NINETEEN YEARS MY senior, Marilyn Monroe’s images did not consciously influence my life, yet for as long as I can remember her voluptuous silhouette coexisted with my formative years. Images of her sexual receptivity proliferated in television and magazines. When I was seventeen, her shadow traversed my budding sexuality and haunted my first sexual experiences with my young husband. I married her stepson, Joey, within six months of her death.
All around me, freedom abounded during the early sixties. Girls (not me) were wearing bikinis for the first time. Sexual freedom became more common and open. Opinions about Vietnam were heated. Betty Friedan was a leading figure in this second wave of the U.S. women’s movement (the first wave of feminism being women’s right to vote). In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, Friedan talks about the prevailing unhappiness of a large portion of women during the fifties and sixties. Men seem to believe at that time that women should be fulfilled solely by the role of homemaker. If women were not happy, they were considered neurotic or mentally unstable.
In reaction to these prevailing expectations of women, particularly to contribute physically and financially during WWII then demurely retreat back to the kitchen and housewifery, a culture backlash occurred in the sixties. Some refer to this period as the time of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I thought women should have the right to aspire to whatever they wanted to do or be in life, so the early sixties were a confusing time for me.
Prior to my first marriage, I was busy protecting my virginity, and obsessed with the endeavor to learn to behave the way that I thought a lady was suppose to act—not because of some great virtue, but in order to overcome what people thought of me. Also, I thought that chastity would matter to my future husband.
Preserving a woman’s virginity may sound trite by today’s moral standards; however, in many parts of the world, even today, women are murdered for losing their virginity, even if by rape.
My father refused to marry my mother. He considered her used merchandise because she had married another. A boy in high school said that his mother forbade his seeing me. I was not made of the right stuff, was assumed to be loose. From these prevailing attitudes, I concluded a woman’s value was based solely upon her being unspoiled. Chaste. Pure. Is it any wonder that I wanted to hide my body, my sexuality, my sensuality?
In between my first and second marriage (both at age nineteen), I was bewildered by all that was happening around me culturally: President Kennedy’s assassination, ambiguous messages embedded in music like Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” hippies, and the Vietnam War. During my stewardess days, I was deeply affected by the vacant stare I witnessed in the eyes of the young men returning from war. They reminded me of my dad Howard’s empty stares and unreachable heart. Nightmares of brooding, dark eyes haunted me. I was also totally mystified by the notion of sexual freedom without guilt. My second husband demanded modesty. My first husband resented my reserve. How to be in a world of men? In a world dominated by men? Oh, how was I to be a woman?
Surprisingly, Marilyn loved, even flaunted, her nudity openly. There are many reports of her saying that she did not receive much pleasure from the sexual act itself. “Sex was less a reward to herself than a price she paid gladly,” says Gloria Steinem.
Experts in child development concur that when girls are exposed to sexuality too young, they may become sexually compulsive. The sense of power their sexuality affords them can become addictive when they’re seeking attention from men. Other girls may turn their reaction inward by going to the opposite extreme, thinking and behaving in ultra-modest ways. And so it was with Norma Jeane’s response in contrast to mine.
Marilyn repeatedly stated that she just wanted to be noticed, as reflected in this quote: “I daydreamed chiefly about beauty. I dreamed of myself becoming so beautiful that people would turn to look at me when I passed.” By most people’s standards, she attained that goal with outstanding success.
It has been said that we grow in the eyes of an other, that we in fact need others to call us into being. I believe that the camera was that “other” for Marilyn. It may have been the only “eye” that ever really saw her. She never had the mirroring of safe eyes as a child or as an adult—only that ever-present camera lens, the eye that lit up her life.
At age nineteen—deeply confused, but at the same time in the throes of budding self-esteem—I thought my life was under my control. But following in shades of Marilyn, I became promiscuous, and a drunk, and I attempted suicide. How far I would fall from my own ideals.
In retrospect, I can understand Joey’s attraction to me. I hold within my being many of the psychological imprints and traits of Marilyn, the stepmother he idolized. Like her, I was mired in the insecurities of deep wounds, fostered and sustained in the constant atmosphere of illegitimacy, illiteracy, family instability, and societal judgments. And, like Marilyn, I was street-smart but ignorant in worldly matters such as formal education, social class, customs, dress, and manners.
“I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside.” —Marilyn
Simultaneously vulnerable and tough, I grew quite capable of taking care of my basic survival needs. Like Marilyn, I attracted men who wanted to take care of me. We both seemed to emit mixed signals that would convey “Come here and take care of me,” and “Go away, I don’t need you.”
Marilyn and I had the profound instability of emotions, embedded deeply within us, that tend to create a pervasive vulnerability among girls who are abused in early childhood. This vulnerability is often palatable to those around us, no matter the calloused exterior we present. I think Joey unconsciously chose me based on this sense of fragility, coupled with his desire to recreate the warmth that he felt in Marilyn’s presence. He told me that she was one of the few adults who really saw him or paid any personal attention to him. She became his family when Joey lived with his father and Monroe after the two married. She ended up being connected to her stepson for the rest of her life. Joey spoke with Marilyn the night she died. He absolutely adored her.
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