Jane Hu in New Inquiry:
Wednesday morning, I wake up to face the computer screen—still open—on my bedside table. One swipe of keypad and a line of tabs brightens into view. I glance at the last page open and last night blows by like a smudge. Did I really read Cat Marnell’s Vice columns until I fell asleep? Rubbing liner from an eyelid, I shift the laptop onto my stomach and lie back down again. Where did I drop off?
What, you don’t know who Cat Marnell is? Oh, you don’t care. Then just forward this to the nine friends on your contacts list who do. We might be hopelessly hooked on her exploits, but that doesn’t mean you need be too.
Honestly, I hadn’t even heard of Marnell until this June, when she left xoJane.com (after failed attempts to resolve her drug addiction) and subsequently joined Vice as their “pills and narcissism” correspondent with a column titled “Amphetamine Logic.” As writers buzzed about Marnell’s media crackup, they tracked to the start of her writing career, when she interned and edited at various Condé Nast publications. Marnell worked at magazines such as NYLON, Teen Vogue, Glamour, and Lucky for, predominantly, their beauty sections. A narrative was set: Young talent starts early, works hard, rises only to go out prematurely—though with a bang.
As one tag affixed to Marnell’s xoJane columns reassures: “It Happened to Me.” That phrase performs a democratizing gesture—prompting readers to engage with a writer’s specific experience—that finally normalizes what “happened” for both writer and reader. Could the two main things that finally happened to Marnell be found in her job title for Vice? Pills and narcissism.
The public ate it up. Eager readers followed Marnell, as her articles moved deep inside half-lit bedrooms, sticky with sex and shaded with angel dust. With each new scandalous detail of her addictions, Marnell’s audience couldn’t wait to see where she would spiral next. Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more.
As Jen Doll has repeatedly observed in the Atlantic, “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.” The more readers saw, the more they wanted to see. Inversely, the more Marnell displayed her disintegration, the more she had, and even wanted, to show.