The more the taboo that surrounds mental health disintegrates, the more I think of poor Marilyn Monroe. In 1961, as a recently divorced and mentally exhausted young woman, she was committed to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. Back then, spending time in a psychiatric ward could destroy a career. It was something to fear and something to hide.
And for Marilyn, whose mother long struggled with mental illness, it was her biggest fear.
During her time on the ward, she wrote the following letter to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson:
Just now when I looked out the hospital window where the snow had covered everything suddenly everything is kind of muted a green. The grass, shabby evergreen bushes — though the trees give me a little hope — the desolate bare branches promising maybe there will be spring and maybe they promise hope.
Did you see “The Misfits” yet? In one sequence you can perhaps see how bare and strange a tree can be for me. I don’t know if it comes across that way for sure on the screen — I don’t like some of the selections in the takes they used. As I started to write this letter about four quiet tears had fallen. I don’t know quite why.
Last night I was awake all night again. Sometimes I wonder what the night time is for. It almost doesn’t exist for me — it all seems like one long, long horrible day. Anyway, I thought I’d try to be constructive about it and started to read the letters of Sigmund Freud. When I first opened the book I saw the picture of Freud inside opposite the title page and I burst into tears — he looked very depressed (which must have been taken near the end of his life) that he died a disappointed man — but Dr Kris said he had much physical pain which I had known from the Jones book — but I know this too to be so but still I trust my instincts because I see a sad disappointment in his gentle face. The book reveals (though I am not sure anyone’s love-letters should be published) that he wasn’t a stiff! I mean his gentle, sad humor and even a striving was eternal in him. I haven’t gotten very far yet because at the same time I’m reading Sean O’Casey’s first autobiography –(did I ever tell you how once he wrote a poem to me?) This book disturbs me very much in a way one should be disturbed for these things –after all.
There was no empathy at Payne-Whitney — it had a very bad effect — they asked me after putting me in a “cell” (I mean cement blocks and all) for very disturbed depressed patients (except I felt I was in some kind of prison for a crime I hadn’t committed. The inhumanity there I found archaic. They asked me why I wasn’t happy there (everything was under lock and key; things like electric lights, dresser drawers, bathrooms, closets, bars concealed on the windows — the doors have windows so patients can be visible all the time, also, the violence and markings still remain on the walls from former patients). I answered: “Well, I’d have to be nuts if I like it here” then there screaming women in their cells — I mean they screamed out when life was unbearable I guess — at times like this I felt an available psychiatrist should have talked to them. Perhaps to alleviate even temporarily their misery and pain. I think they (the doctors) might learn something even — but all are only interested in something from the books they studied — I was surprised because they already know that. Maybe from some live suffering human being they could discover more — I had the feeling they looked more for discipline and that they let their patients go after the patients have “given up”. They asked me to mingle with the patients, to go out to O.T. (Occupational Therapy). I said: “And do what?” They said: “You could sew or play checkers, even cards and maybe knit”. I tried to explain the day I did that they would have a nut on their hands. These things were furthest from my mind. They asked me why I felt I was “different” (from the other patients I guess) so I decided if they were really that stupid I must give them a very simple answer so I said: “I just am”.
The first day I did “mingle” with a patient. She asked me why I looked so sad and suggested I could call a friend and perhaps not be so lonely. I told her that they had told me that there wasn’t a phone on that floor. Speaking of floors, they are all locked — no one could go in and no one could go out. She looked shocked and shaken and said “I’ll take you to the phone” — while I waited in line for my turn for the use of the phone I observed a guard (since he had on a grey knit uniform) as I approached the phone he straight-armed the phone and said very sternly: “You can’t use the phone”. By the way, they pride themselves in having a home-like atmosphere there. I asked them (the doctors) how they figured that. They answered: “Well, on the sixth floor we have wall-to-wall carpeting and modern furniture” to which I replied: “Well, that any good interior decorator could provide — providing there are the funds for it” but since they are dealing with human beings why couldn’t they perceive even an interior of a human being”.
The girl that told me about the phone seemed such a pathetic and vague creature. She told me after the straight-arming “I didn’t know they would do that”. Then she said “I’m here because of my mental condition — I have cut my throat several times and slashed my wrists” –she said either three or four times.
I just thought of a jingle:
“Mingle – but not if you were just born single“
Oh, well, men are climbing to the moon but they don’t seem interested in the beating human heart. Still one can change but wont — by the way, that was the original theme of THE MISFTIS — no one even caught that part of it. Partly because, I guess, the changes in the script and some of the distortions in the direction and …..
I know I will never be happy but I know I can be gay! Remember I told you Kazan said I was the gayest girl he ever knew and believe me he has known many. But he loved me for one year and once rocked me to sleep one night when I was in great anguish. He also suggested that I go into analysis and later wanted me to work with his teacher, Lee Strasberg.
Was it Milton who wrote “The happy ones were never born”. I know at least two psychiatrists who are looking for a more positive approach.
I didn’t sleep again last night. I forgot to tell you something yesterday. When they put me into the first room on the sixth floor I was not told it was a Psychiatric floor. Dr. Kris said she was coming the next day. The nurse came in (after the doctor, a psychiatrist) had given me a physical examination including examining the breast for lumps. I took exception to this but not violently only explaining that the medical doctor who had put me there, a stupid man named Dr. Lipkin had already done a complete physical less than thirty days before. But when the nurse came in I noticed there was no way of buzzing or reaching for a light to call the nurse. I asked why this was and some other things and she said this is a psychiatric floor. After she went out I got dressed and then was when the girl in the hall told me about the phone. I was waiting at the elevator door which looks like all other doors with a door-knob except it doesn’t have any numbers (you see they left them out). After the girl spoke with me and told me about what she had done to herself I went back into my room knowing they had lied to me about the telephone and I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it’s a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once called “Don’t Bother to Knock”. I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life — against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass – so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them “If you are going to treat me like a nut I’ll act like a nut”. I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was with a razor blade. I indicated if they didn’t let me out I would harm myself — the furthest thing from my mind at that moment since you know Dr. Greenson I’m an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself. I’m just that vain. Remember when I tried to do away with myself I did it very carefully with ten seconal and ten tuonal and swallowed them with relief (that’s how I felt at the time.) I didn’t cooperate with them in any way because I couldn’t believe in what they were doing. They asked me to go quietly but I refused to move staying on the bed so they picked me up by all fours, two hefty men and two hefty women and carried me up to the seventh floor in the elevator. I must say at least they had the decency to carry me face down. You know at least it wasn’t face up. I just wept quietly all the way there and then was put in the cell I told you about and that ox of a woman one of those hefty ones, said: “Take a bath”. I told her I had just taken one on the sixth floor. She said very sternly: “As soon as you change floors you have to take another bath”. The man who runs that place, a high-school principal type, although Dr. Kris refers to him as an “administrator” he was actually permitted to talk to me, questioning me somewhat like an analyst. He told me I was a very, very sick girl and had been a very, very sick girl for many years. He looks down on his patients because I’ll tell you why in a moment. He asked me how I could possibly work when I was depressed. He wondered if that interfered with my work. He was being very firm and definite in the way he said it. He actually stated it more than he questioned me so I replied: “Didn’t he think that perhaps Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin perhaps and perhaps Ingrid Bergman they had been depressed when they worked sometimes but I said it’s like saying a ball player like DiMaggio if he could hit ball when he was depressed. Pretty silly.
By the way, I have some good news, sort of, since I guess I helped, he claims I did. Joe said I saved his life by sending him to a psycho-therapist; Dr. Kris says he is a very brilliant man, the doctor. Joe said he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps after the divorce but he told me also that if he had been me he would have divorced him too. Christmas night he sent a forest-full of poinsettias. I asked who they were from since it was such a surprise, (my friend Pat Newcomb was there)– they had just arrived then. She said: “I don’t know the card just says “best, Joe”. Then I replied: “Well, there’s just one Joe”. Because it was Christmas night I called him up and asked him why he had sent me the flowers. He said first of all because I thought you would call me to thank me and then he said, besides who in the hell else do you have in the world. He said I know I was married to you and was never bothered or saw any in-law. Anyway, he asked me to have a drink some time with him. I said I knew he didn’t drink — he said he now occasionally takes a drink — to which I replied then it would have to be a very, very dark place. He asked me what I was doing Christmas night. I said nothing, I’m here with a friend. Then he asked me to come over and I was glad he was coming though I must say I was bleary and depressed but somehow still glad he was coming over.
I think I had better stop because you have other things to do but thanks for listening for a while.
PS: Someone when I mentioned his name you used to frown with your moustache and look up at the ceiling. Guess who? He has been (secretly) a very tender friend. I know you won’t believe this but you must trust me with my instincts. It was sort of a fling on the wing. I had never done that before but now I have – but he is very unselfish in bed.
From Yves I have heard nothing – but I don’t mind since I have such a strong, tender, wonderful memory.
I am almost weeping…..
Sadly, though I imagine they did the very best they knew to do, a year after she left the New York Hospital, Monroe, was found dead at her home in Los Angeles. She was 36. 1