About a Woman: Marilyn Monroe

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on October 27, 2014

reading Lately I have been thinking about women, and the many incarnations we can embody and be in the articulation of our femininity and our way of being the woman we want to be. Such thoughts led me to consider Marilyn Monroe- yes, the Marilyn Monroe, the woman that illuminated that “dark continent called woman” in Hollywood neon. Monroe seems to inhabit the collective unconscious of both men and women: As the “star” everyone knew, some sexualized and objectified, others copied, and still others shunned. Decades after her suicide, her image continues to be imitated and remains a universal symbol of femininity.

Who am I?  What kind of woman? Asked Monroe. This is a question that most women have asked. Along the way, it is other women that have helped answer it, starting with our mothers. Marilyn Monroe had no such help.With a mentally ill mother who could not care for her, and an unknown father, she had to negotiate growing up mostly on her own. She found a way out of poverty and foster homes through her beauty and her body, sex and seduction being the primary means of exchange in a world dominated by men. She used her looks to give men what they wanted in the hopes that they would then give her what she needed– love, respect, safety. Like many women of her generation, she looked to men for recognition, validation and security.

Marilyn Monroe personifies many conflict-ridden parts for women, particularly women of her generation. She was too frail, too funny, too sexual, too much of everything, and it was reflected on the big screen. Marilyn was too much of a reminder of just how much of female sexuality and identity was reliant on men and on male sexuality. Her image ensnared femininity and made it a persecutory ideal for many women. Illusion often leads to idealization, and for women, the image of the ideal woman, or the ideal of femininity is something that can continue to haunt them throughout life. Think of the way Monroe influenced the look and sensibility of an entire generation of women who nonetheless struggled with what she represented. Trapped in a stereotype of woman, Marilyn was objectified, depersonalized and ridiculed. Few women stood up for her, it was too personally threatening. Monroe embodied basic female fears having to do with envy, jealousy and competition; she was a beautiful, sexy rival who was desired by all men because she played to their fantasies, in giving herself totally and asking to be loved she reminded women of their own vulnerability in the socio-symbolic contract.

Monroe was more comfortable with men because they treated her like a woman, while women treated her like the enemy. She looked to a he for definition, and found it lacking and imprisoning. Being treated like a woman does not a woman make, instead it makes a man’s idea of a woman, which can then imprison her. While masculine identifications may serve to reinforce many parts of female identity, validation happens in a totally different way with other women precisely because we are different than men, and concretely because we are built differently. No matter how important the men in our lives are, they cannot replace the role of other women in our lives. It is a biological impossibility. Women need other women to work out who they are and want to be, and in particular, to work out how they process aggression, envy and eroticism. When these aspects of the self are repudiated, they continue to manifest in women’s’ lives through bodily experiences- from not being satisfied with their appearance to not being able to enjoy and own sexuality, and everything in between. In search of validation, women might turn to the male gaze as objects of desire, like Marilyn did. Or they might hold other women up as a mirror that reflects an “ideal” so they become the object of envy, jealousy and competitiveness-precisely what happened to Monroe. What circulated between Marilyn and other women was an unresolved image of woman. An image that many women struggle with. Who am I? What kind of woman?

Marilyn’s public image reflected a masculine desire for an innocent yet sexy woman who did not bring any complexity along with her sexuality. “In fact,” Monroe is quoted as saying toward the end of her career, “my popularity seems almost entirely a masculine phenomenon.” Despite the fact that she played to it, Monroe disliked Hollywood’s promotion of her as a sex symbol, and she was explicit about the sexual exploitation that accompanied her career, as well as the history of sexual abuse that was part of her childhood. She spoke up and made it possible for many women to begin to speak about similar abuses. Yet, like many of her female peers, Marilyn sought to live out her idea of the woman she wanted to be through the men she chose as husbands. First there was the merchant marine James Dougherty, who saved her from yet another foster home when she was only 16. Then came Joe DiMaggio, the homespun jock who softened her image with the promise of the American dream, and finally there was Arthur Miller, the intellectual who provided proof that she was in fact, more than a sex symbol. With Miller, Marilyn attempted to have a child, but becoming a mother was not to be for her. Monroe continued to struggle with her image and the woman that she was and wanted to be throughout her short life. Along the way she was betrayed many times, by the men in her life, by the media and the press, by her psychoanalysts, and, sadly to say, by women who did not want to see themselves in her and disowned her. I like to think that she would have fared better in the post-feminism era.

Marilyn’s story is still relevant today because women continue to struggle with the same issues despite the fact that there are more possibilities to who and what we can be, when and if one can use the space and possibility to become. In search of validation and recognition, women often replicate an either/or situation for themselves that begins in the relationship with their mothers and is later re-enforced by culture. Take the woman-child, or the madonna-whore extremes, they leave little room for the specificities of what a woman might want to be. Marilyn exemplified the struggle to live between the two. Despite the fact that she was repeatedly trapped into the dumb, sexy blonde role, she continued to try and negotiate different film and theater characters for herself, developed her skills as a comedian, insisted on being taken seriously both for her acting and her thoughts, and toward the end of her life, was managing her own small film company. When she was not on a movie set, she would take literature and history classes at UCLA. Monroe loved literature, and her library contained over 400 books, including Joyce, Freud, Milton, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and Kerouc. Because she took her craft seriously, Monroe began taking acting classes in New York from Lee Strasberg, with the hopes of changing her image and gaining some respect in the theater world. She even  undertook psychoanalytic treatment on 3 different occasions in attempt to tackle her internal demons and understand their impact. In my reading of her life, I see a woman trying to create a life by her own rules rather than those being imposed on her, and trying to understand the impact of her emotional history, yet continuing to get caught up in the longing and idealization of her decade and the image of woman she helped to create. It was the stress of articulating herself as both sexy and intelligent, playful and smart, vulnerable and strong, needy and seductive, child and woman, Norma Jean and Marilyn Monroe – some of the very qualities and alternatives that first and second wave feminism made possible for all women – that did her in.

Marilyn Monroe’s trajectory as a woman mirrors the construction of WOMAN, and its many embodied, psychological and socio-cultural meanings. As women we are always negotiating between daughter and self, child and woman, as we articulate our subjectivity. Despite the glamour and furor that surrounded her, Marilyn Monroe was a woman in search of herself, a woman in process.


On Building a Life – Alongside.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on September 10, 2014

911It is thirteen years after.

Almost to the day.

I do not know when you will be reading this post, but I am writing it on the eve of.

The eve of the event that changed everything for many of us.

Strange to look out my window and see the beams of light knowing what they represent, on the eve of.

September 11 is almost here and I feel compelled to write, as I do on the eve of every September 11, since I began my blog.

It is my own, personal meditation.

And on this evening, I share it with you.

As I look out on the city lights, the shiny new Freedom Tower, and the outstretched beams of white light reaching toward the inky blue sky, I am struck by our ability to rebuild and go on while remaining connected to our grief and the memory of that day. Of course, as a psychoanalyst, this is something I know and believe in – the resilience of the human spirit and our ability to survive, and to continue to be, to continue to live our life. Yet, I am always moved when I experience it.

The events of September 11th 2001 changed everything for me, and for many among us. They made survivors of a generation of New Yorkers and Americans, (and also of many in other parts of the world) who had grown up believing that the world was safe, or at least, sort of safe. On that day, our notion of safety, predictability and comfort was forever changed. Many things changed on that day.

This post is about life post trauma, and the possibility of living fully while grieving what will never again be.

Is that even possible? To continue to live when everything in you has exploded, changed, re -morphed into an attempt to understand, to put pieces back together, to …what?

Continue with life?


It is possible to re-build a life alongside ones’ pain.

It is.

Slowly at first

One foot in front of the other

And then a rest

Perhaps a sit down

Or even a lie down…

Then, later

and maybe only sometimes,

With words and with people

With loved ones and

With loved things

with objects that help us remember

and also forget

With work

that helps us remember a part of ourselves

and also forget

With music

and books

and movies

With nature

and walks

and dance

and art

and tears

With love

and friendship

With community

and sharing

and people

and people

and people

We are always in need of people

and relationships

and many,

many ways of putting language and words to what we feel and what we experience.

This is how

we build a life – alongside.

Sometimes I am able to  help others begin to do this.  My patients, my friends, my family. Sometimes they are able to help me. At such times I feel honored and blessed, renewed in what I have always believed and known – that we can rebuild our lives alongside.

For me, September 11th has become a reminder of the importance of knowing that it is possible to build a life alongside.

As is often the case, I think that poets capture much of our lived experience best, as artists usually do because of their ability to go beyond words and disrupt meaning, stretching words to include what one has lived. Here is an excerpt from Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir, which captures the possibility of living alongside.

“Sorrow feels right, for now. Sorrow seems large and inhabitable, an interior season whose vaulted sky’s a suitable match for the gray and white tumult arched over these headlands. A sorrow is not to be gotten over or moved through in quite the way that sadness is, yet sorrow is also not as frozen and monochromatic as mourning. Sadness exists inside my sorrow, but it’s not as large as sorrow’s realm. This sorrow is capacious; there’s room inside it for the everyday, for going about the workaday stuff of life. And for loveliness, for whatever we’re to be given by the daily walk.” 

I don’t know anything different about death than I ever have, but I feel differently. I inhabit this difference in feeling- or does it live in me?- at the same time as I’m sorrowing. The possibility of consolation, of joy even, does not dispel the sorrow. Sorrow is the cathedral, the immense architecture; in its interior there’s room for almost everything; for desire, for flashes of happiness, for making plans for the future…



ON PASSION: and the feeling of intensity.

August 12, 2014

Most people think that passion is something that we feel when we fall in love or lust – and while that is true, there is much more to passion. Passion runs the gamut of emotions. Passion adds intensity and a particular kind of alchemy to any feeling that we experience, highlighting its emotional reverberation in […]

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ON IMAGINATION – and the power to make things right.

June 9, 2014

“Logic will get you from A to Z; but imagination will get you everywhere.” ― Albert Einstein   I have always been partial to fairytales and science fiction because they helped me explore lands that I could only dream of, until, as a young child, I realized that I often dreamed of them while awake, […]

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ON MINDFULNESS – and minding your p’s and q’s.

March 31, 2014

Mindfulness is a term that gets used a lot these days, despite the fact that it has been around for centuries. Eastern thought, primarily Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and meditative disciplines have always had the concept of mindfulness at their core. The idea of mindfulness has entered western ideas through the world of spirituality and […]

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February 10, 2014

Recently I posted a blog on the power of laughter and humor. I was writing about the  kind that makes your belly tremble and your chest heave. The kind that moves the neurobiology of your insides and translates into mood shifts on your outside. The REAL kind. Today’s post is about its opposite, what I […]

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ON LAUGHTER : And the power of humor.

January 20, 2014

A good belly laugh can change the mood, tone and connection to an other in an instant. Teasing or joking with someone can invite them into a space to play with something in a different way. I have noticed that in my clinical practice, the ability to tease or joke with my patients about a […]

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On Beginning Anew

December 31, 2013

It is the end of another year and beyond the celebrations and hoopla of the holiday season, it is a time to take stock of our lives, and for many, a time to think of what needs changing. The New Year often brings resolutions, and those resolutions are based on a reckoning with ones desires […]

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THE COMPANY OF MEN – And why it is important.

November 11, 2013

Having written about women, and how important it is for us to have other women in our lives (http://drceccoli.com/2010/06/its-a-girl-thing/ ), it is with great pleasure that I once again step outside my world to dive into the other dark continent- the world of men, and how important men are to each other. Men need other men- […]

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ON MEN: Shaken and stirred.

October 29, 2013

Ah men. That other dark continent that somehow is supposed to be clearer, simpler, more known. To whom? I wonder. Other men? As a woman writing about men, I find myself besieged with stereotyped notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Culturally and societally embedded ideas within the folds of my […]

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