Media Star

07.12.12

The Girl Who Wrote About Drugs: Cat Marnell on Vice, Addiction & More

Self-confessed ‘pillhead’ Cat Marnell, dropped from the xoJane beauty beat for failing at rehab, has popped up with a new column at Vice.com—and it’s no more beauty, just drugs. Caitlin Dickson talks to the writer who’s dividing online readers.

Cat Marnell became Internet-famous last month for quitting her job to do drugs. She’d been the beauty and health director of the women’s website xoJane.com since it launched last year but couldn’t bear to spend another summer meeting deadlines in an office when she could be on the roof of a New York City club “looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust.” It wasn’t long after her much blogged-about resignation that the diminutive, amphetamine-addicted, and uncomfortably honest former beauty writer landed a weekly column at Vice.com.

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Cat Marnell with her friend Same at the Shore Club, Art Basel 2011. (Courtesy of Cat Marnell)

Marnell is arguably the Internet’s most divisive writer, not just because she’s always on drugs, as she often makes sure to note, but because she allows her longtime yet ever evolving addiction play out online like a reality TV show. The fragile-looking 29-year-old, with her white-blond hair and seemingly permanent black eyeliner, drops names, brands, clubs, drugs, and emotions freely as she details her drug-fueled dalliances around her New York City neighborhood, often in a stream of consciousness.

Drugs aren’t a new literary muse or theme. Before bringing on Marnell, Vice already had Hamilton Morris, who writes a more reported monthly column about the effects of various substances. And, as many angry Marnell readers have noted, 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. Today, though, most stories about drug addiction are told from the perspective of someone who’s already been through rehab, looking back on their using days. Reading about a drug addict’s life while she’s an active addict, especially in real time, is fascinating and a little bit scary. But while her life may appear to be spiraling out of control, Marnell is surprisingly self-aware. This, combined with the ability to write, provides for some spectacular insight on a typically taboo subject.

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Marnell’s life had been filled with drugs long, long before she became Vice’s “pill correspondent,”  reporting from the front lines of her own addiction. Born Caitlin, after Dylan Thomas’s wife, Marnell says she was raised by nannies in Washington, D.C., before going off to boarding school in Groton, Mass. She says she’s been estranged ever since from her mother and father, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, respectively. “They think I’m disgusting and I think they’re disgusting right back,” she tells me via email. “I don’t even have their phone numbers.”

Marnell moved to New York at 17, after she was kicked out of school for drugs two weeks before graduation. She was pregnant and her boyfriend, with whom she used to “crush up Ritalin pills with a Maybelline Great Lash Mascara,” was president of the student government and addicted to speed. Marnell says she was tied with one other student for top GPA both junior and senior years, describing herself as always “this big success and this epic disaster.” While studying nonfiction writing at Eugene College of the New School in Greenwich Village, Marnell did none of her work, hardly came to class, and charmed her professors to get by. Uninterested in school, she dedicated her semesters and summers to interning at beauty magazines.

Moving up the editorial ladder, Marnell’s drug use expanded beyond the cocktail of amphetamines and anti-anxiety and sleeping pills she’d been on since her father sent them with her to prep school. “Nightlife in New York is constantly changing, drug-wise, and of course everyone is always drinking and doing coke, but about four years ago a lot of the people I hung out with were doing heroin, and I was doing a lot of that,” Marnell recalls. A beauty assistant at Lucky magazine at the time, Marnell says the editors she worshipped became aware of her drug use and tried to get her help. After going to Silver Hill rehab in Connecticut for a month, Marnell was promoted to associate beauty editor and relapsed shortly after. “I claimed not to be on drugs but I was coming to work with burnt fingers and hiding my nosebleeds in the beauty closets while the horrified interns looked the other way. It was an awful situation,” she says. Toward the end of her two and a half years at Lucky, Marnell tried again to get clean, checking herself into NewYork-Presbyterian’s psych ward and then another rehab before realizing it was over.

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Cat Marnell and a former XO Jane coworker have an impromptu discussion about beauty products in SoHo. 

Humiliated, Marnell quit her dream job and took to her bed for six months. Depressed and unemployed, she overdosed, locked in her apartment alone. Police had to shut down her block before breaking in and taking her to New York’s Bellevue psychiatric hospital. “After that, I vowed never, ever to lie to a job again: they could take me or leave me with my drug stuff,” she says. “Jane took me.”

“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.”

Aware of Marnell’s history, iconic women’s magazine editor Jane Pratt, who founded Jane and Sassy, took her on as beauty and health director of the website she launched last year. From the beginning, posts on Marnell’s favorite beauty products were shrouded in irreverent yet deeply personal anecdotes. One of her first was a plug for a brand of conditioner she discovered during her two weeks at Bellevue. The comments section of the post kicked off a trend later seen in the reactions to all of her xoJane writing: discussions between readers about Marnell’s story, the drugs she mentioned and other drugs the readers have used (or, in this case, stories of readers’ own institutionalizations), along with disputes over whether her writing is brilliant, hilarious, offensive, or just stupid.

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Cat Marnell with Jane Pratt. (Courtesy of Cat Marnell)

Anna David, who wrote the book Party Girl, a recovering addict—sober over a decade—and is an editor at The Fix, a website dedicated to helping addicts get sober, admits to reading Marnell and even says, “I applaud her bravery.” But David, who has contributed to The Daily Beast, warns of a hazardous overlap between addiction and fame. She is also wary of the crowd Marnell draws. “This is not a self-help thing,” David says. “God help the youth of America if they think, ‘Oh, I want to be like Cat Marnell, I better ask her what she thinks of these drugs.’”

The argument that glorifying a dangerous lifestyle sends a dangerous message is potent. But should Marnell be censored? Her experiences, and her talent for sharing them, at times have allowed her to offer a realistic and valuable take on underreported issues.

For example, when Whitney Houston died in February, Marnell wrote a poignant analysis of the difference between people who are motivated by so-called life instincts and those, like her, whose overwhelming death instincts drive self-destructive behavior, a theory posited by Freud. “Let me posit that drugs weaken our life instincts…that crucial internal self-parent, the instincts that keeps [sic] adults alive and healthy and part of the social world—to such an extent that the self-destructive death instincts were allowed to take over,”  she wrote in “On the Death of Whitney Houston: Why I Won’t Ever Shut Up About My Drug Use”.

She’s also writing about a specific type of drug addiction that is so prevalent today, especially among young women, in a way no one else is. The New York Times is still trying to wrap its head around the idea of high school and college kids abusing ADD and ADHD medication for better grades and test scores, putting out another trend piece on “the study drug” just last month. For almost a year, Marnell has been sizing up the less covered, but just as common, trend of first-generation Adderall users who are out of school and now using the drug in their adult lives. We’re not talking about grad students but so-called young professionals without diagnosed ADD or ADHD who don’t use the medication to study but for its effects: increased productivity and confidence combined with decreased appetite and weight loss. “We All Need to Finally Get Off Adderall”, Marnell declared in one xoJane headline last September, and pretty much summed it up in the dek: “Oh, you don’t take Adderall? Cool, then just forward this link to the nine friends in your email address book that do.”

Marnell makes no effort to disassociate her drug use from her body-image obsession. “I use drugs to keep me thin and maintain my standards of beauty,” she tells me. “If stimulants didn’t make me lose weight, I would not take them.” In the first two installments of Amphetamine Logic, Marnell’s column at Vice.com, Marnell makes a point of noting her weight. In the first one she weighs 102 pounds. By the second one, she mentions fighting the urge to Instagram a photo of the “98” on her scale. Marnell may take more Adderall, Vyvance, Dexadrine, etc., than most, but she knows she’s not alone in using the prescription amphetamines to combat insecurities.

Sam Lansky knows all about that. Now a freelance writer, the 23-year-old is also a recovering addict. Like Marnell, he discovered Adderall in high school and was hooked. “Taking a fuck-ton of Adderall will make you feel like you’re superhuman, and externally you can even give the impression of being superhuman, and that’s really attractive, especially if you’re a little bit narcissistic and maybe have a lot of self-loathing,”  he says. Lansky was in and out of seven rehabs by age 19 and is now four years sober. He loves reading Marnell, even though her writing tends to “push the wrong kind of buttons,” he says, reminding him both of the euphoria and the disaster of his own experience.

Although Jane Pratt wrote, after Marnell’s departure, that she’s “always had a libertarian view of drugs and suicide, that people can do whatever they want with their own bodies,” xoJane’s parent company, Say Media, was not so accepting. H.R. put the writer on disability leave so she could go to rehab back in April and ultimately cut ties with her in June when she refused to clean up her act. Marnell’s new employer has no qualms about her drug use. Right before her column launched, Vice editor Rocco Castoro told me drugs were one of the many things he hoped she’d write about.

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Cat Marnell on the roof of Soho House with Alexa Greenstadt the night she quit her job. (Courtesy of Cat Marnell)

It’s not likely that Marnell’s new editors will ever send her to rehab or that her addiction will keep her from getting a book deal. Her ability to write about her drug use while on drugs will probably even be her ticket to landing a publisher. And perhaps her columns will ultimately provide nothing more than false hope to readers that doing drugs, quitting jobs, and still becoming a success is possible. But even if providing Marnell with a platform does nothing to benefit society, maybe it benefits the woman herself. It seems like being forced to make her life the subject of her writing is bringing out an even darker side to the maniacally hilarious Marnell readers knew and loved (or hated) at xoJane.

Her emails have gotten noticeably darker as well. Before her first Vice column, “The Aftermath,” is published, Marnell tells me that one of her doctors read a New York magazine interview in which she details just how many prescriptions she had in her name, “was completely horrified by it, and accordingly has cut my pill count practically in half—which is good for me.” The rib-counting writer even admits, “I’m actually eating a fucking cheese steak as I write this; I swear to God. From 99 Miles to Philly! Do you die?” Then, before she finishes writing her second column, she 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.”

Writing about her life on drugs dredges up some pretty harsh realizations for Marnell. “It’s that easy to destroy people you don’t even know,” she writes in one column. “Girl drug addicts sleep alone,” she she declares in another. And the pressure of writing a daily column for xoJane clearly had become too much for Marnell to handle. She found herself feeling the need to take five 30 mg Adderall at once to finish a post, she says. Yet it’s obvious she misses the beauty world. Just the other day she solicited offers for a beauty column in a print magazine via Twitter—her deal with Vice says she can’t write anywhere else online. “What I’m writing now is depressing me about myself,” she tells me. “I’m in a bad place and will get fun again.”