When Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) lived in London, she met Anna Freud—Sigmund’s daughter. For a week, Marilyn and Anna had daily sessions. But, even before then, psychoanalysis had “become a way of life” for Marilyn.She had read Sigmund Freud’s works and felt that psychoanalysis offered a means by which she might avoid the mental illness that had plagued her mother and grandmother.
Because her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized, Marilyn found herself placed in a variety of orphanages and foster homes (as many as ten). The young Norma Jean suffered a harrowing childhood. She felt unwanted. By her account, she was sexually abused multiple times. No one could escape such a childhood without significant psychological trauma. It is no wonder that Marilyn suffered from depression, drug addiction, and crippling insecurity throughout her abbreviated life.
Psychoanalysis appealed to Marilyn for another reason: she wanted to be a great actress. Her acting teacher, Lee Strasberg (a proponent of Stanislavsky’s Method) further encouraged her. Strasberg felt Monroe needed to open her unconscious so she could become a truly great actor. At his recommendation, she spent years in intensive psychoanalysis, first with Dr. Margaret Hohenberg, then with Dr. Marianne Kris, and finally with Dr. Ralph Greenson.
Marilyn documented much of her psychoanalytic work in the notebooks she kept throughout the 1950s. They reveal a woman versed in Freudian theory. She records her dreams and refers to her unconscious. She coaxes painful histories onto the page. Around 1955, Marilyn wrote:
I can and will help myself and work on things analytically no matter how painful —if I forget things (the unconscious wants to forget—I will only try to remember)
Marilyn’s Unconscious & Free Association
"The unconscious wants to forget," Marilyn wrote, but she would "try to remember." One of the methods she used in her notes was free association—she recorded thoughts as they came to her without self-censoring. According to Freud, free-association was the “fundamental technical rule” of psychoanalysis.To him, it offered the clearest path to the patient’s mind, without the analyst’s influence. Freud had tried hypnotherapy, but feared he was influencing the patient. With free-association, Freud felt, the patient worked through her own mind.
The following page contains Marilyn’s free-associated ideas. She writes haphazardly, linking thoughts with arrows. She refers to Aunt Ida.As a child, Marilyn stayed with Aunt Ida, an evangelical disciplinarian. On this page, Marilyn tries to free herself from Aunt Ida’s continued influence.
Ida—I have still been obeying her—it’s not only harmful for me to do so but unreality because → life starts from now
In my work—I don’t want to obey her any longer and I can do my work as fully as I wish since as a small child intact first desire was to be an actress and I spent years play acting until I had jobs… I will not be punished (cont. p. 8) or trying to hide it…
As she notes, Marilyn continues on page 8, where she pens an incantation to liberate herself from shame:
On the stage—I will not be punished for it
or be whipped
or be threatened
or not be loved
or sent to hell to burn with bad people
orfeeling that I am also bad.
or be afraid of my genitals being
exposed known and seen
Marilyn wants to honor her “sensitive feelings” because “they are reality.” And she admits to herself that she has had
very strong sexed feeling since a small child— (think of all the things I felt then…
While Marilyn was known publicly as a sex-figure, privately, she struggled to understand her sexuality. Above all, though, she needed to claim ownership over her own body. She writes:
My body is my body
every part of it.
Marilyn’s Memories (and a Freudian Slip)
While exploring her unconscious, Marilyn records memories. In an example from around 1956, Marilyn fills a page with free-associated memories and lands on the name “Buddy”—a figure that incites negative feelings. Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, who edited Marilyn’s notes, suggest that Buddy might have been one of her abusers:
In the spring of 1938, Marilyn may have suffered a sexual assault by one of her fellow boarders, who could be the Buddy mentioned here.
Marilyn seems to notice her own Freudian slip when she writes “Bad” instead of “Buddy”:
…after Buddy (I started to write Bad instead of Buddy— → slip in writing?) because A.I. [Aunt Ida] punished me with fear and whipped me—”the bad part of my body” she said—must never touch myself there or let anyone—wash cloth—water running from it…
and the immediate fear of any part of my body there—fear to touch my own body…
At around the same time, Marilyn recorded thoughts on her mother. She wrote the following for her psychoanalyst, Dr. Marianne Kris:
—Remember, somehow, how—Mother always tried to get me to “go out” as though she felt I were too unadventurous. She wanted me even to show a cruelty toward woman. This in my teens. In return, I showed her that I was faithful to her.
Having studied Freudian psychoanalysis, Marilyn understood that her anxieties took root in childhood. Analysts, like Dr. Kris, felt that Marilyn needed to confront her past to move on from its trauma. Accordingly, Marilyn creates a to-do list for herself that includes the following:
must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen—making much much much more more more more more more effort in my analysis…
Marilyn recorded these notes in the following address book, which she probably bought in New York City in 1955.
When she met Anna Freud, Marilyn reported how she had read Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1947) when she was 21 years old. It had impressed her immensely—especially his writing on “the embarrassing dream of nudity.”So, she made notes of her dreams, that she might analyze them later.
While living at the Waldorf-Astoria, Marilyn wrote down a dream in which her acting teacher, Lee Strasberg was the “best, finest surgeon” and cut her open.
…which I don’t mind since Dr. H[ohenberg]
In the dream, when Strasberg and Hohenberg cut Marilyn open, they find—to their dissapointment— “absolutely nothing”:
…they cut me open…and there is absolutely nothing there—Strasberg is deeply disappointed but more even—academically amazed that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going to be so much—more than he had ever dreamed possible in almost anyone but instead there was absolutely nothing…the only thing that came out was so finely cut sawdust—like out of a raggedy ann doll…
This dream highlights one of Marilyn’s continued fears: that of disappointing the people she loved. “Arthur,” she writes, referring to her third husband, Arthur Miller, “is disappointed—let down…” In the dream, her psychoanalyst, Dr. Hohenberg gives up her “hopes for a permanent cure.”
From 1960 to the end of her life, Marilyn saw Dr. Ralph Greenson in Los Angeles. He would be her final analyst, yet he believed that her trauma was so significant, psychoanalysis would do more harm than good. Instead, he invited her into his family and she became close friends with his daughter. In a letter to Anna Freud, Greenson described Marilyn as
…a very sick borderline paranoid addict…Psychoanalysis is out of the question and I improvise, often wondering where I am going, and yet have nowhere else to turn.
And yet, for all her work with psychoanalysts, Marilyn never seemed to get the results she hoped for. In 1962 (the year of her death), Marilyn admitted:
I hope at some future time to be able to make a glowing report about the wonders that psychoanalysis can achieve. The time is not ripe.
Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead, we have Marilyn’s fragmented and incomplete notes, which show a woman trying to heal herself from childhood trauma.
Notes on Marilyn’s Notes
Partially filled notebooks: Notebooks needn’t be completely filled out or perfectly designed. Marilyn often filled in the first ten pages of a notebook and then abandoned it.
Don’t worry about design: sometimes a lack of design offers room for a more genuine exploration of one’s thoughts. Writing on a page doesn’t need to be sequential or linear. For example, Marilyn uses arrows as she writes notes in different directions across the span of a page.
Record your dreams—Freudian interpretations are optional.
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Till next week,
If you want to learn more about Marilyn, I recommend this documentary, streaming on Netflix:
Banner, Lois. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2012, p. 260.
Freud, Sigmund. On the Beginning of Treatment. Standard Edition of Complete Works, Vol.XII. Hogarth Press, 1913.
Thurschwell, Pamela, and Robert Eaglestone. Sigmund Freud. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2009, p. 24.
Probably Ida Martin, the mother of Marilyn’s aunt through marriage.
Marilyn doesn’t close these parenthesis.
Buchthal, Stanley, and Bernard Comment, editors. Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe, p.153.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Edited by Ritchie Robertson, Translated by Joyce Crick, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 189.
Casillo, Charles. Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon. St. Martin’s Press, 2018, p. 215.
Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe, p.223
Jillian, there is such devastation on these pages.
This post was a difficult read - extraordinarily I've just noticed that I had instinctively pushed my seat away from my desk while I was reading, further from my screen as normal, which I think is testament to my discomfort.
Normally with anything notebooky I'm all about the process: the nuts and bolts, the insights of the writer of the notes into how the notes came into being and what might later become of the hopes and ideas that had been written down, but in this case none of that even crossed my mind.
Gosh. "It is no wonder that Marilyn suffered from depression, drug addiction, and crippling insecurity throughout her abbreviated life."
I've learned a great deal today, Jillian. Thank you.
It’s a beautifully harrowing example of just how we don’t really know someone unless they give you a window in - and even then, it’s ever-changing. How many folks thought her vapid or singularly focused on sexuality, when those were instead masks she adopted to cope with some significant early trauma and the emotion that simmers beneath it?