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The Hot One

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Hot One includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Carolyn Murnick. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    Carolyn and Ashley are childhood friends who grew up together in rural New Jersey playing piano, taking photographs, and dreaming of the future. By the time the girls have become young women, they’re living on two different coasts and leading two very different lives. Carolyn is a college student at Columbia University and Ashley is living in Los Angeles, occasionally attending school while working part-time as an escort and stripper. The last time Carolyn sees Ashley is during a visit to New York, a visit that solidifies that their paths have diverged and their friendship is not what it used to be. At age twenty-two, Ashley is found brutally murdered in her Hollywood home. The Hot One traces Carolyn’s journey as she investigates the murder, a decision that leads her through the final days of Ashley’s life, her secret work, and the circumstances that led to the two friends having such unfairly different experiences in the world. This memoir is sad and funny, a coming of age as much as a true-crime narrative. In her quest to find closure for Ashley and herself, Carolyn Murnick ultimately comes to wonder about female friendship, the male gaze, and the labels that define who we become.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. In the prologue, Carolyn Murnick describes a pseudo-sexy photo shoot she and Ashley did as teenagers. When Carolyn’s mom confronts her after being told that the store would not “develop smut” (3), Carolyn describes the realization that comes over her: “It was my first flicker of understanding that part of being a girl meant being looked at, judged, maybe criticized . . . and I didn’t like it one bit” (3). Discuss how this idea—that girls in particular are subject to scrutiny based on physical appearance—acts as a theme for Ashley’s life. Do you agree with the author’s assessment of the female experience in our culture?

    2. In contrast to the innocence of the photo shoot scene, Chapter 1 begins with a description of how Ashley’s body was found by her roommate in their Hollywood bungalow. How do the two descriptions of Ashely—who she was and who she became—compare? What conclusions about youth vs. experience can you glean from these two versions of one person? Is it fair to say that everyone, including the author, becomes a different version of herself by age twenty-two?

    3. How would you characterize Ashley and Carolyn’s childhood? Did it surprise you that the two grew distant as they entered adulthood on different coasts, becoming “more like distant cousins than present-day friends” (41)? How do you think the physical spaces in which they lived affected their lives?

    4. The author asks a chilling question on page 58: “How had we ended up in such different places?” Discuss with your group what you believe the answer to this question might be. Do you think that the author ultimately comes to an answer herself?

    5. Why do you think that the author considered sleeping with Oliver on her first visit to LA? Does her fleeting wish seem more as a connection to her lost friend or a competitive urge?

    6. Much of The Hot One considers the stereotypes and labels that accompany women. How does Ashley’s character as presented by the author transcend the label of “the hot one” that gets attached to Ashley during her trial? Do you agree the author views Ashley as “the powerful one” of the duo? Why or why not?

    7. The paradox of death is explored throughout this memoir. On page 107 the author asks “what was the best way to hold two mutually exclusive ideas in my head at the same time?” What ideas about death, and Ashley’s in particular, feel “mutually exclusive”? Do you think the author ever resolves this paradox for herself?

    8. What aspects of Ashely and Carolyn’s friendship feel unique and which seem typical of female friendship? Do you agree with the editor who writes that “at its heart, this is truly a story of female friendship”? Why or why not?

    9. Why do you think Carolyn decides to stay in the courtroom if the pictures are shown during the trial? Would you stay?

    10. What aspect of the trial did you find most chilling? Do you think the fact that Ashton Kutcher is part of the story change your perception of Ashley? How so?

    11. Carolyn writes that she decides to do the 48 Hours interview in part to learn how to investigate a crime without a personal stake in the outcome, to have a “conviction that the work . . . could help bring . . . justice and, perhaps, peace” (192). Ultimately does the author find a purpose for her investigation of Ashley’s murder? What is it?

    12. Respond to Carolyn’s belief that “the truth was becoming a more and more abstract concept” (203). What is abstract about the truth of Ashely’s life and death? Do you think she succeeds in shifting her focus “from fact-finding to letting go” (203)?

    13. Reread the last line of the story out loud to your group. What do you think the author is implying by saying she can turn her “gaze inward” or “up to the sky” (236)?

    14. This story is a memoir, which deals with memories from a personal point-of-view. What memory of Ashley survives in the pages of this story? Do you think that the writing of her friend’s life and death gives the author a sense of peace? Does it right any wrongs regarding Ashley’s portrayal in the media and on trial?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Part of what makes The Hot One so chilling is the fact that Ashley’s accused murderer might very well be a serial killer, that Ashley might be one among a list of his beautiful, young victims. Host a viewing party with your book club to watch the CBS 48 Hours special on Michael Gargiulo (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-boy-next-door-3/). After watching, compare how Ashely is presented in the show with how she is presented in The Hot One. What was similar about the two stories of Ashley’s life and death? How were they different? What verdict might you give Gargiulo if you were on the jury?

    2. On page 126, Carolyn muses over a picture of Ashley from her LA days. She is reminded of their shared childhood obsession with taking photographs of one another, and she writes that in hindsight perhaps the act of creating a lasting image, something permanent, attracted her and Ashley to the camera. “The recording of the moments was the fun part, the extra sense of importance it would convey to things. With every click, every roll of film, we were showing each other we were worth remembering” (126). Spend time remembering with your book club. Choose an old photograph of yourself and describe the time that it was taken. What were you doing? What age were you and where were you living? What was special—or typical—about the day this photo was taken? Share any details you can remember about who you might have been in that photo and how that person compares with the you of today.

    3. Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman admitted to the California bar, becomes the author’s “spirit animal” as she embarks on her journey to understand Ashley’s death. Research some quick facts about Foltz’s life to share with your group, explaining why you think the author felt fortified by her spirit. If you were about to face a difficult task, who or what would be your spirit animal? Share with your group your spirit animal and reasons behind your choice over dinner.

    A Conversation with Carolyn Murnick

    Author Kate Bolick has said The Hot One is a memoir that is “never morbid or sentimental, always honest,” one that “unpacks the often vexing reality of what it means to be a young woman in the 21st century.” What would you name as your main goal in writing this memoir?

    Ashley was my “friend who got away,” which I think is an experience everyone has had in one way or another, whether you’ve lost someone to death or simply to life-paths diverging. You always kind of wonder if you should have stayed in touch, whether you could rekindle something, and the relationship becomes a touchstone for your life and growth, a way to see how much you’ve changed as you look back. As I began to talk about Ashley in the years after she died, I realized that people were connecting to her story and to that universal sense of wistfulness for the road not taken. I wanted to honor those formative relationships we’ve all had, and to me, searching for answers about what had happened to her, trying to get closer to the truth, was my way of doing that.

    Describe the research that went into writing this memoir. What was the process like?

    I worked on The Hot One for over eight years, so at times it felt like my writing, my research, and simply living my life were one and the same. Some scenes in this book took place over a decade ago, while others happened just a few days before I wrote them. I interviewed childhood friends and teachers; I talked about Ashley and our friendship with people I met and connected with; I paid attention to how my own female friendships had evolved over the years—all of that I considered “research.” I also did more traditional reporting: I attended court hearings; I pored over transcripts and police reports; I hunted down old newspaper clippings and archived photos. The book is a blend of both traditional, reportorial research, and the sticky, emotional research of excavating my own memories and mining them for insight.

    Without a background in criminal investigative reporting, how did you decide how to write about Ashley’s trial proceedings? What was the most difficult part about investigating the murder of someone who was once your closest friend?

    I’m an editor at New York magazine, but my beat is restaurants and travel. Nothing in my background prepared me for poring over coroner’s reports and transcripts and interviewing people who had lost a loved one and attending court hearings. When I was at one of those hearings, one of the defense attorneys asked me why I was there and then answered his own question: You’re here to bear witness, he said. That was something I thought about a lot during the reporting and writing of this book. That phrase stuck with me: to bear witness. What is the value of bearing witness? It means not turning away, not abandoning my friend. There are things that I learned, documents that I read that no one ever wants to read. Medical examiner reports detailing each of the forty-seven stab wounds Ashley received. This is the stuff of nightmares. It’s unspeakable. But as much as I would like to turn away, to not read these things, I can’t look away because that would mean turning my back on Ashley. It would mean leaving her to experience the worst moments of her life alone. Ashley had to experience all of this, the least I can do is read about it.

    In the book, you explore the idea of “closure” and whether getting to a state of closure is ever really possible. Ashley’s alleged killer has been in county jail awaiting trial for over nine years and the trial date still hasn’t been set. How does that affect your sense of closure?

    If and when Michael Gargiulo is convicted, that won’t be the end for me. Some losses are too big to ever be wrapped up in a little bow. I’m not sure closure is ever really possible after something like this; in many ways, my sense of loss has only deepened as the years have passed. To me, it’s always been more important to focus on honoring Ashley’s memory and reflecting on the adult life she never got to have as I go about my own.

    Do you see the act of writing this memoir as a tribute not just to Ashley but to female friendship in general? What do you think it is about female friendships that are so powerful?

    It’s not easy growing up female in our culture, being defined by our appearance and our bodies and internalizing the message to smile and be deferential and not take up too much space. I think girls look to our friends to be allies in that strange and oppressive environment that we don’t quite understand. Ashley and I were two young girls figuring out this world together. In some ways I think I formed my identity in reference to her. She was my first best friend, and when I think of her, I remember childhood and innocence and companionship based on the simplest criteriwe liked spending time together. As we got older and started making different decisions about drugs and dating and sex, things changed between us, but I’m not sure I ever stopped comparing myself to her. I’m still learning about myself from my friendship with her, even sixteen years after her death.

    Part of The Hot One is a critique of how Ashley was portrayed in the media and in court hearings because of her lifestyle, her physical appearance, and her gender. What bothered you about the way she was described?

    To be cynical about it: television, movies, tabloids, and even crime journalism love a beautiful dead girl—think Twin Peaks, 13 Reasons Why, The Killing—she’s an object there to move the plot forward, and often little concern is given to who she was as a person. Give that dead girl an active sex life and out comes the slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Ashley was subject to all of that treatment and more in the media and in court hearings, and even worse than that, in a lot of coverage she was almost entirely eclipsed by Ashton Kutcher. Outrageously, her murder became a thing that happened to him. The Hot One pushes back against the way female victims are often portrayed in the media and in court, and it shares a human, complex portrait of who Ashley was before she died. She wasn’t just a party girl who hung out with Ashton Kutcher, and she wasn’t just one of the many victims of a serial killer. She was a real person with a childhood and people around her who loved her and still remember her. She was only just starting her life.

    How did you come up with the title The Hot One and what does it mean to you?

    The Hot One refers to the way our culture tries to put girls and women into boxes, and implicitly holds them up in comparison to one another. You’re the hot one or you’re the smart one, or you’re the tomboy or you’re the good girl. If you hear it enough times from others, eventually you start to believe it about yourself. “The hot one” was the way people saw my friend Ashley, and, though we never discussed it, I think it partly informed the way she saw herself in the last year of her life, as much as she might have chafed against the confines and expectations of the label. It’s certainly how I saw her in our last weekend together, and, by comparison, I felt like I became “the smart one” in reference to her, a label I certainly chafed against as well.

    What do you hope readers will take away after reading The Hot One?

    The details of my story and of Ashley’s life and death are unique, but almost everyone has lost a friend, either to death or simply by growing apart. I hope readers will connect my experiences with their own lives. I think that’s one of the greatest things about memoir: we learn from each other, and about ourselves, by sharing our stories. I hope The Hot One can honor Ashley’s memory and contribute to a dialogue about how the lives of murder victims are remembered—or misremembered—after their deaths. I never got a chance to rekindle my friendship with Ashley, to reforge the bond we created as children and to share the joys and pains of growing into women in our twenties and thirties. Maybe some readers will be inspired to reach out to the elementary school friends they’ve lost touch with, or to reconnect with the person they once were and reflect on the formative relationships that made them who they are.

About the Author

Carolyn Murnick
Photograph © Celeste Sloman

Carolyn Murnick

Carolyn Murnick is an online editor at New York magazine. She received an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Aspen Institute in 2014. Her personal essays have appeared in two anthologies: Before & After: Stories from New York and Lost & Found: Stories from New York. She lives in Brooklyn and The Hot One is her first book.

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