Reviewed by Megan Rudloff
How To Murder Your Life
By Cat Marnell
Simon & Schuster
374 pp, $26.99, ISBN-13: 978-1476752273, Jan 2017
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to go “doctor shopping” for prescription pills, take ecstasy at work, party with Lindsay Lohan, and ultimately murder your life? Good news – you can learn all about it without actually doing it in Cat Marnell’s debut memoir, How to Murder Your Life. In a world of high fashion, high heels, and high rises, Marnell was high, too. This memoir breaks the boundaries of traditional memoir style and redefines what it means to be a memoirist.
Marnell lived a privileged childhood in Bethesda, MD, born to psychiatrist parents. The memoir begins in her adolescence, describing family issues and her trouble in school. Her parents send her to a boarding school, where she is diagnosed with ADHD, and she “ordered Ritalin from my dad and he delivered it right to my door – like a pizza!” Her grades improved and the pills kept coming from her father, thus paving the road to her addiction.
Marnell’s drug-induced haze continued through boarding school – Ritalin, alcohol, marijuana and tobacco – even after she found out she’s pregnant (she describes her second-trimester abortion in shocking detail). She writes, “Here’s a life lesson for you kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs.” The entire memoir is written in this tone – as if she’s writing a casual blog post, giving life advice to her readers. Even after a heroin overdose and stints in rehab, Marnell continued to party and take any prescription pill or drug she could get her manicured hands on.
“I had no idea what I was interested in or what I was ever gonna do with my life besides party,” she confesses. But in college, she finally found her calling: Marnell lands internships with Nylon, Teen Vogue, and Glamour. These led to her career as a blogger and beauty editor for Lucky and later, xoJane. While some may object to her not-so-conventional grammar and writing style, I like how it breaks the mold and explores a new style. The blog tone continues throughout her memoir:
“BUT THEN I STARTED WORKING IN MAGAZINES AND IT GAVE ME HOPE … LIKE I DIDN’T HAVE TO BE TRASH ANYMORE … I WORKED SO HARD … I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO HAVE THIS AMAZING CAREER …. BUT NOW I’VE TOTALLY SCREWED IT UP BECAUSE I’M ALWAYS ON DRUGS.”
I don’t mind when Marnell writes in all capital letters. In fact, I enjoy it. Her style shows a fun, carefree personality and breaks down an invisible barrier between us. She’s not hiding behind her work and portraying a different persona – I’ve come to know her in a way that I wouldn’t have if she had confined her writing to a traditional style. “Uuuuuurrrrrgghhhhhhhhhh, I thought as the lights went down” and “BLLLLARRGGH. Slosh. Those are the sounds of me vomiting. (Onomatopoeia! You can send my Pulitzer to my agent.).”
Working at xoJane, Marnell wrote columns about her drug use, which have manifested into her memoir. Some of her columns included: “WORST BEAUTY EDITOR IN THE WORLD: I Snorted A Line Of Bath Salts In The Office Today Edition,” “ON THE DEATH OF WHITNEY HOUSTON: Why I Won’t Ever Shut Up About My Drug Use,” and “3 Beauty Products I must have when I am SOO sick (and not even in a fun cokehead-y way).” Her approach to these topics makes reading about them a little easier, less cut and dry. Her word choice and style shows who she truly is, rather than a caricature of herself. Marnell is authentic. She doesn’t try to hide anything about herself, and takes ownership for her actions.
But at first, I was irritated by her lack of motivation and just plain recklessness. She popped pills at night, but during the day, she was a rock star. She worked hard to land a job at Lucky, and she built a strong relationship with famous beauty director and boss, Jean Godfrey-June. She wrote articles and explored the beauty closet by day, and walked the familiar blocks of Spring Street in SoHo at night. I started to build a relationship with her and empathize with her lack of control over her addiction. I wouldn’t mind walking in her shoes. Her addiction aside, she’s a hardworking good person, and I was rooting for her. But then she would make more bad choices. And I couldn’t stop reading.
“Two weeks after I returned from LA, I e-mailed in ‘dope sick’ to work. You know how it is: some graffiti kid leaves piles of skag on your coffee table and the next thing you know you’re high and listening to the Contagion soundtrack in your underpants for six straight hours… Ugh I did heroin last night and now I’m sick, I e-mailed Jane. Throwing up. Sooo sorry.”
The addiction memoir has been written countless times and peaked in the 1980s and ‘90s – so what makes Marnell’s memoir unique in 2017? Her style. Although Marnell did some heinous things, her sense of humor and relaxed tone makes them more bearable: “We’d both taken six bumps a piece. My face would be so numb that I couldn’t even feel the washcloth. Just like in that song by The Weeknd.” She approaches serious topics with a lightness that shows her humanity, rather than the usual portrayal of herself as a drugged-out zombie. Though her drug use is anything but funny, she uses humor to drive her story, making its telling more manageable for herself and readers.
Some readers may claim that the memoir is about a privileged girl getting high all the time. But her brutal honesty and writing style about her not-so-glamorous experiences – going to rehab, struggling with bulimia, her reliance on stimulants – shows that there’s merit to this memoir. She’s not a bad writer, she’s just creative in expressing herself and conveying it to me. It doesn’t matter to me that she’s not following conventional grammar and syntax – she’s found a medium that works for her. By the end of the memoir, I liked and respected Marnell because I’d come to know her as a person, not just an addict.
Throughout the memoir’s entirety, Marnell uses her talents as a fashion blogger to craft a memoir that acts as a collection of blog posts about her life. The epigraph reads, “For all the party girls,” and thanks to her carefree, honest blogging style, I now understand what it’s like to walk in her Louboutin heels.
About the reviewer: Megan Rudloff is a Susquehanna University graduate with a BA in English literature and publishing and editing, as well as a student of Columbia University’s publishing course.