Few figures of 20th century popular culture fit the definition of “iconic” quite so completely as Marilyn Monroe. Idolized for her beauty and charisma, the silver screen legend and definitive sex symbol inspired both fascination and fervor during her life and even after her death. Her life and exploits still captivate new generations of admirers, and so has a darker public interest in the question of whether Marilyn Monroe was a drug addict.
The complexities of Marilyn Monroe’s life can be easily obscured by the glamor of her image, while public fascination with her personal challenges and premature death has often had a ghoulish edge. Nevertheless, the more difficult side of her story and legacy does have its own lessons for those who struggle with addiction.
Born Norma Jeane Baker, Monroe didn’t have an easy road to stardom. She struggled from her earliest days with poverty, abandonment and the disadvantages of a childhood spent in and out of foster homes. Many of her fans saw her rise from that humble background as an inspiring testament to her resilience, ambition and adventurous spirit. Well before her mysterious death, however, the price she paid in terms of mental and physical health as her Hollywood star rose was becoming plain.
Marilyn Monroe in Her Own Words
It wasn’t until 2010 that the somewhat enigmatic public image of Marilyn Monroe began to be fleshed out by the actress in her own words when an archive of her poems, diaries and letters was published. Her late-career struggles with addiction and both mental and physical health challenges were publicly known long before but had to that point been mostly seen through the eyes of others.
What Marilyn’s own words revealed were the struggles of a shy and insecure person, effectively orphaned at a young age by the institutionalization of a mother suffering from schizophrenia, to find acceptance in a harsh world and overcome a deep-seated fear of disappointing others.
When she attended acting classes at the famous Lee Strasberg academy, it was plain that a sense-memory exercise unleashed a traumatic recollection for her, and when she went into therapy at Strasberg’s urging, she wrote about the feelings that came up vividly:
“working (doing my tasks that I have set for myself) On the stage—I will not be punished for it or be whipped or be threatened or not be loved or sent to hell to burn with bad people feeling that I am also bad. or be afraid of my [genitals] being or ashamed exposed known and seen— so what or ashamed of my sensitive feelings . . .”
Monroe struggled throughout her adult life with terrible loneliness and feelings of unworthiness and remained traumatized by a harsh childhood in the hands of the various caretakers who had stood in for her absent mother. These were the kinds of experiences that could become drivers for addiction. But hers was also the journey of an ultra-celebrity who would come under extraordinary public scrutiny.
The Perils of the Spotlight
Becoming a contract actor at Fox in the 50s skyrocketed Marilyn Monroe into the word of fame and fortune. She exuded charm and humility and managed a difficult balancing act between projecting a curious sense of innocence and coy coquetry with a daring posture of sexual forwardness and experimentation. She found the sweet spot of an American sensibility that quickly elevated her to be regarded as one of the greatest beauties in the history of the silver screen.
The public fascination was not all positive or healthy. Part of what cemented her as a sex symbol of the early 50s was the publication of early nude photos of her, without her consent, by Hugh Hefner in Playboy in 1953. It was not the last time Monroe would have to contend with shaming and judgmental publicity as part of her supposed “adoration” by America, although the public ultimately forgave her.
Other famous moments in her career brought serious downsides with them. Her sex symbol image made landing meatier dramatic roles a struggle, and she parted ways with Fox when she finally refused to film yet another musical comedy in 1954. Her later appearance in the Billy Wilder comedy Seven-Year Itch came with a now-iconic publicity stunt that infuriated then-husband Joe DiMaggio and led to a divorce.
By the time she returned to Fox and made her rise to true critical acclaim in the late 50s, the effects of the public pressure were showing. Monroe suffered from insomnia, depression and anxiety and had begun to struggle with alcoholism and prescription drug addictions. Eventually her issues escalated to the point where she could no longer work, and she died of an acute barbiturate overdose in 1962.
Many of her contemporaries attributed her tragically early and unexpected death to public hounding, like Jean Cocteau who said her death “should serve as a terrible lesson to all those whose chief occupation consists of spying on and tormenting film stars.”
The Lessons of Marilyn Monroe’s Tragic Passing
Public anguish over the loss of the iconic Marilyn Monroe was very real for many of her fans. Later generations still mourn her, admire her humanity and fragility and appreciate her underrated talent as an actress decades later.
Still, the tragic aspects of her tale illustrate very real paradoxes of the world of celebrity. Monroe was up against many obstacles that famous women still face today: a constant vulnerability to judgment by their ostensibly adoring public, struggles with mental health issues and past trauma, punishing expectations from the entertainment industry.
In Marilyn’s day, however, it wasn’t normal for celebrities to talk frankly about these things. It wasn’t yet normal to “see a shrink” or admit to mental health issues in public. Struggles with addiction played out in the public eye, only partially acknowledged until they led to tragedy.
We now know that it can make a major difference in some people’s journeys to have exemplars in the public eye who can sympathize with their own challenges. If those kinds of resources had been available in the 50s, there’s no telling whether the saga of Marilyn Monroe might have ended differently.
Monroe’s feelings of hopelessness and past trauma led her to self-medicate with alcohol and pills. If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, abandonment or extreme poverty, and if you struggle with trauma that’s driving your own addiction, don’t worry. Today, there’s help out there. A medical detoxification facility can prepare your body for sober living and provide a comprehensive drug and alcohol rehab program to help you resist triggers and heal. At an alcohol detox and rehab center like FHE, you can find the support you need to help you rebuild your life. Call us today at (833) 596-3502.