The "True Story" of Wonder Woman's Marston Ménage à Trois
How much does anyone really know about the women who inspired Wonder Woman?
Posted Oct 09, 2017
How much does anyone really know about the psychologist who created Wonder Woman or the women who shared his household and inspired him? Not nearly as much as a lot of people seem to think.
1. William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) was both a psychologist and a lawyer, as was his wife Elizabeth. He is often called (incorrectly but with good reason) the inventor of the lie detector. It is worth noting that John Augustus Larson, who is more accurately recognized as the primary inventor of the polygraph, himself said it was fair to call Marston the inventor of the lie detector test for his innovations in how to use physiological signs to attempt to assess veracity (Bunn, 2012; Lloyd, 2017).
2. Like Martin E.P. Seligman (1998) and other positive psychologists of today, Marston challenged psychologists and psychiatrists for overemphasizing the worst parts of human nature. His seminal work, Emotions of Normal People (1928), cut to the heart of this problem: How can we really understand what is abnormal and unhealthy if we do not also examine what is normal and healthy? From this foundation, he built his DISC theory, which has its influence to this day (Wood, 2017).
3. Marston created the character Wonder Woman, who debuted in a two-part story in All-Star Comics #8 (1941) and Sensation Comics #1 (1942).
4. He and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, had another woman, Olive Byrne, living with them. After Bill Marston died, Elizabeth and Olive stayed together for the rest of their lives—technically the rest of Olive's life, because Elizabeth outlived her.
No one really knows what the intimate nature of that relationship was. Works by author Les Daniels (e.g., Daniels, 2004) popularized the idea that it was polyamorous, with Bill fathering children by both Elizabeth and Olive. It is unclear how Daniels would have known this for sure. When asked about this later in life, William and Elizabeth's son Pete either would say that the adults had their part of the house, the kids had theirs, and the kids did not know what went on over there, or would scoff with "Who cares? Why do you want to know that?" In my conversations with Pete, I never went there. He did tell me that Bill and Betty (Elizabeth) worked, while Dotsie (Olive) raised the kids. The Marstons legally adopted both of Olive's children, but that was only a legality. She was an equal partner, fully a parental authority to all their children.
Bill, Betty, and Dotsie did indeed live in a ménage à trois in the literal sense of the term: "household of three." It was a household of three adults raising a family together. Could it have been a ménage à trois in the more commonly used meaning of the phrase, to refer to three-way sex acts? It could have. Maybe it was and maybe it was not, but my point is that absolutely no one knows. The upcoming motion picture Professor Marston and the Wonder Women not only indicates that it was, but also that the two women enjoyed a sexual relation together apart from Bill, as well.
Bill, Betty, and Olive are all long departed. As of this past year, Pete is too. It's a basic legal principle that you can't libel the dead (Fowler, 2011). That doesn't make it right to misrepresent known facts or present fiction as fact, though. You can't libel igneous rock either, but you still shouldn't say it's made from sediment (which would be sedimentary rock). It's not libel by definition anyway because there's no reason to think the filmmakers were out to harm anyone, but I've seen fans online use that word.
Some of the promotional material for the aforementioned motion picture has begun to say that it is "based on" the true story (when, in my meager opinion, "inspired by" would be more accurate). However, there are a lot of posters and other promotional materials outside that call it in all caps, "The True Story ..."
During New York Comic-Con, director Angela Robinson and actors playing the Marstons (Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall) appeared at the Manhattan Center to discuss the film after the audience watched a new trailer. Film scenes were previewed as well. When the time came for Q&A, I stood and asked a question Marston family members and many friends and fans wanted answered: What was the source material?
Moderator: What's your name? What's your question?
Langley: My name is Travis Langley. I'm a friend of the Marston family, so this is actually very hard. (Disclosure of that seemed appropriate.) Now that trailer said, "based on," but you have a lot of promotional material out there that says, "the true story." So we're wondering where you got information, such as: No one we've ever spoken with who knew them knew the relationship between Betty and Dotsie to be sexual. If it was, that's fine! But where did you find proof that no one who knew them, to our knowledge, had?
Robinson: That's a difficult question, because I did talk to a source who said that that was her interpretation, who had studied them.
Robinson: But it was, it's tricky, because I don't know if ... (Ellipsis indicates unfinished sentence, not missing words.) I chose to tell the story as my interpretation of the story, and I think that there's a lot of facts that are indisputable about the Marstons, and I feel that there's a lot that's open to interpretation. So as a filmmaker, this was my interpretation of their story.
Robinson then talked about her efforts to reach Christie Marston (the Marstons' granddaughter, Pete's daughter) to invite her to a private screening of the film. Regarding this, though, Christie said in a public forum afterward: "I don't think there was an attempt for a direct contact. Just via other parties."
Biopics take great liberties with the stories being told. We know that. Our objection is that fiction inspired by a true story should never be called "the true story" when there's no evidence that it is.
Why does any of this matter? All those people are dead, so they can't be hurt, right? If Elizabeth and Olive stayed together as sisters, but people began saying they became a lesbian couple, so what? Well, for one thing, keep in mind the theme that runs across both Marston's science and his famous heroine with the magic lasso she uses to compel honest answers out of people. Wonder Woman lassos the truth. More importantly, though, I just don't feel we should have to explain what's so valuable about truth.
Why does any of this matter? It affects other people. When I saw the scene that misrepresented how Marston came to pitch Wonder Woman to his editor (by replacing editor Sheldon Mayer with publisher Max Gaines in the scene), I could not help but think how that is going to feel to the granddaughter who's named after Sheldon. Shortening the character's name from Suprema the Wonder Woman to simply Wonder Woman may be one of the most important suggestions ever made in comic book history, and Mayer deserves great recognition for that. We hope the film properly credits Elizabeth as the one who told Bill he needed to make his new character a superwoman, because the comics already had enough boys. That's important to the film's central characters.
Why does any of this matter? I can give many more reasons, but here's an odd one: Mistruths about the dead can still mess things up for the living. We've been told that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women ends with a claim about Bill and Betty's son Pete Marston creating a museum in honor of Elizabeth and Olive. If so, that is going to inconvenience both the family keepers of the Wonder Woman Family Museum and everyone who tries to go to that museum expecting an Elizabeth/Olive museum. There is a Wonder Woman museum, but no Elizabeth/Olive museum (muse-eum?) exists. Now suppose I've been told wrong, and there is no such claim: well, then, I'd say the truth still matters, because repeating that mistruth (if it is such) would make me look bad when I'm stressing the need to get facts right. I keep getting conflicting reports about what it says.
My point? Lasso the truth.
FYI: After my question, someone official-seeming started screening the audience questions. I mean immediately after, right as Robinson began to respond.
P.S. Despite the film's content and Marston's own writings, we also have no reason to think either Elizabeth or Olive was ever into BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism). If there is evidence of kink to either of them, that might be useful information.
Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is "R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language." (Sex scenes, yes, but nudity, no?) The film is reportedly not based on the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman. In fact, Robinson has expressed some skepticism about claims author Jill Lepore made in that book.
P.P.S. for the sake of disclosure: Together with co-editor Mara Wood, I'm the editor of the book Wonder Woman Psychology: Lassoing the Truth. In it, we got to publish Elizabeth Holloway Marston's previously unpublished memoir as chapter 4 (Marston, 2017). We are endlessly grateful to Christie Marston and family for allowing us that honor.
Bunn, G. C. (2012). The truth machine: A social history of the lie detector. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Daniels, L. (2004). Wonder Woman: The complete history. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.
Fowler, M. (2011, January 25). Can a writer be sued for libeling the dead? (What would John Dean say?). Rights of Writers: http://www.rightsofwriters.com/2011/01/can-you-be-sued-for-libeling-dead-john.html.
Lloyd, M. (2017). Psychology on trial: The other legacy of William Moulton Marston. In T. Langley & M. Wood (Eds.), Wonder Woman psychology: Lassoing the truth (pp. 15-25). New York, NY: Sterling.
Marston, E. H. (2017). The tale of a Manx cat (a memoir from the woman who gave us wonder). In T. Langley & M. Wood (Eds.), Wonder Woman psychology: Lassoing the truth (pp. 61-69). New York, NY: Sterling.
Marston, W. M. (1928). Emotions of normal people. London, UK: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Building human strength: Psychology's forgotten mission. APA Monitor, 29(1), 1.
Wood, M. (2017). Dominance, inducement, submission, complaince: Throwing the DISC in fact and fiction. In T. Langley & M. Wood (Eds.), Wonder Woman psychology: Lassoing the truth (pp. 27-39). New York, NY: Sterling.