Cat Marnell's How to Murder Your Life offers a master class in make-up, and self destruction

Cat Marnell has made a career out of pushing the boundaries.
CHRISTOS KATSIAOUNI

Cat Marnell has made a career out of pushing the boundaries.

Beauty editor, social media magnet, privileged party girl, pill popper, repeat rehabber and now best-selling author. Attention-grabbing labels attach themselves to Cat Marnell like glitter but, as she tells Britt Mann, there's nothing all that glamorous about drugs and bulimia.

There is a photograph of Cat Marnell at an awards ceremony in New York City, in October, 2012. She stands pigeon-toed and vacant-gazed before the camera, black and blue eyeshadow smudged across her temples; berry-coloured lipstick smeared over bee-stung lips.

In one hand, she clutches a luxurious fur coat, in the other, a chrome rosary. Somewhat inexplicably, she has the word "Chinese" daubed in black marker down one forearm, "Democracy" on the other.

Cat Marnell attends Paper Magazine's 8th Annual Nightlife Awards at Webster Hall on October 10, 2012 in New York City.
ANDY KROPA/GETTY

Cat Marnell attends Paper Magazine's 8th Annual Nightlife Awards at Webster Hall on October 10, 2012 in New York City.

Her peroxide blonde mane has neon highlights in front, four years ahead of the trend. Her pixie-like proportions are exposed by a barely-there white satin slip hitched lopsidedly into her knickers.

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Marnell, a former beauty editor for some of America's most popular women's publications, was at that time writing for the news and culture website, Vice.

Her column – Amphetamine Logic – detailed her nocturnal debauchery in the city that never sleeps, in bleak, manic detail. They were so popular they were being translated into German and Italian.

Less than three months after the awards, Marnell penned her final column for Vice, illustrated with a photo of her right hand. It's accessorised with a callous from a decade of self-induced vomiting, and a diamond ring.

American writer Cat Marnell has shared her life story so far in a new memoir.
CHRISTOS KATSIAOUNI

American writer Cat Marnell has shared her life story so far in a new memoir.

Speaking by phone from her Chinatown apartment, Marnell says the acclaim she garnered from the column had been "magical, almost a gift", after a lifetime of self-loathing. The world's media wanted a piece of the wild child who had a way with words. She was more popular than ever.

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"It was just a random thing, it could have happened to any writer on the internet," she says, while boiling the kettle.

"And it happened to me."

In the end, the perception of her as an amphetamine-fuelled anti-hero prowling the New York City skyline after dark, was paralysing. She wasn't a socialite. She was sick.

"There was such a huge gap between who I really was – this diseased person – and this kind of like, glamorous person that I wanted to pretend like I was," she says.

"I mean, I am glamorous – don't get me wrong. But not because I'm a drug addict."

Marnell wears wigs to hide the chemical burns across her scalp and neck -  the result of a "bad dye job". She orders the ...
CHRISTOS KATSIAOUNI

Marnell wears wigs to hide the chemical burns across her scalp and neck - the result of a "bad dye job". She orders the Harajuku-style hairpieces from Japan. “That’s what happens when you take a little drug vacation and lose it,” she explains. “God gives you little signs like, ‘you shouldn’t have been doing that'.”

Marnell says the year between signing the deal and starting to write, she was more messed up on drugs than she'd ever been.

She was "drunk as f..., all of the time". The bannister in her loft apartment had the rungs knocked out; she kept falling down the stairs. She overdosed on heroin, having stuck the needle in her leg on a whim. She was cancelling photo shoots, and conducting interviews from bed, where she stayed for a month at a time.

"Can you imagine having not taken a walk in so long that your legs are sore from going outside?" she asks.

"That's what you do when you're about to die."

A few months after her final Vice column, Marnell secured a book deal – with a US$500,000 advance. How to Murder Your Life came out this year.

Marnell began writing her memoir on the day it was due – April 1, 2014 – at a desk at Hope Rehab in the Gulf of Thailand. She had spent the advance on drugs, and furniture.

The book details her rise from intern to associate beauty editor in women's magazines at Conde Nast – the American publishing company depicted in The Devil Wears Prada – and descent into an addiction to prescription medications, which she supplemented with loneliness, bingeing, self-harm, bad sex, vomiting, cocaine, and heroin.

Today, Marnell calls herself a Conde Nast dropout.

Caitlin Elizabeth Marnell was born and raised in Washington, DC, 20 minutes away from the White House, with mental health professionals for parents and Mike Tyson for a neighbour.

Her mother was a diabetic psychotherapist. A young Cat once injected herself in the stomach with water using one of her mother's insulin syringes. In her book, she recalls, "it didn't hurt at all".

Marnell's father was a hot-tempered Republican psychiatrist who once banned the word "feminism" from the house.

Marnell's older sister was sent to "boarding school" when she was 14, after pulling a knife on their father. Today, the institution is shuttered following widespread allegations of abuse.

Despite her sister's increasingly desperate letters home, Marnell begged to be sent to boarding school, too.

"It felt like my dad had failed to control his first daughter, and now he was obsessed with controlling me."

Marnell's mediocre grades and stifled social life soon did a 360-degree turnaround, thanks to a new Ritalin prescription – something she describes as a "honey trap for the fast crowd".

With the help of the drug she was getting straight A's during the week and partying out of town on weekends. Her parents never knew about her extra-curricular shenanigans until they were summoned to the headmaster's office, six weeks before their daughter was to graduate.

She was expelled, and was 18 weeks' pregnant.

At the abortion clinic, Marnell's mum declined her daughter general anaesthesia. Her dad prescribed her Xanax.

In the Marnell household, prescription drugs were part of the furniture. Her dad's office was full of drug-branded paraphernalia – an Adderall stapler, Prozac basketball, a squeeze-toy shaped like an Ambien pill.

Pharmaceutical reps took the family to football games, and on holiday to Puerto Rico. Today, news magazines continue to be stuffed with pharmaceutical ads, like fashion magazines feature beauty ads.

It's all connected, Marnell says.

"It just money, money, money. And at the crux of all this money, is real people's lives."

At 18, Marnell moved to New York, where she got a summer gig wrangling clothes in Vanity Fair's fashion closet.

In a Narnian sense, the wardrobe was a portal to the world of glossy magazines, the fulfilment of Marnell's childhood fantasies.

She then interned for beauty editors at Nylon, Teen Vogue and Glamour, making her mark with her "amphetamine work ethic" – courtesy of her neighbourhood's psychiatrists, with whom she was on excellent terms – and eventually landed her "dream job" as beauty assistant at Lucky magazine.

Marnell had few friends until her late 20s, save for a manipulative narcissist who stole her house keys, took nude Polaroids of her and once tried to stab her in the neck with a syringe full of heroin.

Her social life consisted of bingeing and puking up groceries purchased on her parents' credit card; her only dates were with her doctors.

Marnell's drug use left her so exhausted she could not wash her hair properly – it formed dreadlocks, which she tucked beneath a baseball cap. (Years later, as xoJane's beauty editor, she would write a "how to" column with the headline, "The Secret Shampooing Life of Pillheads", to save others the same predicament.)

When she admitted to her parents she was addicted to her ADHD medication, she was sent to a $1000-a-day rehab in Connecticut.

She stayed at the clinic for a month before checking herself out, reasoning she did not meet the sole requirement for recovery: a desire to stop using.

Being in Manhattan without stimulants felt wrong, she writes in her book, and ultimately, she went back on them, suffering crippling insomnia and with it, paranoid hallucinations about vermin invading her apartment.

"Being clean just wasn't worth it."

Her dad had threatened to stop paying her rent if she started using again. A month later, he guessed – correctly – that she was. He cut her off.

Marnell didn't last much longer at Lucky. She checked in to a psychiatric hospital, and another rehab. She returned to work, and to drugs. And she told her boss she couldn't do it any more.

"My ambition was bruised, bloodied and – finally, now – defeated," Marnell writes.

"Addiction won."

A year later, Marnell was hired by legendary magazine editor Jane Pratt as a beauty editor for her new women's website, xoJane.

For a while, it was workable – Marnell's irreverent articles married her two main hobbies – beauty products and drugs – with a refreshing irony that attracted hundreds of comments and a loyal following.

And when she wrote about her drug use in the wake of Whitney Houston's death, she became an inadvertent voice for addicts everywhere.

She was getting away with it, and getting clicks. Until she emailed in sick after over-indulging on heroin the night before. The company ordered her to rehab. Whether she resigned or was fired upon her return to work is a moot point.

"When an addict leaves a job, it feels like neither."

The following month, the first instalment of Amphetamine Logic went live.

"I'm the one with $40 French beauté self-tan who's dressed like a sort of slutty Commedia dell'Arte Zanni, in white rags, a Dior slap bracelet, a Winston – I know, inexplicably – tucked behind my ear, a nameplate necklace that says 'methadone' in cursive (indeed, roll your eyes; please), filthy white Topshop flats, three plastic rosaries in pastel colours that are all chewed up," she wrote.

"I'm all PCP eyes and Adderall thighs, gagging down Gatorade at the encouragement of a bored friend, vibrating like a mild seizure."

She was a mess just like she'd always been, she writes.

"But now everyone loved it."

Today, Marnell is "improved" rather than "recovered". She is both pragmatic and philosophical about her continued drug use.

Maybe she's lucky, she muses, to be addicted to a performance-enhancing drug that is never going to kill her.

Following her two-month stint at Hope Rehab in 2014, she's taking Adderall as prescribed, rather than crunching through a month's supply in 10 days.

She compares her addiction to an abusive relationship: "It's always there lurking to suck you back in," she says.

"You have to cut things completely out of your life. And that is the last lesson that I..."

She pauses.

"I have learned it, but I don't pay attention."

She knows, to a sober person, it sounds counter-intuitive.

"How could someone so successful still be sabotaging in that way, and wind up dead in the elevator like Prince?"

The success, the attention and the opportunities don't make any difference, she says.

"I've been amazed at what is still there in the shadows."

She feels unqualified to comment on sobriety – "I've never been that, so I have nothing to say" – but stands by her words of warning in an article she wrote five years ago, advising young women to stay away from Adderall.

"If it kills your appetite, or if it makes something that's not fun, fun, there's something wrong," she says.

"You're supposed to be tired, you're supposed to be hungry when you haven't eaten, and cleaning your house is supposed to be boring. If you take something that makes it not that way, you're always going to pay heavily at the other end.

"What goes up must come down."

In some ways, Adderall is as linked to Marnell's successes as it is to her failures. Does she wish she had never tried it?

Absolutely. She says the word three times.

"I just can't imagine though, a world in which I wouldn't have."

Marnell was sporadically estranged from her parents throughout her 20s – a fact she would remind her readers of in articles titled "The Product I Learned About From My Shrink Dad That I Don't Even Talk To Anymore" and "Is My Mom The Most Misguided Guidance Counsellor Ever?"

Today, the relationships have warmed and her dad has "mellowed out a lot". How did her parents feel about her book?

Her dad hasn't read it, she says. Her mum "hasn't really said anything one way or the other".

Her father knows the book features some unflattering details, she adds, but he "separates that from the fact that his daughter wrote a New York Times bestseller".

"He goes around talking all proudly about it – like he's not even in it," she says.

"And it's so nice. It kinda makes me cry."

She doesn't blame parents for putting their children on prescription speed. But she wonders, if kids are having trouble focusing at school, whether they're just focusing on the wrong thing.

"I had no problem coming home without any drugs and paying attention to the magazines I made upstairs [as a child], and that's what I wound up doing in my life, and being good at," she says.

"In the meantime, everyone was so focused on why I couldn't do well at math."

Articles about Cat Marnell contain checklists of cliches. She's often compared to Hunter S Thompson and called an enfant terrible, a pill-popping addict, a socialite junkie, New York City's "hottest mess", a notorious, infamous, self-proclaimed disaster.

Writers wonder – then and now – whether Marnell was exploited by her employers, or enabled by them. In a piece for the New York Times magazine in 2012, Sarah Hepola, a former addict, says, "I worry about anyone who is lighting themselves on fire for our enjoyment".

Journalists still ask Marnell, 34, if her parents support her financially. I was one of them. Marnell doesn't seem to mind too much – she says she brings it on herself. These days, she assures me, she's the one paying her rent.

I ask her if she finds the commentary – and the questions – patronising.

"They treat me like I'm in a child sex ring, instead of someone writing with agency," she says with a half-hearted laugh.

"But when you're kind of, on top of the heap in an industry like I am, it's OK for other people to be patronising about you.

"I'd rather let them do that than go out of my way to prove them wrong."

Marnell is improved rather than recovered. She's back together and "in love" with her boyfriend. She's moving to Europe. She sleeps, she exercises, she sees her friends. She suffers a week of depression about every two months. And she's using, for as long as she's "too much of a coward" to stop.

She says the question even addicts themselves have trouble answering, is whether using is a choice,or a compulsion.

The good choices have a cumulative effect, she says, but so do the bad ones.

Giving in takes only a moment. And the moments turn into years.

"Meanwhile, everything else has gone to hell."

 - Sunday Magazine

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