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Marilyn Monroe and the Mirror of Madness

A look at Marilyn Monroe's mental health reveals a different icon.

Key points

  • Marilyn Monroe, a cultural icon, continues to fascinate people today.
  • The actress and her life have been viewed from many different perspectives.
  • Exploring Marilyn Monroe's mental health can shed new light on the beloved blonde bombshell.

One of the world’s most recognizable and iconic figures, Marilyn Monroe, continues to fascinate us. From her launch into fame in the early 1950s to her troubled, early demise a decade later, from all the decades of books, art, and film about her, to the recent Netflix movie about her life, we have not gotten over the blonde bombshell. One reason she is so appealing is that she is more than a historical figure. She is a mirror. She reflects back on us our cultural fears, hopes, and ideals.

I’ll focus on one question that has haunted our perception of Marilyn Monroe. Was she mad?

Born to a single mother, Norma Jean Mortenson never knew her father. She dropped out of high school early to get married to the young man next door. Her life path was sharply diverted when a photographer went to the factory she worked at to shoot wartime laborers and “discovered” her. She soon launched a modeling career, which she successfully parlayed into film and, ultimately, global celebrity.

Norma Jean’s home life was not a happy one. Her mother suffered from a mental illness severe enough to land her in a mental hospital. Young Norma Jean lived in a variety of foster settings, including a stint at an orphanage. Her high school marriage was an escape, a chance for a semblance of stability. But once she found fame, Norma Jean divorced her tradition-minded husband and became someone new—Marilyn Monroe.

The press hounded Marilyn. Influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper once wrote, following Marilyn’s miscarriage, ''Have you a complex about losing babies? You lost two unborn children, one in 1958 and the other in 1959. Is it true that, in sorrow, you even put vodka into your bouillon? Marilyn, don't drink... It won't bring back the baby."

Marilyn was attacked, tracked, and harassed. Her relationships were analyzed under a microscope, as well as her fluctuating weight and fashion choices. Elton John famously called her a “candle in the wind.”

The recent Netflix film Blonde gives us what its director, Andrew Dominik, rightly calls a “horror film.” He wanted to present an “absolute onslaught,” and we get two-and-a-half hours of shocking scenes of rape, physical abuse, and mental cruelty. One wonders how Marylin made it all the way to 36 after watching this film.

One wonders whether Blonde gets it right. This Marilyn is hardly self-directed—she is more the perpetual victim. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody called the film “ridiculously vulgar—the story of Monroe as if it were channeled [sic] through Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ.’” Brody rightly notes that the film omits Marilyn’s politics, acting technique and studies, and most of her non-romantic relationships. I’d add that we also don’t get much in the way of Marilyn’s struggles with mental illness.

Dr. Hyman Engelberg, one of her doctors, later told an interviewer, “We knew that she was manic-depressive, which is now called bipolar personality.” Notes biographer Lois Banner, Marilyn suffered from a severe stutter and dyslexia, too, and was addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines. She might have been hearing voices as well, and she attempted suicide on numerous occasions before finally succeeding in 1962.

Monroe worked hard to overcome her mental illness. She saw a psychiatrist five times a week and was, following one experience of suicidal ideation, committed briefly to the Payne Whitney Clinic and then sent on to the mental ward at Columbia Presbyterian.

She hated Payne Whitney. It felt like “prison for a crime I hadn’t committed.” Here she was, shorn of her clothes and locked in a room, forced to listen to the “unbearable” screams of other patients. Time magazine referenced her “nervous breakdown” and used the episode to praise her for shedding light on “mental illness and treatment for it,” even though she had no such desire.

The Marilyn we see is the Marilyn we want to see. She can be an exemplar of beauty, a gifted actress, a mindless blonde, a brave hero, a tortured victim, a drug addict, or a mental illness sufferer. Depending on how you cock your head, you can see any of these figures. And more.

It is important that we recognize what we are looking for and what it means when discussing Monroe. The movie Blonde gives us the victim, perhaps the one we fear we may become in a heartless world. This film leaves out a great deal, and, in its liberties (taken from the fictional version of Monroe in Joyce Carol Oates’s source novel), we get a great deal that was not Marilyn.

Perhaps by thinking about her struggles with mental illness, we can see a different, less-understood image. Perhaps in this mirror, some will find an unexpected solace.


Banner, L. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. (2012). New York: Bloomsbury.

Casillo, C. Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon. (2018). New York: St. Martin's Press.

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