Monday, June 9, 2008

The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

I'm re-running* this review of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe because I need to; I'll explain at the end. Really. (Those of you who care to read that far shall be rewarded.)

Marilyn Monroe is a true icon, a legend with a myth that continues to grow long after her death. So much as been written about her that's she's become not only a sex symbol but a symbol for nearly anything else. We dehumanize her so that we may (ironically) personalize our cultural views regarding sexuality, feminism, relationships, media and more. She is used to illustrate, prove and feed our theories.

She's become not a person but an image, an icon -- a cliche.

The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe More books have been written about Monroe than any other entertainer, some guessing over 600 books ~ with new releases each year. Yet with all these books promising to reveal the "real Marilyn" avid readers like myself find ourselves doing nothing but covering the same old ground and learning nothing new. These new works do nothing to provide new information.

Enter Sarah Churchwell's The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe.

This is the ultimate cohesive look at most (if not all) that has been written about Marilyn, right down to reviewer comments at Amazon for these books, and what is shown is not only the legend of Marilyn and how she's been used, but our response and ability to perpetuate the myths as well.

In all these biographies there is a claim to uncover, to bare, to finally provide the ultimate answers; but they really only succeed in rehashing, guessing, and projecting. (In some cases, it's outright fiction.) Churchwell doesn't pretend to know or intend to show us the real Marilyn. Instead she gives us the reasons why we'll likely never know more than we do -- and it's not necessarily due to some government cover-up either.

As Churchwell explains, part of the reason the myth continues to grow is due to the dichotomies of Marilyn Monroe. Is she real or fake? Objectified or manipulative? Marilyn Monroe or Norma Jeane? Sweet or mean, beautiful or ugly, weak or strong, known and unknown... The list is long and growing. And these splits are what fascinate so many. Each book (and it's place in the collective literature contradicting other works) only adds more 'proof' of these splits, further establishing the mystery. And so the myth grows.

In part, Churchwell shows us, this is due to the biographers themselves. Each brings their own motivations, point of view and convictions to their biographies. Churchwell shows us not only how Marilyn's been used to prove or lay foundations for theories (from feminism to conspiracy theories) but how she's been both the fantasy and the truth denied. She's the object of personal projections and cultural convictions. All these dichotomies and questions can be synthesized through the body and person of Marilyn Monore; taking her humanity out of the legend, placing our own within.

Along with the many lives of Marilyn we are given the many needs of authors and an introspective on the writing of biographies (and autobiographies are not exempt!) But we are culpable as well. Not only as the buyers of the books, but we the adoring public have our own projections and beliefs. Our minds are made up and we are only too happy to kill the messenger who brings a different argument about 'our Marilyn'. (This is shown in Churchwell's book via the responses and reviews to previously published works about Monroe and the examples of biographer bickering & litigation.)

What may have begun as a love of a woman has clearly become a fixation on what she symbolizes to us. Like a religion (and Churchwell does use the word apocrypha to describe the volumes written), Marilyn is our goddess (good or evil) and woe to those who dare screw with our ideology -- even if with facts.

What's most impressive about this work is the transformation which occurs. As you read, you move Monroe from some 'thing' for our cultural and personal needs, to if not fully human at least considering the possibility that she was a complicated living human being which cannot not easily be understood from the fragments of her life which remain. Once we begin to see that she's not so easily characterized for our 'needs', to be made to symbolize our cultural or personal issues, we then need to look at why we -- readers and society at large -- do this.

We are not completely dehumanized (as we've done to Marilyn) but we certainly have to take a look at ourselves as a swarming mass of millions -- and as individuals. What is this compulsion to make Marilyn something? Why do we not see how dehumanizing our process is? Why is our quest &/or belief system more important than the person we profess to love?

We must now see ourselves moving from lover to stalker; our jealous perceptions of what others may know or say wounds us as if she had cheated on us in real life. She is our goddess, and we own her.

If the biographers have motives so do we the readers and fans who purchase nearly anything with her image on it. There's no denying that we have dehumanized Marilyn Monroe (yes, even little Norma Jeane too) even as we've placed her among our pop culture deities and cultural icons.

At the end of Churchwell's book die-hard fans may not know much more about Marilyn Monroe the woman and why she died -- and many of you may not like to see the faulty reasoning and weak proof that your favorite biographers have produced. But you should come closer to glimpsing the real human who was Marilyn Monroe.

And you sure as hell will learn a lot more about the culture we live in and the woman (person) you are.

A must have for every Marilyn Monroe fan, student of culture, and biography readers/writers.

Originally when I finished this book I put myself on Monroe Prohibition. At least as far as books go. I had to. While I might not have felt quite as concerned about the ghost of Marilyn (NWS - no kids), I was worried about being "part of the giant machine which feeds off of her -- dead or alive." I figured I should show a soul, if not a collecting spine; but then I discovered Eve Arnold & her book, and I'm weakening...

* This review was previously run on a smutty site (NWS), here (NWS - no kids).

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