I was seven years old when Marilyn Monroe died. I remember crying for a week. We shared more than a name, we shared a chaotic childhood and a serious lack of self-worth. I remember bullies taunting me with “There’s the ugly Marilyn Monroe.” That made me hate my name. But I never hated the first Marilyn.
Her real name was Norma Jean Baker. Her mother was institutionalized with severe mental illness. My name is Marilyn Mendoza and my mother was bi-polar or manic-depressive as they called it in the fifties. Norma Jean was brought up in foster homes, where she was sexually abused. This affected her whole life, and in particular her relationships with men. My mother, in her illness was emotionally abusive, especially about my looks and doubtful ability of catching a husband. We had to catch men then, like so much fish. Both Marilyn’s married at sixteen to escape miserable lives. We both threw our first catch back in the dirty ponds where such fish swim.
When I was eight, on one of my mother’s trips to the hospital where she begged for shock treatments, I was sent to my grandmother’s house where no one spoke English. My cousin, jealous of the attention she thought I was getting from my grandmother, left me alone on a lonely street one night to fend for myself. I was traumatized, and lost my way for a long while. Panic attacks and agoraphobia took over my life and forced me to hide inside a closet too afraid to leave my house. I decided to heal, find my voice and survive. Norma Jean changed her name to Marilyn. I changed my name to Maya. We both needed new identities.
I thought if I found love and fame, my life would be perfect. Norma Jean found love and fame but it wasn’t enough to fill the empty spaces that abuse and abandonment had left inside of her. She was beautiful, yet felt stupid and a few days before her death pleaded with a magazine writer not to profile her as “a joke.” People, including my mother, tried to convince me that I was an ugly joke. I refused to believe them. Yet, I searched for love my entire life like Marilyn did, and only when I learned to love myself was I able to save myself. I found the light that always burned deep inside of me, thankfully stronger than a “candle in the wind.” Norma Jean would be ninety years old today. I miss her. I wish she would have learned how to save herself.