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Was Marilyn Monroe a Synesthete?

Norman Mailer described her as having bonus sensory experiences.

Part of the fun of being among the group of synesthetes and researchers drafting our history is "outing" famous synesthetes. Celebrating the many prominent figures in our ranks is a way to erase the stigma still somewhat associated with this trait, provide role models for young synesthetes and raise awareness of synesthesia in general. There are many examples, mostly from the arts and even the sciences, and I will focus on each of them going forward. I'd like to begin with one very close to my heart: Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe, public domain image.
Source: Marilyn Monroe, public domain image.

In 2009 I was fortunate to be chosen by the Norman Mailer Writers Colony to attend their inaugural teachings in Provincetown, Mass. on Cape Cod on scholarship. I'd submitted one of the chapters of Tasting the Universe about a famous rock star's synesthesia and the committee there and at the University of Texas's Michener Center judging entries plucked it from among thousands for closer examination and cultivation.

In Norman Mailer's Provincetown home, where our week of workshops was held, I found a wonderful professor, Dr. John Michael Lennon, a Mailer intimate who will release Mr. Mailer's authorized biography later this year, ready for me with examples of literary synesthesia in the late journalist's own work. For all his macho swagger, Mr. Mailer had great sensitivity and insight into the human psyche. In Ancient Evenings, he gave his dead Egyptian General Menenhetet Two a kind of synesthesia as his newly-released soul, or Ka, learned to navigate life in The Land of the Dead. Viewing his own funeral preparations, the general experienced nasal vertigo and other cross-sensory sensations many years before current researchers like cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel of The Netherlands began tying synesthesia to the Near Death Experience. (More on that fascinating connection in a future entry).

When the colony experience ended, I received an email from Dr. Lennon stating that during his research for the Mailer biography he'd reviewed Marilyn Monroe: A Biography, which Mr. Mailer published in 1973 with stunning photography by another of his intimates, Norman Mailer Center President Lawrence Schiller. There, on p. 47, he found Mr. Mailer describing what can only be understood as Ms. Monroe's synesthesia. In recounting her first husband, Jim Dougherty's recollections of her, he said:

"He recounted evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots. She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds...It also provides her natural wit...she did not have a skin like others."

It didn't disturb me that Mr. Mailer did not refer to Ms. Monroe's displacement of the senses specifically as synesthesia -- no one was using that word in 1973. I decided to follow up with her survivors and spent months seeking them until an email arrived from her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, who with her mother, Berniece Baker Miracle, wrote a well-received biography of her famous aunt herself, titled My Sister Marilyn. The contents of the email were first published in my book, Tasting the Universe.

"Synesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as 'extraordinary sensitivity' and/or 'extraordinary imagination'... Marilyn and I both studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who gave students exercises which could bring us awareness of such abilities, and the means of using them to bring characters to life. As you know, the varied experiences can bring sadness or enjoyment...Marilyn's awesome performance in "Bus Stop" (the one she was most proud of) grew out of the use of such techniques and quite wore her out."

Ms. Miracle believes that not only was her aunt a synesthete, but that she, too, is one. The trait is known to run in families.

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