In the most contrarian, upbeat, and thoroughly millennial tone, Marnell lays out her gritty story of pervasive drug addiction, masked for years by fake tans and “float-y” Miu Miu dresses, as she would call them. The story arc is essentially: Marnell grows up in a perfectly manicured suburb of Washington D.C. with a psychiatrist father and psychotherapist mother, she gets her first Adderall prescription from her father while away at boarding school (gets pregnant, gets a second trimester abortion, gets expelled), moves to NYC, begins working at fashion publications (NYLON, Teen Vogue, Lucky), grows her drug habit, goes in and out of rehab, rockets to stardom with her xoJane writing and Vice column “Amphetamine Logic” all while nursing a worse drug habit, gets a book deal, spirals further intro drugs and blows the advance on the memoir before writing a word, goes to an addiction treatment center in Thailand and finally starts writing How to Murder Your Life.
Listening to Marnell’s memoir is an important exercise for those of us who identify as extremely type-A. Marnell’s narrative forces her readers to live in chaos—locked into her desk chair at Condé Nast’s offices trying to type an article while in a speed-haze, bulimic episodes of all night binging and purging, keeping the company of addict graffiti artists, and manically doctor-shopping for psychiatrists ready to prescribe on the Upper East Side. It’s a saccharine, disorienting account, akin to shot-gunning Froot Loops flavored vodka and then getting strapped into a neon-colored, high-speed spinning teacup ride.
At the core of Marnell’s memoir is the struggle between her ambition and her addiction. As she describes groggily clawing at her own front door during an overdose and pounding a gallon whole milk to come down from angel dust, we see Marnell spiral down to her lowest points. The final blow for Marnell comes when her addiction finally overpowers her ambition and she stops showing up for her job at Lucky—a stepping-stone in her dream career at Condé Nast. It’s crushing to watch the girl, who painstakingly assembled a fashion zine in her childhood bedroom and struggled through fashion closet internships in her early-twenties, finally lose it all.
The book is also largely a love letter to her former boss, beauty director of Lucky magazine Jean Godfrey-June. JGJ, as Marnell calls her, employed, supported, and inspired Marnell through years of addiction at Lucky. Though her life is a mess, Marnell never loses her tone of respect for the world of fashion and beauty editing. Magazines are, she emphatically contends, her first and one true love. She even turns up her nose at online fashion media at first. But, when she finally does finally sign onto xoJane.com as its unhealthy health and beauty editor, she writes the defining article of her career, “On the Death of Whitney Houston: Why I Won’t Ever Shut Up About My Drug Use.”
Her stint online doesn’t last. Marnell is famously quoted in the notorious New York Post’s Page Six saying, “Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I’m doing next.”
Why are we obsessed with Marnell? Furthermore, is it exploitative to be obsessed with Marnell? At some points during the memoir, it begins to feel like we’re spectating a gruesome car crash. (I felt this most poignantly when she describes making a video for xoJane of her snorting bath salts at the office.) In the wake of her memoir’s release, article titles have all held the same tenor; Rolling Stone wrote “The Nine Lives of Cat Marnell,” and New York Magazine bluntly published “Cat Marnell is still alive.” Are we just egging on addiction by waiting, with bated breath, for what Marnell will push her body to do next?
How to Murder Your Life ends without certain resolution: Marnell does not succeed in (or even fully desire to succeed in) kicking her drug addiction. We learn that Marnell has actually written and recorded her book with a bottle of Adderall on hand, her “mostly companion,” to quote the precocious children’s book Eloise. What is there to say? The unconventional epilogue simply fits the girl whose second column for Vice was titled, “Nothing Is Wrong If It Feels Good.” She wouldn’t be media-sensation Cat without her ghosts, and she’ll continue to be idolized as a downtown disaster for as long as her body will let her.