Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Last Betrayal of Marilyn Monroe

The sudden appearance of a transcript of Marilyn Monroe’s sessions with her psychiatrist that occurred shortly before her death is the kind of manna from heaven that gossip columnists and other media sharks dream about. But there should be no misunderstanding of this fact: its public revelation, the handiwork of former prosecutor John Minor, is an unambiguous violation of Monroe’s privacy and right to have her psychiatric treatment kept strictly confidential.

It doesn’t matter that Monroe is dead, or that her psychiatrist is dead, or that all the famous people she talks aboutÂ…Joan Crawford, Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and othersÂ…are also dead. She spoke to her psychiatrist frankly and openly about the most personal of matters because she was assured, as all psychiatric patients are, that what she said would never be revealed to anyone, ever. That they have been, and worse, will now become part of the published fodder for the seemingly bottomless national obsession with this sad, troubled woman’s life and death, is an ethical outrage.

Confidential conversations must remain confidential even after death. This is a principle judicially confirmed twice in recent years: in Massachusetts, when Lizzy Borden’s descendants petitioned to have her legal files released, and by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the confidences of the late Vince Foster. Both opinions made it clear that if confidentiality is to mean anything, a client or patient or penitent must be certain that personal or embarrassing information disclosed to a professional will never be revealed except under the most extraordinary circumstances.

The circumstances in Monroe’s case aren’t that extraordinary. Minor, who in 1962 was investigating the circumstances of Monroe’s sudden death for signs of foul play, convinced her psychiatrist to play the tapes of her last sessions as Minor transcribed them, promising that they were for his investigation only and would never be made public. Minor lied: he is unveiling them now. His excuse is that he wants another autopsy of Monroe’s body and that it may show that she was murdered, but he could have used his notes to make the same argument in 1963, and without making them public. Is there a naïve soul out there who doesn’t smell a book deal in the wind?

But doesn’t the public have a “right to know?” In a word, no! The public had and has a right to invade Marilyn Monroe’s private life to the extent that her occupation as a movie star made such incursions unavoidable. It did not and does not have the right to know what she said to her husbands in bed, her gynecologist in his office or her psychiatrist on the couch unless she agreed to let them know, and she did not agree. That information is hers, and hers alone, and it was her right to take it to the grave with her. Unfortunately, she shared them with her doctor first.

But so what, really? That will be the refrain of many, as they cite the fact that everyone mentioned on the tapes is dead and buried. The practical response is that embarrassing information about the dead can still have impact on the living. The transcript appears to confirm an intimate relationship between Monroe and Robert Kennedy, for example. Did Monroe want to cause pain to Kennedy’s wife and many children, who are still alive? That was not the purpose of her sessions with the psychiatrist, but that will be the result of Minor’s actions now. The ethical answer is even simpler: the psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, promised Monroe that her confidences were safe with him, and they were not. Greenson’s decision to let Minor listen to the tapes in order to assist his investigation would be defensible, except for the fact that he trusted the wrong man, and is therefore culpable for the ultimate unauthorized revelation of information he was bound to protect. As for Minor, he has no defense. He has betrayed both Greenson and Monroe.

A journalistic establishment that cared about promises of confidentiality as much as it purports to (as New York Times reporter Judith Miller continues to live in a jail cell because she made such a promise) would not rush to publish material like Monroe’s private discussions with her psychiatrist, no matter how juicy it might be. But that is clearly, if not too much to ask, too much to expect.

What isn’t too much to expect is for lawyers and psychiatrists to respect confidentiality and honor their promises to keep it.

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