actor’s Studio, she had a revealing dream that not only demonstrated her insecurity about acting, but also her insecurity as a worthy person. The dream depicts that her talent was a mirage, that she was empty inside, filled with sawdust, and everyone would eventually know she was unworthy. She would eventually disappoint everyone and they would reject her. This lack of identity and feeling empty is common in Borderline Personality Disorder, common among those with severe early childhood abuse and neglect histories.
Most don’t think Marilyn’s appearance at the birthday party for President John F. Kennedy was a credit to her. As time has passed, most think she demeaned herself? What is your opinion?
I don’t believe the footage had ever been intended for release to the general public. It was a private party for a particular crowd with many in-jokes; it was the entertainment field’s love-in for their liberal president, the first since FDR. The birthday gala wasn’t a televised event for the networks. It was only until later that the footage appeared in documentaries. It seems an appropriate performance for that particular crowd on that particular night. The audience was comprised of liberal, progressive Democrats making donations to the party.
I believe the organizers of the event commanded the quintessential Monroe persona for the performance, and she delivered what was intended. This was a political fundraiser, each admission cost between $500 and $1000, and she was the pièce de résistance. Her Jean Louis gown was nearly a recreation of the many diaphanous illusionary gowns the designer had made for Marlene Dietrich. We may think of the dress as somewhat scandalous, but Dietrich had been wearing very similar ones in concerts throughout the 1950s.
Every vocal nuance and physical gesture was premeditated, as we know from the rehearsal, so the organizers, director and producer were fully aware of what Marilyn’s performance was intended to be. Now, how much was generated by her and how much was directed, is a mystery. Photos show her in conversation with those organizing the event. I suspect that it was completely scripted and staged and not spontaneous. The only departure from the script may have been the dress which surprised the organizers who allegedly believed Marilyn would wear a high-neck black gown. Marilyn reportedly made the change in secret.
Marilyn was performing a characterization, a parody of her film persona. It seems contrary to the image she wished to convey as a serious actress at that point in her career, but I don’t think she realized the performance would become viral and iconic. Keep in mind the raw footage of the event reveals the crowd going wild. We hear the vocal roar . . . the crowd is loud and responsive throughout the performance. We hear a collective laugh at “Mr. President” in the Happy Birthday song. The audience applauds wildly during the “Thanks, Mr. President” song with acknowledgement of his achievements. Photos of the president’s box with Marilyn in the foreground demonstrate joy on the faces of the Kennedy family members in attendance, especially Ethel Kennedy. Other writers have noted that Jacqueline Kennedy was conspicuously absent. And the President, appearing immediately after Marilyn’s performance, seemed pleased and amused.
If people can remember the evening was the equivalent of an office party for those attending, the context puts Marilyn’s appearance in perspective.
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