Like many, I've been both concerned about and compelled by the ongoing story of Cat Marnell: her unabashed addiction to drugs, her departure from xoJane where she was beauty and health director, her Vice column in which she continues to chronicle her life and her drug use. Even as it's a bit guilt-inducing or gut-wrenching to watch, it's also magnetic, somehow, and that, along with her writing talent, is part of what intrigues us about Marnell. After all, she's putting herself out there; should we not look? At the same time, if we do look, do we do her a disservice? Marnell's been the topic of a lot of writing addressing these questions lately, but Sarah Hepola tackles the polarizing figure in a piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine in a new way, exploring our fascination this time from a slightly more personal angle: the idea of writing about oneself.
Hepola, too, has struggled with addiction; hers to alcohol. She has also struggled with the idea of writing about herself, she tells us—and writing about herself she does do, in this piece. The tell-all disaster-type memoir, essay, or even blog post is something writers tend to have pretty strong and opposing views on, sometimes simultaneously. On one side, as evidenced by page views and sales because people want to read this stuff. On the other side: narcissism, and what seems to reflect an exaggerated sense of the writer's importance in an Internet oversharing age. Just because you can tell a story about yourself, goes the argument, should you? But what if you tell it better than anyone else, and people clearly want to read it?
Further complicating matters, in Marnell's case, there's no comfy "salvation story," at least not yet, and the fact that she stopped working at xoJane seems to indicate she's not planning on rehab anytime soon. But Hepola admits that along with all she knew about Marnell—"She was the blogosphere’s version of a reality-TV villain, an unapologetic abuser of both drugs and all-caps"—there was this other thing, too. She writes, "I thought she was a gifted memoirist and a self-mythologizing poser. I thought she was an addict in love with her own damage and a deeply troubled soul. But mostly what I thought after clicking the link in that e-mail [from a friend, asking her what she thought of Marnell] was: Damn, her Whitney Houston piece was better than mine."
This may be a big part of the fascination, that someone can be both "so bad" (i.e. troubled, addicted, refusing to follow the supposed rules) and "so good" (a successful writer, able to attract readers and tell stories about herself in a way that makes them keep returning for more). It's more than just the car wreck theory of a disaster story; there's something more here. What is this writer doing right that others are doing wrong?
We have complicated feelings with regard to modern memoir writing, which ranges in our perception from totally crass to possibly brilliant to, worst of all, a lie. Memoirs generally meet with higher levels of approval (and lower levels of disapproval) if the writer is past his or her twenties (Marnell is 29); has really done something interesting and/or different than the norm; is highly successful or highly tragic in some ways (or both); and is already a famous person of some sort. But even in cases where these elements are ignored, and sometimes because they are, we'll still devour deeply personal stories told by real people, about their own lives. Maybe more so than ever.
In 2010 Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a New Yorker piece asking "What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?" He began by referencing a letter Sigmund Freud wrote to his nephew in 1929, in which "Freud scoffed at the notion that he would do anything as crass as write an autobiography," and continued,
Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupçon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention. Even when the most distinguished writers and thinkers have turned to autobiography, they have found themselves accused of literary exhibitionism—when they can bring themselves to put on a show at all.
But now things are different. As Mendelsohn writes, "The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher." And here we are. People want to tell their own stories, and we want to read them.
Regardless of what appears to be a mutually beneficial supply-and-demand situation with autobiographical tales, we still tend to easily dismiss such works as cheap, easy, or grossly navel-gazing. It's not always true that a memoir is easy, though—it might actually be harder than making stuff up. Take, for example, Caitlin Moran's book, How to Be a Woman, in which she reveals some pretty courageous truths about her life, things that a lot of people would not be brave enough (or simply would not want) to put out there. While many readers embrace and relate to those revelations, others have condemned her for it, not only for the act of writing but also for what she writes about. Given all the possible multifaceted backlash over writing about oneself, some, like Hepola, wrestle "with a maybe-memoir-thing about [her] own drinking," while others just step up and write without apparent fear.
Which leads to the question, for Hepola at least, and probably for others: Should we somehow be more like Cat Marnell? She writes,
I would get these funny zaps of envy reading her prose. I should have done more drugs, I would stupidly think. I should have fallen deeper in the hole. I was just a garden-variety lush, so enamored of booze I didn’t even bother with hard drugs. And I saw in her drug use and her writing an abandon I never allowed myself, and it gave her articles that unmistakable thrill of things breaking apart.
It's not as if Cat Marnell is really motivating a bunch of writers to start using drugs or drinking excessively, though. Because while maybe some sort of peripheral idea of a more fascinating life is the "up," there's an obvious down as well. We're talking about someone who's lost her job because of her addiction. There's also a difference between writing about yourself and writing about being under the influence of drugs, booze, or whatever it is while you're under said influence—if your addiction and your writing are so closely tied, nearly one and the same. This seems to get at a point I made a while back, that the same habit of addiction that drives a person to return again and again to the drug of his or her choice may have found a parallel in the reward-and-shame cycle of writing about oneself. Whether people praise or condemn or just keep writing about you themselves, there's still an itch being scratched there. Marnell wrote, "Why does a person have to have resolved their drug issues in order to be allowed to write about them?" which is a totally fair question: She doesn't have to have resolved anything to write whatever she wants to. But it changes how we read her story, and how we feel about doing so.
Maybe the greatest value in how Marnell writes about herself is that it reminds us that not everything can be wrapped up neatly at the end, fixed, or rehabilitated. That's probably more of a common reality than is a story of successful recovery, but that it feels authentic doesn't mean it's not also pretty bleak.