How to Murder Your Life
AS FAR BACK AS I can remember, I always wanted to be a beauty editor. To me, being a beauty editor was better than being president of the United States! Yes, I lifted these lines directly from the opening of the movie Goodfellas and replaced “gangster” with “beauty editor.” But they work here, in my story, too.
In front of me are two very rare back issues of Beauty Queen Magazine, the hottest title of the nineties. Full of brassy Magic Marker blondes with ballpoint pen–red lips and crudely drawn noses that look like dicks, the mag featured “the most beautiful ladies age 10–20” in the latest fashions: wedding dresses, bikinis, and what appears to be . . . snorkeling gear. As for beauty, the “Feb–June 1991” issue’s cover girl, Lindsay Liner, is “[a]dvertising New Michanne Make-Up”—and we know this because there’s an arrow drawn from the credit, pointing directly at Ms. Liner’s face. Alternately, the “July–Sept 1991” cover
model is sans fard: “Sally Smothers, an all-natrural [sic] girl without make-up!” the cover line reads. “Does she look right?”
“But Cat, who published this dope magazine?” all you print aficionados must be wondering. “Hearst? Hachette? Meredith Corp.?” No, no, and (definitely) no. I published Beauty Queen Magazine. I launched it in 1990, at seven years old. Young Caitlin Marnell was also editor in chief, art director . . . everything! If you were a blood relative, you subscribed to my magazine whether you fucking liked it or no: that was my readership. Which explains why there are still so many back issues floating around a quarter of a century later.
I hadn’t seen a copy of Beauty Queen Magazine for fifteen years when I discovered the two issues in 2010 in one of my grandmother Mimi’s keepsake drawers. I was gobsmacked as I paged through them. Had I really been tuned in to like things like advertiser relationships and beauty credits and “makeunder” stories and cover lines when I was in third grade? The evidence was right there in my hands. I’d been “playing” beauty editor almost twenty years before I actually became one.
Crazy, right?! But then again, I guess that’s just how it is when you’re hardwired to do something—to be something. And I’m sure of it: I was born hardwired to be a beauty editor. The thing is, I was also born hardwired for addiction—I believe so, anyway—and this has caused some . . . problems.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s turn back time, shall we?
Warning! If you are grossed out by “white girl privilege” (who isn’t?), you might want to bail now. I am from the same town as disgraced former E! network personality Giuliana Rancic—Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, so white that you could practically snort it like a line—and there’s nothing I can do about that. Believe me, I have tried to cut this chapter out twice! My editor keeps making me put it back in. Also, I get very bored talking about my childhood,
which means you might get very bored reading about it. Let’s just get it over with.
I was born on September 10, 1982, in the District of Columbia under a crack-rock white moon (Marion “bitch set me up” Barry was mayor, after all). I’ve got a cassette tape recording of my birth and everything. A sample:
“It’s a girl!” the doctor announces.
“A girl?” my mother wails. “I didn’t want a girl!” Aw.
When I was a kid, I had it all and then some. I grew up in a swanky neighborhood that was about “twenty minutes from the White House,” as my parents always said. The houses on my street, Kachina Lane, were so far apart that no one ever had any trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Our next-door neighbor was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who’d uncovered a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. He was Mormon and had about a zillion blond grandchildren and a huge, kooky storybook-looking Tudor house with a “bee problem” in the walls. This meant there was a crack over the living room sofa that oozed honey, and you could swipe the trickle and then pop your finger into your mouth. Mmm.
On the other side of our property was the white-clapboard Hermon Presbyterian Church. I played hide-and-seek in the pretty little cemetery with my chocolate lab, Benny the Bear. Then there were some woods, and then—two minutes down the road—there was a cream-colored mansion at 8313 Permission Tree Road. When I was about thirteen, someone put up iron gates with a cursive T on them. Then the boxer Mike Tyson moved in! He’d just gotten out of jail for rape. My sister and brother—Emily and Phil—and I would wave at his white limo. Sometimes we saw him grocery shopping at the Giant Foods in Potomac Village.
What did the Pulitzer Prize winner, Mike Tyson, and the Marnell family have in common? Our properties had backyards adjacent to the famous Congressional Country Club golf course.
“FORE!” we’d scream, right as a senator/golfer type was trying to
focus on a crucial putt. Our backyard trampoline was practically on top of one of the holes.
When tournaments like the US Open came through, my sister and I sold soda cans and water bottles through the fence for a dollar a pop. We broke into the course in the summer to run around in the sprinklers; I was also always uprooting the strange mini–Capitol Building domes that were all over the place and smuggling them back to my yard. In the winter, we’d go sledding in Congressional, which wasn’t that great. You know how golf courses are! They aren’t made for children or real fun. You’d slide down a not-so-steep man-made incline and then—whoop—drop another foot into a sand trap. So that was as good as the sledding got.
Our front yard was sprawling and green-green-green, just like the golf course. Strangers used to picnic out there; my parents let them. We had a tennis court, and a Waldorf School–looking playground that was carved out of trees that had fallen during thunderstorms. We used the dogwood trees as soccer goals, and there were long swings hanging down from the branches of our tulip poplars. Bean pods and little pieces of fairylike fluff were always flittering down from the mimosa trees; we had a bunch of magnolia trees, too, and they had dark leaves and ultrafragrant white flowers. I used to climb them and spy on all the birds’ nests. The azalea bushes bloomed sunset colors every spring: pink, orange, orangey-red, and lavender. And there were camellia bushes, too.
Seriously, it was insane. One time a woman even knocked on our front door and said that she was sorry if she seemed crazy, but ever since she was a little girl she’d dreamt of getting married at 7800 Kachina Lane—and now she was engaged! She showed us her diamond ring and everything. My parents wound up letting her have the wedding in the backyard, by the swimming pool and the rose garden. We all got to go! I hit the dance floor in a honeysuckle crown.
My brother, sister, and I were beyond lucky to live in this . . . Shangri-la for ten years. My father—not so much. Five acres is a lot to
keep up with. And my dad insisted on doing the lawns himself, like he was a farmer instead of a psychiatrist. There was this cranky old red tractor that came with the property, and when we were small we always had to get on there with him—I guess to share in his misery. I mean, I can’t remember volunteering to get on this tractor. It just jostled you violently in the seat. It was always spitting fire balls at my dad and breaking down. He cursed at it a lot. My grandmother wanted to buy us a llama to eat the lawn, but my dad said no. He thought Mimi was a birdbrain.
Then there was the house itself! God, it was so cool and good-looking—supercontemporary. Like . . . you know how Brad Pitt sort of thinks he’s an architect? Brad Pitt would have loved this house. Mimi and my parents bought it from a movie producer in 1987, a few months before my fifth birthday. The story was that the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright designed it originally, but he wound up clashing with the producer’s wife and abandoned the project to one of his students, who finished it. God knows if any of that’s true. Either way, the place was sick. It was the skinniest house you’ve ever seen. From the front, it looked like a military bunker—long and one-story, with kooky rows of tiny square windows. From above, it looked like a . . . a pinwheel, okay? Like, there was a wand—that was the bedrooms and the den and the hall—and the roof was flat and covered in gravel. You could climb a Japanese maple tree to get up there, and then walk around and bang on the skylights and scare your nanny. And the head of the pinwheel was made up of the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room, which were wrapped around a huge stone chimney in the middle. You could run through all three spaces on a loop.
The front doors were oversize and three inches thick—dark oak, engraved. The wind always blasted them open, and my dad would lose it over the heat or AC that leaked out. The place cost a fortune in utilities every month. This was also because there were hardly any real walls. Everything was glass! When I was five, a massive tree fell through the glass living room during a summer storm. It was very Robert Frost:
“Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away / You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.” Do you know that poem? “Birches.” My dad quoted it all the time. Another day a little girl was over, running in and out of the house, playing tag with her brother and Phil. Then, SMASH! She ran right through one of the glass walls, and it shattered all over her. The blood gushed out of her in sheets! I saw the whole thing. It looked like the movie Carrie; she screamed and screamed. An ambulance came to take her to the hospital.
Oh, it was such a special house. Surely I have not done it justice with my descriptions. I wish you could look it up on StreetEasy or somewhere, but you can’t. When I was fifteen, my parents sold the house to a synagogue. I think they kept the stone chimney, but that’s it. The magnificent front yard is now a very ugly parking lot. I mean, no offense to Adat Shalom or anything—but it is exceptionally unsightly. Then again, I guess anything would look awful compared to the beautiful memories in my mind.
I will now give you what you bought this book for: juicy gossip about my fascinating parents! I’ll get right to it.
My mom had a scale and it said: THINNER—like the Stephen King movie. Everything about my mother was skinny—even her nickname for me: “Bones.”
“Do these come in seven narrow?” she’d ask at the weird Italian shoe store at the Tysons II mall.
My dad gave my mom Shalimar perfume for Christmas, but she refused to wear it. She returned the furs and jewelry he bought her, too. All she wanted was furniture, furniture, furniture. It was all bizarre and ultramodern—to match the insane house. Her side tables looked like bicycle pumps and her living room chairs seemed like they were imported from Guantánamo Bay. Her “pieces” were always shattering or poking you with a sharp corner if you bumped into them. There were no throw pillows or curtains or dust ruffles or anything feminine.
Everything was angular. The only thing in the whole house with any curves was the baby grand piano.
My parents’ master suite had a glass wall overlooking the cherry blossom grove and the forsythia bushes in the backyard, and a white-and-gold tub with Jacuzzi jets that never worked. That’s where the nannies would comb out my lice while I cried in my bathing suit. My mom smoked exactly two cigarettes every morning back there, but she said she didn’t. She kept the gold soft packs of Benson & Hedges in her underwear drawer alongside her flesh-toned bras and bikini panties. They matched her peachy-nude manicures that elongated her fingers, her neutral lipstick, her beige bob, and her tanned, toned arms.
My mother had diabetes, so we always had a live-in nanny.
“My blood sugar is low,” my mom would say when my sister and I had one of our knock-down fights. Then she’d go back down the very long, skinny hall to her bedroom and shut the door.
When I was in nursery school, the nannies were named things like Anka, Margaret, and Anna. Then the Berlin Wall came down, and I guess all the Eastern European girls went home. After that, our nannies were from Iowa: Ruth, Debbie, Karen, and Amy. They got us ready for school while my mom sat with her coffee and her insulin, watching Katie Couric and her gleamy crisscrossed legs on the Today show. My mom never flinched when she pricked her finger. Her diabetes drawer was full of syringes. One time I injected water into my belly. The needle didn’t hurt at all.
Mimi raised my mom in Virginia Beach. My mom’s father loved golf so much that the Princess Anne Country Club flew their flag at half-mast when he died. My mom went to Norfolk Academy, then she boarded at St. Catherine’s in Richmond. In college, she became anorexic. She kept a package of raw hot dogs chilled on her dorm room windowsill, and she ate one per day. She’d stopped coming out of her room, but it took the college a while to realize it. Then my mom was in the hospital for a long time. I got all this dirt from Mimi. My mother didn’t talk about it.
And now she was a psychotherapist with a private practice on Forty-Second Street NW and a part-time job at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington (PIW) on Wisconsin Avenue. She wasn’t home much. Sometimes she took me to Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase to see a handbag she was “thinking about.”
“Hi, Stacey,” the saleslady always said.
“This is my friend Jennifer,” my mom would tell me.
“Hi, sweetie,” Saleslady Jennifer would coo. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
My mom shopped and shopped and shopped. She would stay at the malls until they closed. Sometimes kids got to go. One night we came home at eight thirty—a half hour past family dinner time. We’d picked up takeout from California Pizza Kitchen. My brother and I carried the bags of food from the car into the dark dining room. Phil hit the switch for the chandelier, and that’s when we saw it: all six chairs were in pieces all over the floor. The mahogany table was splintered. It looked like a tornado had come in! My mother had just bought them, too.
“Mom!” I yowled.
She came up behind me.
“Kids,” she said. Her expression was as smooth as a stone in our Japanese rock garden. “Go to your rooms.”
On my way downstairs, I saw that the potted tree in the foyer had been knocked over. A picture was off the wall. Someone—I knew who—had smashed absolutely everything. No one ever explained why.
My dad was the chief of psychiatry at a big hospital and oversaw the adolescent unit at another. He made Washingtonian magazine’s “Best Doctors” issue every year, but he told me it wasn’t a real award.
“If you are homicidal or suicidal, please hang up and call 9-1-1,” my dad’s secretary chirped on his voice mail. “Otherwise, leave a message.”
My dad’s patients were always throwing urine on him, and things like that. Scratching him up or biting him, and he’d have to take AIDS
tests. Hanging themselves. It was a lot to deal with. He left the house at 6:45 a.m. sharp and came home hungry at 7:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. After dinner, he’d be in his office for another hour. On Saturdays, he did a half day of rounds at the hospital. Sunday was his day off. But that’s when he’d get on the tractor.
My dad loved history and Shakespeare and was so smart that you could watch Jeopardy! with him and he knew the right question for every statement. He had been a chemistry major at Duke, and then he went to medical school at Tulane. He did his residency at a hospital in London. His home office was full of books from his school days: Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. But he sure never interpreted any of my dreams. He never seemed to think about that kind of psychiatry anymore. He was too busy, I guess. When he was home, he was “on call.” The phone would ring at three o’clock in the morning and then he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. He was always taking psych ward admissions over the phone, telling nurses to prescribe Thorazine or lithium or Geodon to all of the people who’d beat up their mothers because God was talking through the television.
My dad was such a talented physician that he could prescribe antipsychotics with his eyes closed! I’d wake him up from his Sunday afternoon nap in the backyard hammock. A book would be splayed open on his chest—The Magic Mountain or Tess of the d’Urbervilles or something. Maybe a Harold Bloom.
“Dad.” He’d open his eyes. “Phone.” He’d take the cordless, then he’d close his eyes again. He’d listen for a second. Then . . .
“Risperdal,” he’d mumble. “Two milligrams.” And he’d fall right back to sleep after he hung up.
Other weekends, my dad took me on special outings: to state fairs, to far-flung dollhouse furniture stores. Sometimes we’d have to stop at one of his psych wards first so my dad could do his rounds. The nurses would tell me how much they admired my dad. Then they’d give me a pineapple juice or something. I’d take it into the rec area
and watch Married . . . with Children with the patients in their paper jumpsuits.
Every night after my dad finished his phone calls, he’d whistle for Benny the Bear. Sometimes I’d go out with them.
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches,” my dad always said—Robert Frost again—as we wheeled trash cans down our crazy-long driveway to Kachina Lane. Under the boring Bethesda stars.
And so I dream of going back to be, I’d think.
“Never be a doctor,” my father told me another time. As if he had to worry.
Why should you never marry a tennis player? Because to tennis players, love means nothing! Mwa-ha-ha. The only thing my parents did together, ever—as far as I could tell—was play tennis. I played secretary inside. As I said, the phone never stopped ringing. We had an unlisted number, though some of my parents’ patients had access to the hotline.
“Marnell residence,” I’d answer on a Sunday afternoon when my parents were out in the front yard, playing tennis.
Pant. Pant. Pant.
“He-wrowghh,” a lady would finally . . . garble. It was a bipolar patient my mom and dad shared. Lynn had a mouthful of rotten teeth and they couldn’t make her go to the dentist. She called the house all of the time. “Ish Stashey shere?”
“She’s not available right now,” I’d say politely. Mom was allowed to not take calls during tennis. My dad always had to.
Ten minutes later . . .
“Answering service,” the bored-sounding lady would say. “Is Dr. Marnell there?” I was already out the door in bare feet with the cordless. It would take a few minutes to get to the court. My parents would be playing with another couple—doubles.
“GODDAMMIT, STACE,” my dad would be roaring. He’d be
wearing white Izod shorts and those wraparound sports glasses. “GO TO THE NET!”
“I’m trying!” my mom would wail. Mom would be in an Asics tennis dress and, underneath, those horrible underpants that you tuck balls into. Tennis panties, they’re called. Ugh. I can still see her . . . reaching into her skirt and pulling out a ball. This disturbing visual has been imprinted irrevocably on my mind.
“Dad,” I’d interrupt.
He’d set down his Wilson racket and wipe the sweat off his palms and take the phone.
“This is Dr. Marnell.” The other couple would stand there. Then: “Give him [such and such] milligrams of Zyprexa every four hours.” And I’d take the phone back.
“Five–love,” someone would say. Then the thwack of the tennis ball. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
My mom would be weepy for approximately four hours on the days my dad shouted at her on the court. Then she’d turn to ice.
Ah. “Dysfunctional” families. If you are from one as well, I don’t have to explain. If you aren’t, well—think of the most toxic relationship you’ve ever been in. You know, the one where you and your partner were both your worst selves: yelling, smashing things, not speaking for days, making nasty comments, locking yourselves in bathrooms. Then imagine it was with your father, mother, older sister, and little brother instead of your ex. Then imagine that you couldn’t leave that relationship for fifteen years! That was my childhood. Sure, it could have been worse—but, to quote Keith Richards on the end of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg: “It could have been better, baby.”
We all played a part, but I didn’t understand all that, so I blamed everything on my dad. He was such a good person, but his temper was B-A-N-A-N-A-S. You never knew when things were gonna pop off—though “at the dining room table” was a pretty good guess. Family dinner was at eight o’clock sharp, in the dining room, seven nights per week. No exceptions. More often than not, it ended disastrously.
“IF YOU THROW UP, YOU HAVE TO EAT IT,” my dad roared one night while I cried and choked down the bite of fish on my plate. I was seven and a picky, dramatic eater. “GODDAMMIT!”
“AUUUUGH!” I moaned, gagging.
“EAT IT!” my dad screamed.
“No one can make you feel anything you don’t want to feel,” my mother told me once, a complete delusion.
He never got physical, but it sure got scary. To this day, I completely shut down when someone is yelling.
“Girls!” my mom screamed another night. We had just sat down to our filet mignon and broccoli when my dad leapt from his chair. “CALL THE POLICE!” My sister and I left our baby brother at the table. We ran all the way through the long house to my parents’ suite and locked the door. My sister dialed 9-1-1.
“My mom just told us to call you!” Emily told the operator. “We’re at 7800 Kachina Lane!”
We hung up with the cops and ran back through the house to see what was happening. My dad was shouting up a storm. The front door was wide open, and he didn’t even care. That’s when I knew it was really serious.
“THIS IS IT!” he was yelling. “I’M OUT. GODDAMMIT. I’M OUT.” He whistled for the dog.
“He’s taking Ben!” I cried.
“Shh,” Emily said. My dad got in his car and drove away.
My mom would hardly let the cops in when they rang the doorbell.
“It was a misunderstanding,” she said. “Everything’s fine.” The next night my dad was back for family dinner, so I guess it was.
“Don’t say anything bad about your father,” my mom would sigh when I came to her—which wasn’t too often. She’d be sitting in her bedroom, watching L.A. Law. “Can you rub my arm?” Tennis elbow.
I had two places to escape to when things were bad at my house. The first was my Mimi’s. She lived just a stone’s throw from our glass house,
in the guest cottage. I went over there whenever I needed to. My grandmother was my favorite person in the whole world. She was from a very old Virginia family, and her own cousin, a man named Beverly, was in love with her. She had a southern accent and called me “sugah” and “dah-lin’. ”
Her living room was full of orchids and tiny sterling silver spoons and teensy demitasse cups and saucers, and peacock feathers and mother-of-pearl binoculars and juno volupta seashells. You could pick up her great-granddaddy’s fox-hunting horn and HONK! into it if you so desired. And all of this was just scattered about. Her shiny black baby grand Steinway piano was in the corner. She’d play it and trill in her old-timey singing voice.
“Fox went out on a chilly night . . .”
“Prayed for the moon to give him light . . . ” I’d chime in.
Mimi kept costume jewelry under her bed in plastic ice trays. All the dangly earrings were clip-on, so you could wear them even if you were only five. The stuff in her closet was even better: fake braids, turbans, glamorous hand-carved walking sticks, silk kimonos, and real minks with googly glass eyes to throw over your shoulder when you played Cruella Marnell.
At sunset, Mimi would drive me into Potomac to watch the horses at Avenel Farm. Sometimes we’d feed them carrot sticks. Then it would be time for me to go home. Mimi never ate dinner with us in the glass dining room. My dad didn’t like it.
The other place I could always escape to was my bedroom. It was in the basement—very far from my parents’ room, and from my brother’s and sister’s. The nanny’s bedroom was next to mine, so I wasn’t totally alone. Still, I’d been afraid to sleep down there when we first moved to Kachina—I was four—but there wasn’t room for me upstairs with everyone else.
“You’re the bravest,” my mom had told me. True dat.
The lower level was huge—and a mess. Biblical floods! Pipes in the laundry room would burst in the middle of the night and water would
gush from the ceiling; my dad would pull me out of bed at one in the morning and make me hold a bucket. Blame Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice, I guess. The hallway stank of mold and the carpet was always wet and squishy; your socks would get soaked through. I was always leaping over puddles to get to my bedroom. And there were so many bugs downstairs: little ones with pinchers—my sister and I called them tweedlebugs—and daddy longlegs that would creep right up on your comforter while you were snuggled under the covers with a chapter book. Eventually I got bunk beds—just so I could sleep up high.
But you know what’s funny? The older I got, the more I liked living in that gnarly basement. It was like my own world! No one even monitored me. My dad would come say good night and switch off my light, but ten minutes later I’d just turn it on again and read Sweet Valley High as long as I wanted. When I was in the fifth grade, I watched a Saturday night Saved by the Bell marathon on TBS in the playroom until dawn—my first all-nighter. Then slept until one in the afternoon on a Sunday, and no one even noticed! It was the craziest thing I’d ever done. I had lice for months and didn’t tell my mom; I picked the bugs off my head in the basement. Then I’d pick all the fleas off Benny the Bear (I don’t know where he got them, but there were so many). I didn’t even have to brush my teeth! Or take baths or comb my hair. I snuck junk food downstairs and ate in bed; I kept my room like a swamp, but no one cared. No one ever bothered me. Seriously, I could get away with murder down there! And no one ever knew.