‘A much less mobile practice that involves complicated paraphernalia’


From The New Yorker:

I thought of Phillips’s entertaining but brutal book as I read Cat Marnell’s recent best-seller, “How to Murder Your Life.” The memoirs have their differences: where Phillips’s tone is ruthless, dick-measuring, and bridge-burning, fitting the man’s world in which she travelled, Marnell—whose arena is the women’s ghetto of beauty magazines—adopts a more self-consciously ditzy pose, a more self-directed will to harm. But, at their core, the two addiction memoirs capture the ethos of interminable effort that is the province of high-achieving women. For Marnell, as for Phillips, it turns out that, in the end, not even a nervous breakdown can provide a release from that very American malady: the compulsion to become a focussed, sharply whittled point of pure motion and ambition. Both writers, in telling their different life stories, provide us with extreme spectacles of women in capitalism—instructive and cautionary in equal measure.

“How to Murder Your Life” bills itself as a kind of opposite-day how-to, an edgewise complement to the countless books, magazine articles, life-coaching sessions, Facebook support groups, and daily Instagram affirmations that detail the steps to creativity, beauty, smarts, and power. Growing up the privileged child of a psychiatrist and a therapist in a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., Marnell was seemingly handed every advantage—money, an expensive education, good looks. Her father prescribed her Adderall, an A.D.H.D. medication, which helped her concentrate on her studies and do better at school, with the added benefit of suppressing her appetite. Like cocaine for Phillips, Adderall—and all the other drugs that inevitably followed it, to alternately intensify or muffle its jolt—furnished Marnell with the “amphetamine work ethic” that allowed her to ace the monotonous, subservient tasks that made up the days of a Condé Nast intern, and then continued to propel her to that publisher’s glossy shopping magazine, Lucky, where she was never without her three-thousand-dollar Lanvin tote, a-rattle with a clutch of orange plastic Rite Aid bottles. It also made her sleepless, delusional, sickly, and untethered from social mores and healthy relationships.

“My ambition and my addiction had been duking it out like two boxers in a ring for years. My ambition was bloodied, bruised, and finally, now, defeated,” Marnell writes of the day when, unable to conceal her drug sickness any longer, she quits her job. There is a longed-for narrative relief in this moment of breakdown: “Addiction won. I didn’t want to be an editor in chief or a creative director or a beauty director anymore. I just wanted to go to bed.” Similarly, Phillips’s transition from snorting cocaine to freebasing the drug—a much less mobile practice that involves complicated paraphernalia and a home-production process—seems to prepare the reader for the anticipated collapse, and with it a respite from relentless climbing. On the verge of signing a lucrative production deal while in the throes of an ongoing bender, Phillips looks only for a place to smoke her drugs: “Like I care about the fucking office. Where’s the bathroom?” she wonders, as she’s given a tour of her projected digs on a Burbank lot. Later, “backpedaling wildly,” she backs out of the deal, replacing the life of an executive with that of a junkie shut-in.

“Memoirs of Addiction and Ambition by Cat Marnell and Julia Phillips”, Naomi Fry, The New Yorker