Glamorous Wounds

Cat Marnell and Alana Massey both mine their darkest, messiest selves in first-person writing. But their styles couldn’t be more different.

female essay illo.

Adi Embers

Cat Marnell, the madcap former beauty editor who parlayed her drug addiction into a blogging platform at xoJane, didn’t start her memoir until the day it was due. That book, How to Murder Your Life, emerged three years later, but it still feels like something Marnell dashed off in 24 hours while on speed. Maybe her fans won’t be shocked: The “unhealthy health writer” has long seemed, in her creative process, to treat her past like flashy tinsel paper to be crumpled up and thrown in your face. Her posts had titles like “GONNA WASH THAT ANGEL DUST RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR: ‘Miracle’ (Uh-Huh) Treatments to Help You Pass Those Follicle Drug Tests, Naughty Nancys!” But this book is a work of substance disguised as an evanescent sparkle.

The memoir covers Marnell’s privileged childhood in Bethesda, Maryland; her teen pregnancy and expulsion from boarding school; her rise through the glossy ranks of three Condé Nast lady mags; her worsening reliance on ever greater varieties of intoxicant; her late nights on the New York party circuit; her stints in rehab; her abuse at the hands of predatory guys; her press trips to Europe; her Ambien-induced hallucinations of mice; and more. The blur is punctuated by black humor and bratty italics—peppered with the names of luxury brands, designer products, and onomatopoetic cries of AUGGGH. (The most frequently used word in the book may actually be AUGGGH.) And then, after 350-plus pages of vertiginous dazzle, the thing just stops, with no indication that our heroine has learned anything at all. “My addiction is still very much part of my life,” she writes. “Things could—and probably will—get bad again. Real talk!” Cat Marnell is likely the least introspective memoirist ever to attempt memoir. I love her.

Her style is worth comparing to a new book by Alana Massey, another member of the cadre of youngish female authors whose work has been called “confessional.” (I’ve never quite grasped why that word is preferable to “memoiristic.”) Massey, too, has mined her addictions, mental illness, disordered eating habits, and sexual abasements for artistic material. All the Lives I Want is more high-concept than How to Murder Your Life: It refracts Massey’s personal history through assessments of what you might call glamorously wounded icons. Carrie, for instance, is enlisted to help explore the author’s horror of puberty. Britney Spears enables her to negotiate her body image. Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Princess Diana, and the sisters in the Virgin Suicides all make appearances, their stories entwining with the author’s own. Together the chapters add up to more than a lived trajectory: They are an argument for girls’ complicated selfhood and underrated power, an examination of the ways in which female celebrities have been misrepresented and reclaimed. Massey suggests that we often cast anger, sexuality, or self-determination in women as witchy black magic. Conversely, she is deeply interested in how contemporary culture feeds on and deprecates female vulnerability and pain. All of which is to say: Cat Marnell feels like an Alana Massey essay waiting to happen.

The authors also share touchstones (Courtney Love) and an aura of beguiling messiness. But where Marnell is a propulsive storyteller with a single operatic theme, Massey crafts “think pieces” that elaborate ideas from personal experience. The first spills her guts; the second processes them. It’s the difference between plunging two hands into the mud of your life—just to get at what it feels like—and suiting up in a $400 archeologist costume to dig for deeper truths.

“The more amphetamine I took, the more fun being by myself was, actually,” Marnell gushes. “Speed was like magic! Lonely magic.” These quietly desolate sentences represent the peak of the book’s self-awareness, and yet even they are wrapped in bravado and manic cheer. Marnell’s critics, citing her sunny, spacey affect, have charged her with “romanticizing” addiction. But a blithe style—“Here’s a life lesson for you kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs. The more intense the drug, the more you forget your problems!”—doesn’t minimize the costs of her high-octane light show. It just reveals how estranged from her identity and emotions she’s become. Marnell may exalt the clubs in which she bumped lines next to P. Diddy, but she refuses to sugarcoat harrowing descriptions of her late-term abortion, of shooting heroin in a greasy stranger’s car, of being robbed and harassed by the unsavory characters attracted like sharks to her dysfunction. At one point, she remembers coming into work high, on no sleep, her hair matted into dreadlocks because monthlong benders had left her too exhausted to wash it, knuckles raw from purging, bleeding where she hit her knee when she fell off a stoop. She can barely read the production sheet she is supposed to be presenting to her supervising editors. You don’t want to be her or fuck her, as the adage about it-girls goes. You want to hug her and call an ambulance.

If Marnell is all coked-up crackle and energetic, angel-dusted impunity, Massey seems to aspire to a kind of complicated soulfulness. Her prose is measured and cool. She writes that the lyrical forgiveness Dolly Parton extends to men who’ve wronged her “closely resembles grace.” Amber Rose, holding a sign lettered with “Strippers have feelings too,” demands that we “hear the real women onto whom social anxieties about the nexus where money and gender and sex meet are projected relentlessly but who are not granted permission to voice their own.” Massey’s concentration and fierceness make her compelling. But her insistence on intellectualizing so-called lowbrow culture can also feel performative, as if she believes only she can see the shattered beauty that attends certain pop stars or has the courage to defend mopey teenage girls.  

Surely that is too harsh. Yet I couldn’t help reacting to All the Lives I Want with a peculiar mix of absorption, curiosity, and not buying it. Taken together, these essays argue against the aestheticization of female suffering and set out to restore to a circle of female pop cultural figures their full humanity. Massey insists that the celebrities she spotlights are more than their damage—yet darkness and damage remain what they have in common and what invite her consideration. Marnell, the unrepentant trickster pill head, the Bad Influence™, leans into jokey depravity by introducing her memoir as a self-help manual on “how to murder your life.” Massey, declaring herself a critic of the same self-destructive scene, titles her book All the Lives I Want. Why does she want them?

Her best essays—I especially loved “Emparadised,” about how Joan Didion led Massey into and then out of several bad relationships—focus on the author. Did she frame so many of her other autobiographical anecdotes as illustrations of a theme because she worried about seeming narcissistic (a concern Marnell clearly doesn’t share)? If so, Massey has stumbled into a strange irony: that the much-maligned self-absorption of the first-person essayist might inhere less in talking about oneself than in cultivating an impression of profound, rare meaning around one’s thoughts and experiences. By attempting to make her life signify, it could be that Massey risked more of a tonal misstep than Marnell, the self-proclaimed egotistical monster.

Of course, we often look to first-person writing to confer meaning on experiences that society has traditionally discounted. Yet it can be hard to distinguish sincere introspection from a sustained humblebrag when the author appears so invested in projecting an enhanced self-image. Massey frequently brings up how thin she is, even in the essays not explicitly about how thin she is. (There are two.) Elsewhere, she calls herself a “Winona [Ryder] in a world made for Gwyneth [Paltrow]s”—an astonishing phrase, given that her entire book does nothing if not demonstrate the world’s appetite for Winonas. On discovering Didion in 2011, she notes, with utmost delicacy, “Back then adoring Joan Didion was a private devotion that I could indulge without the attendant self-consciousness that comes with being too caught up in a cultural moment to really enjoy it.” Is that an earnest meditation on how it feels when fads catch up to personal taste—or history’s most artful “I liked her before she was cool”?

Massey, who arrives in an age of captivation and exhaustion with female confessional writers, is herself captivated and exhausted by our captivation and exhaustion. In the essay on Marnell she has yet to pen, she might ask: Why does Cat’s particular stripe of hot mess so enthrall us?

The prevailing theory seems to be some combination of schadenfreude, Puritan morality, and morbid rubbernecking. But maybe the answer is simpler. Marnell is delightful! She sounds like a fallen angel laughing all the way to hell. Of Silver Hill Hospital, she writes: “The main building looked like something Taylor Swift would buy to impress the Kennedys.” And for all her improvisatory charm, she has made canny structural choices. She scaffolds her narrative on a grand struggle. “My ambition and my addiction had been duking it out like two boxers in a ring for years,” she says. At every step, her desire to make the honor roll, succeed at work, or build healthy relationships duels with her hunger for the next high, the next garbage “boyfriend,” the next binge. To put the drama in more universal terms, she spends the book caught between Eros and Thanatos—the pull of life and the pull of death. Two elemental forces clashing over the soul of a young, beautiful woman: The story basically sells itself.

That’s what I’d like to think, anyway. But then I remember what it actually felt like to read this book. At three in the morning, I still couldn’t tear myself away, some dark part of me craving more details about the drugs, the food, the self-loathing, the insomnia. We all have death drives, to some extent, and they are all alike in their self-absorption: a solipsism as unwanted as it is irresistible. Maybe Thanatos is simply drawn, with an addict’s unerringness, to representations of itself.

In the end, this is the motivation that I think Massey has failed to grapple with in her collection of other women’s stormy lives. She has written a sober, ambivalent book about surrendering to the maelstrom. But she doesn’t seem to have wrestled with the various illusions that might drive someone to that point, or to understand how Thanatos continues to shape her own obsessions. Marnell, meanwhile, drags us inside the disaster and lets us conclude what we wish. She doesn’t want to make you think. She wants to get you high.

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell. Simon & Schuster.

All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey. Grand Central Publishing.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.