I’ve Been Thinking about the Effects of Sexual Abuse

“They say you soon forget the bad things in your life, and only remember the good ones. Well, maybe for others it’s that way, but not for me…” Marilyn Monroe

From the research I’ve done on  sexual abuse and the life of Marilyn Monroe, I understand that the quote above refers to the abuse that she suffered as a child. However, when speaking about childhood abuse and Marilyn, I am mindful of the difficulties of focusing on  any one form of the multiple abuses she endured. She was born out of wedlock─a shameful event in Marilyn’s day─and raised in a series of foster homes. Her mentally ill mother who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and whom Marilyn feared, occasionally visited her (for the first seven years of her life Marilyn didn’t even know the woman who periodically visited her in her foster home). Her maternal grandmother died in a state hospital laced into a straightjacket.

Considering the innumerable adverse circumstances surrounding her childhood, I think that the camera may have been the only “eyes” where Marilyn felt seen.

While Marilyn experienced many forms of childhood traumas and humiliations, I find myself thinking about sexual abuse. In particular, the long term effect on children who may blame themselves, which results in toxic shame, a shame that does not belong to them. But it gets embedded into the child’s developmental core.

In her book, Marilyn, Gloria Steinem reports some of the abuses Marilyn faced when she was eight years old. Marilyn tells the story of a star boarder living in one of the  foster homes where she was placed.  After bolting the door, “He asked me to sit on his lap and he kissed me and started doing other things to me.” He let her go when the “game” was over. When she told her foster mother she was not only disbelieved but slapped. Marilyn went on to say, “I cried all night, I just wanted to die.” She also says that is the first time she remembers stammering; a trait that plagued her periodically throughout her life. Since childhood I too have struggled with stammering and the mis-pronouncement of words.

The life-long psychological problems of being inappropriately touched sexually by people who hold power over a  child─whether by age, size, or position of authority─include depression,low self-esteem, extreme dependency and/or extreme detachment, fear of abandonment, pervasive anxiety, unexplainable and/or irrational fears, panic attacks, sleeping problems, nightmares, irritability, dissociation and outbursts of anger.

Eventually, Doctor Greenson, Professor of Psychiatry at University of California Medical School, diagnosed and treated Marilyn for a borderline paranoid addict disorder. Disorders that make many therapists want to run for cover. Borderline personality disorders can be summarized as the inability to regulate one’s emotions. Substance abuse can be very hard to control if the person is using substances to relieve painful emotions.

In her extensively researched book, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Leaming does an exemplary job of showing how Marilyn displayed psychological problems in all areas of her life beginning in her early twenties. According to Leaming, Marilyn’s pervasive anxiety, fears, panic attacks, low self- esteem, abandonment issues, outbursts of anger, absenteeism and use of pills and booze were legendary among Hollywood executives and Marilyn’s lovers.

When a child’s well being is disregarded and trust is broken by the people who are supposed to care and protect, many children are not only rendered powerless but feel defective as well—not good enough, powerless, voiceless.

According to Leaming, not only was Marilyn expelled from several foster homes after being sexually abused but her most consistent foster mother, Grace, insisted that Marilyn, at age fifteen, marry because Grace was moving and could not take Marilyn with her. It seems that Grace’s husband, Doc. also made sexual advances toward Marilyn. As is often the case of children who grew up in extreme chaos, the exact timeline is difficult to sort out, but it appears the most common solution to abuse from Foster fathers was to remove Marilyn from the home.

“This sad bitter child who grew up too fast is hardly ever out of my heart. With success all around me, I can still feel her frightened eyes looking out of mine.” Marilyn Monroe (quoted by Gloria Steinem in her book Marilyn)

My heart breaks when I read this quote from Marilyn. I suppose it is too close to my own childhood experiences. At age four, I was sent to foster care because I was being abused by my adoptive father. I internalized the message that I caused the problem, I was bad, and therefore I had to be sent away.

The only difference between me and Marilyn is that I grew up in a different time period where help for addictions and psychological disorders was more readily available and carried less shame. I wonder what would have happened if she had been able to receive the kind of therapy and knowledge available to us now.

Most children don’t share with adults what is happening to them for a variety of reasons. Or if they do tell and are ignored or disbelieved the damage is carved right into the growing psyche of the child. The child learns not to trust in several ways. They learn from the abuser that adults will trick them or use them, and they learn that adult stick together—they are not believed. When this happens, children learn to rely totally on themselves. Because of the loss of control of their bodies and psyches, they may fear losing control in relationships.

To make matters worse, if the child’s body responds favorably to the sexual advances, as bodies are designed to do, guilt and shame become embedded into the developing child’s psyche. Dissociation, the ability to detach from one’s mind, body and feelings─some people report leaving their body and observing from the ceiling─may become second nature–a coping mechanism that works for survival, but later on in life, is a detriment to being fully present.

I have often wondered if the ability to detach was one of the familiar traits that Joey, Marilyn’s step-son, found compelling in me. I remember some of our conversations:

Joey, looking at me puzzled: “Where were you just then?”

Me: “What?” I have no idea what he’s talking about.

Joey: “You weren’t listening.”

Me: “I heard you say…” (I repeat his words verbatim).

Joey: “Yeah, but your eyes were vacant.”

Me: “I don’t know what you are talking about.” (I’m defensively embarrassed, wondering what I’ve done wrong.)

Joey: “Marilyn used to do that.”

Me: “Do what? What are you talking about?” Now I’m tumbling into misery of being misunderstood, feeling wrong and lost.

He must have noticed me disappearing somewhere else in those moments, but as you can see, I had no idea. Yet, he recognized it as a trait of Marilyn’s. No wonder we had such a powerful connection, with him mourning her death, me being blonde and an abused child that just wanted to be loved, like her.

Until recently, girls and women would find their confessions of abuse to be disbelieved or blamed. Because of the work of people like Alice Miller, Ph. D., and Marion Woodman, Ph. D., to name some early pioneers of childhood abuse, there is much more awareness of the problem of sexual abuse now.

Revelation of abuses by the Catholic Church and sports figures has brought the issue of sexual abuse into everyone’s awareness. Today children are usually taken seriously when they report sexual abuse, but many children still suffer in silence.

If Marilyn had lived, I’d like to think that she would have had the opportunity to be heard, seen, and validated about the effects of sexual abuse on her life. I wish her story and her whole self could have been witnessed —maybe she wouldn’t have taken those pills. Maybe they seemed to help someone who’s haunted by bad memories through long nights —making the hidden secrets bearable. Of course, none of that helped her, or anyone—and she died much too young. Healing happens through expression, through being witnessed and being supported so we can arrive at a new place. We can look in the mirror and find a new self. I wish that Marilyn had had that chance. Cameras are cold and hard, a poor substitute for the eyes of a loving caregiver.  I am grateful every day that I have been given the chance to heal from similar abuses, which I share in my book, Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up In The Shadow Of Marilyn Monroe, and then take the reader on the path to my healing.


Barbara Leaming: Marilyn Monroe

Gloria Steinem: Marilyn

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  1. Dawn, What a powerful piece of writing. Your transparency will encourage many adult children who are locked up with shame. Gayle

    • Thank you Gayle. It feels wonderful to be supported in these delicate topics. Thank you agian for your support.

      Blessings, dawn

  2. Veronica Veronica how I enjoy learning new things about you day by day.
    Three boats washed onto the beach in the windstorm here today on Maui.
    Learned a new word ‘touron’. . tourist- moron.

    • Ridelle,

      I am delighted to hear from you. Missed you on Monday as always. Have a great time and don’t be a ‘touron’.

      Hugs, Veronica, Dawn……………….

  3. Ron Kelley says:


    When I read articles like this, I get so angry. I’m reminded how I wish I were King of the Land sometimes. There would be a lot of eunuchs around, and that would just be on their strike one.


    • Hi Ron,

      Yes, it is a hard topic for pretty much everyone. As a species, we have a long way to go in our development.

      Thanks for commenting. Best, dawn

  4. As always, you have a way with words that puts it all in perspective. Oh how I wish Marilynn could have been witnessed and found some peace before she died. I think of all the many years of darkness I lived in and begged God to take me in my sleep. I didn’t think I would ever find peace and because of you any many others that “witnessed” me and loved me through my pain (and it wasn’t pretty!) I have come out the other side and feel so blessed. Thank God, yes, for the help that is available today for such a “shaming” experience. Thank you Dawn for the courage to speak out and help others the way you do!

    • Hi Toni,

      It is a difficult topic anyway you look at it but it must be addressed. Thank you for reading and commenting. Blessings, dawn

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Miller, Monroe, When Gods Die