The Book

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Our book club finished it’s first book: The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe  by R. Taraborrelli. The book itself was incredibly well researched, and the amount of effort put into pouring over documents related to Marilyn Monroe shines through incredibly in the writing. I did appreciate Taraborrelli’s explanation of each document, and whether or not he found them valuable in telling Marilyn’s story. I do wish he had included more information from the FBI files at the time, but that’s because Taraborrelli did a great job of piquing my curiosity in these documents that are apparently untrustworthy and inaccurate.

Taraborrelli does come down firmly on some of the more scandalous theories regarding Marilyn’s life, and does a good job supporting his claims with his research. According to Taraborrelli, no, she did not have an affair with Bobby Kennedy; no she was not murdered by the FBI; her affair with JFK was no more than a weekend fling. Joe DiMaggio was physically abusive, Arthur Miller was emotionally abusive, and the rotation of doctors in her life prescribed her a dizzying and lethal array of pills.

My biggest complaint is in style and editorializing, which I mentioned in my previous post. Stylistically, I found the writing inconsistent and at times informal. This complaint in no way prevented my enjoyment of the book, but did stand out to me. I also found the editorializing a bit much (the phrase “her perfect breasts” for instance, seemed objectifying and unnecessary). I think had this been a book about her beauty–how she cultivated it and viewed it–such comments might make more sense. But this was a book that focused on her mental illness, and as such, comments of that nature seemed really out of place. Her beauty, I think, was a way for her to mask her mental illness and internal turmoil, and needs to be treated with a certain amount of delicacy.

Marilyn’s family and mine

While the book was enrapturing, it was difficult for me at times to get through it, and I believe it is because I keep thinking about my own family’s dark secrets as I read about Marilyn’s. The similar stories and experiences between the women in her family and in mine must, I think, reflect a certain familial reality of instability, scandal, fear and loss that was rampant before WWII and through the mid-century.

I recently learned from my mother that some of the women on her side of the family were institutionalized, around the same time that Marilyn’s grandmother was. Society has a long history of institutionalizing women or calling women “crazy”–one that dates back at least to the Ancient Greeks and the idea of the “wandering womb” or hysteria. Perhaps the women in my family, and in Marilyn’s, were clinically insane. Perhaps, if they were alive today, they would be diagnosed with a simple disorder easily treated by modern-medicine. Perhaps the strains and pressures of being a woman in that society took its mental and emotional toll, and these women simply did not have the resources and energy to endure. We will never know.

But I think we can learn two things from women’s struggles at this time. First, I think we can see how society has progressed in viewing mental health. At the same time, in seeing this progression from where we were 100 years ago to today, I think we can look ahead 100 years and hope that there will be even better advancements in mental health awareness and treatments for those struggling today.

The other storyline from my family history is one reminds me greatly of Marilyn Monroe’s mother Gladys, and that is the secret history of my paternal grandmother–a history that did not come to light until a few years ago, and one that still has many unanswered questions.

I remember my grandmother as a sweet, gentle and kind (almost timid) woman–the sort of person who loved children (especially me) and just wanted to do right by those around her. She never came across as harsh or cross, and my father always speaks of her with great admiration. She took care of my father and his two siblings, while also working in a See’s Candy store in Southern California.

After struggling with dementia for several years, she passed away my second year of college. She was my last surviving grandparent, and I remember at that time feeling a sense of separation from my own family’s past. Little did I know at that time that DNA testing would soon uncover family secrets.

A couple of years ago, my mother (active on ancestry.com) received a message from a man claiming to be the nephew of my father–and indeed, the DNA testing revealed a match. His mother had been abandoned by her own mother in the 1930’s, when she was an infant, and left to be raised by her father and step-mother.

Her absent mother, as it turns out, was my sweet grandmother, who never breathed a word of this to either my father or his two siblings.

After recovering from the waves of shock that revealed not only this characteristic of my grandmother, but also an entirely new (and large) branch on our family tree, I remember trying to reconcile this fact with the woman I knew as my grandmother.

How could my grandmother abandon her children?

After piecing together information gathered from whispers my father and his siblings recalled, about a young girl in a previous life, a family member fleeing an abusive marriage, and the strange note on my uncle’s birth certificate that lists him as the “second child” of my grandmother (he was the eldest of the three siblings), it seems as though my grandmother’s first (and perhaps only legitimate) husband was an alcoholic, and likely abusive to my grandmother. This abuse, which I learned from my new aunt, was never directed at the children but only at my grandmother.

One night, my great-grandmother (who herself may have escaped an abusive marriage–although it’s unclear if the stories about my great-grandmother are indeed about my grandmother) helped my grandmother escape, leading her away from the marriage and back to her home in Southern California.

But why did she not take the children–two young daughters?

Looking at the laws of the time reveals that she probably couldn’t take them with her. While today we tend to think of law favoring the mother in issues of parental custody, it was not the case 100 years ago.

And what’s more remarkable, after reading Marilyn Monroe’s biography, is how common this practice was at the time. Gladys, Marilyn Monroe’s mother, had other children from another marriage, children who were taken by her husband (by force, it would seem). Gladys had no legal recourse when it came to seeing or caring for her children–they lived with their father, and he had legal custody.

I wonder, how many family histories were tainted by abusive marriages, and by laws that prevented mothers from seeing their children? Is this what lead to the cultivation of the “traditional family” that was presented as the norm during the 1950’s–a reaction not only to WWII, but also a desire to create a home and life that was absent from life in America before the war?

What do you know about your family history at this time? Do you have stories that are similar?

One thought on “Marilyn’s family and mine: A Review of “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe”

  1. Well done! The family story threads of mental illness, spousal abuse and abandoning one’s children were hushed secrets in the 20th Century. Maybe we’ve learned a thing ir two in the 21st.

    Like

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