Drug memoir meets chick-lit in Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life, and a few words about party girls, addiction and a little something called The Truth.
1. It’s a curious genre, the addiction memoir. The good ones are sensational; they shock us, disgust us, they entertain and embarrass us.
Our world is built on overindulgence, and the flip side of indulgence is addiction. In this world, the addict who can write is a prophet, someone who’s peeked behind the veil and played tag with Death. We all love stories of salvation of course: the reformed alcoholic, the ex-gangbanger who found Jesus.
But the ones of ruination, they’re the ones that really get us going. Or maybe that’s just me.
There’s another reason as to why drug memoirs are sensational (sensational as in 1 spectacular but also sensational as in 2 scandalous), and this, I think, is due to two overlapping claims: Yes, I was / am addicted to drugs (more about the difference in a while), and No, I will not keep silent about it.
To be fair, drug addiction is far from glamorous, though watching E! or reading Vogue would suggest that being an emaciated coke head is still very much preferable to being a common drunk, never mind a flabby fast food addict. I suppose we have the war on drugs to thank for this. Nothing like the forbidden fruit, right?
2. There are some paradigmatic limits to the drug memoir genre that every aspiring addict with a literary flair should keep in mind.
First: The dirtier the better. We all know why these books sell, and it’s not because they’re great life manuals or beautifully crafted philosophic formulations. Let the readers see the seedy underbelly. It’s what they bought the ticket for.
The dirtier the better. We all know why these books sell, and it’s not because they’re great life manuals or beautifully crafted philosophic formulations.
Second: Truth is a double-edged sword. When you dish it out, make sure to be as truthful as you can (it’s OK if it’s all a bit hazy, that’s just part of the fun) but at the same time be careful not to be too truthful – meaning, don’t drag others to the grime with you, at least by name.
The reason for the latter is obvious: If you’re any good or know anyone of any interest, you will be sued for naming names.
Curiously enough, breaking against the former may also result in lawsuits. Like in the mind-bending case of A Million Little Pieces, a drug memoir by 23-year-old crack addict James Frey, that has sold over five million copies worldwide and was prominently featured in Oprah’s Book Club. Fast-forward to a few years later (and some investigative pieces of journalism), lawsuits started pouring in to the publisher’s office. Reports had come out that made it clear Frey had fabricated or at least grossly exaggerated some of the key events. (The thing about running over a police officer with his car and spending three months in prison didn’t really happen. He did get fined for having an open bottle of beer in his car, and spent five hours at county jail. You get the point.)
Seems the real James Frey wasn’t nearly as badass as his autobiographical self, and consequently numerous readers who weren’t too concerned with the concept of artistic freedom filed lawsuits against the publisher. Apparently, they had felt defrauded after finding out that a book classified as a memoir was not in fact 100 % TRUE. As if there ever was such a thing in real life, let alone memoirs. The publisher ended up refunding readers who could provide both a receipt for the purchase, and a statement confirming that they had bought the book “thinking it was a memoir”. Go figure. At times, truth really is stranger than fiction.
3. New York based writer and enfant terrible Cat Marnell seems to have avoided the most obvious pitfalls in her memoir How to Murder Your Life, which has quickly risen to best-selling and even critical success after being published less than two months ago. The novel, dedicated to “all the party girls”, details Marnell’s life from early youth to college, through years of interning at women’s magazines, and finally landing her dream job as a beauty editor for Lucky, one of America’s top fashion magazines, only to quit in order to focus on doing drugs.
Or, as another, equally relevant timeline goes, from amphetamine-based ADHD medication (Ritalin and Adderall) to stimulants (cocaine, speed, MDMA) to pills (Valium) to crack and finally heroin, finishing it all off with a fine sprinkling of angel dust (PCP). I might have missed a few. But then again, so did she probably. It’s quite a lot to keep up with.
…from amphetamine-based ADHD medication (Ritalin and Adderall) to stimulants (cocaine, speed, MDMA) to pills (Valium) to crack and finally heroin, finishing it all off with a fine sprinkling of angel dust (PCP). I might have missed a few.
But Cat Marnell is no James Frey. She seems to have followed both of my rules for aspiring drug memoirists. All the concealer and self-tan in the world wouldn’t cover up the seedy underbelly that was Cat Marnell’s life for a decade and a half.
She seems to be doing fine with the second rule, too, leaving names out where appropriate (so far no lawsuits). And as for making stuff up, despite not exactly an A-list celebrity, Marnell was a prominent enough figure in the Manhattan nightlife that evidence of her party years is plastered all over the internet. A Million Little Pieces appeared out of thin air, but How to Murder Your Life slips right into an existing network of texts.
Marnell’s “colourful” beauty columns (“The art of crack-tractiveness: How to look and feel hot on no sleep”) were followed an even more unambiguously drug-themed VICE blog called Amphetamine Logic. For those who think a picture is worth a thousand words, a quick Google search will fetch hundreds of images of her looking every inch the petite blonde Manhattan party girl who’s been living on prescription speed and pills for a decade – which in my opinion is just that je ne sais quoi between totally messed up and smoking hot, but again, maybe that’s just me.
If what you are experiencing now is a mixture of nausea and fascination, I think I’ve done a decent job describing How to Murder Your Life.
It’s like an Irvine Welsh character was reborn into a mashup of Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Devil Wears Prada. It is an unapologetically honest report straight from the death spiral of addiction that is made light of with masterful self-irony, and all told in a somewhat (OK, very) annoying confessional chick lit tone that contains more references to brands and designers than an average sales catalogue – and way, way, way too many exclamation marks. But given Marnell’s profession and her aforementioned ability to laugh at herself, one can’t help but to forgive her, join in the laughter with her.
4. It’s not often that women’s addiction is depicted in the way of How to Murder Your Life. We as a culture are obsessed with party girls, from the fictional ones in the style of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Almost Famous, to the real-life Lindsay Lohans, Nicole Richies and Amy Winehouses. The fictional ones we get to know through their relationship to the male narrator or protagonist, the real-life ones through tabloid reports and paparazzi shots, and sometimes (rarely) through biographies written by someone other than the party girl herself.
It’s not often that women’s addiction is depicted in the way of How to Murder Your Life. We as a culture are obsessed with party girls, from the fictional ones in the style of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Almost Famous, to the real-life Lindsay Lohans, Nicole Richies and Amy Winehouses.
Marnell tells her own story and doesn’t even bother dressing it up as a cautionary tale warning others of the perils of drug use – quite the opposite. (“Here’s a life lesson for you kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs.”)
Hers is a messy story full of loneliness, knuckles bruised from too much vomiting, every possible drug, the occasional rape. It’s also a story about survival, learning self-respect, about the having-fun and the not-having-fun of taking drugs, the connection and the disconnection that come with it, and cliché or not, it is a story about life. A life.
In an essay Marnell wrote the day after Whitney Houston was found dead (having drowned in her own bathtub while passed out on drugs) she talks about the Eros and Thanatos – the death and life instinct that according to Freud’s theory of drives governs our action. She won’t shut up about her addiction:
- So many of you have expressed your disgust about how much I talk about drugs. I really tried to stop for a while, but you know what? No one else in women’s magazines or websites is writing about this stuff, so there’s nowhere for a female community to read it. I guess they can buy a zillion wack addiction memoirs, as I have, or go on message boards online, but that’s it.
- You call it oversharing; I call it a life instinct.
So if you’re still wondering why anyone cares about an overprivileged twentysomething white girl getting high while writing about make-up (and believe me, the triviality of it all is not lost on her), I prompt you to reconsider your idea of the artist who is walking that fine line between destruction and creation. Think about the Bukowskis, Thompsons, Hemingways, hell, even the Freys of this world, and how we collectively adore and admire them even when they’re fucked up, or maybe especially then. I’m not proclaiming Cat Marnell to be the next Hunter S. Thompson (though some of her blogs absolutely classify as gonzo). But think about it.
How To Murder Your Life is published by Ebury and out now.