When Cat Marnell first exploded onto the blogging scene in 2011 as the health and beauty editor of xoJane, she was like a lightning bolt. A hot, druggy, wildly charismatic lightning bolt, ready to tell you exactly how she perfected her artfully smudged eyeliner and what kind of pills she took while she did it. The sedate world of beauty blogging had never seen anything quite like her.
Marnell’s time at xoJane would be famously troubled — the company eventually pushed her into rehab, and she lasted only a few months more at the site after her return. Afterward, her short-lived follow-up drug column for Vice failed to develop the kind of breathless media following that had attended her at xoJane. So her new memoir, How to Murder Your Life, has the quality of a dispatch from five years ago: Wow, Cat Marnell is still out there! And … still doing pretty much the same thing, I guess?
Marnell’s memoir chronicles the fight between her ambition and her addiction
As Marnell tells it, the central drama of her life has been the push and pull between her ambition and her addiction. At times, they work together: It is in part her ambition that pushes a 15-year-old Marnell to beg her psychiatrist father for a Ritalin prescription so that she can make the honor roll at her prestigious Massachusetts prep school.
But then: the crash. After a wildly productive junior year, Marnell spends her senior year spiraling into ever more self-destructive behavior and is finally expelled six weeks before her graduation in 2001, five months pregnant. Her mother personally escorts her to the clinic where she undergoes a traumatic late-term abortion.
She takes off to New York, where her addiction and her ambition each find their new favorite playmates. For her addiction, it’s the New York party scene that lets her saunter into a club, score a bump of coke, and dance next to P. Diddy. For her ambition, it’s the glossy Condé Nast beauty magazines with which she falls in love.
Marnell determinedly works her way up the Condé Nast ladder to become a beauty editor at the now-defunct Lucky in 2008, fueling her late nights at the office with Adderall binges and then going out and partying till sunup. “How lucky was I?” she writes. “I loved New York. I loved my job; I loved working. I fucking loved Condé Nast. And I loved being high.”
In a reverse Devil Wears Prada scenario, as Marnell’s personal life deteriorates (abusive hookups, stalkers, escalating bulimia), it’s the structure and rigor of her high-powered Condé Nast job that gives her life meaning. Marnell worships her demanding fashionista boss — the legendary Jean Godfrey-June — and all of her demands:
When a high-strung, thoroughbred Condé Nasty like Jean (who could be scary, believe me) or Anna [Wintour, Vogue editor and the basis for the titular “devil” in The Devil Wears Prada] or any of them — was cracking her Hermès whip, it was an honor to jump. It was an honor to ask, “How high?!” And if the whip got so close it hurt, well, go in the closet, slather some sixty-nine-dollar Organic Pharmacy Rose Balm on your open wounds, and then get right back to work, you whiny baby!
The fact that this unrepentant party girl believes so deeply in working hard and paying your dues is profoundly endearing: You can feel how much she loves her work and how badly she wants to succeed.
Instead, she spirals. Stress drives her to bulimia. She goes to rehab once, then twice, relapsing within weeks of her return each time. She shows up to work events drunk and high and passes out. At last, in 2010 — over protests from her beloved boss — she quits.
“Addiction won,” she writes. “I didn’t want to be an editor in chief or a creative director or a beauty director anymore. I just wanted to go to bed.”
Marnell was the star of xoJane, but it was always an uneasy fit
When Marnell emerged into the world again, it was 2011 and the media landscape had changed. Digital media was there to stay. And writing for women looked very different in a post-Jezebel world.
As Emily Gould writes at the Cut, “It’s hard to remember now that what writers like Marnell and I started out doing online — basically, incorporating the ongoing stories of our lives into the content we were required to churn out for work — was once considered shocking; it went so quickly from novel to deliberate outrage-clickbait to de rigueur to played-out.”
XoJane, which arrived in the “personal as de rigueur” stage Gould outlines, was determinedly a blog, not a glossy magazine: voice-driven, confessional, with a vaguely feminist ethos. And at its launch, Cat Marnell was its star.
The site was not, Marnell writes, an entirely comfortable fit. She loved the chance to develop her own voice, but she was also a glossy print snob: She wanted glamour and aspiration, not pieces like “The XoJane Real Girl Belly Project.”
It’s the site’s confessional atmosphere that she blames for her most infamous piece, “GET IT TOGETHER, GIRLS: Every Pharmacy in New York is Out of Plan B! Every ONE!” In the post (which, Marnell admits in her book, she wrote in 25 minutes flat, while drunk), she muses about whether or not abortion is murder and declares that she uses Plan B as her birth control of choice. The post was picked up by Gawker and went wildly viral. “That,” Marnell says, “was the second time I almost quit xoJane.” (The first time was when the site tagged an article on butt-bleeding under “Beauty.”)
As Marnell grew more and more prominent, people began to worry that xoJane was enabling her — and that, by extension, that the site’s readers were too. “I worry,” wrote Sarah Hepola in the New York Times magazine, “about anyone who is lighting themselves on fire for our enjoyment.” XoJane, after all, provided Marnell with the insurance she used to buy prescription speed, which she would then binge on to write her stories, which generated more clicks than any other posts on the site and brought in more advertising dollars — all of which Marnell was very transparent about.
But Marnell kept producing, and readers kept clicking. I was one of them; I was 24 and sublimating a lot of intellectual energy into learning about makeup, and I hadn’t read anything quite like her writing before. Sometimes it was like watching a train wreck, but when she was on, her posts were unlike anything else in the beauty writing world: They had a kind of electricity that made them compulsively readable. The beauty tips were almost beside the point, but the woman undeniably knew her stuff; I still use products she recommended years ago for my go-to concealer and perfume.
And occasionally, she was brilliant. Her post “ON THE DEATH OF WHITNEY HOUSTON: Why I Won't Ever Shut Up About My Drug Use” was written up everywhere; it was thoughtful and introspective and honest.
This book is honest. It is also not that interesting.
How to Murder Your Life is honest, but it is not thoughtful and introspective. It’s actually a little bit boring.
That intimate, slightly manic, I-am-probably-on-speed-right-now-as-I-write voice Marnell cultivated at xoJane worked brilliantly for a 500-word beauty blog post, but it cannot sustain itself for a 375-page book. All the caps lock and italics and onomatopoeias (“AHHH!” and “AUUUUGHH” for screams; “BLLLLLARRGGGH. Slosh” for vomiting; you get the picture) are at first charming and then annoying and at last wearying, and so are all of her other spacey verbal tics.
The repetitiveness of the voice is compounded by the fact that How to Murder Your Life is an addiction narrative, and addiction is cyclical. It is characterized by repeating the same self-destructive behavior over and over again. Marnell’s descriptions of her patterns — periods of manic productivity followed by periods of numbness — are realistic, but they are also exhausting, and they just keep going.
And in the end, there is no resolution. Marnell sketches her life after xoJane briefly, in a few paragraphs that reveal it’s just more of the same, more of what we’ve already read. She concludes, brightly, that “I may be back on speed, but I take way less than I used to.” Which, speaking of repetition, is exactly the same narrative she used in her early xoJane posts, before her speed addiction overtook her again.
That she was able to get herself together enough to finish a book — even if it’s coming out five years after it was commissioned — is a victory of sorts for her ambition over her addiction. But as a book, How to Murder Your Life is very much controlled by her addiction. And addiction, in real life, is pretty boring: That’s part of what makes it so awful and destructive. An addiction memoir written by an active addict is bound to be boring as well.