Goodbye Norma Jean | Did Marilyn Monroe have Borderline Personality Disorder?






Goodbye Norma Jean | Did Marilyn Monroe have Borderline Personality Disorder?

*Trigger Warning: This post contains frank discussion about the nature of American actress Marilyn Monroe's passing and her psychiatric suffering.  The post does come around to an encouraging end, but please use discretion and take care of yourself and your well-being.*

I have always adored Marilyn Monroe. I'm into retro movies, and she, Audrey Hepburn, and Rita Hayworth are my absolute favorite actresses from that time.  When I was a young girl, I would often hear Elton John's "Candle in The Wind," a song dedicated to the late Monroe, and while I enjoyed it,  I never really understood the meaning behind it.

I have recently started listening to an oldies station (60s, 70s, and yes - the 80s- are now considered "oldies!"), and Elton John is on frequent rotation. At least a couple of times a week, "Candle in the Wind" is played.  I've begun to really listen to the lyrics. Last week, when I heard the song for the first time in a while, I was moved to tears by the compassionate message that was written for such a troubled woman, but unfortunately all too late.

In the song, Elton sings, "Goodbye Norma Jean..."  Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean Mortenson (Baker) on June 1, 1926.   

According to biography.com, Norma Jean never knew her father's identity, and because her mother had serious psychological problems, there was no way she could raise her beautiful daughter. Her mother in fact, was committed to a mental institution.  Norma Jean lived out her childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home and to orphanages.

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It has been said that those who knew her best felt that she always had a deep insecurity because of this -- she felt that she was unlovable and unwanted.  Growing up in such an invalidating environment no doubt affected her self-image and her views on life and the world in general.

As a young woman, she bounced from one tumultuous love affair to another, marrying quickly and repeatedly, and never finding the security that she so desperately hoped marriage would bring. She is also rumored to have had affairs with both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (among others) shortly before her passing.


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Also according to biography.com, it was Norma Jean's idea to create the character of "Marilyn Monroe," with a new name, new hair color, and a new personality.  She didn't want to be Norma Jean. Her decision to reinvent herself was a success. By 27 years of age, she was known around the world for her leading lady roles in a number of movies from the 1950s.While a wonderful accomplishment, this may have unfortunately also reinforced that she, herself (as Norma Jean), was not worth of the love and attention and success that she achieved as Marilyn. 

In many ways, she must have felt proud to have overcome such a troubled childhood to rise and shine as one of the brightest stars the world has ever known, but she was unhappy.

Her final film was never completed, as she was fired from the set for missing several days of filming that she attributed to "illness." The speculation is that she was suffering from intense psychological pain and did not have anyone that she trusted enough to reach out to hence the lyrics in Elton John's song, "It seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind...never knowing who to cling to, when the rain set in...."

According to Dr. Richard A. Moskovitz, author of the book "Lost in The Mirror: An Inside Look at Borderline Personality Disorder," Elton John's characterization of Marilyn Monroe as a candle in the wind captures the essence of the borderline personality. She is an elusive character lacking in identity, overwhelmed by a barrage of painful emotions, consumed by hunger for love and acceptance, and careening from relationship to relationship and impulse to impulse in a desperate attempt to control those feelings."  

One possible diagnosis that Marilyn may have suffered from is Borderline Personality Disorder. 

Just based on what most of us have come to know about this beautiful, talented, emotional woman, it's easy to see her fitting into having at least 5 of the 9 symptoms required for a BPD diagnosis:

  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  • A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by extremes between idealization and devaluation (also known as "splitting")

    Marilyn married at a young age to her 21 year old neighbor and divorced shortly after his return from the military.  She also married baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and divorced 9 months later, and playwright Arthur Miller, who she divorced 5 years later. In addition, it is speculated that she had numerous intense and fleeting affairs, including with President John F. Kennedy and with the president's brother, Robert.
  • Identity disturbance: Markedly or persistently unstable self-image or sense of self

    Marilyn grew up as Norma Jean, never knowing her father and knowing that her mother was committed to a mental institution due to severe psychological issues. She bounced from foster home to foster home and then from marriage to marriage, in the meantime creating a new identity for herself as Marilyn Monroe, changing her hair color, name, and personality.  While many stars take on a new name for show business, Marilyn took on a whole knew persona -- one that she thought would likely get her the love, attention, and adoration she so desperately sought since she was a young child.
  • Impulsive behavior in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)

    Sex and substance abuse.
  • Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-harming behavior

    It is unknown if Marilyn Monroe self-harmed (other than through substance abuse), but self-harm/suicidal behavior ultimately took her life.
  • Emotional instability in reaction to day-to-day events (e.g., intense episodic sadness, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)

    This may have been the case, especially in the days leading up to her being fired from her last movie.
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness

    Well documented as having experienced this. Portions of her diary were recovered, and this was a repeated theme.
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)
  • Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms"
    Symptoms sourced from 
     NIMH.nih.org (National Institute of Mental Health)italicized text speculated by healingfrombpd.org

Eventually, with all of her intense feelings and no real support to guide her and help keep her safe, at age 36, Marilyn Monroe ended up taking her own life.  One wonders what might have been different if she lived today and had the support and resources available to us now. 

Unfortunately, at the time when Marilyn graced this planet, much of what we now know about mental illness had not yet been discovered, and although it is true that we still deal with stigmas around mental health, the risk Marilyn would have had to take to "out" herself as suffering from mental illness and to seek what help was available at that time was great. In contrast, today's celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Winona Ryder, and Catherine Zeta Jones (and many more) have all "come out" as having mental illness.

We are very fortunate now that when we see women (and men) who exhibit many of the behaviors that Marilyn exhibited, we can help to support and guide those who are enduring similar suffering today. There is hope.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which did not exist in Marilyn's time is the treatment of choice for Borderline Personality Disorder. I have personally found it very effective in allowing me to discover who I am and to create a life worth living.  It has helped me to control the majority of the impulsive behavior and tumultuous relationships I have repeatedly found myself in. 

Perhaps most importantly, as I, like Marilyn, was given up to foster care, come from a family with an intense mental illness history, and married young only to divorce, I have begun to believe that I am worth something, despite not having that modeled to me for much of my childhood. I am learning the skills that I would have learned had I been brought up in a validating environment.

If you suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder and/or identify with Marilyn Monroe's story, take hope. There is help today that wasn't available then. You need not be a candle in the wind, and you can get well and enjoy life again.

Recommended reading "Lost in The Mirror: An Inside Look at Borderline Personality Disorder:"

       Paperback:            Kindle Version:

Thank you for reading.
More soon.


10 comments:

  1. I am a huge Marilyn Monroe fan, and I really do think, she had it. :)

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    1. Same here, Lisanne. ♥ Though, having never met her and not being psychiatric professionals, we'll sadly never know exactly what her story was. There seems to be compelling evidence, though, for sure.

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  2. Some interesting parallels here...I love reading your posts as I feel like I'm shedding shame each time I do...its so refreshing to have a discussion about mental illness without feeling so badly about myself....

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  3. What a very kind and encouraging comment. Let's shed the shame together! :) ♥

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  4. MM was diagnoised with BPD by anna freud. her medical card can still be seen at the anna freud centre. Back then it was called emotional instability disorder, which they were changing it back to for the DSM 5. This is no theory, her medical card states her diagnosis.

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    1. Hi Molly -- what a fascinating piece of information that I had know idea of before. I'll certainly be looking into this. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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  5. Anna makes her diagnosis which she writes up on a card that can still be found in the file index at the Anna Freud Centre. So this is not a rumour it is a fact Marilyn had this medically diagnosed. BPD has many names and was actually going back to "emotional instability disorder" for the DSM 5 as it is not on the border on sane and insane. It has not changed though. I have all the proof on my blog.

    Emotional instability, exaggerated impulsiveness, constant need for external approval, inability to be alone, tendency to depression in case of rejection, paranoia with schizophrenic elements. The Book is "Marilyn's last sessions" by Michel Schneider.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment with this information, Molly.

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  6. I also love Marilyn Monroe..undeniable beauty and she is still an iconic figure. Goodbye Norma Jeane by Elton John still brings up a lot of emotions. . She did live like a candle in the wind..not knowing who she was, where she really came from and how wonderful she really was. Her tragic life shows us that beauty, fame and money really cannot make us happy..at least these things didn't compensate for what was lacking inside her. thank you for writing an article about Marilyn Monroe. Now that I learned a lot about myself, I have profound empathy for her as a human being.

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    1. Elton's song is incredibly moving to me as well. It's interesting that the lyricist had so much insight into the experience of life, and how this song was then later modified in dedication to Princess Diana, who many also suspect to have had BPD.

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