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Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life, reviewed: Humorous and horrifying

Cat Marnell fills in the blank spaces of her sensationalized life in her new memoir, How to Murder Your Life.

Christos Katsiaouni/Simon & Schuster Canada

Title
How to Murder Your Life
Author
Cat Marnell
Genre
Memoir
Publisher
Simon & Schuster
Pages
374
Price
$35.99

In the summer of 2012, beauty writer Cat Marnell made headlines when she told New York tabloid Page Six that she "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."

She lost her job at the women-centric lifestyle website xoJane, where her encyclopedic beauty knowledge and unruly affinity for drugs and partying united to turn out pieces such as "GONNA WASH THAT ANGEL DUST RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR: 'Miracle' (Uh-Huh) Treatments To Help You Pass Those Follicle Drug Tests, Naughty Nancys!"; "TRIPPY TERROR TUESDAY: Fantastic Hemp-Based Beauty For Vaguely Consensual + Very Stoned Hippie Sex Cult Orgies"; "WORST BEAUTY EDITOR IN THE WORLD: I Snorted A Line Of Bath Salts In The Office Today Edition"; and "TANGLED UP: How To Get These F-ing Hobo Knots Out Goddammit! (PLUS: The Secret Shampooing Life of Pillheads)"

By this point in her career, Marnell was – obviously – not keeping her drug use a secret, which made her seem somehow in control of it. "If she doesn't think it's a problem, why should we?" seemed to be the mentality of her affectionate readership, even after she was mandated into rehab by various employers. Marnell didn't just own up to being an addict, she glamorized it in real-time.

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That now-infamous Page Six quote ("Drug addicts undeniably bring editorial black magic to the table like nobody else, but obviously, we make the worst staffers," she also said) ran on June 14, 2012. A week later, spiralling deeper still into addiction and its merciless bedfellows (self-harm, an eating disorder), Marnell was hired by Vice for a weekly column called Amphetamine Logic.

Her xoJane articles had never quite escaped the website's overarching theme of self-care – "Don't worry; those are CLEAN syringes!" read the subheading of an article about grocery shopping, in which Marnell allowed readers a glimpse into her fridge and showed them a photo of the crisper stuffed with syringes and pill bottles. At Vice, however, she was given the keys to rot before its readership. There, Marnell wrote about sleeping with married celebrities, riding around Miami with her graffiti-artist friends until 7:30 a.m., how she had "starved [herself] into a fawn" and would often fall down stairs because her body was so weak. (It was around this time that Rolling Stone called Marnell the "Hot Bukowski.") Eventually, she abandoned the column.

Marnell's new memoir, How to Murder Your Life, fills in the blank spaces that remain between her own self-mythologizing and everybody else's salivating interest in watching a young woman's life implode. Her childhood, for example, explains a lot, as childhoods often do. Marnell grew up wealthily in Bethesda, Md. Her parents, two Republican psychiatrists, raised her with the help of a live-in nanny. Her mother was distant and deferential. Her father was emotionally abusive. By Marnell's description, he was obsessively controlling. As an adolescent, Marnell spent seven months hand-making a zine. When her father found it, he threw it in the trash. She was devastated. He cancelled a ski trip when he found a Bikini Kill CD in Marnell's bedroom. At the dinner table one night, he screamed, "No more using the word feminism in this house!"

Eventually, Marnell was sent to boarding school, thus beginning a recurrence of stints in ivy-vine-garnished institutions of sorts. From there she made her way to New York, where she bounced around the beauty-intern circuit until landing a full-time position at the now-defunct Condé Nast title Lucky. "By the time I realized my dream of being an editor, I felt like a zombie disaster trying to pass for human in a world where women didn't even have split ends," she writes.

Marnell's dependence on pills began with a Ritalin prescription signed by her father, who bankrolled her New York rent, allowing her to spend all income on drugs as well as a $100-a-day binge-food budget. Addiction cushioned by privilege is a much different experience than that of addiction coupled with poverty, an acknowledgment Marnell makes, albeit a little flippantly, throughout the book. At one point, Marnell calls her beloved grandmother in a panic when she realizes she's travelled all the way to Europe on business without any money.

Among the kinds of salacious sexual escapades Vice readers hungrily click for (and Vice's editors love to publish), there were also sexual assaults, dysfunctional relationships, abortions and a suicide attempt. There was loneliness and self-loathing. For years, Marnell was entangled in a physically and psychologically abusive relationship with a man named Marco who robbed her repeatedly in order to support his own addictions.

Her supply of various prescription pills was replenished by "doctor shopping" around the city. (Marnell hid prescription pills throughout her apartment like Claudia from the Baby-Sitters Club stashed candy.) "There were so many psychiatrists in my new neighbourhood that I just had to try them all," she writes. And later, "The more amphetamine I took, the more fun being by myself was, actually. Speed was like magic! Lonely magic."

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Marnell's chic-macabre sense of humour works, however unsettlingly, and perhaps helped pave the way for the depressive memes that now populate the online world, earning laughs and likes through a unifying sense of self-deprecation. "My brains were so scrambled I could have ordered them for brunch at Sarabeth's," Marnell writes. She describes the office dog at Nylon as "the kind that Patrick Bateman slices open in American Psycho."

Marnell remains on the quest to be beautiful while mocking the beauty industry to its face, as she did during her tenure at xoJane: "I used to get into cabs and slide across the backseat; I was so greasy. Absolutely lubricated! But that's how you keep your legs gleaming all night," she writes after detailing her moisturizing regimen.

As humorous as she is, Marnell's acutely observant brand of TMI-cum-New Sincerity non-fiction does not hold back when it comes to the lows of her life. Her account of having an abortion is – and kudos to her for it – quite graphic, as are the parts of the book that detail, in panic-inducing play-by-plays, her repetitively abusive relationship with Marco. It would be counterintuitive for Marnell to write a book that didn't ooze with lasciviousness and wild tales of drugged-out New York at dawn, but those who purchase this book hoping to snuggle up and gawk at the thrill of a woman destroyed are in for a moral reckoning. Might we readers, and writers and editors, consider what eagerly watching vulnerable people go off the rails says about the underbelly of amusing ourselves? "I got e-mails from reality-show producers, talent agents and publishing houses – all of this while I was on disability for addiction," she writes. "… I was so sick that I'd been put on disability and dismissed from my job, yet my career was on fire. I was a mess just like I'd always been, but now everyone loved it."

Sure, Marnell has quoted Keith Richards by the 21st page, but she also describes the scabs that remain from self-harming, how she'd switch up the grocery stores she went to because she was embarrassed about buying so much carrot cake, how she kept an old water bottle in the bathroom, refilling often to aid the purging. The hell of addiction and self-destruction are as present as the glorification of them. Ultimately, it is, in this book and in real life, just genuinely sad.

"I felt like a crusty gutter punk standing next to the two of them with my grown-out Adderall haircut, beat-up strappy sandals and dumb denim Fendi baguette full of Dentyne Ice and broken cigarettes," she says of an encounter with Vogue editor Anna Wintour and Vanity Fair's Anne McNally.

There is no triumphant conclusion to this book, which Marnell began writing on the day it was originally due. It is the memoir of an addiction still going on, being negotiated everyday. There is, however, a noble Afterword in which Marnell shares the progress she's made and slyly admonishes those who revel in and exploit the cool Manhattan party stories but disregard the pain that accompanies them.

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"So what can all you pretty young addicts learn from this?" she writes. "Beware. Unhealthy people attract other unhealthy people – and girls on drugs attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures. When you're high everyday, you are vulnerable everyday … You will let bad people into your life … They will take advantage of your numbness. They will tell you that you look amazing when you're malnourished …They will encourage you to stay on drugs: They want you woozy, emaciated and addicted so that they can keep exploiting you."

Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer who regularly contributes to The Globe and Mail.

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