How Studying The Minds Of Cultural Icons May Combat Mental Illness Stigma

Marilyn Monroe had “textbook characteristics” of borderline personality disorder, a new book claims.

Written by Carolyn Gregoire, Senior Health & Science Writer, The Huffington Post   facebook-logo   twitterlogotransparent

02/15/2016 07:00 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2016


Marilyn Monroe lives in our cultural imagination as one of the most iconic actresses in Hollywood history. But underneath the famous blonde curls and sex-kitten voice, there’s a complex woman who likely suffered from borderline personality disorder, according to science journalist Claudia Kalb.

Biographers and commentators have long struggled to make sense of Monroe’scontradictory personality. The actress “yearned for love and stability,” and yet often lashed out at those she cared about.

“What is clear is that Monroe suffered from severe mental distress,” she writes in her stirring new book Andy Warhol Was A Hoarder. “Her symptoms included a feeling of emptiness, a split or confused identity, extreme emotional volatility, unstable relationships, and an impulsivity that drove her to drug addiction and suicide — all textbook characteristics of a condition called borderline personality disorder.”


In the book, published on Feb. 2, Kalb looks beyond the public images of famous historical figures, from Monroe and Warhol to Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, to offer a glimpse into each celebrity’s complex and fascinating inner lives, basing her assertions on extensive research.

HuffPost Science spoke with Kalb about the joys and challenges of dissecting historical and old medical records, Einstein’s possible Asperger’s Syndrome, whether Darwin had anxiety disorder, in order to combat the stigma around mental illness.

What’s the value of posthumously diagnosing mental illness?

My goal was to really put a human face on some of these conditions that we read about and hear about, which can be very complex. I wanted to humanize mental illness and explore it in a way that allows people who are interested — or thinking about family members or themselves — to learn more in an accessible way.

The exciting part of that is delving into historical records, reading biographies and autobiographies, letters and generals. This was a three-pronged approach in terms of the research: There’s all of that information, plus medical studies and reports and interviews with mental health experts. So the really exciting part is just digging up history. There were old medical studies, for example, speculating about Charles Darwin’s health and possible anxiety and panic issues way back in the 19th century. It’s amazing seeing these people coming back to life.

What were some of the challenges you faced in putting together these diagnoses?

The main challenge is, how do you assess someone who’s no longer here? How do you do that in a way that makes sense and is authoritative and fair to the person?