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It Happened to Her

Why is Cat Marnell’s drug memoir so gripping?

Cindy Ord / Getty Images

Wasted people are notoriously tedious in real time but no one makes for better narrative company than a freewheeling addict. In 2016, by no intentional design of my own, I read book after book concerning habitual drug use and abuse: Zippermouth, White Out, Problems, Diary of an Emotional Idiot, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Jesus’ Son and on the whole, found them delightful. Some of these are new releases but more are not; some billed as fiction and others as memoir. They consist of scenes in which characters fall asleep with syringes sticking out of their necks; have their apartments colonized by strangers; destroy their skin through idle willfulness or sheer neglect; scrub a dealer’s toilet regularly in the hope of being gifted some dope; sell sex to support their habit; and puke, a lot. Each one of them made me want to be friends with the narrator. Each one of them made me want to do more drugs.

Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $26.99

How to Murder Your Life, the first memoir by avowed addict and ex-women’s magazine staffer Cat Marnell, is tame in comparison, though the book’s breathless publicity might have you believe otherwise. Because Marnell’s weapon of choice is prescription pills, scoring means visits to uptown psychiatrists’ offices instead of seedy street corners. She never hits a financially-induced rock bottom, thanks to rich family members who fund most of her choices even as they threaten to cut her off. None of her drug-using peers die, except one estranged high school friend, years later, and no one runs into problems with cops. She’s more inclined to smoke, snort, and swallow than inject, so readers are spared loving descriptions of the blood surging outside and inside of needles. Sex is rare and devoid of detail. Aside from a gory moment of uterine hemorrhaging and an evocative description of a cockroach “the size of a Pepperidge Farm Milano,” any reader anticipating visceral horror will be disappointed.

That’s context, not criticism. Marnell started her career as an intern at Teen Vogue and Glamour before she landed a job at Lucky—a position she left voluntarily because of her habit—only to land at XOJane, the women’s website fueled by ingenious, often shocking confessional essays, and which shuttered at the end of last year. The sensibility of women’s pop writing permeates How To Murder Your Life: The tone is gossipy and presumes instant familiarity in the vein of frequent “you know me”s. Exclamation points abound, as do all caps and phonetically spelled sounds. (Primarily “AUUUUUGHHH” and variations thereof.) Many, many words are italicized. It’s cosmopolitan slapstick delivered by someone so relentlessly cheerful she doesn’t even hold a discernable grudge against the various men who rob and assault her. As a piece of writing, it’s rushed and full of holes, but Marnell is charismatic enough that it almost feels wrong to complain. She makes me want to be her friend. She makes me want to do more drugs.  

Of course, that isn’t her objective. (Why would it be?) Marnell never makes her life seem enviable, at least not entirely. The majority of the book is about experiences begat by drug use and that in turn beget further, obsessive drug use: insomnia, hallucinations, friendlessness, abortions, apathy, profound loneliness and self-loathing, rape. Her designer clothes and expensive belongings end up stolen, consigned, or destroyed; her parents, despite her explicit defense of them in the afterword, seem profoundly unhelpful. She describes her “ultra-conservative” father as prone to fits of capricious rage and her mother seems determinedly checked out. (Post rehab, she calls her mom in tears and is advised to take a Xanax.) 

It’s nearly impossible to find an addiction memoir that doesn’t somehow warn readers against repeating the author’s mistakes; and though Murder stops short of paying lip service to full sobriety—“Here’s a life lesson for you, kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs”—it otherwise adheres to the status quo. (“I was lonely. I was pathetic. I was weak. I was a loser. Most drug addicts are.”) The most platitudinous appeal comes at the very end: “When you’re high every day, you are vulnerable every day…. Strong, healthy people just don’t interest the sickos of this world as much. You want to be one of the strong healthy people — which is basically impossible when you’re using.” This read to me like an addition insisted on by an editor, which doesn’t mean the words are insincere, or wrong.

What is it about drugs and the people who do them? Why were all of my 2016 drugs books so much more fun than most of the other titles I read that year, even when they consisted of narrators alone in bathrooms, alone in bedrooms, constantly sick, ruining relationships? Sure, people who are high or tripping can be funny and cute—child-like, innocent. Speed makes Marnell happy; it inspires her. “It was collage o’clock!” Marnell chirps at dawn after a relapse, referring to her long-standing tradition of making murals out of magazines while on a bender. Being alone doesn’t matter if you’re blissed out. Being in a bathroom is irrelevant if every surface is moving and morphing anyway.  

But more reliably, someone drunk or stoned or tweaked out or geeked up is incoherent, oblivious, irritating. Like children, they can be selfish, petulant, and destructive. (High, Marnell also takes scissors to clothing, and to her own hair.) They can’t help themselves from being these ways, even if they know it’s unpleasant for those around them. “Is this unfun for you?” I kept asking my boyfriend last year during a solo acid trip. I was half-laying across the table at a restaurant as I openly stared at a pregnant woman, and a girl in a wheelchair, and a diner nearby with a face that struck me as unusually long. I kept trying and failing to read the menu. “Are you having a bad time?” As if he had any option but to suffer through it. If you’re the fucked up one, you got an experience. If you’re the sober babysitter, or even the sober bystander, you probably got a headache. Drug narratives circumvent this effect by bringing readers along for the ride. You get to be inside and outside at the same time, vicariously cresting on the best waves without running the risk of a real wipe out.   

In a 2012 interview, Marnell evoked a phrase used to describe the ways narcissists elaborately perform themselves: “conspicuous existence.” “It’s the same thing on speed,” she said. Stimulants especially make you feel important and rare. It’s not just that they’re fun; they’re sometimes the only available relief from your own interminable animal aliveness. As Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote when reviewing Jade Sharma’s 2016 novel Problems, “drugs kill, but living without drugs makes you want to die.” I think often of a friend who snorted dope occasionally and who said, of her addict boyfriend, “I want to help Dave get clean. But I’d be so sad if I could never do heroin again.” Drugs give us something we can’t get any other way and you don’t need to be an addict to yearn for this particular escape. This is part of what Marnell’s getting at when she advocates for a public discussion about the truth that some people—a significant number of people—use a lot of drugs, and it may never be feasible for them to stop completely. Not necessarily because they’re incapable, but because they don’t want to. “My addiction is still very much part of my life,” she writes at the end of the memoir. “Things could—and probably will—get bad again. Real talk!” 

You either get it or you don’t, and a lot of people don’t, even as they down controlled substances daily under a doctor’s careless or considered sanction. When Marnell wrote about using for XOJane and later for Vice, commenters always rushed in with judgment and insult. They were angriest about her exuberant presence in the public eye; they conflated her candor and energy with pride. But they were also pretty pissed she had the gall to earn a living while maintaining a habit. It’s a typical American conviction that drug addicts, if not seeking complete rehabilitation, should be invisible, broke, ashamed, and/or dead. Oh, and unattractive. At XOJane, Marnell’s editorial beat was beauty. Her posts never appeared without a picture. 

But drugs aren’t in need of a gorgeous poster girl. No book, or essay, or text from a friend needs to work to “glamorize” drugs; all it has to do is trigger a memory of the actual effect, or make a promise it fulfills. “Here comes the perfect world,” Michael Clune writes in White Out, his stunning account of heroin addiction, just as his high hits. “It was like I was in a video game!” Marnell says of her speed-fueled late night walks through Manhattan. Oh, right, I think whenever I read a few words describing the rush of crack, or MDMA, or meth, or dope. Drugs feel good. Like I’d momentarily forgotten. That old fear-mongering chestnut about dealers giving out the first hit for free belies the truth: Drugs don’t need publicity at all, they just need to do what they do.

How To Murder Your Life—as the title suggests when coming from someone very much alive and notoriously well-compensated—testifies to the fact that drugs can wreck a person while turning that person into an icon. “It made me who I am now,” Marnell has said of her high school immersion in ADHD meds. She’s referring specifically to her mannerisms and behavior patterns, but it’s also resulted in her celebrity, her book deal, and her career as a whole. We like to pretend that many culture-defining personalities—visual artists, canonical writers, legendary musicians, “generation-defining” actors—were hampered by the addictions that fed their best works when we have no way of knowing what they’d have produced in sobriety. Take away their alcohol, their heroin, their Adderall: Would we still be paying attention?

Consuming addicts’ art doesn’t make us evil, just as they (and we) are not evil for using. The wrong move isn’t enjoying the work an addict produces, or how they act when they’re high. It’s ignoring that complicity altogether, pretending our appetite for the fruits of drug use aren’t aligned with our appetites for drugs themselves. “I was a mess just like I’d always been,” Marnell writes near the end of Murder, sounding, for once, a little tired. “Everyone loved it.”