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What Marilyn Monroe Taught Us About Suicide Notes

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The death of movie actress Marilyn Monroe on August 5, 1962 is still controversial despite being ruled a "probable suicide" by Los Angeles coroner Thomas Noguchi. While the cause of death was due to acute barbiturate poisoning and Monroe had made previous suicide attempts using prescription drugs in the past, questions about her involvement with then-President John F. Kennedy continue to be raised.

Several police officers who arrived at the scene of her death, including Los Angeles police officer Jack Clemmons, openly speculated on the possibility that the star had actually been murdered. Clemmons even accused members of the LAPD with staging a cover-up and that the death scene had been deliberately staged.

Though Clemmons and other conspiracy theorists continue to insist that she had been murdered, one of the first psychological autopsies to be carried out ruled that the death had been suicide. Psychiatrist Robert E. Litman, a Los Angeles-based suicide authority had been the chief psychiatrist on the autopsy team examining the Monroe case would later describe the evidence used to determine that she had committed suicide.

This included the telephone calls that Monroe had made after taking the pills in which she insisted that she was "in deep trouble". According to Litman, her death could be considered "a self-inflicted death, where there is a great risk but also a good chance for rescue." He concluded that she had staged the suicide with the hope of rescue which came too late.

But could Marilyn Monroe's own writings provide clues about her suicidal intentions? Many of the letters, poems, and personal notes that Monroe wrote in the years leading up to her death were recently collected in a single book, Marilyn Monroe's Fragments, published last year.

Bequeathed to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, after her death, Monroe's writings have only recently become available for serious study by suicide researchers.

A recent research study published in the journal Crisis, provides the first systematic look at Marilyn Monroe's Fragments and possible signs of her suicidal intentions. The article, written by Mercedes Fernandez-Cabana of the Psychiatry Department University Hospital Complex of Ourense, Spain and her colleagues, provides the results of a Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) study of Fragments.

First developed for text analysis to determine how emotional impact can be reflected by how people write, LIWC evaluates text on a word-by-word basis to calculate how often words in specific categories are used (i.e., positive or negative emotions, psychological concerns, and possible pathology). Research using LIWC to examine notes and letters left behind by people who committed suicide have suggested that suicidal intention might be identified by specific language cues in what suicidal people write in the time leading up to their deaths.

Those most suicide notes tend to be too brief to provide meaningful analysis, research using text analysis have turned up meaningful differences between notes left by men and women. Many literary figures who eventually committed suicide have also been studied using LIWC and other methods including Sara Teasdale and Sylvia Plath.

Different word trends seen in their writings up to the time of death includes changes in positive and negative emotional statements, increased use of pronouns, words associated with cognition and insight, as well as being more present-oriented. These changes became more apparent in the time immediately preceding the suicide, a trend consistent with research into suicide notes for men and women. Researchers also found a sharp increase in positive emotional words immediately preceding the suicide, perhaps as an indication of the more settled emotional state once the final suicide decision is made.

Studying Fragments was made easier by the dates of the letters and notes left behind by Marilyn Monroe. Using the dated material as a timeline in the years leading up to Monroe's death, Fernandez-Cabana and her colleagues were able to group the Fragments materials into four time periods ending in 1962. Statistical analysis showed a significant rise in health concerns, death issues and personal pronoun use over time. Also, the period just before her death showed a significant decrease in negative emotions, anxiety, and religious ideas.

Though there were no clear indications of suicidal intention in any of Marilyn's Monroe's writings, the notes written shortly before her death suggest a strong sense of isolation. The LIWC evidence does not reflect what has been typically found that depressed individuals but may indicate that her suicide death was an impulsive decision rather than a planned act.

In discussing Monroe's death, Mercedes Fernandez-Cabana and her fellow authors avoided commenting on the elaborate theories that were raised about her possibly being murdered for political reasons. Also, the lack of any notes written in the critical few weeks leading up to Marilyn Monroe's death means that important data may be missing from the final analysis.

Still, LIWC represents a valuable new forensic tool for studying suicide notes to provide vital clues about the suicidal state of mind though much more research needs to be done. This can be essential in future cases of suspected suicide.

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