A few days after Whitney Houston died, a friend sent me a link to a story by Cat Marnell. “What do you think of this writer?” she asked.
I’d heard of Marnell, the bad-girl beauty director at xoJane, a Web site for women run by Jane Pratt, the founding editor of Sassy and Jane magazines. Mostly I knew of Marnell because I’d heard people complain about her. She was the blogosphere’s version of a reality-TV villain, an unapologetic abuser of both drugs and all-caps. With her online persona, she proudly situated herself in a tradition of female train wrecks that runs from Edie Sedgwick to Lindsay Lohan to Courtney Love.
At times Marnell seemed so hellbent on doom that I began to wonder if hers wasn’t entirely an act. Did she even do drugs? Or was she just another fame-hungry young woman who had learned that her self-destruct button came with all kinds of rewards?
As for her writing, her work was wild and wildly inconsistent. A post she wrote about the morning-after pill was one of those incoherent rants that make you wonder if an entire generation failed to learn how to use the delete button. “O.K., so for the exactly three women left in this world, apparently, who don’t know what Plan B is, it is sort of the world’s greatest contraceptive,” her post began, and it unraveled from there. People eagerly passed it around Twitter, sure, but they passed it the way you might pass spoiled milk: Here, sniff this.
But her Whitney Houston piece was something else. It was haunting and shot through with revelations. Marnell wrote about her own experiences with passing out in the bath after doing drugs, which not only shed light on what might have gone down at the Beverly Hilton but also, for me, brought back memories of my own lost years: coming to consciousness in a tub of cold water at 5 a.m., having previously decided that nothing calmed the fires of two bottles of wine like a leisurely soak. I must have logged a million hours in bathtubs when I was drunk or hung over.
“Why can’t we acknowledge that lots and lots of women abuse drugs?” Marnell wrote in one of those passages in which you can practically hear the frantic clatter of the keyboard as she typed. “Why does a person have to have resolved their drug issues in order to be allowed to write about them? Can’t a writer be conflicted?” When I read her essay, it had been 18 months since alcohol last lighted a match in my veins, but I had to admit she had a point.
So, what did I think of this writer? In the following months, I thought a lot of things about her. 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 was: Damn, her Whitney Houston piece was better than mine.