Death and the maiden

Marilyn Monroe remains a subject of lurid fascination,
but still we refuse to acknowledge her arti

To the roll-call of such original stories about the death of Marilyn Monroe as Marilyn: the Final Days, Marilyn: the Final Truth, Marilyn: the Last Sitting, Marilyn: the Last Take, Marilyn: the Last Months, Marilyn: the Last Word and The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, we can now add Michel Schneider's Marilyn's Last Sessions. Doubtless we can soon expect Marilyn: the Last Gasp. I am tempted to posit the emergence of a new subgenre of "faction" - the dernier manqué. These works never manage to deliver the last word, although each in turn feels like the last straw.

To be fair, this may have something to do with how many of them I read for my 2004 meta-biography, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, which looked at the competing, unreliable stories about Marilyn's life and death. Upon hearing at a talk that I had read more than 300 books about Marilyn, a member of the audience once demanded: "Didn't you have anything better to do with your life?"

This aggressive rudeness both reflected and was licensed by the reflexive disdain that so many enjoy feeling about her. My book finally became about this paradox: we insist that Marilyn is beneath our contempt, even as we write endlessly about how wonderful she was and how sad we are that she is gone (we're not, really, but that's another story). From Joyce Carol Oates to Elton John, everyone gets in line to sing. Goodbye, Norma Jeane. Bonjour, tristesse.

Schneider's contribution to this endless elegy won the Prix Interallié in France when the novel was published there in 2006. My hopes, fleetingly, were raised - and then I remembered that the French also consider Jerry Lewis a genius. Schneider is certainly a more elegant stylist (or his translator is) than the vast majority of people who write about Marilyn, and he is capable of the occasional slanting insight.

However, his book has two insurmountable problems. First, it is largely based on the ostensibly non-fiction Victim: the Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe by Matthew Smith, a book so egregiously stupid that it makes almost everything else written about Marilyn look at least com­petent - which is quite an achievement, in an underachieving sort of way. Victim purports to "summarise" transcripts of Marilyn's sessions with her psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson, whose dubious behaviour on the night of her death had much to do with the subsequent emergence of conspiracy theories.

Many of those theories can be traced to a pamphlet called The Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe (1964), written by Frank A Capell and published by his own imprint, Herald of Freedom, described as "a national anti-communist educational biweekly", which claimed to main­tain "files on two million people who have aided the international communist conspiracy". Capell was also the author of 857 Reasons for Investigating the State Department and Henry Kissinger, Soviet Agent; he was an avowed enemy of the Kennedys. Coincidentally, his pamphlet was the first to suggest that the Kennedys might have killed Marilyn.

The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, it is a history that Michel Schneider fails to acknowledge, using Smith's fantasy of Greenson's transcripts as the primary source for this (admittedly fictional) reconstruction of Marilyn's relationship with her psychoanalyst.

The other, bigger problem is that the novel accepts the false premise of almost every book about Marilyn by asking whether she committed suicide or was murdered. "Who killed Marilyn, if she didn't kill herself?" demands a journalist early on. Later Greenson says: "We'll never know the truth about what happened because suicide and murder are only mutually exclusive hypotheses when you're dealing with conscious acts and motives. In the unconscious, suicide is virtually always a form of murder and murder can sometimes be a form of suicide." This is the kind of silliness that gives Freud a bad name.

The endless, pointless debate about Marilyn's death depends on an excluded middle that some of us like to call "accident". Marilyn was
a habitual, reckless abuser of pharmaceuticals; she was unhappy, deeply anxious and prone to self-destructive behaviour. She had attempted suicide before, yes - but people argue over whether she "really" wanted to die or was just "crying for help". Schneider spends pages on her emotional volatility and fragility but joins the scores of writers refusing to concede an obvious fact: that people in the grip of chemical addiction are emotionally volatile. And yet, and yet. We will not relinquish the childish certainty that Marilyn's death must have been an act of (someone's) will.

There is a more interesting book lurking in the margins here about Freudian psycho­analysis and Hollywood. Early on, Schneider observes: "Ralph and Marilyn's relationship replayed that between psychoanalysis and the movie business, each succumbing to the other's madness. Like all coups de foudre and lasting unions, the two professions' encounter was based on confusion . . . Slowly but surely, the film industry drove psychoanalysis out of its mind." It's a nice turn of phrase but it has the disadvantage of being untrue. As a statement about psychoanalysis, it makes no sense; as a supposed insight into Marilyn's psychology, it mystifies a relationship that some of us would describe, more phlegmatically, as mutualexploitation, or even co-dependency.

We babble on about her insecurities because this is easier than thinking about the double binds in which we always trapped her. Her anxieties were powerful and often overcame her, but we ignore how hard she fought them. Her lack of confidence, her stage fright, her shame about being uneducated - she struggled against them all, determined to show herself and everyone else that she was worth something.

“I finally made up my mind I wanted to be an actress and I was not going to let my lack of confidence ruin my chances," she once said. "I knew how third-rate I was . . . But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!" Yet that's not the story we want to hear.

The great battle of Marilyn's life wasn't her struggle against drugs, alcohol, depression or loneliness, all of which are the usual suspects that writers keep lining up to identify. It was her quest for respect, which we still refuse to grant her. Marilyn is venerated - but not venerable. None of these stories is about respecting her. They are about pitying her. By any reasonable standard, Marilyn was astonishingly successful at her chosen profession. But she was lonely; she was never given the validation she sought; and so we call her a failure.

In that regard, Schneider does Marilyn the justice of granting her a certain degree of dignity and an intuitive understanding of her own demons, if not the intelligence she demonstrated on many occasions that he omits. Late in the novel, he imagines her telling Greenson that she liked a line of Joseph Conrad's: "It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice." It is a more pertinent observation than Schneider seems to recognise, at least consciously (two can play that game). It is the writing about Marilyn which insists that she must remain loyal to one nightmare and that we, as a culture, must remain loyal to the simplistic parable of Marilyn in the grip of a nightmare, rather than appreciate the remarkable story of a woman, determined to succeed, who remains adored by millions nearly a century after her birth - a triumph of sheer will that proved insufficient to save her.

Marilyn may not be deathless but the clichés about her will, on the evidence, live for ever.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta, £9.99) “Marilyn's Last Sessions" by Michel Schneider, translated by Will Hobson, is published by Canongate (£16.99)

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?