Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hurtling Toward the Grace of God

I'm currently reading Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner. It's a biography of Marilyn Monroe. I'd never considered reading a biography of Marilyn Monroe; you always think you know her story. She married Joe DiMaggio. She married Arthur Miller. She was America's sexpot. She was emotionally unstable, and her death is the most talked about part of her story, shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theory. Everyone knows her, but I suspect most people have never watched even a single Marilyn movie. I have; I was a classic movie junkie as a child, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a personal favorite.

However, this story is riveting, and as with most anyone you could ever sit down with and discuss their life, so much greater than the sum of its parts. And the book was written by a woman who teaches history and women's studies. It's interesting to get a feminist perspective on Marilyn's life story.

The other night I was lying in the bathtub, reading. I'm getting to the part of the story where things have really ramped up. It feels like I'm not hurtling toward her death instead of steadily climbing. As a biography, the book relates the facts in chronological order. I'm trudging through Marilyn's life, one event at a time. And following a life story in this way can make it feel as if you're accelerating life. I mean, you are. Instead of seeing her life in real time, I'm seeing it in a matter of weeks. In that bathtub, speeding toward her death, i began to squirm. It suddenly felt as if all of life was running toward the finish line, mine included. Most people argue this all the time -- life is short, the exclaim. But the moments when I feel that deep in my bones, actually physically feel it happening, are a completely different matter than the intellectual construction of what that means.

Exploring another person's life in this way throws the idea of choices in stark relief. At the end of a chapter, Ms. Banner comments that by deciding to take a certain film role, Marilyn unwittingly set in motion a series of events that would end her marriage to Arthur Miller. That was never her intent, of course, and it feels like an excellent counterpoint to those who talk about "good" choices and "poor" choices as if we all know which is which all of the time. It's easy to believe, for instance, that doing drugs is a "poor" choice, but I could find you 10 people in 10 minutes who feel that doing drugs turned into one of the best choices of their lives. And looking back, Marilyn could've exclaimed, "Why did I take that part?!" But the truth at the heart of this matter is that we really have no way of knowing the outcomes of our choices for certain.

I come back to this idea whenever I begin to feel myself wanting to punish someone for their supposedly poor choices. My response to those who say, "They did it to themselves," is, "There but for the grace of God go you, too." Some people pay far too much for the same choices that others make unnoticed.

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