"Between you and me," writes Cat Marnell in the book proposal which netted her a $500,000 advance from Simon & Schuster, "half the time I feel very little remorse. AND I have a massive ego, if I really think about it."
In her proposal, which was leaked to us, Marnell details her life so far. In case you haven't been keeping up with New York, the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Page Six, or any of the other media outlets that enjoy a good young-woman-in-peril story, Cat Marnell is an ex-Lucky staffer, an ex-XOJane.com health editor, an ex-Vice columnist, and a self-described glamorous drug addict. Spoiler alert: she came from an unhappy home.
The proposal is divided into two sections: a 35-page "outline" of the book, which tells the story of Marnell's life so far, and a 38-page essay that appears to be a sample chapter. ("Appears to be" because it has no title, no clear relationship to the outline, and begins with an epigraph from the poet Chard DeNiord, whose name Marnell misspells. Organization, like proofreading, is hardly Marnell's strong suit.)
Marnell begins the outline with a section called, appropriately, "Beginnings." It details her childhood in Bethesda, Maryland, and her relationship with her psychiatrist dad ("a rage-filled narcissist to us but an upstanding conservative Republican and Washingtonian magazine 'Best Psychiatrist' to everyone else") and therapist mom ("a diabetic, anorexic...an emotional vacant lot, 95 lbs. all the time with dead eyes.") Her childhood sounds like a monied, WASP-y kind of hell: domestic violence, a father screaming "Real silver doesn't go in the dishwasher," and filet mignon in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. Marnell mentions the family dining table cost $5,000. "All I've ever wanted my whole life," she says, "was a way to escape and get numb."
At 15, Marnell is sent away to boarding school in Massachusetts:
I went right for the hottest, richest, most popular senior and was blowing him in his car in three weeks flat. Social climbing through sex has always been one of my specialties. I don't fuck for love, I fuck to put my name on any given particular New York map.
I lost my virginity to a hockey player on a bathmat during a weekend hotel party at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston. Then I slept squished on a bed with three dudes. The next day I caught a ride to Cape Cod from school acquaintances and slept alone on the beach.
Prep school is insane!
So insane, in fact, that Marnell ends up getting kicked out:
Senior year was more of the same. I bought ecstasy in bulk from legendary teen drug lord Sketchy Ralph, and sold it to underclassmen at an AIDS Day Awareness dance. I was kicked out — "asked to leave," as they say — a month before graduation, over three months pregnant with the student government president's baby. At the time of my dismissal, I had the top GPA in the class (tied with the German genius Marcus, natch) and was Tatania [sic] in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." [...]
Oh yes, and that pregnancy? Turns out I'd let it go to the second trimester and had to have a violent, no-anesthesia abortion in a ghetto clinic somewhere in the District, where I shook, wept, and sobbed in agony on a table. My mother accompanied me and in the "recovery room" said very little — she is not a nurturer, that one! — but did hand me a bottle of Xanax prescribed to me by my father, a prescription written in advance that I didn't ask for. And that, my friends, was how I was introduced to my good friend benzodiazepines, a family of pills I have taken daily nearly every day of my life since.
When she moves to New York to attend the New School, Marnell's parents pay her rent and give her "about $1000 bucks in the bank every month to spend on whatever I pleased," which naturally allows her drug problems to worsen. "I was doing Adderall and coke and a little heroin still of course, but I was in the city, the great love of my life, and I was part of it, and I spent many years like this fantastically in love with myself," Marnell writes. "I used sex, drugs, nightlife and men, and I let them use me. We were all together, snorting up life like a line." Marnell does everything she can to get drugs. Though her father stops prescribing her Adderall when she turns 24, she had no trouble "doctor-shopping" for new scripts. Scripts for everything: amphetamines, benzos, sleeping pills, anti-narcolepsy medications.
I started visiting plastic surgeons to book fake nose jobs and things, because when you book a surgery you get your painkiller scripts written in advance to fill pre-surgery. Then I would cancel the nose jobs. Easy!
The proposal is also stuffed with blind items. A particularly compelling one is regarding "the son of one of the most famous living Democrats," who was an acquaintance of Marnell's from the period after she left prep school and was finishing high school in D.C. Allow Marnell to explain:
I sat with the politician's son in a parked Oldsmobile crushing beers and taking mushrooms with him and my boyfriend on dark secluded streets with the Secret Service parked behind us, watching, watching.
Later, at her 18th birthday party:
The son of the famous unnameable politician was there too; the secret service camped outside out hotel suite door. We binged on every drug and no one cared; no one got in any trouble.
Marnell brags about her dishonesty in college — "I was a non-fiction writing major, and I turned in the same pieces over and over again to all my different professors and never got caught" — and her ease in finding a job as an assistant beauty editor at Lucky after graduation. Marnell outlines how she manipulates coworkers, doctors, and friends into enabling her addictions. At Condé Nast, she has her interns fill her prescriptions for her. She goes to rehab ($1000/day for 30 days; dad pays), relapses, dates a heroin addict, goes to a mental hospital. Throughout the proposal, Marnell displays an obsession with weight. She sizes up and catalogs the body size of virtually every woman mentioned, and chronicles her own dwindling weight with something like pride.
Marnell's interest in drugs is broad and catholic. Here's Marnell on taking anti-psychotics, which are "easy to score from psychiatrists" because they're not narcotics: "I always welcomed any feeling that legitimate mental illness was finally overtaking me (it's never stuck, alas), for this would explain my bad states and also protect my pills, my pills, my pills."
Marnell seems to want very badly to be seen as a victim — of her parents' emotional distance, of their preference for expressing care in the form of pharmaceutical prescriptions, of her user boyfriends. But her proposal describes her being afforded the kinds of second, third, and fourth chances that most people don't get. Coworkers cover for her when she can't even bring herself to write "200 words, say, on the new spring lipstick shades." Frankly, Marnell gets the kinds of first chances people not of her background are rarely offered. Her bosses defend her to higher-ups. Media companies she works for — Condé Nast, Say Media, and Vice — pay for her stints in rehab and hospital care. Even as Marnell remains the type of person who stops to apply "some sort of gooey red raspberry mask" to her face when she wakes at 9:37 on the morning of a very important 10 AM meeting, for which she is completely unprepared.
Drug abuse, says Marnell, starts to turn her skin "no-joke Nixon-vs.-Kennedy green."
"To be clear," writes Marnell at the end of her outline, "this book is not a recovery memoir." She intends to write about her "ambivalence" about drugs, which she still uses. "Addiction is a glittering disease as much as it is a devastating one. Rehabs and healthy daylight life have bored me to death every time I've tried them. I've spent the last fifteen years feeling, alternately, like I was drowning in addiction or that the black magic of drugs and being high was literally my life force, making me perform better than everybody else. And so I keep using (or do I? — stay tuned; I don't even know myself)."
The proposal closes with a glamour shot of Marnell and the words:
I will write a New York Times #1 Bestseller. Swag!