Cat Marnell Gives the Addiction Memoir a Makeover

By Dorri Olds 01/09/17

The Fix Q&A with Cat Marnell, author of the gut-wrenching How to Murder Your Life.

Wild Cat Marnell Talks About Murdering Her Life
Not sober, but no longer a disaster.

Her Twitter bio reads, “WRITER / EDITOR / PREDATOR / DOWNTOWN DISASTER.” And, yes, it’s in solid caps. I had been eager to hear about Marnell’s debut memoir with the inspired title, How to Murder Your Life.

Marnell and I met up in Greenwich Village. When she walked in, I was surprised. She didn’t look as I’d expected. Every photo I had Googled showed her, now 34, as a Barbie-beautiful blonde in heavy make-up. The woman I met was brunette, childlike and vulnerable. She fidgeted like a speed freak and her words tumbled out with sentences frequently abandoned mid-thought.

The author was charismatic and likable, but I immediately felt concern that she was in emotional distress. It’s well known that Marnell has built her brand by celebrating her train wreck trajectory. As she spoke, it was clear that it was not just an act. And although it was a relief to see her in what appeared to be better condition than her almost constant extreme scenarios described in the book, she seemed oceans away from serene.

A rehab in Thailand is to thank for her toned down lifestyle, she said. But when I asked if she misses getting high, Marnell was quick to say, “Oh, I’m not sober.” She clarified by freely admitting she’s on Adderall. Ah, yes, that explained the telltale speedy “tics” of darting eyes, tucking her legs under her like a school girl, then untucking them, voice bursting out, then trailing off. She didn’t spell out the amount she is taking these days. In her book she described ingesting “enough Adderall to suppress the appetites of all the starving children in all the world!”

Marnell is skinny, skinny, skinny. In her memoir she wrote, “Everything about my mother was skinny.” She spoke of her mother’s narrow shoe size, the skinny hallway to her Mom’s bedroom, and a scale that said “THINNER—like the Stephen King movie.”

As an addict myself, I have close to zero impulse control, so it took every effort to fight my overwhelming urge to break through Marnell’s twitchy wall of defense and put my arms around her in a maternal hug. Her self-effacing humor, tough-chick persona, and streetwise lingo are entertaining, yet uncomfortably remind me of my defenses pre-recovery, before others taught me how to love myself. With Marnell, there is so much to love.

Born with beauty, brains and advantages, this woman-child is a perfect example of “white-girl privilege.” Yet, she is also an ideal illustration of how little your station in life matters when your brain coils are misfiring. Despite her privileged circumstances—or perhaps because of them—her psyche is damaged. Beauty, oodles of money, and a daddy to write all of your Schedule I scripts doesn’t make being white and wealthy seem like an advantage. She had/has all the money and enabling that any drug addict could crave, but she never skated through. Her childhood was crippled by extreme emotional neglect. Freud would have a field day with her mommy-daddy issues.

“I had more issues than Vogue,” Marnell wrote in her book and described herself as “a weepy, wobbly, hallucination-prone insomniac” and a “tweaky self-mutilator.” Her brains, she wrote, were “so scrambled you could’ve ordered them for brunch at Sarabeth’s.”

Marnell is 5’4” and couldn’t be more than 100 pounds, if that. She’s had a wildly impressive career that included working for Condé Nast. Her perks included three-thousand-dollar patent leather Lanvin purses, entrance to fabulous parties and access to celebs. Marnell’s career path went from 20-year-old intern to being an editor at the beauty departments of Glamour, Teen Vogue, Lucky, and NYLON.

In her memoir she wrote, “Even though I wrote articles about how to take care of yourself—your hair, your skin, your nails—I was falling apart.” Referencing her bulimia, she wrote, “the knuckle on my right hand was split from scraping against my front teeth.”

One has to wonder what it will take for Marnell to quit drugs. Using amphetamines—excuse me, prescribed Adderall—is not a likely path for a drug abuser to find peace. In the captivating prose of her book, I pondered what words were missing—for example, “Somebody, please help me.”

With everything about her life so public, did anybody ever reach out to help? “I don’t think anyone really reached out to help me,” she said. “Or, if they did, I certainly didn’t respond or remember it. I mean, certainly people always tried to help but I think when you’re on a kamikaze mission, a lot of those people know that there is no stopping that."

After I’d finished her book, I thought of the phrase, “the gift of desperation.” That’s what I had when I landed in rehab at age 26. I am one snort, one pill, one shot away from relapsing. But, am I projecting my issues onto Marnell? Very possible. My solution came with abstinence but others choose “harm reduction.”

When asked about her number one tip about turning weaknesses into strengths, she said, “I’ve got this slogan. It was on a reality show [Push Girls]. It was these girls in wheelchairs and the slogan was, 'If you can’t stand up, stand out.' And for me, I felt like that really, you know, this whole media career I have orchestrated from my bed. My career popped off in the press a couple years ago. I did it. While I can’t stand up, stand out… I lost my job and because of the Internet or whatever, I got the most attention so I was on disability getting contacted for, you know, by The New York Times Magazine. It was just crazy. So yeah. When you can’t stand up, stand out. Unique is always good."

Marnell’s voice is original. She’s startlingly honest and writes things nobody should. Her career is based on a can-you-top-this approach, but as she describes horribly embarrassing details, she’s hilarious. She described the décor in one of her apartments as “midcentury meth lab.”

I had to laugh when she said, “I love media but writing is torture.” How long did it take to write this book? “My contract gave me a year to write it, but I was so messed up that year that a year later I hadn’t written a single word. Then I started to write [the book] at this rehab in Thailand. Then it took two more years after that."

The most important thing she learned about herself while writing the book was that “writing is unbearable but if I got stuck in a place, I would start talking, as opposed to stopping or obsessing like I used to. I just started talking through those parts. It started silly, and I was writing stuff that was so ridiculous. This isn’t going to stay in, and then all of a sudden I was putting in the dumbest jokes, just to make myself laugh, because it was so unbearable.”

And then "it got voicey. When I [went] back and read it, I’m like, ‘Oh, I kind of like this better.’ It was a little less serious, but also the way I talk. Once I started trying to be charismatic, that helped. Humor helps. Even if you’re like, ‘This shouldn’t be funny.’ Not all books should be funny, obviously, but it made a big difference for me, when I let that come in.”

Then she switched medications in the middle of writing the book. “I realized on Vyvanse I completely lost all my humor. I had a flat affect with every single joke, and my editor sent it back, and was like, ‘What did you do?’”

When asked what her vision had been, Marnell said, “I wanted to do a linear, I mean a narrative, just out of strategy for my career. I feel like a lot of people get these big first book deals, and then turn to essays. Unless you’re like David Sedaris, it doesn’t really land with people, because it doesn’t have enough whatever, I wanted to do this ambitious thing, it was really hard.”

After the tough road she’d described, did writing the memoir change her? “It did very good things for my attitude of gratitude,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound too saintly, but the book really did make me see. You want to see your part in things. I forget which step [in a 12-step program] that is [where] they make people see their part in everything. When you see your part, then you can stop being angry at people.”

Before she’d locked in her $500,000 book deal, she had sent out a first proposal. "It was so crazy and [my agent] just sent that shit out. Some people were like, 'You need to take that off the market.'" Her agent was told, "You’re going to ruin her career. This is bad." But Marnell said, "I was in a very unique position. There was a bidding war and I was incredibly fortunate."

Her thoughts on how the book will be received were, “I’m not saying everyone gets it. I feel like with a book—I mean it’s like cooking. I don’t feel immodest saying it’s, I mean, if you taste food that you’ve cooked and you know it’s good then it’s good to you. It’s not like everyone’s taste, know what I mean? I feel like it’s good to me and I worked so hard on it.”

Selling film rights is already in the works. And you should check out the Marnell-inspired fictionalized character—fashion blogger Jade Winslow—on TV Land’s Sex and the City-ish series Younger.

How to Murder Your Life is what every addict memoir should be: adventure-packed, shocking, darkly humorous, and gut-wrenching—the only thing missing is sobriety. The book will be published January 31. You’re likely to read it in one fast sitting.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.