Press surrounding Cat Marnell’s book deal was dripping with venom. Yellow headlines blared—even a publication as august as The Atlantic couldn’t resist running the headline, “Cat Marnell’s Book Deal Could Buy a Lot of Drugs.” Then the book proposal’s contents were leaked, leading to ridicule and Marnell’s all-caps Twitter declaration that she hates herself more than we hate her.
The entire saga was laced with hatred, because although Marnell was achieving media success directly because of her sickness, she was not afflicted with something relatable like cancer. Her main condition, the least pitied of all pathologies, is addiction.
The whole thing seemed so evil I was moved to write an op-ed for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, defending her as a gifted writer, something ridiculous when the writer in question has signed a lucrative deal with a major New York house and something like “talent” is usually beyond reproach.
Her writing “attracted gallows watchers and pontificators, people eager to degrade or chide her for her actions or utilize her for ethical discussions centered on celebrity culture, confessional writers and our national obsession with the tragic,” I wrote. And they did this all the while denying the simple fact that she was not just an addict, but an addict with a voice. I’ve read thousands of words about beauty products I’ll never use, simply because she is that arresting of a writer. The idea of the good a voice like that could do for the addicted seemed lost.
Well, the book is now here.
How to Murder Your Life is, in essence, just that. From her adolescence to her beautiful-dying-star media maelstrom period to the moment she began and finished the book, Marnell traces the indelible effect addiction can have on a life. We begin with her childhood in a troubled home that reads like a Don DeLillo novel in reality, climaxing with the destruction of Alterna-Teen Retard, her beloved magazine, and her exile to boarding school.
While at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, Marnell is introduced to Ritalin and the entire trajectory of her life changes. Armed with a methylphenidate prescription, her grades soar, along with her social status. The performance-enhanced work/play dichotomy first established at Lawrence is repeated throughout the rest of the book, throughout the rest of her career; it is the speed which helps her rip through the hallowed halls of Condé Nast like garden shears through satin, pushes her into parties past dawn, sends her careening about the streets of Alphabet City, fitting in to exceptional designer jeans as she chases more drugs, work and people.
The image of the addict as hopelessly in the gutter, completely incapable of functioning, is torn asunder. She has crippling depressive periods, of course, wherein she does nothing for days, weeks, months, but Marnell is a voltaic little bee for much of her memoir, omnipresent around Magazine World. It would be impossible to deny her work ethic, drug-derived or not; Marnell’s desire to work in magazines and publishing is a constant lodestar, even if one being navigated while on a particularly unstable fuel source.
In this way, Marnell’s addiction played—and preyed—upon her ambition. The dueling drives would feed each other, but addiction would win. Marnell’s inglorious exit from her beauty editor position at Lucky—from Condé, her dream company; from her boss Jean Godfrey-June, who, one gets the impression, she truly loved; from Magazine World, which she has desperately desired since childhood—is akin to watching a plane crash. We know how it will end, but it’s still captivating in its accelerated agony.
Marnell rebounds, finding herself in the bizarre position of having her drug addiction—and her ability to write about her drug addiction—become her most lionized facet, catapulting her in front of the wide and snide eyes of readers.
“I was so sick that I’d been put on disability and dismissed from my job, yet my career was on fire,” Marnell writes. “I was a mess just like I’d always been, but now everyone loved it.”
And there is the truth of the Cult of Cat Marnell: She is not better or worse than anyone else for being an addict, she is namely talented and lucky enough to be an addict with a powerful enough voice that we must listen to her.
Some fear that Marnell will glamourize addiction (an ironic charge for a beauty editor), but they must not have spent much time reading her work. She has always added depth to her literally superficial beat, and whether that drives from her unyielding love of the magazine or her understanding of beauty’s power, Marnell has made a career out of hewing to marrow. For every enviable moment of her life, we find a legion worse than death. Marnell’s gift is her agreement to show us both.
If the picture of addiction she paints sounds troublesome, romantic, terrible and amazing all at once, that’s because it is. So are people. And addicts, we so often forget, are people.
The afterword features a healthier Marnell, albeit with an orange bottle still by her side (but taken with moderation). Defying the Bull Run picnickers and the NA crowd, she is an addict and a living human being, and a gloriously contrarian one at that. This book is the embossed, bound, printed proof.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.