Frankly, her early life makes for heartbreaking reading. She didn’t know who her father was; the last name she was born under was not the one she most often used. (It belonged to her mother’s first husband, who married and abused fifteen-year-old Gladys Monroe, then kidnapped their two children despite her getting custody of them in the divorce. He was nine years older than she was. One of those children is still alive, having turned 100 this year!) Her mother had married two years before her birth, but there’s no real reason to assume that second husband was her father. She spent several years with foster parents, one of the only stretches of her life we don’t know anything bad about, so far as I can tell. Less than a year after the seven-year-old girl went to live with her mother, her mother was hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia, and they never lived together again; her next foster father seems to be one of several men who would sexually abuse her in the next four years. She got married at sixteen so she wouldn’t have to return to the orphanage she’d spent a few years in.
For many women, that’s pretty much the story. They stay with their husband, or don’t, or get married several more times, or don’t, and what with one thing and another live the ever-popular Life Of Quiet Desperation. But for the girl born Norma Jean Mortenson, she had an out. At eighteen, she met David Conover, who was taking pictures in the defense plant she worked at to boost morale for Our Boys Overseas. (All this apparently failed to boost the morale of one James Dougherty, whose marriage to the girl next door was not quite what most stories like that are like.) She straightened and bleached her curly brown hair. She started modeling—she was considered too buxom for fashion modeling and so was a pin-up instead—and soon had a screen test. She divorced Dougherty, who didn’t want his wife to have a career, and was given Marilyn Miller’s first name and took her mother’s maiden name.
And I wonder sometimes how different her life and mine might have been if, instead of just drinking a lot and using drugs, she’d been able to be open about what was probably untreated depression. I doubt she had her mother’s schizophrenia, though I’m not an expert on the subject, but it doesn’t seem in line with her behaviour. Certainly I’m unfamiliar with any stories of paranoia. I know some awful stories of her from the set, but let’s be real—you don’t have to be mentally ill to have those, if you’re a woman, and leaving that aside her drinking and drug use would’ve created them anyway. I tend to assume, honestly, that she was self-medicating, and it was about as successful as it usually is. I, for one, have never doubted that she’d kill herself.
But she was self-medicating. There seems equally little doubt of that. Stories of her erratic behaviour can’t all be chalked up to substance abuse. There was, of course, the family history—even with as little as we know about her family history, we know that much. There was the childhood abuse and neglect. She had an awful life, and she couldn’t be open about it. That’s the way things were in those days; people didn’t talk about it. And of course any mental health treatment she would’ve had would likely have been Freudian analysis, which is not the world’s most useful for her specific set of issues.
I do not blame Marilyn Monroe for not speaking out. It’s not as though anyone wanted her to. But I wonder, sometimes. If she had. If rather than killing herself, she’d gone all-out with a book detailing even just how her mother’s illness had created problems for her. If she had been able to be open about being ill, could she have started battling the stigma? She never said that stupid line about not deserving her at her best if you couldn’t handle her at her worst, and what she did say indicates that she both knew her worst and didn’t want anyone else to. She bore stigmata; you could see the illness and people’s fear of the illness on her if you knew how to look. It’s not her fault she couldn’t make it easier for those of us who came after her. But oh, if only she could have.