Downtown Disaster

How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir BY Cat Marnell. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 384 pages. $26.

The cover of How to Murder Your Life: A Memoir

Cat Marnell—the popular drug-addicted beauty editor and blogger—has written the kind of '90s-era junkie memoir that lends itself to the morbid curiosity we reserve for anyone who dies before we discover their work. Like Anna Kavan, a lifelong imbiber of heroin, Marnell published her first piece of writing as an addict. (When Kavan died, her friends found forty different shades of lipstick in her apartment.) Marnell's story does not veer into the kind of self-mythologizing that occasions armchair fact-checking. In fact, it's a departure from a career spent transmogrifying her troubles for an eager audience.

I was full of secrets: I was an addict, for one. A pillhead! I was also an alcoholic-in-training who drank warm Veuve Clicquot after work, alone in my boss's office with the door closed; a conniving uptown doctor shopper who haunted twenty-four-hour pharmacies . . . a salami-and-provolone-puking bulimic who spent a hundred dollars a day on binge foods when things got bad . . . a tweaky self-mutilator who sat in front of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, digging gory abscesses into her bikini line with Tweezerman Satin Edge Needle Nose Tweezers; a slutty and self-loathing downtown party girl fellatrix rushing to ruin.

Unlike the occasional bohemianism of weekend warriors, her drug intake is the kind that keeps you indoors, serially unemployed, with the blinds drawn and the candles lit. I'm putting it lightly when I say that Marnell's lackluster attempts at rehabilitation put a new gloss on carrying coals to Newcastle. Hers is a life lived—selfishly, wildly, and (mostly) unapologetically—without responsibility, or relationships burdened by traditional directive controls, like those with boyfriends or best friends. She is a loner surrounded only by stalkers, drug hustlers, clueless bosses. It is worth reading a book by a woman who gets as sick as Cat does. Marnell defies, consciously or not, the social structures that keep women behaving well in private. "There's a bottle of Adderall right next to me," she writes in the afterword. Marnell has cleaned up just enough to come clean in How to Murder Your Life (Simon & Schuster, $27): "For now, just know that in April 2013, I signed my contract. . . . In September 2013, I overdosed on heroin; by December, my agent was sending a ghostwriter over to gather my 'notes' and piece everything together for me (I scared him away); by February, I was suicidal—texting with dealers to buy Oxycontin. . . . In March 2014, I did what all despondent addicts who are about to be sued should do: bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok [for rehab] . . . I started writing."

I don't get the impression that Cat wrote the book she set out to write, and it isn't the most literary of contributions to the addiction genre ("I have tried to cut this chapter out twice! My editor keeps making me put it back in"). I am, however, convinced that this book does a lot of the biographical throat clearing that will allow her to write a second book—about party girls or for party girls—that is not burdened by chronology, in which she can be more of her freewheeling self, the kind of person who writes her "rent checks in highlighter." I imagine a trajectory for her similar to Elizabeth Wurtzel's, whose sophomore effort, the book-length think piece Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), is far superior to her addiction memoir, Prozac Nation (1994). Quite a few female writers might benefit from an editor telling them to write a manifesto and not a memoir.

The first sentence of Marnell's book: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a beauty editor." Her obsession with print magazines is her greatest asset. Only someone who mainlines heroin and Vogue can truly party-report herself. What to wear to an abortion? "I changed out of my white Daisy Duke shorts and McQ by Alexander McQueen rib cage baby tee and into a gown." Yes, a ball gown. (One of the many freeloading minor characters, "The DJ from LA," has raped her while living at her house gratis.) What to wear to buy "four ten-dollar baggies of brown flakes that had been drizzled with phencyclidine, then left out overnight to dry"? "I was full-on homicide-victim chic in a Tsubi minidress covered in laser-cut stab holes and fake bloodstains." When you have your first job as an associate beauty editor at the now defunct Lucky? "I had a chic lavender pedicure—Versace Heat Nail Lacquer V2008—and I smelled obscure and expensive, like Susanne Lang Midnight Orchid and Colette Black Musk Oil." When you're on your way to the psych ward? "I arrived at Payne Whitney . . . like I'd just walked in from sucking dick on Skid Row in black Minnetonkas, a shredded Misfits T-shirt, and neon-pink streaks in my ratty hair."

Shara Hughes, Here and There, 2007, oil, enamel, acrylic, pen, and charcoal on canvas, 32 × 32". Courtesy the artist and Phillips.
Shara Hughes, Here and There, 2007, oil, enamel, acrylic, pen, and charcoal on canvas, 32 × 32". Courtesy the artist and Phillips.

It's a bit like being on drugs. The details snag the eye and catch the light. The living room in her grandmother Mimi's house "was full of orchids and tiny sterling silver spoons and teensy demitasse cups and saucers, and peacock feathers and mother-of-pearl binoculars and juno volupta seashells." (Mimi is just one of many family members routinely getting her granddaughter out of hot water, paying Marnell's back rent and wiring her money when she's abroad.) Of the uterine lining shed during a false miscarriage, she tells us, "Imagine a jellyfish as big as an ashtray." Even when Marnell is home alone, you get the sense that she's curating a shoot you might find in the last ten years of Italian Vogue: "I stubbed out my cigarette into a seashell."

Often what catches the eye is not the pile of coke but the all-but-blinding whiteness of the girl imbibing it. (She is never arrested.) This book is a meandering tale of largely unchecked behavior by an upper-middle-class girl whose actions have not hampered her social mobility, or threatened her Manhattan zip code or her inexhaustible line of parental credit. "Warning! If you are grossed out by 'white girl privilege' (who isn't?), you might want to bail now. I am from . . . Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, so white that you could practically snort it like a line." But Marnell has made a living out of being bombastically self-aware of the un-Darwinian nature of her privilege. She doesn't romanticize her upbringing, instead favoring a hard-line, humorous tack: "When I was in nursery school, the nannies were named things like Anka, Margaret, and Anna. Then the Berlin Wall came down, and I guess all the Eastern European girls went home. After that, our nannies were from Iowa: Ruth, Debbie, Karen, and Amy." (A note on names: In high school she buys drugs from a "Shady Leo"; in New York she does drugs with one "Lester Garbage Head.") To the extent that the book has an éclaircissement, it's in the stunning details about her family. "My mom had a scale and it said: THINNER—like the Stephen King movie. Everything about my mother was skinny—even her nickname for me: 'Bones.'" Unable to free herself from the "eating-disorder matrix," Cat describes herself as five-four and ninety-seven pounds. In college, her mother "kept a package of raw hot dogs chilled on her dorm-room windowsill, and she ate one per day." Just like Candace Bushnell always claims in interviews! (She should also write a manifesto.)

When she's failing out of boarding school, her father, a practicing psychologist, prescribes her pills, which her mother sends in the mail: "And so the FedEx packages kept arriving—month after month. Her handwriting was always on the envelopes; my dad's name was printed on the little orange bottles inside." Adderall is now openly thought of as an academic domestique, but Cat was, in the early 2000s, an early adopter and abuser of the drug. ("How much Adderall was I always strung out on, you ask?" she writes."Lots of Adderall. Enough Adderall to furnish four hundred Damien Hirst Pharmacy installations!") The prep-school anecdotes are especially delightful for their early-aughts arcana: "Those Sidwell Friends kids were wild, man. Girls with tanned abs and Tiffany charm necklaces were always vomiting into koi ponds and things." (Much later, she describes her first thousand-dollar-a-day rehab as "almost as pretty as my prep school." And jokes that she's "had tanning-bed experiences that were more transformative.") Anyway, she gets kicked out of prep school, and eventually drops out of acting school in New York. It's through acquaintances that she finds her way to beauty internship after beauty internship, jobs, more jobs, and eventually job-mandated rehab. Teen Vogue "was full of wealthy girls posed on Marimekko-print beanbag chairs in their Park Avenue bedrooms, explaining how they accessorized their Spence uniforms. . . . I was more of an accessorize-your-Juicy-Couture-sweatsuit-with-cigarette-burns kind of slag." Etc.

Cat doesn't fit in at the hierarchical print magazines. "Glamour was staffed by very nice editors and assistants with shiny hair, headbands, and wedding bands. . . . They drank tea and pulled pashminas from their desks when they got cold." She's too messy, she's too high, but most of all she has a star quality not awarded to anyone but the editor in chief—or bloggers, who are encouraged to break out and make a name for themselves. Cat's focus was not on headband or wedding band, or even fucking the band. It was on being a brand. "I'd been obsessed with controlling things my whole life: my image, my weight, my moods." While Marnell couldn't control her addiction, she could control the copy that painted a magazine-worthy portrait of herself as a party girl with the troubles teenagers want.

Late-memoir, a human resources department calls her in to talk about drug use. Half her face is paralyzed from using angel dust. She has the "dust stutters," and can barely make sense. She doesn't care at all. There is an unrepentant swagger to her sickness. "Around this time," Marnell argues with an editor about the relentlessly inclusive, body-positive content of the magazine's website: "Where were the unattainable physical ideals? Where were the aspirational fantasies?" She's screaming. She leaves her job. Marnell didn't care about what her life was like, per se; she cared how it appeared online. The only tragedy for Marnell is a life that doesn't have a second life in print.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.