March 2017

Arts & Letters


By Jenny Valentish

Cat Marnell. Image by Christos Katsiaouni

Cat Marnell’s ‘How To Murder Your Life’ is an addiction memoir with a difference

Traditionally, an addiction memoir involves the author turning over every rock to examine the nasty things that squirm beneath. Then there’s a hasty crescendo, in the final chapter, to redemption. The author is suddenly a goodly sober. The reader, only a second ago skidding in gory detail, is showered with rose petals. Or, rather, pelted with sobriety chips.

Former wine critic Alice King named the last section of her memoir High Sobriety after an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan – ‘One Day at a Time’. Elizabeth Wurtzel, who wrote the Gen X–defining memoir Prozac Nation, found ‘Redemption’ in the final pages of her Ritalin-fuelled follow-up, More, Now, Again. Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story spent a few weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has become perhaps the best-known booze memoir. By its conclusion, Knapp was attending “four or five” AA meetings a week. Even the brutal-witted Augusten Burroughs is no exception. He curtailed his ad-exec antics in Dry with a chapter in which he takes a walk with an AA newcomer called Jim. It’s a literary device with which to impart some 12-step wisdom.

Cat Marnell, however, breaks all the rules of the addiction memoir.

“There’s a bottle of Adderall right next to me on Mimi’s peacock feather tray as I sit writing this … I guess that’s the bad news,” she admits in the afterword of How To Murder Your Life (Ebury Press; $35), and also cops to some doctor shopping. “Yes, my addiction is still very much part of my life – distracting me with cravings, obsessive thoughts, and negative self-talk … I remain in the danger zone. Things could – and probably will – get bad again!”

For this, her first book, the 34-year-old American beauty writer received a rumoured $500,000 advance from Simon & Schuster, having already reached cult status through columns that detailed the ugliest aspects of her speed use. Her style is fast and unfettered, popping with technicolour detail; the smart wit of Carrie Fisher crashes up against the unapologetic amorality of Bret Easton Ellis.

Marnell got her start interning on New York’s Condé Naste mastheads and became associate beauty editor at Lucky magazine, but it was at the now-folded website xoJane that she was encouraged to pull back on the mascara reviews and instead give lurid accounts of her benders. Often the two topics would intriguingly intertwine.

Editor-in-chief Jane Pratt’s relationship to Marnell verged on that of enabler, without even getting to the times Pratt filmed her protégée in the office snorting actual bath salts (as opposed to Marnell’s favoured PCP) and eating Kleenex to demonstrate a weight-loss technique, but then xoJane encouraged all of its contributors to cannibalise themselves. Typical headlines included ‘My Rapist Friended Me on Facebook (and All I Got Was This Lousy Article)’ and ‘I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, But Left With Better Hair’.

Marnell’s notoriety began to earn her coverage on rival websites, such as Gawker and Jezebel. She was profiled in New York magazine and nicknamed “Hot Bukowski” in Rolling Stone. In a 2013 interview with Bullett, she was asked if she felt that it was now her responsibility to be fucked up. “Yeah! It is,” she replied. “When I was in rehab I didn’t tell anybody I was there, so people started tweeting, ‘You’re so boring now.’ And I didn’t think that would bother me, but it totally did.”

With Marnell’s personal brand now crystallised in her Twitter bio as “downtown disaster”, it’s unsurprising that in what should be the grand redemption chapter of How To Murder Your Life she admits to getting wasted after receiving the publishing advance. So wasted that she didn’t begin writing the book until the day it was due.

Marnell’s rejection of the redemption narrative is unusual when considering the modern canon, but long before AA co-founder Bill Wilson conceived the idea of addiction “recovery” a book often heralded as “the original addiction memoir” was similarly written under the influence.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was a sensation when London Magazine serialised it in 1821. Like Marnell, Thomas De Quincey was a precocious young journalist and frightful namedropper, rewarded by editors for mining his personal life.

The following year, when the instalments were published in a book, De Quincey added an appendix. “Those who have read the Confessions,” he wrote, “will have closed them with the impression that I had wholly renounced the use of opium.” In fact, he now admitted, he had only cut down on his drug use (he would continue to use opium for the rest of his life), but considered that this reduction in dose “might well suppose that the victory was in effect achieved”.

Confessions is a meta-memoir, in that De Quincey breaks the fourth wall throughout. It’s a technique that makes the reader complicit, gets their fingerprints all over the goods. De Quincey himself is presented as a rogue living by his wits, in a style that American psychonaut Terence McKenna coined pharmo-picaresque. Marnell similarly addresses the reader, though in less florid language. “Warning! If you are grossed out by ‘white girl privilege’ (who isn’t?), you might want to bail now.” In a chapter about her childhood, she admits to being from a well-to-do white suburb, “and there’s nothing I can do about that. Believe me, I have tried to cut this chapter out twice! My editor keeps making me put it back in.”

In January, Marnell acknowledged to US website The Fix that the book is “voicey”. “I was putting in the dumbest jokes, just to make myself laugh, because it was so unbearable,” she said, discovering, upon playing with her various prescriptions, that Vyvanse (an ADHD stimulant considered to be safer than Adderall) robbed her of that humour.

Actually, Marnell frequently plays up to the public caricature of her as wasted beauty queen with a cringe-worthy reflection. When she first meets her drug buddy Marco he tells her that he hasn’t got a heroin connection yet, but he’s working on it. “‘Amazing,’ I said.” When, at boarding school, word gets around that she needs an abortion, she loudly drops a baby doll on the floor of the school library, smeared with stage blood. “Very Michael Alig at Disco 2000,” she notes, a reference to the gruesomely themed parties Alig threw in New York’s club kids scene.

And then there’s the bonus that ADHD medication is an appetite suppressant. “By April, I looked like Nicole Richie when she had that mysterious wasting disease – that is, incredible!”

Does the addiction memoirist have a social responsibility to steer away from promoting the benefits of drugs? De Quincey was criticised for romanticising opium and not devoting enough attention to its harms. Marnell can be prescriptive without any duty of care.

“I guzzled bottle after bottle of something called the Ritual Cleanse,” she writes. “Have you tried it? It’s about seventy-five thousand bottles of expensive juice, and you sort of feel like you’re drinking gazpacho, and if you take Vyvanse with it you actually stick to the diet. That’s a tip … it’s all worth it because if you do it fifteen days in a row, your legs absolutely start to look like arms.”

We don’t need signposts to see the real-life struggle behind the bravado, and Marnell knows that. What could have been highlighted more stringently is the irresponsibility of prescription-happy psychiatrists. Just as De Quincey discovered opium as a form of pain relief, Marnell was originally medicated with speed for her ADHD by her psychiatrist father – and packed off to boarding school. In an interview with the Telegraph she described her mother as “a vacant lot with a Cartier watch”. She recounted to a Bullett journalist how, aged 25, she had gone to see her father and admitted to being hopelessly addicted to Adderall. “Adderall isn’t addictive,” he told her.

There’s the sense that Marnell has been continuously failed by those around her, even though her writing is devoid of self-pity and self-analysis. (In that respect she differs from De Quincey, who even makes us sit through accounts of his dreams.) She recalls the time in April 2012 when she was put on disability leave from xoJane and entered a rehab program. “‘I don’t understand this company!’ I exploded. ‘I literally just got a raise based on the strength of a piece about never shutting up about my drug use! It went viral on the Internet! I have a boss who encourages brutal honesty, and I write about addiction, and then it’s used against me in Human Resources meetings and I get put on disability?’”

Never mind. After subsequently losing that job due to not showing up for a week, and after admitting to the New York Post that she’d rather just smoke angel dust with her friends, Marnell was awarded a column by Vice. Entirely dedicated to her drug-taking, ‘Amphetamine Logic’ offered readers a superior rubber-necking experience.

Judging by the book proposal for How To Murder Your Life, which was leaked to Jezebel, it was always Marnell’s intent to keep using. “To be clear,” she concludes in the outline, “this book is not a recovery memoir.” Rather, she intended to write about her “ambivalence” about drugs. In a 2012 interview with Vice she admitted, “I’m really not planning on getting better.”

Even if your pawn is willing, should you play it? When Simon & Schuster, whose most recent controversial signing is alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulos, made its offer to Marnell, it prompted the Atlantic headline ‘Cat Marnell’s Book Deal Could Buy a Lot of Drugs’.

As was the case with De Quincey, copycat memoirists are sure to clone Marnell like so many Gucci rip-offs. Her own story will undoubtedly be made into a film; she’s already been immortalised as fashion blogger Jade Winslow in the American TV comedy-drama Younger. But Marnell herself is a cliffhanger in the most terrifying context: her alchemistic use of uppers and downers, combined with an eating disorder, makes her a prime candidate for accidental overdose.

De Quincey wrote in his appendix that the memoirist needs to at least appear to be reformed, “because the very act of deliberately recording such a state of suffering necessarily presumes in the recorder a power of surveying his own case as a cool spectator, and a degree of spirits for adequately describing it which it would be inconsistent to suppose in any person speaking from the station of an actual sufferer”.

Certainly it’s much safer for the addiction memoirist to declare themselves sober before reflecting on their history, so that they may play the role of archaeologist, combing through a past life. The memoirist who admits to actively using cannot distance themselves from criticism, either from within or without. It’s a bold act of defiance.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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