$50,000.00

 

P O W E R | MAR. 31, 2020

I Am Caroline Calloway. During quarantine I am relying more than ever on media to transport me.

By Caroline Calloway

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

I took three photos together with Natalie in the park that day, all polaroids. I’m always taking photos of myself because I’m a vapid bitch. I don’t know how to start this essay.

Part One

Let’s pretend it is Before Times. Your biggest problem is the sapphic plight of two white girls you’ll never meet. Taylor Swift remains unvindicated by the release of the unedited phone call with Kanye West, and you still really hate me.

I am—actually—Caroline Calloway. But I wasn’t always. Like lots of artists, I changed my name.

Like Katheryn Hudson (Katy Perry) or Reginald Dwight (Elton John) or John Stephens (John Legend) or Jennifer Anastassakis (Jennifer Anniston) or Thomas Williams (Tennessee Williams) or Elizabeth Grant (Lana del Rey) or Jonathan Leibowitz (Jon Stuart) or Ralph Lifshitz (Ralph Lauren) or Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) or Rachel Markle (Meghan Markle) or Eric Bishop (Jamie Foxx) or Natalie Hershlag (Natalie Portman) or Onika Miraj (Nicki Minaj) or William Pitt (Brad Pitt) or Elizabeth Fey (Tina Fey) or Edda von Heemstra (Audrey Hepburn) or Peter Gene Hernandez (Bruno Mars) or Destiny Hope Cyrus (Miley Cyrus) or Olivia Cockburn (Olivia Wilde) or David Henry Thoreau (Henry David Thoreau).

I changed my name from Caroline Calloway Gotschall to Caroline Gotschall Calloway. I thought that Caroline Calloway would look better on the covers of books. If you build a life around an identity that springs from your own imagination, is it ever inauthentic?

I don’t know what, as a child, made me believe that being a famous memoirist was going to solve all my problems since all anyone ever told me was to pick a different goal. But I latched onto a vision of myself in a ball gown, with flowers in my hair, inside a castle, inside a story, inside a true story. I wanted that, or a little room at the top of a steep staircase where I could sleep until my death. Being awake was painful for me. Depression dropped like a mist around me when I was ten. It all seems so misguided now, but I came to believe that if I made it out of the mossy parking lots of my DC suburb, where only pets and grandparents died, and wrote a best-selling book about my life, and delighted others, I might have a few minutes of happiness, someday, at some point.

I hate the paragraph about childhood when a narrator does a subtle flex on what they read as a kid. It’s like, Okay. We get it. You were a precocious ten-year-old who loved Dostoyevsky with a pure heart! I liked delicious trash. Adventure pulp! Fantasy books about royal witches who left their cozy kingdoms on QUESTS and formed unlikely friendships with animals that could talk. I thumbed through the high-brow stuff, too, but only to keep up appearances with my parents. It impressed them. I had no friends my own age.

The author’s father with a random baby. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

People can be born into material wealth and emotional poverty. I was. I may have attended private schools, but I inherited a brain from my father that skewed towards suicide. He was an insane and sullen genius—like Rain Man but bipolar—and I inherited only a sliver of his smarts and sicknesses. I wouldn’t take a helix more.

My Dad got into to Phillips Exeter Academy when he was in eighth grade as a sophomore—the first in his family to go. Then he got into Harvard, early decision, again as a sophomore—again the first in his family to go. He was 20 when he applied to law school. My grandparents were farmers from Nebraska and North Carolina whose genes swirled together to produce a generation of three luminously bright and shockingly unstable children. My aunt: One of the first girls at Exeter, then Harvard, then one of the first girls at Columbia Business School. My uncle: First in the family at Andover, then first in the family Yale. At which point he had to drop out because he realized the FBI had implanted a radio chip in his molar. Full-blown schizophrenia. My uncle works the register at the Falls Church Home Depot now.

My Dad was a hoarder who loved cleaning supplies and a recluse unless something random flipped the light switch of his anger, like lint, in which case he tore through the house in a black rage. When he was “in one of his moods,” my Mom would tell me to go to my room and I would listen to her muffled screams. For the rest of the day, my pet rabbit would be skittish and difficult to catch. Stuff he liked: expensive German vacuum cleaners, the art of every civilization, and elite institutions including the ones he did not attend. In the end it wasn’t the physical mess, but the emotional chaos that caused the divorce.

I am torn between two ways of looking at the world. On one hand, my life could have been worse. On the other, I think we should take people seriously when they are host to a brain that wants to kill them.

From left to right: The author’s father gifting her a turquoise Miele vacuum cleaner; The author’s father with her at Philips Andover Academy (which neither of them attended); And the author’s father at Yale University (which neither of them attended). Photos: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

“I am torn between two ways of looking at the world. On one hand, my life could have been worse. On the other, I think we should take people seriously when they are host to a brain that wants to kill them.”

My first claim to fame was being the youngest person in the history of humankind to have both knee-caps removed. My second claim to fame was saying one line to Daniel Craig in the Hollywood flop The Invasion with Nicole Kidman: “Here, sir. I found this on the roof.” Somebody fetch me my Oscar, please! On the five-hour drives from our suburb in Virginia to auditions in New York, I’d ask my Mom: “What do you think I’ll be famous for?” I hated acting. But I loved fame? Instagram had not been invented yet. Going online sounded like a telephone fucking a fax machine.

Boarding school is where I finally began to live the kind of story I wanted to make art about.

Phillips Exeter Academy is a prep school in New England where they let you do everything (Astronomy! Bird-watching! Woodblock print-making!) except: have sex, do drugs, or leave.

Exeter is where I first squinted at details like the Downtown-Abbey call-buttons in the infirmary where students could ring for a bedside nurse and thought: Why isn’t this whole fucking world on TV?

Shows about rich teens, like The OC and Gossip Girl, were already established hits, but East Coast boarding school through the prism of my imagination seemed like it could ignite a market that had never been tapped. It would be Old World splendor and tweedy academia and text messages. Ghanaian princes and South Korean heiresses and Boston Brahmins. In their spare time these kids illustrated children’s books and founded non-profits and lobbied successfully to change laws and got invited to Olympic trials and solved passages of Ancient Greek that had stumped college professors for centuries. And yeah. Okay. Sure. All of it was pageantry for college applications! But still.

Something about these privileged, oddball overachievers spoke to the deepest part of me. The aesthetics set me on fucking fire creatively. Traditions in secret societies and school ties with navy blazers and empty classrooms awash in bars of afternoon light filtered through stained glass windows? Damn. All of it made me feel whatever Monet felt at the gardens of Giverny and whatever Gaugin felt on the island of Tahiti that made them say: The way I see this world is what I must make the world see.

I know it’s deeply uncool. I wish I could be interested in something else. But I like what I like.

In the winter the campus crystalized with lilac frost and I became best friends with the most popular girl in school, Kelsey, who was a dead ringer for Blake Lively. When lime-green grass burst through the lawns in a time-lapse and everyone graduated, I stumbled upon the financial model that would become the foundation for my Instagram. I found it on Martha’s Vineyard, surrounded by hydrangea bushes and shingled cottages and bros. My boyfriend had invited me and all his friends from the squash team to spend the summer at his family home. The boys were obsessed with Tucker Max’s fratty sexcapades and I was obsessed with Tucker Max’s business plan: Give away humorous stories about your life for free on the internet and then leverage that audience to get a book deal!

Sitting on pale Atlantic beaches, I thumbed to the Acknowledgements section of Tucker’s books to see who his literary agent was. I wrote down the name Byrd Leavell in the margins of my sandy diary as I made to-do lists for my gap year. The next summer, I made to-do lists for my freshman year at NYU in a different diary on the same beaches, single.

I had come back to Martha’s Vineyard with my Dad because I told him I wanted to share an experience Exeter had given me with the man who had given me the experience of Exeter. Really, I ditched my Dad for most of the trip, setting off alone on rental bikes through sun-dappled dirt-paths to pond-side farm-stands so I could pave over the memories of my first love and heal.

The author (right) with her father at her high school graduation at Phillips Exeter Academy. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

No one had ever suggested that the way sad experiences layered up on my skin like sediment might be chemical or aberrant. I had never been diagnosed with depression, never experienced the phenomenon of “bouncing back” when a setback occurred; had never been to therapy. Each new heartbreak that befell me seemed to push my head farther underwater in an ocean where other humans did not go.

Nowadays I go to therapy three times a week. It costs about as much per month as renting a second apartment in Manhattan. This expense might seem like an extravagance to some (which is different than a privilege), but were I born with a liver that needed frequent dialysis no one would call paying for that treatment if I had the means a “luxury.” My organ that needs medical treatment is my brain.

My therapist’s office is right next to the NYU Creative Writing House. So I walk past the brownstone where I met Natalie thrice weekly. She lives in LA now, but three times a week, every week, I stare at the students chatting on the stoop, holding books, throwing their heads back in laughter, and I think about how Natalie and I must have looked at so many different moments there.

Our advanced nonfiction workshop was at the top of a creaky staircase, down the hall and to the right. The space had been a sunny bedroom at one point, with built in shelving and pre-war molding, but when I burst in ten minutes late all I clocked was a dry-erase board already covered with writing, a single empty plastic conference chair, and a college seminar that had started ten minutes ago. I had no idea who the professor was. I had applied to this “Creative Nonfiction Masterclass” on a lark. I needed a break from all the Romanesque and Rococo PowerPoints I was staring at in dim lecture halls for no reason other than Art History had seemed like kind of subject the character of Caroline Calloway would major in.

It turned out our professor was well-known. Not in the legendary way I wanted to be, but David Lipsky was famous in a niche, downtown literary way that nonetheless impressed me. He had taken a road-trip with David Foster Wallace in the American mid-West and published a popular book about it, which then became a popular movie, The End of the Tour, starring Jesse Eisenberg as our professor. Elizabeth Wurtzel (who had also dated David Foster Wallace) had lived with David Lipsky while she wrote More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction, a book about the Cambridge-educated enfant terrible’s addiction to prescription amphetamines.

If this were a sitcom that broke the fourth on the reg wall I would look directly into camera right now and wink.

But it’s not!

So!

In the Acknowledgements Wurtzel thanks Lipsky for room and board during her twin processes of writing and recovery because sometimes there is just as much to learn about a memoirist’s interior world in the Acknowledgements section as in the author’s actual book.

If Lipsky had ever tried to touch me, which he didn’t, I would have been horrified. But I spent months discussing my crush on him with Natalie. We were his favorites because we the best writers in class, which only intensified my crush. He openly preferred us to the other students in a way that made me sit up straighter in my chair and made Natalie blush and slump, calling on only us improve other students’ sentences or to explain to the class why a passage of Joan Didion or George Saunders “worked,”

Slowly I learned who Lorrie More was—Zadie Smith and Martin Amis, too. When we got to Raymond Carver, I told Natalie she was my “Lischky”—a combination of Gordon Lisch’s name, Carver’s editor, and David Lipsky, who was ours.

The author (left) with David Lipsky (middle) and Natalie (right). Natalie’s taller than me! Can you believe? I’m only 5’4”, but people often tell me I have ‘5’8” energy.’ Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

In her essay for The Cut, Natalie chose—out of all our Lipsky debriefs—to recreate a moment in which she fantasized about him alongside me. She describes him, describing fucking me for an imaginary essay in The New Yorker. But the memories that stand out most are not when she indulged my crush, but when showed me how to hate him.

Once, Lipsky told me that I would grow up to be a beautiful woman if I didn’t “plump up.” His advice struck me as grim, but avuncular and true. When I told Natalie the good news (Lipsky thinks I’m beautiful!) she spat-out, livid: “Caroline, never let anyone, ESPECIALLY A MAN, tell you that your worth is connected to your weight.”

On the last day of class, Natalie pointed out that Lipsky’s pinky finger on his left hand was so deformed it was almost missing, and she choked with laughter when I admitted that I’d never noticed it before.

But enough about Lipsky! This isn’t the Minetta Tavern with Natalie and minestrone circa 2011! I can’t discuss David Lipsky with you ad nauseum.

On the first day of class, the professor whose name I did not know and whose fingers I assumed numbered ten, asked us to go around the room and name our favorite creative nonfiction authors as an icebreaker.

A girl with freckles and pale green eyes smirked shyly that she had a “love-hate” relationship with “DFW.” The classroom chuckled. I didn’t get it. I realized in a flash of panic that the only books I had ever loved were not only lowbrow, but fiction. I mumbled that I liked the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and the autobiographical nugae of Catullus. You know, so people wouldn’t think I’m dumb. At no point did I think: Someday I will be on the phone with a fact checker from New York Magazine confirming that I was ten minutes late today.

A few weeks into term Natalie submitted an essay for class that mentioned she was from New Haven and that her mother worked for Yale. Hoping for an in at—really—any college EVER more prestigious than NYU, I invited her back to my apartment after class.

I didn’t live in student housing like the other freshman, because over the summer I had read a tabloid that reported that Dakota Fanning—also part of the incoming NYU Class of 2015—would be renting her own place separate from the dorms. But even as my father spent extravagantly on me I still felt like he owed me. What I wanted was for him to meet my emotional needs and what I got was a studio downtown and a bunch of cashmere hand-me-downs.

The author with her father in one of his hand-me-down cashmere sweaters. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

My turquoise home in the West Village made it look like I was a girl who didn’t spend every hour rifling through to-do lists scrawled on Ivy League brochures. My turquoise home in the West Village was a trap! I curated a girly bohemian chaos because it made me seem more self-actualized than I was. Externally, I was president of the NYU CAS freshman class, interning at the Met, and taking a course and a half over the normal course-load like Hermione Granger without the Time-Turner. Inside I was hollowed out with a pain that kept building up from life faster than I could metabolize it.

That first afternoon we hung out after class I showed Natalie my Yale Box, which is what I called my vagina then. Really, my Yale Box was a self-motivational shoebox stuffed with trinkets I had collected, magpie-like, from fancy places. I understood that owning such a box automatically distanced me from the kind of heroine I wanted to be. Real ingenues are either born fluent in extreme wealth or arrived at such a fluency from abject poverty by means that were unplanned. Like marrying rich by accident because what you really married for was true love. Or being model-scouted at your local mall. Middle-class and upper-middle class girls like myself were supposed to be grateful we didn’t have it harder.

The author’s turquoise apartment in the West Village circa 2011. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

For everyone who thinks that me wanting to attend a fancier university than NYU equated to me hating NYU—YOU ARE MISTAKEN. Look at that little purple NYU pennant hanging with pride. I liked NYU and I wanted out. Those feelings can co-exist. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

“But even as my father spent extravagantly on me I still felt like he owed me. What I wanted was for him to meet my emotional needs and what I got was a studio downtown and a bunch of cashmere hand-me-downs.”

I had a lot of internalized shame around the fact that I was a well-off woman, but I wanted to be part of the one-percent. I felt like a gold-digger even though I didn’t want to marry rich. I felt conniving for desiring money even though I wanted to earn it myself. I felt shallow for coveting elite degrees even though the advantages of elite degrees are real. But for a moment, handing Natalie matchboxes from Mory’s and vintage postcards of Handsome Dan, I felt the warmth of sharing the jagged edges of my soul with someone who didn’t recoil at my needs. Unprompted, Natalie told me stories about sex that I’m not going to repeat, but she made it clear that she couldn’t see how beautiful she was. Wanting to unburden her of a little shame in the same way she had just unburdened me, I said, “You’re beautiful.” And I meant it. It wasn’t a lie.

But most of the other things I told her were! I was kind of a liar then.

There’s no other way to put this: In my early twenties I was a shitty friend. I was unreliable, unreachable; pre-occupied. I lied! Even more than I cared to realize, since so often I was lying not on purpose, but by omission. I was good in an emergency because my life was one long emergency and I saw other people’s as a chance to pick up the slack on the workaday friend-duties I sucked at. When Natalie told me to my face that I was “the sort of friend who would forget your birthday, but would find a kidney for you on the black market,” I took it as a compliment. I thought she was accepting that I was not the right friend to meet some of her needs, but that I would do anything, drop anything, to help her in pinch.

Seven years later Natalie explained in her essay for The Cut that she meant I was someone she could write about. There are lots of people whose birthdays I forget, but I still remember hers. Every year on December 11th I think about texting her and don’t.

Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Going back to my apartment after class to smoke and “shoot the shit’ as Natalie called it, like an upbeat cowboy, became our routine. I always paid for our weed and maybe it was because of this that Natalie offered me my first Adderall. When I asked for more she helped me begin buying them from her roommate’s sketchy boyfriend. I don’t blame her for the addiction that this unspooled. There was no way either of us could have known! And when I blew through Natalie’s roommate’s sketchy boyfriend’s supply, THIS is how easy it was finding Adderall in downtown Manhattan without her.

I opened the Yelp app.

I typed in Adderall.

I organized results by least stars first.

I tapped on a review that went like, This guy is a terrible doctor! He doesn’t care about your problems! He just prescribes pills!

And I was like, Bingo.

Hey Yelp, sponsor me?

Two years zoomed by silver-quick on an increasing amount of amphetamine salts. Cambridge rejected me twice. Yale: Twice. Did you know there is a maximum amount of times you can apply to Yale before they reject your application for life? I did and that number is four. And then, finally, I got into Cambridge on the third time around. If Natalie were editing this essay, she would cut the detail I’m about to tell you next because it’s just too unbelievable. The night I tore open my acceptance letter, I saw a shooting star.

That spring I dropped out of NYU, created an Instagram account, and bought forty thousand fake followers. To buy Instagram followers today—in 2020—is to make a morally bankrupt decision. But to buy Instagram followers in 2013 was a different kind of choice.

These days the value of Instagram followers has appreciated into a social currency that can be cashed in for luxury trips or designer clothes or cooler friends. But in the spring and then summer of 2013 the app was a thing only hip, coastal teens used to share photos with each other. Few real celebrities even had accounts. That the New York Times would one day break news on the platform in tandem with the paper itself and their official website was unthinkable.

Buying Instagram followers then would be like buying TikTok views today—without the existing framework of sponsored content.

In 2013 FTC laws about disclosing hashtag ads didn’t exist.

In 2013 FTC laws about disclosing hashtag ads wouldn’t exist for ANOTHER THREE YEARS!

Sure, you could buy TikTok views, but how would you leverage that into any type of long-term career or monetary value?

No one knew then where this app called was going. I took a chance. I made a guess. I got it right. I don’t think I should be punished for that.

I wouldn’t buy Instagram followers today and don’t.

But I would do it again, then, in a heartbeat.

The summer before my freshman year at Cambridge (I had to start all over again as a freshman because Cambridge is so snobby that they only accept transfer credits from Oxford; love that for them) Natalie and I took a trip to Sicily.

Over the last 8 years Natalie and I have worked together twice. For periods of 3 months each time; 6 months total. The second time we wrote together was after I had already become famous when we put together my book proposal, and the first time we wrote together was before I was famous—in Sicily.

On this trip we co-wrote Instagram captions for an audience of no one.

Natalie said she only “edited” these captions. But I think she deserves credit for co-writing them. And who consumed these sentences we collaborated on?

Forty thousand bots!

I took hundreds of photos of Natalie on that trip to Sicily. I liked experimenting with photography and like that Natalie made a beautiful muse. All of these photos are of her. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Natalie eating lemon granita at a moment when I thought her freckles and green eyes looked particularly lovely. Don’t you? Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

In I Was Caroline Calloway, Natalie cites all the pictures I took on our trip as a subtle implication that I’m the shallow, annoying stereotype of an Instagram girl that everyone loves to hate. But when I apologized to her in dusty Sicilian streets for asking her to take so many photos of me so we could get ‘the shot’ for ‘the gram,’ Natalie brushed off my self-loathing with pep-talks. “Does a fratty investment banker apologize for checking his email on vacation? NO! This is your work. You’re working.” Even today when I duck away from fun in my real life so I can document it for my online one, which is also my job, I re-use Natalie’s analogy. “Sorry, guys, but pretend I’m a finance bro who needs to use his phone because the markets just opened in Hong Kong!”

Perhaps the only dignity Natalie paid me in her whole essay—the only moment that my character is not just redeemable but likable—is when she attributes to me the statement that: “Women shouldn’t have to apologize.” Natalie taught me that.

As Natalie would write: “The trip had bigger problems, though.”

After buying all the fake followers, I had to pay about $40 per post in order to buy fake likes to keep up appearances. I could do this for maybe another month or two, but not indefinitely. The current iteration of my business model was unsustainable.

My solution? I took all the cash I had ever received for birthdays or Christmases or working at the Falls Church farmer’s market and invested about $750 into buying a new account with just over 150,000 real followers. Like all non-celebrity accounts on Instagram in 2013, it was a fashion account that was a gallery of curated images. Basically a Pinterest board in Instagram format.

I don’t remember what the original name of the account was, but I rebranded as @briteandbeautiful because I figured I might as well do things my own way if I was going to have to spend so much time on this account in order to support my real creative passion: @carolinecalloway. I tried to migrate real followers from @briteandbeautiful to @carolinecalloway, but the ads I ran for my quirky memoir account on my fashion account rarely stuck the landing. It seemed like the overlap between people who wanted to fill their timelines with prom dresses and quirky autobiography was slim. But by selling ads on my fashion account @briteandbeautiful to other fashion accounts I could use that income to buy fake likes for @carolinecalloway and maintain the account until I could figure out how to grow organically.

I just searched for @briteandbeautiful on Instagram to see what’s become of it and it’s a teeth whitening mobile clinic in the U.K. with 490 followers. In 2015 Instagram changed the terms of the app to allow for abandoned usernames to be re-used after they went inactive for over a year. I suppose whoever eventually bought @briteandbeautiful from me rebranded just as I once had, and someone else snapped up the username after they let it go. It doesn’t matter anyways, since I’m a fanatic for receipts.

When ‘strong winds’ stranded us on a volcanic island in the Mediterranean, I told Natalie I charged her flight home to New York and mine to Venice on my Dad’s credit card. I knew she would feel less guilty this way. And I felt like if she knew about the fake followers, she would tell someone, someday.

After a month in Venice bouncing between the palaces of Italian princes—a story you’ll have to buy AND WE WERE LIKE to read!—I flew to California to visit my best friend from boarding school, Kelsey. And what’s absolutely fucking priceless is that if you look at the trajectory of my Instagram that summer, you can see that the style of digital storytelling that I developed with Natalie only took off when I started writing with Kelsey.

A normal Instagram post in 2013 was aerial shot of cappuccino art, heavily filtered, bordered in white, and paired with a caption like I kid you fucking not: “#Valencia.” HASHTAG VALENCIA. With Natalie we wrote culturally informative jokes addressed to the reader—one or two sentences in length on average. With Kelsey I began posting captions that were five paragraphs long. For the first time I introduced narrative devices to my social media posts such as reoccurring characters, dialogue, and cliff-hangers. I didn’t pay Kelsey because she didn’t think of writing as a career, but Natalie did and so I tried to honor that.

When Natalie suggested counting the transatlantic flight I paid for as her first pay check I was secretly relieved since I had dipped into revenue from @briteandbeautiful to pay for it in the first place. I was barely breaking a profit big enough from that account to keep @carolinecalloway afloat and populated with likes until I came up with a long-term plan.

To recap: I hired two of my closest friends as I scaled my small business that summer, but I only paid one of them. And the world is more outraged over the one I paid than the one with whom I made even more progress and didn’t compensate at all.

Captions by Caroline Calloway and Natalie Beach written during the summer of 2013. Photos: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Captions by Caroline Calloway and Kelsey written during the summer of 2013. Photos: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

What hit me like a chair over the head as I read Natalie’s Cut essay for the first time was how much the way she described me reminded me of how I would have described Kelsey during those years. I think a lot of us have friendships in our early twenties, when our elf-esteem is low, that result in idolizing and catering to the friends we perceive as having it all. And then silently resenting them for our own actions. Kelsey was tan, thin, beautiful, KIND, and so rich that at her family’s Californian ranch we jogged from the stables to the kitchen for Diet Cokes because it would take too long if we only walked.

Summer ended. Fall began. I left for Cambridge. My Dad agreed to pay my rent in New York until one day, out of the blue, he changed his mind. The problem was I had already promised Natalie she could live there while I was in England.

I would later find out that paying for my education had put my Dad into hundreds of thousands of dollars of credit card debt. All I knew at the time was that he was going crazy. Our phone conversations were grounded in reality less and less. His claims: My Mom was watching him. Her new husband was watching him. He was broke. The price of gold had dropped. I couldn’t tell what was true and what was not. But my most time-sensitive concern was that my name was on the lease on the apartment in the West Village and rent was due in two weeks.

“My Dad agreed to pay my rent in New York until one day, out of the blue, he changed his mind. The problem was I had already promised Natalie she could live there while I was in England.”

I delivered the bad news to Natalie over Skype in my British dorm room, mumbling something about the price of gold and declining family finances. Six years later I would read about this Skype conversation first in Natalie’s essay and then again later that week in the New York Times:

How Do You Know If A Friend Needs Help?

When someone says things like, “she called with a change of plans, something about the value of gold having dropped and her family being low on money,” as Ms. Beach describes an interaction with Ms. Calloway, that’s the unusual language of a person in some kind of trouble.

—The New York Times

I was in trouble because of the ever-escalating amount of prescription speed I was on. And my Dad was in trouble, too, for reasons I didn’t fully understand that day and still don’t. But it’s hard to report on someone else’s mental illness when you don’t have all the facts.

So I found a sub-letter. A friend of a friend. And then that girl bailed last minute as friends of friends sometimes do. Squeezing my new boyfriend’s hand off camera as he rubbed my back, I Skyped Natalie again to ask if she could help me get my apartment turned around ASAP for Airbnb guests.

If you are a freshman girl reading this in your college dorm room, some advice: Don’t let the fact that you are a freshman girl reading this in your college dorm room stop you from hiring the employees you need because you’re not “important” enough. What I needed was to hire a personal assistant like I do now and what I had was access to a limited quantity of best friends, only one of whom worked odd jobs: Natalie.

I had two friends in New York when I said she was the only one who needed the money, I meant it. Lauren Singer was already on her path to being named one of Forbes 30 Under 30, busy building the zero-waste personal brand @trashisfortossers that would become her environment-saving multimillion-dollar retail-shop @packagefreeshop. Kelsey was at college in North Carolina. I had no idea that Natalie had been sexually assaulted the night before. Natalie had no idea that my Dad was getting worse. To a large extent I had no idea that my Dad was getting worse. I just knew I had a financial emergency in front of me that needed solving. And so Natalie and I sat there on opposite ends of a Skype call and the Atlantic Ocean in little puffs of our private tragedies staring at each other’s pixelated faces on our screens.

During a different Skype call Natalie would later tell me in detail about her sexual assault and—even on amphetamines—I knew it was not the right time to burden her with my feelings. I waited until my computer made that little boop-de-boop goodbye-sound to burst into tears. There are parts about her assault that she left out and had every right to. I want to write that I later confided in her about my Dad—as she confided in me—but I don’t want to imply that she knew about his situation and left that out of her essay on purpose. I want to protect her from the kind of public shaming and character assassination to which she made me so vulnerable.

Natalie cleaned my apartment. I began charging an exorbitant nightly rate on Airbnb for my well-decorated West Village space. I made rent on time.

Some secrets I understand why Natalie kept to herself in I Was Caroline Calloway. But one detail in particular she withheld as a narrator still puzzles me. I know she didn’t forget because, over the years, she brought it up again and again during fights to humiliate me—no matter how many times I apologized.

That day she chewed her egg salad on the left side of her mouth because her right cheek was bruised by an older man who had hit her during sex without her consent, there was period blood on my sheets. I paid her to clean it up. That vanished in her essay.

She included so many other moments where I seem abusive and she seems abused by me. Why not this one?

I didn’t realize my sheets were stained with period blood when I asked her to change them. By the time I re-started my freshman year at Cambridge I had been taking Adderall for so long and had grown so thin that I only got my period a couple times a year. It was a rare. And I packed for England in such a rush. I simply woke up one day in September and realized, Oh fuck it’s time to move to England now!

My ambition was as thick as ever, but the Adderall was making the execution of it increasingly helter-skelter. That summer in Italy and then California was the first year I didn’t make to-do lists to prepare for year ahead because the way I took Adderall had become a closed circuit. I didn’t do drugs to do other things—I did drugs to feel the drugs. I spent the last weeks of August lying naked in bed, listening to tree branches slap lushly against my windows, staring at the ceiling, high.

The thing about addiction, like falling asleep or in love, is that you can never pinpoint the moment when you slide from one state of being into the next. It just happens. It just does. And then you’re gone.

A photo I took of Cambridge during my very first week there in October of 2013. After you’ve lived in a place long enough, you stop noticing the sunsets. But this first one stopped me in my tracks and sliced me open like a machete and a melon. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

When I arrived in Cambridge in October I was dependent pills—maybe not addicted yet, but so close. As I rode my bike over cobble stones to class, I smiled at the branches fading orange and the church towers tolling bells and the students greeting each other primly as the walls in the medieval colleges whizzed by. I thought that everything about my life was about to change forever, for the better.

My life was about to change forever, but in sinister ways interlaced with fame, money, and death that I didn’t even know enough about to fear.

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway
P O W E R | APR. 07, 2020

I Am Caroline Calloway. During quarantine I am relying more than ever on media to transport me.

By Caroline Calloway

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

I took three photos together with Natalie in the park that day, all polaroids. I’m always taking photos of myself because I’m a vapid bitch. I don’t know how to start this essay.

Part Two

The story of every online creator is the story of their online persona—and the person who built it. During my freshman fall at Cambridge I bought another ten thousand Instagram followers. No reason this time. I was just bored in the library one night.

I was good at the aspect of Art History that asked students to look at a work of art and dismantle with verbal precision the emotional and creative engines that make it tick. I was bad at handing in essays on time and, uh, everything else.

Turns out expecting to excel at Art History because you are deeply moved by art is like becoming a butcher because you get a kick out of pets! That part in Natalie’s essay when she writes that I “wept through Cyrano de Bergerac as if it were a religious experience?” We were the last ones to leave the Broadway theater that night.

I was shaking, sobbing. What I didn’t want to do was talk about how similar the play we had just watched was to the plot playing out between us in real time. But I also didn’t want to be alone with my hot, syrupy loneliness and so I asked her if she wanted to grab some Shake Shack, my treat? In silence I watched her watching me—first against the backdrop of gilded theatre boxes and chandeliers, and then the neon darkness of Times Square, and then a fluorescent burger joint. “You look like you’ve been shot out of a cannon,” she smiled wryly, reaching for a fry. I turned to look at myself in the black glass of the shop window, clocking the nearest mirror intuitively the way a spy cases exit routes. I stared at my streaked mascara. She laughed. I laughed. Suddenly, it was giggle fit! New York City was full of urban spires soaring vertically into the night, but we were a happy pin-prick of two best friends belly-laughing over cheeseburgers in midtown! It wasn’t until I was going through photos of us for this essay that I realized the only time Natalie ever laughed her hardest around me was when I was experiencing some degree of public embarrassment, however minor. At the time I thought that pattern of her behavior held as much significance for who she was or would become as a baby laughing at funny faces. I didn’t think it ran deeper.

The author (right) with Natalie. The author (left) with Natalie. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Stars, balls, river bridges! Stonewalls, black tie, after-dinner port in those tiny crystal cups! Fumbling with bike locks, library books, brass doorknobs in mittens! The way red leaves and then snowbanks and then apple-blossoms tumble from wet black branches in walled gardens during the turning British seasons. I have to tread lightly and lyrically in this paragraph because Flatiron Books owns everything that happened to me at Cambridge. And one of the biggest misconceptions about my life is that I’m not still under contract for that fucking book deal.

Branding for the author’s first Instagram profile picture, 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

When school ended for the summer I moved to Sweden with my boyfriend. And it was there in the fern-filled, fjord-filled forests primordial of rural Scandinavia (shout-out to Sigtuna, ayyyyyyy!) that I finally began building an organic audience on Instagram to balance out all the bots.

First, I fattened up my following on @briteandbeautiful by organizing a bunch of free shout-outs with other fashion accounts. “Follow xyz,” I would post. And then that fashion account would tell their followers to follow me. All at an arranged time. Are you tracking me? Moving on!

Then I posted “in-feed” on @briteandbeautiful that I was selling the account, stoked a bidding war that wouldn’t have existed without my intervention, and made several thousand dollars via PayPal from a stranger I was still certain would scam me.

They did not.

A self-organized photoshoot for the author’s second Instagram profile picture, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

With that profit of a couple grand I began buying ads for @carolinecalloway. I knew I wanted not just followers, but readers. And I knew I wanted not just readers, but readers that were predisposed to become obsessed with what they read. So I bought ads from book-fandoms.

Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars—anything popular during the summer of 2014 that had a strong female lead and a culty teenage fanbase was my fucking wheelhouse.

Edited versions of the author’s Instagram profile pictures, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

“I knew I wanted not just followers, but readers. And I knew I wanted not just readers, but readers who were pre-disposed to become obsessed with what they read.

I’m most well known in terms of Instagram trends for anticipating the shift towards long, confessional captions. But privately, when I look back over my use of the app, I am most impressed with the way I anticipated targeted sponsored content. In 2014, major couture maisons, like Dior and Gucci, wouldn’t even deign to buy posts from bloggers yet!

And so I was able to buy ads at outrageous prices. My go-to pitch when I contacted via Kik (lmao) the strangers who ran book-fandom accounts was a “package” of 10 shout-outs for $50. That’s $5 a post! The account owners thought I was throwing my money away.

To be honest, I was concerned about the same thing. Buying an Instagram ad for $5 may sound today like my grandma explaining that soda pop once cost a nickel. But at the time there was so much risk. I didn’t know if these people would actually post on my behalf once I sent them my $50 via Paypal.  I didn’t know what the future of Instagram would be! I wanted to hedge the investments I was making in this ad campaign—or at least increase my return on each ad.

So that summer I bought another 60,000 fake followers to get myself over the 100k mark. This brought my total number of followers, all bots, to 110k. After that purchase six years ago during the summer of 2014 I never bought Instagram followers again. I didn’t need to! I started getting about triple the return on followers from each ad I ran for myself.

Real followers started pouring in by the tens—and, then hundreds—of thousands.

In tandem with the ad campaigns I was running I also had to be constantly updating @carolinecalloway with original content. An ad didn’t work as well if the last time I had posted was a week ago. To make sure the spon-con I was purchasing for myself was as sticky and retentive and effective as possible, the most recent time stamp on my account needed to be no higher than “5h ago.” This meant I needed to be posting twice, thrice, even quintuple times daily. And so under this absolutely bonkers deadline for cranking out short stories every goddamn waking hour of the day, I finished my self-education on creative nonfiction.

Drafts of branding for carolinecalloway.com, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Alone, I made the Cambridge captions and the ad campaign that became the foundation of my personal brand and online community, respectively.

Alone, I finally gave myself permission to shake the YA narrative style I loved (adventure pulp!) in a stainless steel martini mixer with quirky yet cerebral jokes and my own sex appeal.

Alone, I opened, clicked out of, and didn’t reply to Natalie’s emails.

She was begging me that summer to go back to co-writing captions with her. But I knew that if I always remained dependent on her writing voice I would never find my own.

People who say that this is a story of two white girls vying for authorship over a handful of Instagram captions that read like bad fan fiction of bad fan fiction are missing the point. Although you’re right that the stuff I wrote in college is cringey! What if the world judged your short stories from college? Yikes, right?

Mine just happen to have been posted online in service of building an audience on Instagram.

View this post on Instagram

By Caroline Calloway

A post shared by Caroline Calloway (@carolinecalloway) on

I’m not super proud of the writing quality in those Cambridge captions, but FUCK the girl who wrote them was putting herself out there big time and trying her best. And one literary device still impresses me all these years later: I froze time without anyone noticing. All those stories about Cambridge that I spent the next three years publishing on Instagram? Everything takes place within a span of just ten days.

If you keep your prose high-energy and engaging enough, you can hide anything! Even the fact that all the clocks inside your story have stopped ticking. I was saving my best stuff for publishers.

“People who say that this is a story of two white girls vying for authorship over a handful of Instagram captions that read like bad fan fiction of bad fan fiction are missing the point.”

That summer after my freshman year at Cambridge my account grew by a quarter million real followers.

A quarter of a million new, real followers!

Tucker Max was no longer a hero of mine, but Byrd now repped a different memoirist I adored: Cat Marnell.

Nowadays, when people ask me now how bad my Adderall addiction was, I joke: Well, it was so bad my literary agent dropped me, but he still reps Cat Marnell.

Getting Byrd to sign me in the first place was much harder than I thought it would be. When I finally found a number for his office in the dregs of Google, his secretary politely rebuffed me. I spent the last weeks of summer break in Oscar’s family’s A-frame lake-cottage in the Stockholm archipelago waiting for a follow-up email from Byrd that never came.

With one week until I needed to be back in England for school, I called up The Waxman Leavell agency a second time and this time I lied.

“Hi Jennifer.” (I remembered his secretary’s name.) “It’s Caroline Calloway,” I continued in my best grown-up phone-voice. “I’m going to have to move my meeting from 11 AM on the 23rd to 2 PM.”

Jennifer told me she couldn’t find my original meeting on the schedule. I told her, calmly, that I didn’t have time for this. “2 PM on the 23rd is the only time I can make it. I’ll see you then.” I hung up. I created a Gmail account and emailed Jennifer pretending to be my own assistant to “confirm” their address because it wasn’t available on Google. An hour later, Jennifer sent it to me.

When the elevator doors opened in midtown, I inhaled sharply. I was 22, and I had decided Byrd would be my literary agent when I was 18.  Byrd had no idea who I was or why I was in his office’s lobby.

For a moment I panicked, and then in a move of badassery that still amazes me I reached very down deep inside of myself for calm and clarity. How to handle this situation in a way that will result in the best possible outcome for me?

Icily, almost innocently, I looked up at him, “Are you this unprepared for all your meetings, Byrd?” A beat. “Or just mine?”

Byrd apologized, flustered. Apologized again. He asked Jennifer to get me a cappuccino while he pulled my Instagram up on his desktop. Byrd didn’t offer me a contract on the spot because, to be honest, he wasn’t all that impressed with my 350,000 Instagram followers. Instead, he explained that an audience on a random app meant nothing to publishers compared to coverage in the news.

He continued: A big social media following was a plus, sure, but not enough of a reason to buy a memoir. I needed press.

“If you can translate your Instagram into articles about you and get them printed by big-name, respected media platforms, you can come back in the spring and I’ll sign you.”

The next day I flew back to Cambridge to begin my sophomore year. You could say I was drug addict who wasn’t focused on my studies and it’d be true. But you could also say I was one of the most popular girls at Cambridge and fucking killing it professionally.

A hat-making party the author threw at her dorm-room Downing College, 2014. She told her British friends hat-making parties were “an American tradition” because trolling England’s best and brightest is both funny and fun. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

My sophomore dormwas a Georgian manor and my dorm-room had a fireplace with hand-painted Tudor roses and a piano made of burnished cherry wood. I started collecting art, framing acrylic paintings of Wes Anderson characters I found on Etsy with antique oil paintings I found on Ebay. I put silent-disco headphones stolen from a May Ball on a Renaissance marble bust of a Vestal Virgin. And when I threw outrageous parties, as I often did, a seventeenth century portrait of an Elizabethan lord with a ruffled collar watched studentsthat were probably his ancestors K-hole.

At one point a close friend, Max, called me ‘The Gatsby of Cambridge” and that is what I would like on my tombstone, please! Along with the fact that I was one of the most illustrious memoirists the world has ever known and that I changed the way people think about digital content and social media and fine art. I’m not saying every Tweet is the next great American novel, but I’m not saying every novel is that either. I’m just saying there is as much potential in the architecture of the internet for sublime human expression as there is in sculpture or dance or short stories.


Max, who called me the “Gatsby of Cambridge,” chilling in my sophomore year dorm room. Hi, Max! Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Professionally, my life was much less glamorous. It was humiliating contacting reporters and pitching myself, my life, my story, cold, over email. Surrounded by sticky champagne flutes that reeked of alcohol and sugar in the way only prosecco can, I scoured Twitter at dawn after everyone had stumbled home for English-speaking freelancers writing anything even remotely related to online culture, which was still a budding beat in 2014. I never got too drunk and I never slept because: amphetamines. It was six months and many noise complaints from the porters later when I found the first reporter willing to do an interview with.

In the spring of 2015 the Daily Mail became the first publication to use the words Caroline Calloway. I wish I could say I was ecstatic, but the truth was a misogynistic mixed bag.

The Daily Mail presented me not as an artist or writer, but as a ditzy over-sharer at Cambridge trying to find a husband. Could you imagine the Daily Mail ever printing an article a young man at Cambridge to find a wife? I had to beg the first reporter who ever interviewed me to issue a correction, but it was already too late.

After the Daily Mail article came out, other news platforms picked the story: ABC, NBC, Mic.com (RIP), AOL News (even harder RIP), The Telegraph, Tatler, The Ellen Show—even VICE was nice to me in those days! Hard to imagine, I know. Over spring break I flew back to New York and Byrd treated me to lunch after I wrote my legal name Caroline Calloway in neat cursive on his contracts.

Byrd Leavell at lunch the day he signed the author. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

As final exams drew closer, I ducked out of raucous dorm-room pre-games and then ornate, tense study halls to field phone calls from US reporters who were six hours behind. My account @carolinecalloway had reached a tipping point where it was now growing by itself organically, which was ideal because I had also reached a tipping point. I was now taking so much Adderall that I could not create.

Yes, I could crank out an agonized caption here or there or chat a reporter’s ear off for an hour, but after that summer in Sweden I would not be stable enough to produce large quantities of prose again until I got clean.

The DEA classifies Adderall as Schedule II drug. This is the category reserved for legal substances with the highest potential for abuse. At the same time: I don’t want to discount the experiences of people who have been diagnosed with ADHD and helped by study drugs. I believe them. And I hope they can believe me when I say those pills made me fucking batshit bananas.

Adderall manufactured a billion fascinations in my head that kept me forever paralyzed inside of the decision about what to do next. I spent years inside a splintering kaleidoscope of magnificent projects I could start and never did. Years!

And here’s the really fucked up part: It felt amazing. Like, so good. If I told you drugs were anything but fun I would be lying and, yeah, okay, Adderall may have murdered my life (ilysm, Cat), nut GODDAMN. The high from speed is a pleasant pleasure and don’t let any nerds tell you otherwise.

I can’t remember what I did that summer after my second year at Cambridge. Was I in New York? Europe? Wherever I was I spent a lot of dark nights of the soul clipping my toenails and tweezing my bikini line until it bled. My career had never been hotter and my addiction had never been so enveloping.

Addiction, at its essence, is wanting to stop and not being able to. I’ll only have one glass. I’ll only drink after five. I’ll only do cocaine on the weekends. My rule with Adderall that I constantly found myself breaking was: On the third day I have sleep.

My normal unit of waking time had at least one long period of darkness inside of called night. One day was 48 hours. A long day was 72. On the afternoon of the fourth day my legs would begin to buckle until I collapsed and slept the sleep of the dead. I didn’t even want to continue being awake after a certain point! The exhaustion migraines were excruciating! But I couldn’t stop putting those orange pills into my mouth.

In the poem The Addict, Anne Sexton writes, “My supply of tablets has got to last for years and years. I like them more than I like me. It’s a kind of marriage.”

In More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction, Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about Ritalin: “I like my pills more than I like me, more than I like anybody else. That’s the only thing I know that matters.”

By the time I got back to Cambridge for the fall of my senior year (in England, college only lasts three years instead of the American four) a strange phenomenon had started happening to my body. Usually on the second or third night without sleep, the tip of a finger would begin to hurt with the pins and needles sensation of a limb going numb. Then my finger would turn white, starting at the tip, spreading downwards, like some horrific vampire-zombie disease. Then another finger. Then my hand.

The first time I had this problem with my circulation I worried the terror would push the ventricles in my heart over the edge. But then the “white finger thing” started happening so often it just became annoying. The way to stop it was to run my fingers under hot water, or—if it had already spread to my palm—plunge my entire body into a scalding bath. Which was fine because my senior-year dorm room had not only two fire places and a views of the winding, willowed River Cam, but also access to a bathtub I often hogged while all of the unemployed eighteen-year-old lords in our shared castle (dorm) were asleep.

I honestly have nothing to say about this photo because the only true things I could say are all too dark and intimate to share. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Time! Time canters and then gallops on amphetamines. You blink, and it’s morning. Blink again, and: 3 PM. Blink once more—and it’s October and you’re getting emails from the Cambridge bursars office about an outstanding tuition balance of $40,000 USD.

My Dad hadn’t told me had stopped paying tuition. He just didn’t mail a check to Cambridge that summer. And so—very abruptly it seemed to me—I started getting emails from the university like, Either pay to be here like everyone, or leave. Reasonable! This was not on them.

My Mom didn’t have the money. It was too late to apply for a low-interest government student-loan. What began over the summer as doing huge amounts of Adderall with Natalie in my turquoise apartment as we brainstormed a book proposal with no deadline became writing a book proposal overnight.

I was racing against the clock of when Cambridge would evict me. For the past five years I had been high on amphetamines—euphoric, vertiginous, panicky. If there was a more logical way out of my current predicament, I couldn’t see it.

Even sources as reputable as the New York Times later reported that Natalie “helped her college friend Caroline Calloway create a healthy Instagram by telling [sic] stories,” but that’s not true. Natalie never helped me accrue fame. She didn’t understand how fame was accrued. She helped me write captions when I had no followers. Then she helped me write a book proposal for a book that clearly isn’t responsible for my fame, since it doesn’t fucking exist and never will.

She never spoke to my real audience, nor did she make the business decisions that built it. The press ran wild with this idea that Natalie was the brains behind the operation because “a pretty face is nothing without someone to mind its algorithms,” (NBC News) but I handled ALL of the outward-facing publicity stuff. And, FOR TWO PERIODS OF THREE MONTHS OVER THE PAST NINE YEARS, we split the writing between us fifty-fifty. Half her words. Half mine. The legal documents Natalie and I signed weren’t even a Ghost-writer’s contract, but a “Collaborator’s Agreement,” because we were… Collaborating.

I told Byrd that I was too busy with school (sick and addicted to drugs) to write the proposal alone. He told me to work with one of the writers famous authors often worked with. He knew them all. I wanted Natalie. “Who’s Natalie?” he asked.

I answered as matter-of-factly as I could: “She’s the only writer I’ve ever met who is my age and who is as talented as I am.”

Byrd pushed back; told me he knew the best people in New York and that he would get them for me. He knew the best in the biz!

I insisted that it had to be Natalie.

Byrd relented.

AND FUCK THE WORD DOCUMENT NAT AND I MADE TOGETHER WAS SO GOOD!!!!!!!!!!!! LIKE HOLY FUCKING, FUCKING SHIT. It wasn’t so much that we each had capacities the other lacked. It was more that our particular strengths as writers just FUCKING VIBED SO FUCKING HARD. Natalie’s roaring theatricality plus my coy intimacy???!! Natalie’s glib humor plus my goofy exuberance?????????!!!!!!????? Natalie’s cinematic command of traditional storytelling plus my high risk-tolerance for experimental prose??????????????????? And ON TOP OF THAT our weaknesses, incredibly, cancelled each other out. I’m raw and loose to the point of sounding unhinged and Natalie is tight and controlled to the point of sounding contrived, but in combination those liabilities birthed a narrator who had none of our own shortcomings and all of our gifts. Natalie helped me be less digressive. I helped Natalie pull off the kind of dangerous literary stunts that writing alone she steered clear of. Every sentence in the book proposal we wrote together twinkled and pirouetted and gestured graciously to the orchestra conductor as it took a final bow.

I hope we publish that document on its own someday, under its original title, SCHOOL GIRL, and under its original genre: fiction. We could print both our names on the cover with the co-writing credit that Natalie deserves. I want the world to see it because I’m so proud and because I want everyone else to finally a secret about that novella I already do.

When we were writing the proposal I approached chapters from the same aspirational angle that performed so well on Instagram. On the internet, privileged aesthetics rack in the likes. I will never forget what Natalie told me about the importance of appearing more relatable (poorer) in memoir: People hate the rich in long-form prose. “Make yourself the plucky underdog.”

In SCHOOL GIRL, the character of Caroline Calloway plays a bumbling second fiddle to all the rich and graceful swans that glide around her. Was it strange to see Natalie take the same literary device she had once taught me, and weaponize it against me in I Was Caroline Calloway?

Yes.

“I will never forget what Natalie told me about the importance of appearing more relatable (poorer) in memoir: People hate the rich in long-form prose. “Make yourself the plucky underdog.”

 I hope someday in creative writing workshops at NYU, or journalism classes at Columbia, or rooms with plates at Yale, students unpack these narrative parallels even more thoroughly than I have or can.

When Byrd finally emailed our finished book proposal around to the editors New York, I told my professors in Cambridge that I had the flu so I could take the train to Heathrow and fly to JFK.

This time when the elevator doors opened Byrd was by my side. The editors we met with offered us champagne and branded tote bags full of the memoirs by celebrities who had become “good friends” during “the process.” With these grown-ups I used the same primly condescending charms that had once worked so well on Byrd. They lapped it up. “Thank you again so much for your interest in meeting, but we do have to make this quick,” I’d say innocently, almost absent-mindedly, staring at the skyscrapers out the windows. “I have so much homework to finish tonight and my degree is so important to me.” The idea was to emphasize that I was a sweet, young schoolgirl whose writing career was a hobby.

What I remember most about the editors from those meetings is that they kept asking me about newsletters and listservs and how I expected to get people to buy my book if I didn’t have emails. EMAILS! I know a lot of people give me shit for selling an account that had 450,000 real followers and 100,000 fake followers, but I can’t emphasize this enough: In 2015 Instagram followers weren’t that great of a selling point.

Back in the drafty Gothic castle that was my dorm, I waited anxiously as Byrd “took the pages out to auction.” Lit world vocab! When I got the call saying that the US deal had closed at $375,000 and that foreign deals would bring this number to just a hair over half a mill, I slid down the wall in a spiral stone stairwell and wept. First from happiness—then from a sadness I could not place.

Whatever hope I had been clinging to since childhood that I might be happy once my improbable dreams were achieved had just shattered. Nothing about the texture of my day-to-day experience of life had changed. I was still in so much pain.

Sleeping pills. First melatonin from the “hippie store” in Cambridge. Then a variety of off-the-shelf pharmaceuticals from Boots. Then the medical kind. Remember that shady Yelp doctor in the Village who had been prescribing me Adderall all these years?

I was like, “Can I have some sleeping pills?”

And he was like: Okay.

I had the money to fly back to New York whenever I wanted.

I had the money to buy as much extra Adderall from drug dealers as I wanted.

I had so much money to buy so much extra Adderall from drug dealers that my problem became not knowing enough drug dealers.

I no longer noticed what season it was. It was dark a lot because I was always awake. Natalie moved to Cambridge to “help me write the book,” but more than anything I just wanted to be close to a friend who didn’t judge me. I thought Natalie didn’t judge me. My grasp on reality was poor.

And spring 2016 wasn’t even rock bottom! I would be addicted to amphetamines for another year—roughly until May of 2017—when things got bad enough to get better.

Of all the stinging insults and intimate secrets Natalie released about me, one hurts more than anything else: She made my suicidal ideation part of the public record.

Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

I talk about suicide openly now that she’s told everyone, and it turns out having everyone know isn’t even as bad as I thought it would me! But FUCK do I wish I had been able to make that choice myself. And FUCK FUCK FUCK do I really wish Natalie hadn’t revealed it as part of the punchline of a joke: “ Caroline hated [the chapters I wrote] so much that she threatened suicide if I wrote anymore.”

There’s now an edit on the The Cut’s site that comes directly after that line: “(Caroline clarified to a New York fact-checker that she wasn’t suicidal because she disliked my writing, but because of her addiction and because she sold a memoir she couldn’t write.)”

But originally they published it without it.

And it wasn’t that I couldn’t write that book. I didn’t want to. Life was already so not-worth-living I just couldn’t imagine how I could go on if I had to spend the rest of my days fielding fans who adored a version of me that didn’t exist signing copies of a memoir that wasn’t even about me.

Nothing we had sold the publishers was untrue. I went to Cambridge, castles, balls. We didn’t fictionalize the beautiful stuff, we just left out all the bad stuff.

To get NY Mag to add that correction I had to make a lot of noise on all my social media platforms about political correctness and when they did, no one mentioned that it was an addition to Natalie’s story that came weeks after everyone had read it.

Let the record fucking show that the original, viral version of her was published by The Cut with humor about my suicide.

When I’m ready to write more about this time of my life, I will. From May of 2017 it took roughly another year to quit Adderall, weather the side-effects of withdrawal, and get back on my feet psychologically. During this time I all but disappeared from Instagram. I call this chapter “when I was internationally depressed,” which is different from traveling. Traveling is when you show up in a city to see the sights. Being internationally depressed is when you’re like, Maybe Scotland will solve my problems. And then Scotland does not.

During this time I did, however, break my online hiatus at least once to reveal on Instagram that Natalie wrote half my book proposal. I made a huge production out of this moment. I tagged Natalie’s Instagram account in my posts. I explained her involvement in 2013 with my captions. I went through our proposal and marked it up with pens, page by page—line by line—to show everyone which sentences she had written and which ones were mine. Finally, I sold the scans of these PDF files on Etsy for $4.99 and I offered Natalie the same 35% cut of profits that she would have gotten out of the book deal.

Please note that something I attribute to Natalie in this proposal at the bottom of Page 4 is the line “my I-deserve-to-be-here-boots.” This is a line that Natalie re-uses when talking about the version of me in her Cut essay. To make things even more interesting, this is a line that she originally used in an essay about herself that she turned into Lipsky’s workshop and that I spent twenty minutes of class raving about because I loved it so much. Layers upon layers upon layers of a writer’s heart. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

She was furious and I was furious because I couldn’t understand why. She asked me to remove everything with her name on it. She said getting credit or money or exposure didn’t matter, even though she had made it clear to me that those were the very things she wanted out of our working relationship.

At no point did it occur to me her story would be more valuable to sell to an editor of a major publication someday if it looked like I had always hidden her.

But hey! Listen! I want to try something. I can go on and on about Natalie and she can go on and on about me and we can both go on and on about our friendship forever, but nothing will ever be as unbiased or honest as letting us speak to you in our own words before we knew the world was watching us.

    • March 21, 2018
    • 12:22 PM EST
    • To: Natalie
    • From: Caroline
    • Subject: 🌱
    • Natalie! I am so very terrified about sending this message because I believe there’s a real chance you will respond, “I have found my life to be much more rich and calm and rewarding without the train wreck that is you, Caroline Calloway, in it. No thank you for the friendship!!!!” And I think that response would cut straight to my deepest shame about the person I have been. But I am trying to be brave and let me self be seen and show up exactly as I am for the things that I care about. You know—all the stuff that is good and holy in this world!!
    • I believe in my heart that I’m capable of being a good friend—and a better friend than I have been—if our friendship is something you would like to revisit.
    • I am sorry for any moment I have caused you pain. I am so sorry. I am SO SORRY. I’m so sorry!
    • If you still want me to remove your name from the Etsy chapters, I will. I’m embarrassed I threw such a tantrum about that. I understand that adult friendship involves agreeing to honor another person’s needs and not taking everything so personally. I don’t know if this needs clarifying, but: At the time I took the fact that you wanted distance from me very, very personally. And I took a stand where I shouldn’t have because I didn’t know how to express that hurt.
    • I hope that thirty years from now we might look back at this time that we didn’t talk with fondness because it helped us start a new chapter in our friendship, one with a more open communication of needs and a better overall emotional toolkit on board (on my end, especially!) and way, way, WAY less Adderall. I’ve been off it since last spring. I’m honestly a little  tender mentioning it and almost deleted this line, but quitting it has made a huge difference in my life.
    • I feel like I could spend the rest of my life trying to make this email funnier and warmer and more comprehensive and authentic, but I’m feeling very raw and squishy and exhausted at this point. Maybe I should have ended on a breezier “wish you all the best” note of confidence, but that’s not how I am or feel. I miss you. I care about you! I am flawed and growing and full of regret about how we left things and full of hope that we can try to show up and be seen for exactly the humans that we are and make something beautiful out of the mess.
    • Sent from my iPhone, which means I still have it.

    • April 19, 2018
    • 1:29 AM EST
    • To: Caroline
    • From: Natalie
    • Re: 🌱
    • Caroline, 
    • This is a hard email, and I’ve been struggling to find the right way to say it all, or say enough. I really appreciate you reaching out to me, that couldn’t have been easy. But I should just come out and say that I think our relationship is over. 
    • I know the fight over selling the proposal on Etsy was when I snapped. I repeatedly told you it was important to me professionally and emotionally to not have my name attached to it, and you ignored that. But the truth is things had been tough for me in our friendship for a long time. I think you sensed me pulling away. Remember at your apartment when you remarked that I looked really sad and asked if there was something you could do to be a better friend? I was surprised and embarrassed that I’d let my care-free, happy mask slip like that, but touched that you noticed. At that point I was working a full-time manual labor job, writing freelance, and commuting out to your place to keep working, so I told you that it would be really meaningful to me if you came out to my apartment in Brooklyn. You said that the reason you hadn’t come was because when you visited my first place in Gowanus it made you so sad and you didn’t know how a person could live like that—which made me feel like shit— but you said you would come out to my new place. You never did though, and now I don’t live there. That moment seems small in the grand scheme of things, but it made me realize how lopsided things were. Then there was the time I was going to sublet your room, and then a couple days before the first of the month you told me you needed to put it on Airbnb and asked me to be the maid and clean up your comforter stained with period blood. I ended up having to move back to New Haven because of that. Or the night I spent on the street in Amsterdam, which was one of the worst nights of my life.
    • There were just so many times where I felt hurt and diminished, like our relationship was organized around me being a supporting character in your fabulous life. A lot of this is my fault. I should I stood up for myself in the moment, and not expected you to be a mind reader. Part of it is that I’m a coward and I hate confrontation. But I also didn’t want to jeopardize all the great times we had. When things were working between us, when we were writing, conspiring, planning the future, traveling, trolling Lipsky, just hanging out in your apartment smoking and talking about our work. Those were the best, and I look back on that time with such fondness. I didn’t want to lose what we had. 
    • Part of me still wants things just to go back to the way they were. But working on your book for over a year and having it all fall apart the way it did was a maddening experience. I’ve spent the last year broke, owing the IRS and my parents money, working shit jobs. While it was happening I spent hours in therapy agonizing over you, the lying, the drugs, your threat of suicide and the impossible position I was stuck in. It caused me so much pain. I know this is hard to read. I put off sending it because that last thing I ever wanted was to hurt you. Because I really care about you so much. I want you to thrive, and write amazing books, and keep having impossibly beautiful adventures. Just without me. On my end, I’ll always cherish those wild, formative years we spent together.
    • -Natalie

    • April 19th, 2018
    • 2:44 AM EST
    • To: Natalie
    • From: Caroline
    • Re: 🌱
    • Dear Natalie,
    • Everything you’ve said is so true. Not just the facts of it, but the emotional tenor of it. I DID used to relate to you in a sidekick-y way that I am so ashamed of now. I had such a narrow vision of what a full life looked like (popularity, end of list) that it made me constantly have to justify anything outside of it with an equally narrow script. Something closer to a 90s rom-com set in high school than anything resembling real life.
    • I also had a terrible ability for valuing other people’s needs. An ability so terrible it falls much nearer to narcissism and addiction than just dumb youth. I’m so sorry.
    • I’m so sorry I didn’t ask you what I could do better as a friend sooner or more often.
    • I’m so sorry that I cancelled on letting you stay in my apartment just to make a little money.
    • I’m sorry about what I said about your apartment in Gowanus and for never coming. I’m sorry for forgetting that I said it.
    • I’m so sorry about Amsterdam. I think about it all the time.
    • I was on so much Adderall that night I didn’t even form any long-term memories about it. I can’t even remember what I did instead of making sure you were safe. I feel like a monster when I think about it.
    • And I’m so sorry for all the other small things that I can’t even begin to name.
    • I care about you so much. I love you so much. I think I always will.
    • Caroline

I went back and forth on whether sharing these private emails was ethical. I decided this: There’s nothing fact-wise in here that Natalie hasn’t already made part of the record and that the only behavior that will shock a Cut reader is my own.

It’s hard to imagine the aloof, reckless, unaccountable character of Caroline Calloway in I Was Caroline Calloway sending these emails. In 2018! A YEAR before I went viral as a scammer and a year and half Natalie’s tell-all about me went viral, too.

In drug-addiction recovery programs based on AA there is a step where you make amends. I had hoped that I would get the chance to apologize to Natalie face-to-face, but when she made it clear that she did not want to continue our friendship I catalogued every way I had ever wronged her; hit send.

In I Was Caroline Calloway Natalie cited the last time we ever “saw” each other without mentioning these emails, which were the last time we ever spoke.

One would assume the last time we saw each other would be the last time we spoke, but no.

NO!

Nat took full advantage of this linguistic loophole. I can almost hear her defending that artistic choice: Your apology was too long, too complicated! Too nuanced! New York Magazine told me I had to cut something and so I decided to cut this!

I don’t think an apology changes the past. But I also don’t understand how you can write an essay in which a primary thesis is a certain character’s lack of self-awareness and accountability and remorse and credit-sharing while changing the past. Seems… What’s the word? Unethical.

After the two years I spent more or less away from Instagram, getting clean, I returned to the Internet feeling pretty confident that I had been through some dark shit and had emerged with at least a few lessons to offer the world. I didn’t think I had the answers to life or anything, but I was excited to talk frankly about making art and my mental health. Most of all: I wanted to meet, in person, the community I had been cultivating online for seven years. And I wanted to pay my bills by leveraging this parasocial relationship to sell an experience that would be meaningful to everyone involved instead of hawking shitty merch like other online creators or overpriced hoodies that no one needs. So I made a niche event for a niche community! My Creativity Workshop tour! It went great! Don’t Google it!

A Twitter thread calling my tour a scam went viral overnight and the whole thing blew up in my fucking face. Turns out that even though I had brought my messy, joyful, chaotic brand to life in a way my fans appreciated (and found monetary value in), people who were never going to buy a ticket in the first place were ENRAGED.

I would later find out that it was in February when my reputation was at its most shattered that Natalie stepped in for the kill. She reached out to The Cut (they didn’t reach out to her) and she pitched a tell-all about me. I don’t know what she emailed them, but I FUCKING DARE HER to release the unedited transcript of the cunning, commanding prose she used to sell her victim narrative.

And then in early September of 2019 she emailed me this:

    • September 4th, 2019
    • 2:59 PM EST
    • To: Caroline
    • From: Natalie
    • Subject: reaching out and a heads up
    • Hi Caroline,
    • So it’s been a long time since we’ve spoken, and I really hope things are going well back in the West Village. I’m writing you to give you a heads up that I’ve written a personal essay about my experience working with you, and as such someone from The Cut might reach out to you with fact checking questions.
    • This must be a jarring email to receive, and I’m sorry. I was really conflicted about whether or not to ever write about our time together, and I wouldn’t have done it if you weren’t already living publicly. I just want to say that while some of what I write about might be painful, I steered away from gossip and salaciousness, and there were several secrets of yours I decided to keep.
    • What it came down to was, I just have my own story to tell. I still feel so many conflicting emotions about everything we did together, the highs and lows, my regrets and mistakes, my hurt, and writing about it was important to me. In the essay I focus mainly on my experience, my insecurities, hubris, and how I changed over the seven years since we met. But of course you’re in it, and I understand if that makes you upset. Again, I wouldn’t have touched on things like your Adderall use if you hadn’t been so outspoken about it already. And a note about that, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to overcome that addiction, and I’m so happy you’re healthy now. But when you were using it sometimes led to me getting hurt, from that night in Amsterdam to the months of stress and worry and wasted work. I spent a long time in therapy working through it. And I guess part of me hopes that you can understand that I was really effected by your drug use, and that maybe part of recovery is accepting that.
    • But how you respond is up to you, and I understand that. I meant what I said in that email two years ago — I believe you’re an immensely talented writer with a whole literary career ahead of you. This essay is my limited perspective, and I look forward to reading yours.
    • -Natalie

Her email talks about my “addiction” and “recovery.”Her email is four paragraphs.Her essay, I Was Caroline Calloway, is over 6,000 words.She doesn’t use the words “addiction” or “recovery” once.By expunging my mental illness from the record Natalie presents my behavior when I was sick as the core of my identity and fundamentally mischaracterizes who I am. If I wrote an essay about the year my Mom had cancer before it was diagnosed and offered up the symptoms of her undiscovered tumor (fatigue) as character flaws—like laziness or lack of motivation—that would be unconscionable.No reader would consider an account of my experiences with her during that period of time complete without the word “cancer.”Maybe readers would even like to know that she recovered?She did!Full remission.But mental illness is stigmatized and invisible in ways that physical disease is not. I’m not saying my addiction or depression discounts the pain I caused Natalie. Her pain is real and I take full responsibility for that. But the sicknesses that almost killed me—addiction and depression—are real, too. And they deserve to live side-by-side with her pain in any honest retelling of our friendship—of the truth.A couple days after I found out about her essay for The Cut, my Dad called. He told me he was proud of me. I told him that I had to go, that I was actually really busy dealing with a crazy thing that was happening with my life in New York.
The author (right) with her father at her college graduation. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

It was the last time I ever spoke to him. Two days later he killed himself. Four days after that, Natalie’s essay was released to the world and my life changed forever, again.

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

P O W E R | APR. 07, 2020

I Am Caroline Calloway. During quarantine I am relying more than ever on media to transport me.

By Caroline Calloway

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

I took three photos together with Natalie in the park that day, all polaroids. I’m always taking photos of myself because I’m a vapid bitch. I don’t know how to start this essay.

Part Two and A Half

TRIGGER WARNING – THIS PART CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES AND INFORMATION ABOUT SUICIDE WHICH MAY BE UPSETTING TO SOME PEOPLE.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, here is a list of US and international suicide hotlines: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

We don’t know a lot about the last weeks of my Dad’s life. In fact, in this digital era where so many of our thoughts are accounted for and live-streamed—in this digital era in which I, Caroline Calloway, have posted literal nudes on Twitter—we don’t even know the exact date he died.

When police found his body it was so decomposed that they jotted down in their report he had likely been dead for at least a month, implying a death-date in early August.

But that can’t be right. He talked to me, his brother, and the lady who cut his hair on September 4th. He told all of us that he was proud of us. I don’t know what to make of this.

At the morgue, the morticians corrected the police report, which left open ended the idea of homicide, and declared his death a “likely suicide.” They decided it could have occurred no earlier than September 1st.

Medical examiners corrected the morticians, labelling his “passing” a “definite suicide,” and putting his date of death around the fifth, sixth, or seventh of September.

The house where the author grew up. Yes, that is a dollhouse next to the fireplace in the photo on the left. I used to sit cross-legged on the cold linoleum and play “normal family” all the time! Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

The reason his body decayed so rapidly is because he died in a pool of his own bloody vomit.

The reason he died in a pool of his own bloody vomit is that he did not know how many pills to take.
He did not know—like I do—that before you kill yourself you need to trawl the bleakest forums on the internet to find out how to match your chemical quantities to your body weight. Otherwise an overdose will be more painful than it needs to be, like it was for him.

The house where the author grew up. Shout-out to Falls Church!!!!!!! Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

His body was so actively rotting that even after its exterior had been cursorily cleaned at the morgue, the medical examiner’s office still found living in his chest cavity a colony of maggots.

A page from the medical examiner’s from the author’s autopsy. Note: “Maggots.” Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

“His body was so actively rotting that even after its exterior had been cursorily clean at the morgue, the medical examiner’s office still found living in his chest cavity a colony of maggots.”

Here’s what we know for sure: About three weeks before he died, my Dad called the local Falls Church police saying that “his life was over.”

He asked the cops to take him to “a homeless shelter.”

Officers picked him up at the house where I grew up and took him to a mental hospital in instead.

The house where the author grew up. Please notice all the dog shit in the photo on the right. There was animal piss, too, although you can’t see it. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

There, my Dad kept a journal. I found it cleaning out his things. I know it’s from the mental hospital because he writes about situations that could have only existed there.

He tallies up which medications his doctors put him on and how much of each. I Googled the names. Antipsychotics, all of them.

He describes an argument that broke out during a group therapy session—something about another patient claiming James Madison was president of Princeton University and my Dad correcting everyone that James Madison was only ever president of The Princeton University Alumni Club. I don’t know how my father even knew this because NO ONE IN OUR FAMILY WENT TO PRINCETON.

He calls one nurse a “knock-out.”

Gross.

He records the songs that he likes that were played over the speaker system. Some classical. Some pop. As I said in Part One: He loved the art of every civilization, and never discriminated by century—or even prestige.

In his journal from the mental hospital he writes about me not once.

The author’s childhood bedroom. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

“In his journal from the mental hospital he writes about me not once.”

When his two weeks were over and he had used up whatever state-subsidized emergency-intake protocol existed at that particular hospital, he asked to stay.

I wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t in writing!

Like, if there weren’t a piece of paper confirming this part of story I would be like, NO WAY.

I wouldn’t buy it.

But!

My Dad!

Who refused help his entire life!

Who always denied he even had a problem!

Who screamed at me that I was the crazy one whenever I begged him to try therapy!

He asked to stay!

He petitioned a social worker to continue his state-subsidized emergency treatment.

He wanted to move into a group-home for mentally-ill men.

The house where a random baby grew up. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

This would have been free for him—a type of life-saving healthcare covered by the state of Virginia—which was key because he was bankrupt. He hadn’t filed for bankruptcy formally yet. But he had taken out refinanced mortgage after refinanced mortgage to keep the credit card debt-collectors at bay.

On paper he looked like an Exeter-educated, Harvard-educated, white male home-owner who had never received any kind of mental health treatment until two weeks ago.

And he was! If you had pulled up to the curb of the house where I once pictured myself in a ball gown, with flowers in my hair, inside a castle, inside a story, inside a true story—you would have seen a suburban home like any other on the block.

My childhood home as seen from Google Maps. Photo: Courtesy of fucking GOOGLE!

“On paper he looked like an Exeter-educated, Harvard-educated, white male home-owner who had never received any kind of mental health treatment until two weeks ago.

And he was! If you had pulled up to the curb of the house where I once pictured myself in a ball gown, with flowers in my hair, inside a castle, inside a story, inside a true story—you would have seen a suburban home like any other on the block.”

And that’s what my it looked like the morning our neighbor, who was walking her dog, placed a welfare check with the Falls Church Police Department at my Dad’s address because of a peculiar smell coming from an open upper-story bedroom window that was usually shut.

What no one could see without going inside was that the floors were covered with animal piss and rotting food and so many newspaper clippings that it looked like my Dad was trying to solve, à la John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, a murder.

And that’s what it looked like when the police broke down the door because no one answered, thinking they were solving a murder of their own.

But it wasn’t murder. It was suicide. Because about a week after my Dad asked to continue his treatment in the group-home for mentally-ill men, his petition was denied.

He was released. He called me. Two days later he died.

“He was released. He called me. Two days later he died.”

I remember sitting on my bed in the West Village when I saw the incoming call and I almost didn’t pick up because I was so overwhelmed by all the feelings Natalie’s email had whipped up into a frenzy inside me. I can call him back later, I thought. I can call him back when I have the emotional bandwidth to offer him my support.

But even though I felt fucking shrivelled with shame and dehydrated with fear, I answered. I picked up because, ultimately, it was weird he was calling me. Over the past few years, the reclusive introvert I knew as a child had morphed into a paranoid agoraphobe and he’d stopped contacting me altogether.

I always had to be the one to contact him.

This was the first time he had called me in years.

I remember being struck at how cheerful—how buoyant—he sounded when I finally said, “Hey, Dad!”

“Hi, Sweetsie Girl!”

It’s what he always called me. When he was still well enough to return my letters from boarding school, he would begin each one, “Hi Sweetsie Girl!”

That’s how I know the S and the G should be capitalized when you put this into words.

Since the January I had gone viral as a scammer until the September of that same year when Natalie sold her story about me to The Cut for $5,000, I had cried a lot thinking about New Year’s Eve 2019.

I’d just announced my Creativity Workshop Tour.

Sales were booming.

Booming!

I was haboring this fantasy that I referred to privately as “a plan” that I’d take the extra income and hire a professional organizer to clean my Dad’s house. Now here’s the kicker: Even though he didn’t want therapy I would pay a therapist to come to his house, too! Brilliant, no? I’d never heard of therapy house-calls, but I figured with enough money you could buy anything.

Every New Year’s Eve I had the same conversation with my father.

I would call my Dad because he never called me and he would mutter that everything was getting worse and I would chirp: No! Things will get better! This is going to be our year!

“Everything just keeps getting worse and worse,” he muttered.

“No!” I said brightly.

Except that this year, I meant it.

During my addiction lying to him had silently broken my heart because I knew exactly what he meant. Everything did just keep getting worse and worse. Hard agree, Dad!

But I also understood why parents throughout history have lied to their children and said everything is fine even when things were grim. There’s nothing else to do but offer the people you love hope. Lying not by omission but lying as an act of compassion.

But on December 31st of 2018—the winter after I made amends with Natalie and respected her decision to end our friendship and launched my Creativity Workshops—I was earnest when I said, “Listen we’ve both been through hard times ,Dad. You’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through a lot. But sometimes pain makes you stronger! I used to think that pain just stacked on top of itself until it became too much to carry. But pain can actually be a teacher! Things are going to get better! This is going to be our year!

And then two weeks later I went viral for the first time and things got worse than they had ever been.

I ended up thinking about that New Year’s Eve a lot, the last moment I was happy before 2019 hit me like a whipped cream-pie to the clown-face.

What did it mean that I had never bought in harder to my own sense of hope only to be let down so violently?

Adventure pulp! Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Things are going to get better!” my Dad told me, just as I had told him so many times before, when we had our last conversation.

You can interpret his statement in an ominous way, but I don’t.

I think at that point he still wanted to live.

Cleaning out his house I found a pile of unopened boxes full of CDs with the songs listed in the journal he kept during his stay at the mental hospital.

The packages were delivered after he died.

But he ordered them the day he called me.

He paused. “I just wanted to call to say I’m so proud of you.”

Actually he said: I just wanted to call to say I’m so proud of my Sweetsie Girl.

“I’m so proud of my Dad,” I said distractedly staring at my reflection in the mirror. Whenever I sit on my bed I usually stare into the full length mirror that I’ve propped up opposite the queen sized bed. It’s nice for sex.

“I bet you are really busy in New York,” he said abruptly. This was strange—him anticipating my needs in a way that existed outside his life. Usually he acted like I did during my addiction, myopic and inattentive.

I had a lot on my plate that day and I was so grateful for the easy out that I almost laughed.

“You have no idea, Dad. I am SO busy in New York right now. Like, so busy.

“That’s great!”

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

A few minutes after we hung up, I called back. I needed money.

I hadn’t asked him for money in years, but going viral in January had all but sunk me financially. I came THIS CLOSE to getting evicted from my apartment because for three months in a row I was too emotionally broken to work and I chose to pay for therapy instead of rent.

If the aftermath of Natalie’s article was going to be anything like Scammergate, I knew even leaner times were ahead of me.

He didn’t pick up.

And thank God he did not!

Could you imagine if the last thing I ever said to him was to ask for money?

Instead ,I said: I love you.

The last thing he said to me was: I love my Sweetsie Girl!

The day after he called me and ordered all of the CDs with songs from the mental hospital, my Dad ordered a state-of-the-art washing machine.

Same-day delivery. No dryer. Paid for it over the phone with the employee discount from Home Depot where my schizophrenic uncle works.

My Dad used this washing machine to clean the sheets to make the bed where he would kill himself.

Four fresh pillows. One fitted sheet. Three flat sheets. All white.

Why three flat sheets? We don’t know.

At the foot of the bed he folded a quilt that his Mom had saved from the cabin in North Carolina where she grew up. She died in a bougie nursing home in the DC suburbs paid for by the Ivy-League-educated children she and her husband had produced. My Dad de-linted the quilt because nothing sends him into a black rage like lint and folded it into a rectangular shape.

“Four fresh pillows. One fitted sheet. Three flat sheets. All white.”

When I was home on Christmas break from college one year I scattered “suicide prevention notes” around his house. It must have been during my second or third year at Cambridge because I remember thinking that my addiction was really starting to suck the soul out of my mouth like a dementor.

Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

The author holding a book titled “THE BYRDS OF VIRGINIA” that she found in her Dad’s house because she thought Byrd would like it. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

A photograph of the sink BEFORE the author’s father committed suicide. There cup of water is empty. The pill bottles are still capped. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

But it was the note by his bathroom sink that he probably didn’t read as he uncapped the pill bottles of oxycodone.

He killed himself with painkillers left-over from relatively recent knee surgery and one knee-surgery that he had done before I was born. He had gotten the second knee-surgery when I was in high school. So I know at one point he really did plan on keeping his body in good enough shape to be a grandpa to my kids.

He saved all my tiny dresses in case I had a daughter, like he did.

I don’t think he ignored my note on purpose as he ran the tap to fill a silver cup. Things just fade after you’ve lived with them long enough, like sunsets. And probably all the more so when you’re literally in the middle of a suicide.

Then he swallowed some pills.

I don’t know if he took them one-by-one or by the handful.

But I know that he took a lot of them.

Too many, actually.

Way more than he needed to die.

A photograph of the sink AFTER the author’s father committed suicide. The cup has been moved. The pill bottles are uncapped. The author is wearing one of her Dad’s cashmere sweaters. Isn’t the Internet genre of BEFORE and AFTER photos fun? Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

There are so many ways to kill yourself. Jumping off a roof. Jumping in front a train; car. Carbon monoxide poisoning by oven; car. Hanging yourself. Slitting your wrists. Driving off the road. Asphyxiation. Self-immolation. Defenestration. All Latin and Greek roots, my Dad would have added. Drowning! Poison! Gunshot wound to the head, or basically anywhere on the torso as long as help doesn’t arrive in time and you bleed out.

I never told my Dad about my Adderall addiction because we never knew each other in that way.

By which I mean: authentically.

My Dad never had a problem with addiction. He never even ordered wine at restaurants! And CASE CLOSED when you consider that one of his prescriptions from the nineties—a real addict would have gobbled that shit up years ago.

But isn’t it strange and fucked-up and beautiful that I feel closer to a man I never understood and who never understood me because he chose pills?

“But isn’t it strange and fucked-up and beautiful that I feel closer to a man I never understood and who never understood me because he chose pills?”

Here’s what stresses me out most about his death: There was bloody vomit in the bed. And only regular vomit in the sink.

Are you grasping what this means?

This means that when the nausea hit, he was still conscious lucid enough to think: I don’t want to get these sheets I just cleaned dirty.

And so he got up, stumbled to the sink, and returned to bed.

Bed! His little isle of cleanliness in a house of full filth so he could die in a way different from how he lived: with dignity.

And then he messed that up, too.

My Mom thinks that if he was vomiting so hard that the vomit had blood in it he couldn’t have been conscious.

But I can’t find any research on what consciousness is like during an overdose.

I am worried that at the end of his life he was aware the he was vomiting again and even harder this time—with blood.

I am worried he knew he was fucking up the white sheets.

I am worried that he felt frightened or defeated or ashamed because his last experience of the world was knowing that he had failed at the final thing he ever cared about getting right.

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway
P O W E R | JUN. 17, 2020

I Am Caroline Calloway. During quarantine I am relying more than ever on media to transport me.

By Caroline Calloway

The author (left) with Natalie Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

I took three photos together with Natalie in the park that day, all polaroids. I’m always taking photos of myself because I’m a vapid bitch. I don’t know how to end this essay.

Part Three

The rules for being cancelled are the same as for surviving a riptide. What you can’t do is struggle, although that’s everyone’s first instinct. You want to set the record straight! You want to clear your name. But do that and you’ll expend all your energy too quick, too soon, and drown.

Instead, swim parallel to shore. Even if you don’t want to go in the direction public opinion is carrying you. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever make it back from there. Follow the current. Name your next book Scammer! Call your next event The Scam! Use the same visual language as The Cut tell-all that tore you down to pull yourself back up!

Then, once the undertow subsides, you can make your way back to solid ground.

“If I ever read a story about a suicidal depressive that wakes up one day in a world that does not want them, I would be like, A little too on-the-nose don’t you think, Fanz Kafka?

 But that’s exactly what it’s like when you have the particular bad luck of being prone to suicidal depression and cancelled all at the same time.”

My whole life I had been unsure about whether I wanted to be a part of the world. And then, overnight, a Twitter thread by a Scottish journalist calling me a “scammer” went viral while I slept. And, suddenly, the world decided that it did not want me.

Texts from my British friends were frantic. Twitter timelines in England are six hours ahead. When I woke up on Monday, January 14th, 2019 my lockscreen scrolled and scrolled with notifications from names I hadn’t thought about since college telling me everything from ignore the rumours to just apologise, mate.

When I opened Twitter, my stomach dropped. Dropped through the bed, through the floorboards, through the layers of my grandma’s home, past fanged dinosaur skulls and towards the Earth’s mantle core. I was at my grandma’s house that day because my Mom had moved to Florida when I moved to the U.K. and my childhood bedroom at my Dad’s house—the house in Falls Church, Virginia, where I grew up—reeked of animal piss. So I stayed here when I was in town. Do you know how badly a place has to smell for it to be an obstacle to sleep? I was home in the D.C. suburbs for the night because I had just finished my first weekend of hosting Creativity Workshops first in Brooklyn and then Georgetown plant-filled lofts.

The literal news will tell you that my Creativity Workshop Tour was a “failure.” My own advice at the beginning of this essay will tell you not to argue with these articles. But fuck that shit! What’s the point of building your own brand so you can launch your own website and drive traffic to it without the help of a major publishing platform if you’re not going to use it to say exactly what you think?

Go re-read the articles from January 2019. Ignore the snarky tone of the people writing them and the embedded tweets. Look at the quotes.

Fans for whom the event was designed and who actually attended it said: “Ten out of Ten.” (Business Insider). And: “I think she is someone who is learning and growing like the rest of us.” (A different Business Insider article.) And: “It was so worth it I would have paid for MORE!.” (Buzzfeed). And that’s all I’m going to say about this. I know you like me better when I do jazz hands and make jokes about what a scammy scam I am.

What I remember most about the worst day of my life thus far in our story—but not the worst day I will have before our story ends—are these three things.

One, the panicked texts from my British friends.

Two, snow. There had been a freak-blizzard while I slept and the world was still and white with the kind of powder that blankets yards and laces twigs until a cardinal stirs.

Three, my phone buzzing in my hand with an incoming call from an unknown number.

Not everyone can remember the moment they became famous, but I can. After years of begging (begging!) journalists to write about my Instagram account I, for the first time in my life, told the woman on the other line that I didn’t want to do an interview right now. I was squinting at the corner of the lawn where the morning sunlight was breaking through the trees, bouncing off the snow, and blinding me, when a reporter from Buzzfeed replied: “Regardless of whether or not you’d like to comment, we’re still going to run the story about your scam.”

And damn! I mean, FUCK! Who wouldn’t click on and devour a piece about an Instagram influencer that scammed their fans?!?? I would! I would’ve lapped that story up if it weren’t my dumb life and face and name everyone else was laughing at!

Do you know how many hours I’ve spent silently seething at my iPhone screen, blistering with jealousy at the women I’ve never met who I think deserve to fail because they’ve had an easier life than I have? I’m also frothing at the mouth to see those bitches fall from grace! Internalized misogyny be damned!

Hating Extremely Online Women is the last guilt-free prejudice this world has left.

I cried and dry-heaved with anxiety when I hung up and wept and gagged again on the train ride north from Union Station to Penn. But when I said goodbye to my grandma on her icy porch-steps in Maryland, I pulled it the fuck together, okay? I told her my cheeks were red from the cold. Her suburban block was bright and quiet apart from a beeping snowplow. Later that evening, by the time I slammed the taxi door shut outside my lamplit street in the West Village more articles about me had been published up by New York Magazine, Business Insider, and a bunch of international new outlets I didn’t have the emotional stamina to Google-translate. All negative. All shaming. All suggesting that I was at best a tone-deaf dum-dum and at worst a white-collar criminal-mastermind. But that afternoon my grandma told me to be “safe at night” because my mother’s mother thinks murder is a greater threat to my well-being than suicide, inherited on my father’s side.

The author (top left) in Brooklyn in January of 2019, scamming innocents and doing crime. Photo by Kathleen O’Neill: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

When I got back to the City, my first instinct in January of 2019 was to thrash against the deluge of scammer articles crashing over me. My first instinct was wrong.

 In February 2019 I lost it with exhaustion from struggling against the press. After I limped through the final dates my abortive Creativity Workshop tour (among other misinformation I did not cancel it) I stopped working altogether. I was too afraid of public humiliation to launch new money-making ventures and I was too stressed about not making any money to sleep at night and I was too afraid of overdosing on sleeping pills to escape this nightmare to let myself go to the pharmacy.

In March 2019 I began seriously running out of cash. When it came time to cut back on going to therapy three times a week because I could no longer afford it, I stopped paying rent instead. I figured I needed the mobile-home turtle-shell of my head more than I needed a West Village studio or even a clean record in the New York City housing courts.

By April 2019 the articles calling me a scammer had long been forgotten by the people who read and wrote them, but their subject (hi) was still drowning in a personal sea of daily dms and comments and Reddit threads. Drowning! Hair streaming upwards, eyes open underwater, settling on the bottom of the ocean floor in a cloud of slow-mo sediment. I think maybe online bullies can smell weakness the way real life predators can and the spring after I got cancelled the first time I was very weak. In May 2019 my account hit balance zero.

Two years prior, in May 2017, I quit Adderall and I promised myself that I would never take another daily prescription pill again.

In May 2019 I uncapped my first plastic orange plastic prescription pill-bottle in two years.

Anti-depressants. I had to! SSRI stands for “Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitor” and they are a pill that brought me back to the surface and kept me floating there.

In June 2019 I began selling watercolor paintings. By July 2019 I had saved up enough money to pay off all my back-owed rent literally days before I was evicted by a judge at City Hall. By the time August 2019 rolled around I had begun making paper collages based on Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude II and working on a website for my art! Things were getting better! Then on Wednesday, September 4th, 2019, I got Natalie’s email.

My apartment the day before I got Natalie’s email. I was happy. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

There are certain online personalities who stay relevant by force-feeding you so many intimate details about them that when the next thing happens, you can’t help but care. You’re already too accidentally invested! I call this dousing oneself in “Kardashian gasoline.”

 I meant to share stories about my life online in order to build a personal brand as a memoirist and find an audience of people who liked reading what I wrote. And I did that. But in along the way I also doused myself in Kardashian gasoline.

If the first rule of being cancelled is that it’s like a riptide, the second rule is that it’s like lightning. And, yes! That’s my last nature simile about cancel culture in this essay! But it’s fascinating to note that lightning is, in fact, more likely to strike the same spot twice—either during the same thunderstorm or even centuries apart. Ditto being cancelled on the Internet. Once hating your name is no longer a radical hot take, your identity will forever be a more accessible airstrip for public outrage.

By “oversharing” about my life on Instagram (a gendered verb that is only ever applied to female storytellers!) and then being cancelled, I made myself increasingly flammable to scandal. When I got Natalie’s email and I could almost hear the sound of her striking a match.

I saw her email during a business meeting at a restaurant and, humiliatingly, I burst right into tears. After the waitress asked me if I wanted some napkins for my face and I stumbled back to my apartment building, I hung up the phone with my father for the last time.

Does it affect your sympathy for me if I tell you that after I started making money selling visual art I was signed by a team of digital talent managers, Adam and Isabel? And it was them with whom I was in a meeting when I got Natalie’s email? And that meeting was on the poolside rooftop of  Soho House in the Meatpacking District? People hate the rich in long-form prose! Make yourself the plucky underdog.

Natalie with her notebook, teaching me how to write, at a diner on Sixth Avenue in the wee hours of the night circa 2014. A fun fact about Natalie is that she loves unlimited coffee-refills in diners almost as much as readers hate the rich in long-form prose. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

    • September 4th, 2019
    • 5:53 PM EST
    • To: Natalie
    • From: Caroline
    • Subject: reaching out and a heads up
    • Dear Natalie,Your stories are yours to tell. You are the best writer I know and I will always support your art.I feel such deep shame about the ways I hurt you. I am so sorry. It will be very painful to have these stories—like Amsterdam—made public when I am still trying to work through them in therapy. I am so afraid of that pain, but thank you for the heads up.I still love you. I know that is probably the wrong thing to say right now, but it’s true. I love you. I think you are so special. I write letters to you in my head all the time. I self-soothe by thinking: Maybe one day we’ll be friends again! You never know how life turns out! Over the years I’ve made mental lists of things to tell you about—just stuff I thought would make you laugh. The way Steve Almond says memOIR on the Dear Sugars Podcast. Mallory Ortberg’s impressions of Anna Wintour. Roxanne Gay’s tweets about her nemeses. But then the years passed the Dear Sugars Podcast ended and Mallory became Dan and Roxanne Gay tweeted that she thought I was “messy,” so she’s now MY nemesis! This joke is a line from the letters I wrote to you in my head.When I first reached out to you about being friends again I wasn’t brave enough to take responsibility for all the ways I hurt you. I was only six months clean and reality was still hard for me to confront. My guilt and self-loathing were so big. And I was just like, Hey wanna be friends again? I apologize for THAT in addition to the many, many ways I hurt you. I consider Amsterdam one of the worst things I have ever done. You and [my ex-boyrfiend, name redacted] are the two people who suffered most because of my addiction. With Byrd and Kelsey as a close tie for third. What’s so fucked up is I probably can’t even enumerate the ways I hurt you because there are so goddamn many and I was so freaking high all the time and I never slept. But I understand that these are pressing stories that you have to tell. Your pain and hurt deserve to be made into art and they deserve to be published somewhere awesome like The Cut.This is a great opportunity for you that will make my life very hard. It will give more evidence to my bad reputation because people can’t separate my mistakes from when I was an addict from who I am now. But more importantly it will make part of the public record many stories that I have never shared because I haven’t finished healing from them. The shit people message me every day… It’s awful, Nathalie. They tell me they’re glad I have depression because I should kill myself and rid the world of me. They tell me that my addiction wasn’t real or that I’m still addicted. They tell me I’m a crazy, filthy hoarder just like my Dad is. I don’t post these comments because they hit me right in my pockets of deepest shame. It will be very painful to have memories of our friendship added to the hate that I am bombarded with every day. Being trolled for the way I treated you is what I am most afraid of because I still haven’t forgiven myself. I still hate myself for it. I still love you.I know you can’t control these people. I just want you to understand what this will mean for my life so that you can understand how deep my support for you runs. Long after this article is published I will be going about my day in the West Village and someone who hasn’t met either of us will send me a message or leave a comment or reference something in your article—something for which I truly hate myself—and I will have to stop my day and relive it. Maybe this will be an opportunity for me to heal more thoroughly or quickly or resiliently. I know that I will be fine. I don’t want you to worry. I have an amazing support system. I just want you to understand because I don’t think many people do understand the level of trolling that I live with or what it is like to be constantly reminded of your mistakes by strangers who hate you.

      Every day I grapple with the fact that you had to endure all my reckless addict behavior and never got to reap any of the benefits of the person recovery made me into. Every time I see Kelsey—the only close relationship from that time that has survived—I am so grateful for the chance to be a good friend to her because of all the ways I wasn’t to you during those years.

      I know we no longer have a friendship, but I hope this is a chance for me to be here for you in ways I wasn’t during my addiction. I support you. Write whatever you need to write. Your stories are yours to tell.

      Can you imagine if back in our early days of writing classes with David Lipsky someone had told us you would be publishing a PERSONAL ESSAY FOR THE CUT??!! I would have been so happy for you. I still am.

      Love,
      Caroline

      Sent from my iPhone, which means I still have it.

More photos I took of Natalie at that diner. I was always taking photos of her because as much as she wants to be the only narrator of this story, she was my muse as much as I was hers. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

After I sent that email at 5:53 PM EST on Wednesday September 4th, 2019 I shut my laptop and then my eyes. My doorbell rang. I opened my eyes and then the front door to my apartment.

It occurred to me, mascara streaking down my cheeks, that if Natalie had been standing in the hallway outside my once-turquoise now-white studio she would have laughed with delight at the disheveled sight of me.

But of course it wasn’t Natalie standing there. It was a different twenty-two year-old who I was about to treat like my personal assistant! It was a twenty-two year-old I had hired for the explicit purpose of being my personal assistant.

The day I found out Natalie’s article was going to be published was Christina’s first day of work. Her eyes widened. “Sorry. Do you want me to, um.” She adjusted her glasses. Tucked a strand of brown hair behind one ear. Coughed.  “Come back in a few minutes? I know you said six PM and it’s…”

Christina. Photos: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

I sent Christina home early that night and spent the next few days posting non-stop about Natalie, drumming up a flurry anticipation for her article. I knew that in order to survive this I would have to ride the wave. Swim parallel to shore. The idea of giving Natalie’s tell-all exposure on my Instagram account made me want to scream with frustration, tear my shirt down the middle Incredible Hulk-style, and flip a dining room table in rage so much blacker than my father’s. But, as I constantly reminded myself over the coming days, promoting this essay would benefit us both in the long run. I needed to avoid burn out by surrendering myself to the current of public opinion that Natalie was about to control. And Natalie needed access to my haters.

After going viral as a scammer in January, I had gained sixty thousands followers, most of whom were convinced I was a conniving criminal that belonged in jail. Some changed their minds over the next nine months and sent me messages telling me this. But just as many of them came to my account every day to hate-watch my life and sent messages telling me this, too.

Ultimately, The Cut did not have the largest audience of the readers interested in Caroline Calloway. I do. And I did in September 2019, too.

Natalie, um, did not see the free publicity I gave her essay as a favor to us both. Or maybe she did. And she was just wily enough to spin this way instead:

For almost a week she’s been posting constantly — how much she misses our friendship, how hurt and ashamed she is about whatever she thinks I’ll say here, how relieved she is that I broke the trust in our relationship so she can now write about me, too. It’s been surreal watching this unfold from my desk job in Los Angeles, but I’m not surprised she’s taken an essay of mine that didn’t exist yet and turned it into a narrative for herself. 

                                                                        —The Cut

Or maybe after years of being manipulated by an addict, Natalie no longer believed any emotion of mine could ever be sincere.

I won’t make assumptions about what was going on inside her head. But what I know for sure is this: In the six days between when I got her email and her article was published, the views on my Instagram story, the views on my page itself, and the likes I was getting per-post skyrocketed. I already understood that leaning into bad press is easier than fighting it, but even I was surprised to see the palpable anticipation for me to be cancelled a second time.

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Do you guys have any friendships that have ended that still bring you pain? This afternoon I found out that one of the two people I have hurt the most in this world will be publishing an essay about our friendship for The Cut. I don’t know when this essay will go live. But it will be different than the articles that called me a scammer for clickbait. Everything in Natalie’s article will be brilliant and beautifully expressed and true. I know this not because I have read her essay but because Natalie is the best writer I know. I still love her. Our friendship ended 2 years ago, but I still walk around New York sometimes, listening to music, running errands, thinking about her. Amsterdam. I’ll let her tell you about that trip because it put her in danger—not me—so maybe it is hers to tell. Maybe she has custody of that story. Sometimes I all but gag with guilt. Sometimes I write emails to her in my head. Sometimes I imagine a future where we’re friends again! Natalie suffered all the consequences of being loved by an addict and none of the benefits of being loved by the woman that recovery made me into. In early August Natalie liked one of my Instagram photos by accident. I knew it was by accident because I know Natalie. But still! I thought: Maybe she is checking in on me because she still wants to be friends! Maybe she still loves me, too. I realize now that she must have been working on the article about us that will be published soon by New York Magazine. My team asked two things of me: To ignore this essay in my posts so I don’t drive traffic to it and to give them Natalie’s email so they could reach out. This is the first time I’ve disobeyed them. You should read Natalie’s article when it comes out. I’ll post a link when it does. Go leave a comment on nymag.com even if it’s insulting me. Every digital impression will be another reason for The Cut to hire Natalie again and to pay her even more next time. And The Cut doesn’t have access to the audience most interested in hating and loving Caroline Calloway. I do. So start anticipating this article. Get excited. Read it. I hope I can support Natalie now in ways I never did during my addiction.

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There will be a moment when I wake up tomorrow morning and I won’t remember. And then it will him me. Over the past 9 months I have learned how to deal with articles that lie. Articles that call me a scamming liar. I have learned how to deal with articles form former fans that “expose” the “real me” as “a self-obsessed mess.” I have learned how to deal with articles that question my worth as an artist, teacher, and human. That shame me for falling behind on rent. That stoke my own paranoia because a VICE reporter bought a ticket to my closed-to-press event with her EDITOR’S HUSBAND’S CREDIT CARD and then lied to me about her identity for six hours. I have learned how to deal with the trolling that is a trickle-down effect of all this press. Ok. Fine! Still learning. But I have not had to grapple with an article about me that is fully true—as I know Natalie’s will be. Natalie is the most reliable narrator. She is the funniest funny person. Her essay will be a goddamn dramedic masterpiece. It’s so hard to love yourself when you keep being identified as A Person People Hate. I am so ashamed of how I failed our friendship. I am so ashamed of how much I still love Natalie. I’m so ashamed that she no longer wants to be friends. I am sick to death about learning lessons about fame I never wanted to learn. These past nine months were not what I wanted. I am scared about tomorrow and the pain I will feel when mistakes I have not healed from are made public. At different points this summer I have sat in the middle of Washington Square fountain—with the British boy who wanted to fuck me without kissing and my crush who was so kind to me and as I type this now I’m sitting here again, alone. To walk home I’ll have to purposefully avoid the NYU “Creative Writer’s House” where Natalie and I met. That first day of class I talked about Catullus and she talked about New Haven. I said this an email to Nat this afternoon and I’ll say it again now because I don’t know a better way: If someone had told us when we were still in writing class together that she were were publishing a PERSONAL ESSAY FOR THE CUT?!?! I would have been so happy for her. I still am.

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For five years I saved these papers because Natalie was my best friend and for two years I saved them because she wasn’t. These are from the writing class where we met—the first time she edited me. I became a writer because of Natalie. I’ve said before that I taught myself how to write, but that’s not wholly true. Natalie taught me how to write and I kept learning because she gave me the confidence to continue and the emotional support to prevent me from quitting. Watching her care so deeply about sentences granted me permission to do the same. Watching her take apart a story and “strip it for parts” (a Natalie phrase) and rebuild it made my head spin with love. She was the first artist I admired who took my Instagram captions seriously as exciting prose. She taught me the rule of threes. She’s in every sentence I write not just because she is the reason I kept going, but her writing style is in my voice’s DNA. Excellent brain; even better soul. I have no suggestions for how she could have been a better friend. All she did was try to keep me from harm’s way and all I did was harm her. I love a lot of things about who I am, but I hate myself for how my addiction affected Natalie. How do you love someone who no longer wants you in their life? For me it meant not contacting Natalie for two years. I knew I’d finally be capable of being a good friend to her if only I could show her. But I didn’t want to prioritize my own redemption over Natalie’s boundaries. So I wrote emails in my head and made lists in my Notes App of things she would like. I kept her contact in my phone and a candle burning in the lantern of my heart. Maybe Natalie would have cut that line because it’s too flowery. She once sassily wrote “OK JOAN [Didion]” next to the pretentious line: “Loneliness has an inertia that is hard to stop.” Running my hands over the ball point indentations of that comment was a way of loving her that did not disrupt her new life in LA. Just like I have no edits for her as a friend, I don’t know how to improve her writing. I saved her essays, too, but they are unmarked. I only have one in New York. I took the other two to England along with my favorite books.

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This is the ocean floor of my Google results. This page is so deep and difficult to find with all the scamming articles out there about me you have to know exactly what to Google: “Caroling Calloway Defenestration Welcome Class of 2016.” It’s the first piece of writing I ever published. The Refinery 29 piece about Taylor Swift was the first freelance piece I ever published because Refinery paid me and Defenestration did not. In 2012 I was just so happy that someone wanted to publish my humor writing on the foibles of elite collegiate environments! It was published under the category “Fake Nonfiction”—Also known as fiction. Could you ever imagine me writing fiction now? Outrageous, I know. But seven years later I still love this little piece so much. The jokes are still funny. The descriptions still ping. It’s a childhood photo of my adult writing voice—adorable and unsettlingly recognizable. You can see exactly the sort of comedy and themes I will grow into. Nothing has ever interested me more than writing funny, heartbreaking stories about fancy people—ideally students.

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I feel better this morning. Wrung-out and still and maybe a little numb. And yeah yeah yeah I know we’re supposed to feel our feelings but the sadness and fear and self-hatred I’ve felt over the past day made me cry for six hours straight. Twice. It’s nice to get a break by feeling emptied out. I went about my normal day, but there were tears streaming down my face. The first time it happened I was too embarrassed to share it with you. The second time I looked my sadness straight in the eye and made some content about it. I know we all carry the quiet belief that by posting about sadness we cheapen it—but I believe we do something powerful every time we find the courage to let other people know they are not alone in their shame or terror or grief. If you’ve ever experienced the kind of heartbreak that happens between friends I want you to know you’re not alone in that either. I’m sure some people thought I looked fucking bananas, but that sadness is the real me and that’s who I want you to know. There was a 10k spike in my story views. A 50k spike in visitors to my Instagram page. That only happens when a new article comes out about me or someone important tweets about me or someone unimportant tweets something about me that gains viral momentum. I didn’t check. I’m grateful for the numbness. I only have enough energy and headspace for one crisis of the heart right now.

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I realized today in therapy that I’m not numb. I’m pissed. I know this is not an endearing thing for me to feel right now. But it’s true. Natalie took these photos of me. My thoughts keep returning to her email. She said: “I just want to say that while some of what I write about might be painful, I steered away from gossip and salaciousness, and there were several secrets of yours I decided to keep.” I feel: So ungrateful for this gratitude! The premise should not be that I expect her to sell my secrets to The Cut and so I’m thankful when she holds back. The premise is that I TOLD HER MY SECRETS BECAUSE I NEVER THOUGHT A SINGLE KNEWOULD END UP IN THE CUT. The truth: This is the only in time seven years Natalie has ever knowingly hurt me. Do you know how many times I’ve hurt Natalie? No really. I’m genuinely asking. I didn’t sleep from 2015 to 2017 and formed few long-term memories. I didn’t know I was hurting her at the time—it was worse. I didn’t care. She said: “And I guess part of me hopes that you can understand that I was really effected by your drug use, and that maybe part of recovery is accepting this.” I feel: Upset that she is trying to make me accept her publishing as a normal part recovery. I’m about to go through what few do. The truth: Taking responsibility includes accepting consequences. I hurt Natalie. Natalie is the best writer I know. “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” —Anne Lamott. She said: “In the essay I focus mainly on my experience, my insecurities, hubris, and how I changed over the seven years since we met. But of course you're in it, and I understand if that makes you upset.” I feel: That she should have been brave enough to say, The Cut would not have bought this essay about my experiences, insecurity, and hubris UNLESS YOU WERE IN IT. I understand if you feel upset because I used you. The truth: It is unfair of me to hold Natalie to standards of bravery I failed to meet every day for the last 3 years of our friendship. Also true: feeling anger is a way to avoid feeling shame.

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“Or maybe after years of being manipulated by an addict, Natalie no longer believed any emotion of mine could ever be sincere.”

On Christina’s second day of work the fact-checker from New York Magazine called.

Did I wear a designer dress on the first day of my Creative Writing Workshop at NYU?

Was I ten minutes late to class that afternoon?

Did I buy forty thousand Instagram followers?

Yes, yes, and yes.

The phone call must have lasted over an hour. NY Mag didn’t go in chronological order; they started with softballs and saved the more damning questions for last. And then: Did I threaten to kill myself because of Natalie’s writing? I paused, stunned.

“Actually could you leave the part about the, uh, suicide, out? It had nothing to do with Natalie’s writing and I’ve never talked about that before… publicly.”

It seems crazy to say that I balked at that now, in the middle of this essay littered with graphic details about suicide all over the fucking place like physical and metaphorical dirty laundry. But there was once a period of my life, my entire life before Natalie published her article, when all my suicidal ideation was off the public record. Something I could work through on my own time with my therapist that I didn’t feel pressure to exploit for content or make meaning out of in my art. When the factchecker thanked me for bringing this “sensitive topic” to her attention and I melted with gratitude and chirped, “Sure!” because I didn’t realize thank you did not guarantee a thing.

Christina’s eyes flicked up from her laptop and our gaze met long enough for me to see a muscle in her neck tense before she looked down again. She must have been looking at me throughout the call, but I didn’t realize because I was in a fugue state of repeating over and over again: If Natalie said it, it must be true. I hadn’t even finished Christina giving her all the logins to my social media accounts, but now I guess she knew that I had never talked about suicide publicly before.

On Christina’s third day of work, Natalie’s article dropped. It was Tuesday, September 10th, 2019—Early evening. Or late afternoon. I don’t remember the hour. Just the steep slant of sunset reflecting off of windows the courtyard and the shadows they cast in the shape of my fire escape and the way the light lit up the leaves of my plants. I was packaging a stack of watercolors and paper collages that needed to be shipped. I checked my phone. Nothing. I had been checking my phone every few minutes for the past six days because I knew Nat’s article could go live at any moment and I’m a nervous bitch. I addressed a few more envelopes with a Sharpie in the dappled sunlight on my floor. Checked my phone again. Four hundred notifications on Instagram, mostly comments asking how I sleep at night since I’m such terrible, toxic SCUM. That’s how I knew the article had gone up.

Christina was about to clock out for the day, but she stayed until Isabel hustled over to my apartment and got Adam on a crackling speaker phone from LA.

There was silence while the three of them read I Was Caroline Calloway and I lay down a pool of shame and worry so hot and syrupy it was closer to a kind of fear than humiliation. Christina cleared her throat and said quietly “Um. I don’t know how to tell you this. But they included the thing about the suicide.”

“What?” I said, muffled, from where I was lying face down on my rug.

“The thing you said about suicide to the fact ch—”

“Oh.” I cut her off. “Read it.”

I could tell from the silence that followed that she was either looking at Isabel for permission or Christina just didn’t want to tell me. “Never mind,” I mumbled. The next morning I slept until the last possible second before I could leave to print out Natalie’s essay at Fed Ex and still get to therapy on time. I wanted to annotate a hard copy of her piece with my first impressions and insights so I could pull from my notes some day when I was ready to write my rebuttal. Plus, there’s no cell service in my therapist’s building. I scooped the hot pages from the printer into my tote and set off down the block past the NYU Creativity Writers. Students were chatting on the stoop. The new school year had just started.

Remember those staged paparazzi photos of Meghan Markle’s Dad looking at photos of her and Harry before the wedding at a random internet café in Tucson or New Mexico or something? Yeah. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but that reference felt deeply relevant and important here. Painting by ??? Photos: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

On Christina’s fourth day of work—the day after the day after Natalie’s article came out—I found out that my father died.

The man who broke the news about my father’s passing was, wait for it, THE FATHER OF MY BOYFRIEND FROM BOARDING SCHOOL. Oh, you don’t remember the squash-player I dated at Phillips Exeter Academy? The one who I lived with for a summer on Martha’s Vineyard with his pastel polo-ed bros? Part One was too long ago to make this a logical, easily digestible plot development for you for you? Imagine how I felt after ten years.

After we hung up I said, “My father just died,” and Christina’s jaw fell open. Then I called my Mom. Then a Falls Church detective called me and asked if I had any “leads” about “foul play.” He actually said that! The police had not yet ruled out murder. Then I wrote an Instagram caption announcing my father’s death. Then I posted it. Then I walked past the NYU Creative Writers House. Then therapy. Autopilot for all of this.

Then I walked past the NYU Creative Writer’s House again and a student stopped me and asked for a selfie. Then I wondered they meant it when they said they liked my writing or if they just wanted me to be compliant so they would have something to send the group chat. Then I walked to midtown to give an interview to NBC News.

Adam and Isabel urged me to cancel my week of upcoming interviews—all of which had been scheduled when we still thought both my parents were alive. I guess they thought I would be too unhinged and my resting personality could already be described as “loose cannon.” But I pushed back. Five years of tearing through peoples lives like the flaky, unreliable drug addict that I was had left me with a visceral, dry-heaving response to the idea of letting people down, especially the people who took a chance on working with Sober Me. Also, I knew ABC News had made arrangements a professional photographer and I thought it might be meaningful one day to have portrait to look back on of this grief. Double also: If I cancelled my plans with reporters I had never met I might have to be alone that afternoon instead.

I was right about finding these portraits of my grief meaningful one day. When I look at this gorgeous film photograph by Chelsea Stahl (!) I see a girl who is scared and ashamed and devastated and putting one foot in front of another like a goddamn trooper. It’s easier for me to have compassion for myself when I look at photos of this day than when I think about it. Photo by Chelsea Stahl: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

The only problem with letting NBC photograph one hundred and forty-one minutes after I found out my father died is that they now own those intimate portraits of my grief until the end of time. And NBC has exactly zero qualms about using them to populate content about how unintelligent I am. Zoom in! The caption beneath the photo of me on the red-bordered right-hand article reads: “A pretty face is nothing without someone to mind its algorithms.” First of all, the algorithms are EXACTLY what I minded when it came to working with Natalie. Branding and account growth and buying ads were 100% my responsibility. We split the writing 50/50. Second of all, do you think NBC would ever publish that caption about a man? Photos: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Before I got the call from the father of the boy I lost my virginity to and found out that my father was dead on Thursday, September 12th, 2019, my life was already moving at the strange stand-still blur of crisis mode. I was still. People burred. This day was peak press. 48 hours was just about the amount of time all the op-ed writers in the world needed to gather their thoughts on my friendship with Natalie. Every hour a new story came out. The New York Times published an article titled “Who Is Caroline Calloway? An Explainer.” The New York Post published an article titled “Caroline Calloway’s Ex-BFF Denies They’re Colluding for Fame” Buzzfeed published a quiz titled “Are you a Natalie or a Caroline?”

My doorbell kept ringing with friends who let others in the front to my building on their own way out. All of them bought flowers and kind words about my Dad, but nothing anyone said to me in person that day meant as much as I what I read that Natalie had said in an interview with The New York Times. “Writing with Caroline and for Caroline was an incredible crash course in character creation and honesty and confessional writing. Caroline is a fantastic writer and I think the roadblocks to her creating great literary work have nothing to do with her talent. Her voice is really singular, and I think that’s the reason why she’s a figure who has over the years persisted in our culture.”

A fantastic writer! A singular voice! A cultural figure that persists! Who cares if Natalie didn’t mention I could write in her tell-all about me and made it look like she did all the work? We hadn’t spoken in two years, but I wondered if Natalie was reading my interviews the way I was reading hers.

After the last friend had left and Christina was gathering all the carnations I had re-gifted her, getting ready to go home, I blurted out: “I’m about to email her.”

“Who?”

“Natalie.”

Christina paused. Squinted. “What are you going to say?”

“I’m going to ask her to call me.” I paused. “DON’T TALK ME OUT OF THIS!”

Christina’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth and then she closed it. She hugged me before she left. The job description I had hired her for was “addressing envelopes.”

    • September 12th, 2019
    • 7:31 PM EST
    • To: Natalie
    • From: Caroline
    • Subject: Could you call me?
    • This would be off the record. No Instagram. It will be just be between us. I’ll be free any time after 8:30 PM
      Sent from my iPhone, which means I still have it.

    • September 12th, 2019
    • 7:42 PM EST
    • To: Caroline
    • From: Natalie
    • Subject: Could you call me?
    • I was actually about to email you, but a call works. Talk in a little

    • September 12th, 2019
    • 7:48 PM EST
    • To: Natalie
    • From: Caroline
    • Subject: Could you call me?
    • Talk soon! At 8:30! Or what time works for you?Sent from my iPhone, which means I still have it.

An hour passed. No response.

Five minutes before 8:30 PM EST, just when I had convinced myself Natalie was ghosting me and that my life could not possibly get a dolorimeter worse, The Daily Mail picked up the story about my father’s death. And they used this headline. Dolorimeters are the metric unit in which humans measure pain.

Wow. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Calloway

Another hour passed. Still no response. And then!

    • September 12th, 2019
    • 7:42 PM EST
    • To: Caroline
    • From: Natalie
    • Subject: Could you call me?
    • Sorry for the delay. I’m just running a little late. Apologies for the inconvenience.

The first thing I said to her after two silent years and one viral tell-all was, “Hi.”

TO BE CONTINUED…

In the meantime, you can follow me on Instagram and Twitter, where I write in two VERY different ways. Or let yourself be scammed by the best in the biz by pre-ordering my first book, SCAMMER.