Many writers have gotten a lot of attention, and sold a lot of books (or articles) by writing about their own lives. In my view, there's nothing wrong with that as long as such writers are honest and authentic, self-aware. But what about when they're talking about something that's dangerous, unhealthy, even something that can end up killing them? Even if they are self-aware, should we celebrate them, knowing that that celebration may well feed into their behaviors, and even perpetuate them?
I'm talking about former xoJane beauty and health director Cat Marnell, who now has a Vice column called Amphetamine Logic that gives a closer—uncomfortably close, in fact—look at her life. Atlantic Wire alum Caitlin Dickson has a great piece on Marnell in The Daily Beast today—she calls her "arguably the Internet’s most divisive writer." That's debatable, but Marnell is probably the writer we're talking about the most, of late, on the Internet. Unfortunately, it's less about her writing itself and more about what she writes about: her drug use, drinking, her obsession with being skinny (“I use drugs to keep me thin and maintain my standards of beauty,” she tells Dickson), and, in one recent column, having sex with a married celebrity. Previously, while at xoJane, she wrote of how she relies on Plan B as her only birth control, to the consternation of many.
As with the proverbial car crash, it's hard to pull your eyes away, even as, at the same time, you read with some discomfort because you're seeing something you don't really want to be seeing. It's addiction porn, sort of. She left her job at xoJane because she didn't want to quit drugs, and, interestingly, her writing and the writing about her (in New York magazine, in Vice, on Jezebel, this site, and so on) has something of the quality of a drug itself—we know, maybe, that we shouldn't read it, and yet, we do anyway, and then feel rather bad about ourselves afterward. At the same time we're repulsed, we can't help ourselves. Marnell is a good writer in this way, and particularly for these Internet times: She's challenging, she's captivating and controversial, and maybe she embodies some elements of a person that, occasionally, we wish we all could be—someone without "obligations" or the sort of mundane life most of us deal with, someone doing it her way, someone breaking the rules. I do admire her honesty, though I don't know if I'd call it "bravery," as some have.
Because at the end of the day, Marnell is an addict and admits that quite freely. Perhaps it's "brave" to be open about your addiction, but is it brave to make it your franchise? Or is it, actually, just sort of easy? A troubling side note to this is that there are quite a lot of girls and women (people like, for example, the thinspo community) who praise and want to emulate her in some way or another. And that gets at another aspect of our fascination: She's thin, pretty, blonde, white; she's of a certain social class; she's a woman. As Dickson points out, "writers such as Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson were writing about being under the influence, often while under the influence, long before Marnell was born." So a woman, then, writing about sex and drugs and living the way "she wants to" should be free to be as bad-ass and rule-breaking as the male writers who came before and tested limits and boundaries and did drugs, right? But it seems distinctly anti-woman praise a woman who's hurting herself, especially when that praise compounds the cycle.
Dickson goes on to say that even if Marnell's life appears to be "spiraling out of control," she's self-aware. (Indeed, so self-aware that I've even heard some people wonder if she might be doing some bizarre form of performance art.) The problem is, as I've written previously, addiction is not something that we should use as entertainment whether it's actual or fake (and I do think in this case it's not a charade); it's an actual serious problem, a disease. Then there's the issue of what the 24-hour-news cycle and Internet pageview beast do to all of this. Kerouac, Bukowski, and Thompson may have done a lot of drugs, but they never wrote about their drug use on the Internet, a place in which attention is its own drug-like sort of reward.
Dickson posits that "if providing Marnell with a platform does nothing to benefit society, maybe it benefits the woman herself," helping her confront her issues, helping her realize her life might not be such fun after all. She writes,
Before she finishes writing her second column, [Marnell] tells me she is “vaguely horrified by what I’m putting out there. Because without the veneer of the beauty products I had at xoJane, I am awful. The pillhead life isn’t so great. It’s racy, it’s emotionally barren, it’s full of poor decisions, it’s decidedly lacking in morals. I am not a particularly good person anymore."
If it takes the Internet to get a person to hit rock-bottom, though, can the Internet really congratulate itself for that? "Nothing is wrong if it feels good," writes Marnell. We should ask ourselves, how does her Vice column really make us feel, if we're being as honest as she is?