Cat Marnell’s memoir opens with a joke about clubs and baby seals. Then she details a sordid experience at a Cirque du Soleil work event, where she shows up drunk and incoherent. Then she embarrasses herself in front of a fancy Condé Nast VIP. Then she’s kicked out of the party, just six months after she left the same rehab center where Edie Sedgwick spent time.
And that’s all just Chapter 1.
As the former magazine beauty editor writes in “How to Murder Your Life,” drug addiction is “a chemical barrier between myself and other people.” As a writer for Vice, xoJane.com and Lucky magazines, Marnell made a name for herself as a pill-guzzling, angel-dust-huffing disaster (“disaster” is her own word, actually). And that’s because Marnell has made a career on, well, being a disaster. Or, more accurately, on being an addict, a descent she details with bracing honesty in her new book.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Marnell talked about writing with exclamation points, battling her decade-long addiction and her journey to recovery (and then back into addiction). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the privilege of certain kinds of addiction
Addiction is a monster that drags you inside a cave. So with addiction and privilege, you can have more people on the outside of the cave, with more resources to get you out. But if the monster has still got you, there’s not much you can do.
On calling herself a “pill head” or “dope fiend”
You know, I really ran out of words for it.
On the double life of her addiction
I kept it all such a secret for so long. It is true, when I told the truth about who I was and came clean and stopped hiding it, my career took off.
People were like, “How’d she keep her job?” and the first thing is, I didn’t. I eventually lost it. But at first, [Marnell’s bosses at the time] really liked me. They thought it was a mental health thing. I was so ambitious.
But I still believe that I wrote very honestly about addiction, to the point that almost all my Amazon reviews are like, “Depressing.” Well, yeah, dude, what am I supposed to do? Those were full-blown psychotic breaks I was having. You want me to write about all the fun I had? I could do that, but I didn’t want to, because that is wrong, and I did write this book for young people.
On still using
When you “manage” an addiction, I do believe you can do it on a substance like Adderall. Not so much with heroin, crack, cocaine, but you can when you’re on a prescription drug that is a stimulant. I’ve cut down on everything, but it’s really a much, much more difficult way to live. You’re not either in the gutter or in recovery, but people are doing everything irresponsibly, or their energy is inconsistent or they’re not as connected to other human beings. And a lot of people are doing this.
And that was the idea behind the title “How to Murder Your Life,” as well. You’re not killing yourself and ODing on heroin. But you are self-sabotaging like every day, just a little bit. You’re putting pills in your body that take you away from all your natural cues, like sleeping and requiring intimacy.
People should be lonely when they’re alone. I was taking a pill that made me not lonely. It made me not hungry, too. Then I would take sleeping pills when I needed to sleep. And it would make me not tired. So that sounds like so awesome.
But those are the things that God made us with so we could find other people and procreate and be healthy and bear children with our healthy bodies and love each other. They’re the most important things about being a human. And prescription drugs will take them away from you, like, “Oh, that’s nothing. Look how quickly! Poof! You don’t need intimacy! You don’t need sleep! You don’t need food!” And the days and months turn into weeks and years, and all of a sudden you’re murdering your life, and you’re hallucinating rats, and “I’m about to lose my job and I’m 27.”
I just wanted it to be an addiction memoir. Not all [stories like this] end in death or recovery. They’re ongoing, they’re progressive diseases.
On her notoriously distinctive writing voice
Look, we can’t all be Joan Didion. I grew up a teeny-bopper, and I’ll always be a teeny-bopper. I’m an ADHD kid, and I’m hyper, and I write with a lot of caps and exclamation points. And I was told by my agent in the beginning of the process that exclamation points aren’t for books. But you know, I rebel against anything anyone tells me, especially [if the person saying it is] a guy. And my agent is a hetero man.
But here’s the thing, when you’re sitting with this text for so long, you’re always in a bad mood. Writing the book was so horrible for me, so I was writing the book in a bad mood all the time.
The literary device in my head was “bimbo glow.” I knew I was going to be annoying. But I was thinking of the narrators I like most in this world, like Cher from “Clueless.” Once I let go of what I thought a book should be, that’s when I found this voice that was grounded in pop music. I love pop music. I love Britney Spears albums.
The two biggest influences in my life are magazines and addiction treatment. Those are the two main forces I’ve had looping in my brain, that have shown me how the world works.
On the title of her book (“How to Murder Your Life”) and the dedication (“To all the party girls”)
The title I always knew. There’s a skateboard company called F—-ing Awesome, and they’re very cool. They’re much cooler than I could ever be. This guy Jason Dill is really cool in this whole graffiti writer world. But those T-shirts I saw years and years ago when I was first working at Lucky — they said “How to Murder Your Life.” I was just about to quit my job because of drugs when I first saw this, and I thought, “If I ever had a book, that’s what I’m going to call it.”
I did write this book for the kind of people who know exactly who they are in this world. I wrote it for younger women, really. And gay guys. And most of the people — I get a ton of emails every day over the past couple of years, from 20-year-old girls all on Adderall and young gay guys. And I think it’s hard.
There’s also a joke because when I went to rehab I’d be like “I’m a party girl!” and they’re like, “No, you’re a drug addict.” So I almost put “party girls” in quotes in the dedication.