Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washngton

An Adlerian Study of Marilyn Monroe

By Heinz Ansbacher

A presentation given at the University of Oregon on October 20, 1976.

[Copyright 2015, Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington. This article may not be copied or distributed without the expressed consent of the AAINW]

My particular interest in the case of Marilyn Monroe was aroused through two early recollections that she gave in her inter? view in Life, published two days before her death, and her child? hood dream published in Time. Through these three items, together with the basic data about her reported by the press at the time of her death, I felt that I understood her very well--although I had never met her. Later information that became known about her confirmed the original hypothesis.

I arrived at the conclusion that as a child living in foster homes, Marilyn had set herself a godlike goal. Her misfortune was that as a sex goddess she achieved that goal to a fantastic extent.

Pampered by her circumstances as she was, she never gained a mature outlook and remained unprepared to meet the tasks of life as a human being. Her suicide was, so to speak, a confirmation that she had no place in this world.

The following is not technically a case history, but psycho? biography or psycho-history, a new and somewhat controversial discipline. Adlerian psychology lends itself very well to this approach to characters in the news and in history, and can be most helpful in making them more understandable.

The Dynamics of Creative Power

Creative power drives every individual's unique personality development. We are each born with different degrees and qualities of this power, which seems to manifest itself in a synthesis of intelligence and imagination. Howard Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligence (verbal-linguistic, mathematical, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal) comes close to describing the rich variety of this capacity. Adler equates creative power with the "self," the "I," the "soul" of the individual. It provides the uniqueness and self-consistency of movement toward an imagined ideal completion, the creative compensation for felt deficiency, and an unfolding of all capabilities toward a totality. Individuals can use this creative power cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally, and focus it in a socially positive or negative direction, resulting in useful achievements, or useless exploitation, conflict, and destruction.

In early childhood, this creative capacity can be nurtured, or nearly eradicated by parents or teachers. The task of educating and training children is not a mere transfer of information and skills from teachers to learners. Children must not only accept the training, they must also use their creative power to integrate and apply what they have learned; without this combination, even the best teachers or trainers may fail.

The spontaneous formation of the individual's style of life, before the age of five, illustrates the creative power of the child, who, after a period of extensive exploration and trial and error, narrows his anticipation of the future toward what he perceives will bring him security, significance, and success. (In the mentally limited child, the organizing influence of one overall goal is absent, because he lacks the creative power to formulate one.) Both positive and negative influences are used, ignored, or shaped in an imaginative way to fortify and justify a direction in life. This direction is based on the freely adopted, creative interpretation of experience, not on any deterministic cause and effect dynamics. At the root of this direction lies the meaning that the individual attributes to life.

Each individual’s life contains two potential, major creative landmarks. The first, in early childhood, is the construction of a style of life and fictional final goal. Depending on the degree of insecurity and goal rigidity, a fixed law of movement may develop, severely restricting the creative power for the rest of that individual's life, locking him into narrow, repetitive patterns. However, a second creative landmark is possible, with the assistance of CADP, releasing the grip of the original law of movement. Many years after the original creative choice of a direction in life and the subsequent restricted functioning, penetrating insight and encouragement can bring an adult to a reawakening of his dormant creative power. A second creative choice or psychological "rebirth" is then possible, generating an entirely new meaning of life and style of living.

On their own, individuals rarely recognize and correct their own mistakes, yet they and others may suffer significantly from their consequences. They may cleverly rationalize their actions, intoxicate themselves with feelings and emotions, and point the finger of responsibility toward others or life. Living creatively demands that we constantly monitor the effects of our actions and with a healthy infusion of humility, correct our intentions and improve our behavior. This correction and improvement is not a one-time decision, but a daily consideration. Am I going in the right direction? Am I doing the right thing? Is this enough? Should I do more? Accessing realistic information about ourselves requires the ongoing feedback of encouraging, significant others. Of course, we could also avoid looking into this necessary social mirror by surrounding ourselves with either flattering or depreciating companions who merely illustrate or support a hidden fantasy.

Reciprocal Unfolding

A "chicken and egg" circular influence characterizes the goal and creative power. The original goal is formed by our creative power; then, the goal permits our capacities and potential to either unfold or deteriorate, somewhat like an explosion or implosion. The ultimate in an expansion process would be the self-actualization and being-cognition described by Abraham Maslow; the opposite or contraction tendency could lead to psychosis. Productive creativity needs the stimulation of real problems or projects to blossom. Without the "pull" of a focus beyond ourselves, our efforts may deteriorate into rigid, repetitive, self-enhancing fantasy.

Insofar as we cannot merely rely on past experience to deal with the future, we must invent solutions for new and ever-changing problems. Because we are conscious of the future, we look ahead and anticipate. We must constantly imagine and guess about the future and in which direction to move. This guessing ability requires the courage to risk making mistakes, the humility to recognize them, and the persistence to correct them.

Most infants show the willingness to courageously keep trying to find a way to overcome obstacles. If we capitalize on this tendency by permitting a reasonable degree of struggle, encouraging or assisting only when really needed, we kindle that spark of activity in the child and direct him into a socially useful direction. We can also nearly extinguish that spark by burdening the child with massive problems, offering too much support, or removing normal obstacles. If we do not offer the child attractive, socially beneficial examples, his striving for significance may deteriorate into clever manipulation, domination, and exploitation. Lives can be tragically wasted through the abuse of mental and emotional capacities in the service of neurotic symptoms or criminal activity. Even in the most extremely difficult circumstances, this inventive capacity gives us the potential for transcending a negative situation or influencing it with a positive response.

We can be original and productive in art, business, problem-solving, relationships, and life. Therapists need to be no less creative than artists, working at high levels of feeling, logic, and imagination. Abraham Maslow believed that teaching people creativity "techniques," as if we could paste this quality onto anyone, was futile. He suggested that by encouraging a person toward optimal mental health, we could unleash his creative potential. Alfred Adler offered a way to strengthen and challenge the individual in that direction. The end-goal of CADP interventions is the liberation of the creative power in all of us.

All aspects of CADP require an artistic sensibility. Evaluation of the degree of community feeling, inferiority feeling, and activity level cannot be achieved with measurements and numbers, only with a combination of artistry, empathy, and logic. Integrating these factors to capture the unique, self-consistent style of life and goal is a complex, demanding achievement. Formulating a treatment plan and inventing the progressive therapeutic strategies that fit the client, his situation, and stage of therapy also demand a synthesis of our highest levels of logic and imagination.

From a broad historical perspective, creative power is the river that flows toward constant social evolution. Indeed, Adler believed that the presence of this power in individuals indicates evidence of an evolutionary force. To fulfill our purpose as fellow human beings, we can all swim in this stream of evolution by harnessing our divine sparks in the same direction, toward the improvement of life for everyone. Alexander Mueller1 expressed a similar sentiment in a more theological vein by eliciting man’s cooperation, in partnership with God, “to complete an unfinished world.” For many people, this inspiring image unites the unique potential of each individual with “the Creator.”

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