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Marilyn Monroe’s final two years, as a patient of the psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson – who saw her daily in the month before she died – have long been the subject of intense speculation. One of Greenson’s students, Lucy Freeman, published a study of their relationship, Why Norma Jean Killed Marilyn Monroe, while Luciano Mecacci’s Freudian Slips: The Casualties of Psychoanalysis begins with an essay on the subject.

Unfortunately, most commentators seem too mesmerised by Marilyn’s legend to assess her psyche fairly. Perhaps the most accurate analysis of the Greenson-Monroe dynamic can be found in Lisa Appignanesi’s 2008 book, Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors.

Michel Schneider’s novel about Monroe and her analyst – Marilyn’s Last Sessions – comes recommended by Appignanesi herself, and also Andrew O’Hagan, author of 2010’s light, witty The Life and Thoughts of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe

Schneider’s previous work ranges from academic studies of the psychoanalytic process to a novel exploring Marcel Proust’s relationship with his mother. Marilyn’s Last Sessions was first published in France in 2006, and was awarded the Prix Interallié. It has now been translated by Will Hobson, and is published by Canongate.

Marilyn’s Last Sessions was inspired by alleged tapes made by Monroe for Greenson. The Los Angeles detective, John Miner, claimed that Greenson played the tapes for him while he was investigating her death in 1962. The tapes have never been found, and Greenson’s archive at UCLA is not available to the public. However, Miner transcribed the tapes – from memory – decades later, and excerpts appear in Matthew Smith’s 2003 book, Victim: The Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe. A complete transcript, as dictated by Miner, was published in the Los Angeles Times in 2005.

In Miner’s transcript, the actress talks freely about orgasms, enemas, and flings with other celebrities. Among some dedicated fans, the accuracy of the transcript is in considerable doubt. The criticisms of Miner are outlined in ‘Songs Marilyn Never Sang’, an article by Melinda Mason. Nonetheless, these disputed transcripts feature in Marilyn’s Last Sessions. In addition to the gossipy subject matter, Monroe’s tone and syntax, in these transcripts, bear little resemblance to quotes from published interviews, or even her private journal entries collected in last year’s Fragments.

While Schneider’s reliance on the Miner transcripts may be questionable, he also uses a wide range of less controversial sources – including the diary of photographer Andre de Dienes, and the memoirs of journalist W.J. Weatherby. Unfortunately, Schneider’s tendency to copy, or rewrite, long passages from other books is somewhat exasperating (especially if you’ve read them before, as many Monroe fans will have done.)

A long letter from Marilyn to Greenson, first published in Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1992), is included here – all four pages of it. As I read, I often wished Schneider had been bolder in pursuing his imaginative vision. But perhaps the spurious nature of the Miner transcripts made him more inhibited elsewhere.

More interestingly, Schneider has also researched the lesser-known (outside analytic circles) life and work of Dr Greenson. His decision to allow Marilyn access to his home and family – effectively ‘adopting’ a woman who, in her mid-thirties, was emotionally adrift – was unorthodox, and finally disastrous.

Greenson began writing his 1967 book, The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis, while treating Monroe. At the time of her death, Marilyn was reading Captain Newman, M.D., Leo Rosten’s novel based on Greenson’s wartime experiences. It was filmed with Gregory Peck in 1963. One of Greenson’s last essays, ‘The Screen of Transference: Roles and True Identity’ (1976), featured a thinly-veiled portrait of Monroe, whom he described as an archetypal ‘screen character patient’.

‘Transference’, originally a Freudian term, can be defined as the re-enactment of repressed childhood emotions, directed towards another person. Greenson, it would seem, tried to become the ‘good father’ Marilyn never had.

Early on in her treatment, she was said to have told friends that Greenson was her ‘saviour’. By 1962, the relationship had become more complex. Greenson persuaded Marilyn to buy a home nearby, and her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, was suggested by him. It seems likely that Greenson was experiencing ‘counter-transference’, the redirection of a therapist’s feelings towards a patient. Some of Monroe’s friends felt that he was trying to control her mind.

Schneider characterises Monroe’s relationship with Greenson as ‘a loveless love’. Though non-sexual, it was the last significant relationship she would have. In a fictional encounter, Joe Mankiewicz (who directed Marilyn in one of her first films, All About Eve), says, ‘You play with women, Dr Greenson, the way other people play backgammon or poker, and yet you think of yourself as a chess player.’

Schneider also writes about Marilyn’s brief friendship with Truman Capote, who based the character of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on her. ‘Marilyn was always late,’ Schneider writes in Capote’s style, ‘like everyone who has appeared at the wrong moment in their parents’ lives, all the unexpected souls.’

‘How many hours have I spent in waiting rooms, front offices and foyers since starting out?’ the infamously tardy Marilyn wonders, while Greenson says of actors, ‘They become children whose time is spent waiting – between movies, between scenes, between takes.’ Greenson, a frustrated actor, ‘wanted his case histories to be like movies he’d directed’, according to his colleague, Dr Milton Wexler (who treated Marilyn when Greenson was away.) ‘He didn’t practice the talking cure,’ Wexler says of Greenson. ‘His was a cure by drama, tragedy. He was a violent soul…’

Though Greenson acknowledges that ‘all their sessions had been like acts in a play,’ he is unsure of its meaning. ‘The curtain had fallen, and the enigma of (MM’s) self was intact.’ He realises that she ‘revealed herself only to mask herself again.’ Greenson, in the novel, is haunted by the memory of Marilyn and devastated by his failure to rescue her.

Schneider also explores the popularity of psychoanalysis within the narcissistic atmosphere of Hollywood. ‘It’s not analysis that gets everywhere,’ Greenson believes, ‘it’s the movies that take over everything.’ It was ‘a marriage of intellect and artifice’ that ‘came to an end when Hollywood itself did.’ Monroe’s decline coincided with the demise of the studio system which she had grown to distrust.

As if to prove this point, Schneider’s novel inspired a documentary in 2008. Marilyn: The Last Sessions is even murkier than its source, with Schneider’s fiction presented as fact, and featuring pornographic footage of Arline Hunter, a glamour model who gained fleeting fame for her resemblance to Monroe.

Perhaps the subject of psychoanalysis is too close to Schneider’s heart. He acknowledges its contradictions but offers no critique. While key psychoanalytic figures like Wexler, and Anna Freud, are covered, they were peripheral figures in the Monroe story. Her physician, Dr Hyman Engelberg, and lawyer Milton Rudin – both affiliated to Greenson – are barely mentioned, and neither is Eunice Murray, who was with Marilyn on the night she died.

Schneider writes well about the two backdrops to Marilyn’s later life, New York (‘city of words’) and her native Los Angeles, a ‘city of images’. Monroe once compared herself to ‘a superstructure with no foundation’. While New York offers her a sense of belonging, L.A. – the city of her birth – only reminds her of the void within, and she recedes into its dazzling light.

While some of Schneider’s inventions seem contrived – an encounter between Marilyn and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, for example – others are more successful. For example, Schneider uses Marilyn’s conversation with W.J. Weatherby about Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night – a classic novel about marriage, and mental illness – to explore the hypothetical possibility of her starring in its screen adaptation by Henry Weinstein, a friend of Greenson, who produced her last, incomplete movie, Something’s Got to Give.

Poignantly, Schneider attributes the mysterious gift of a stuffed tiger – which, rumour has it, was sent to Monroe on the day she died – to Greenson himself. This is not true – photographs from 1961 show that it was a toy for her pet dog – but Schneider’s exploration of this innocuous subject of many a conspiracy theory makes a dramatic impact.

Unfortunately, Marilyn’s Last Sessions is more impressive as a novel of ideas than one of action or character. Schneider’s dialogue is, at times, laughably stilted, and his portraits of Monroe and Greenson seem distant and vague. An encounter with photographer George Barris has Marilyn agreeing to let him a write a book about her within seconds of their meeting. They did, in fact, make plans – but only after several days. And director John Huston, whose wish to cast Marilyn as a patient in his bio-pic of Freud was thwarted by Greenson – is written off as a Hollywood philistine.

One scene, which shows a distraught Marilyn stroking the wallpaper in Greenson’s office, and feeling comforted, brings a rare flash of concrete detail to the story. Wexler draws the intriguing conclusion that it was not her absent father that Monroe sought, but her lost, sick mother. Though Greenson refuses to accept it, perhaps he did replace Gladys Baker – both as a nurturing presence, and a neurotic influence in Marilyn’s life.

Sarah Churchwell (author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) argues in ‘Death and the Maiden’, a review for the New Statesman, that Schneider’s novel ultimately fails because he is asking the wrong questions.  ‘The novel accepts the false premise of almost every book about Marilyn by asking whether she committed suicide or was murdered,’ Churchwell observes. ‘The endless, pointless debate about Marilyn’s death depends on an excluded middle that some of us like to call “accident”.’

While Schneider does offer some valuable insight into Monroe’s fatal liaison with Greenson, he – perhaps unwittingly – falls into the trap that so many authors do, of patronising, and thereby exploiting Marilyn. ‘The great battle of Marilyn’s life wasn’t her struggle against drugs, alcohol, depression or loneliness,’ Churchwell remarks, ‘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.’

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