PHOTO COURTESY OF CELESTE SLOMAN.
Carolyn Murnick’s darkly beautiful debut memoir, The Hot One (Simon & Schuster), tells the story of her childhood best friend Ashley Ellerin, who was brutally murdered in Los Angeles at only 22 years old. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Murnick and Ellerin wore matching pastel pink outfits and posed for mock disposable camera fashion shoots in the woods. But as young adults, figuring out love, careers, and big cities, they grew apart. Murnick lived in a dingy apartment in New York; Ellerin seemed to be leading a glamorous life in L.A. of strip clubs, cash, and men. A year after their last visit, Ashley was dead.
Murnick explores in poetic and riveting detail her quest for answers about how Ashley was killed, but also how she lived. This journey takes her from the Chateau Marmont to Los Angeles Courthouses to dive joints off the Vegas strip. What she finds out about her friend is sometimes lurid, but more often real, painful, and profound.
We spoke with Murnick about the power of young friendships, growing up a girl, pushing limits, secret lives, and how those we love can stay with us, even after they die.
ROYAL YOUNG: I’d like to talk about growing up and growing apart and the power that early friendships hold over us for all our lives.
CAROLYN MURNICK: Really the core of this book is the power of childhood friendship and female friendship. You have someone that you once had everything in common with and for most people, you end up taking different paths in life. The bond you once had never quite goes away, those feelings are always with us. I consider Ashley my first best friend and I think in some ways we influenced each other’s identities as young girls.
YOUNG: As you start getting older together, you talk about how being a girl means being looked at whether you like it or not. Becoming aware of the male gaze.
MURNICK: It’s a complicated world growing up as a young woman and starting to pick up on the messages that we are being judged on our looks and our bodies. Internalizing cues around, “Smile, be polite, be deferential.” That’s one of the reasons I think female friendships are so special. You understand those forces at play and you’re bonded as you figure out ways to navigate this patriarchal world. Our original bond was from a young age before sex and drugs and guys came into our world. We were doing art and hiking, just enjoying being around each other.
YOUNG: When sex and drugs and pushing limits become part of a relationship that has never been about those things, what happens?
MURNICK: It’s hard. I’m sure you’ve been in situations were you have a friend doing something that makes you nervous. You might be like, “I’m nervous my friend is trying this drug but should I do it too? Maybe I should just be more adventurous.” When your friend’s decisions are different from your own, I think it’s only natural to turn inward and wonder.
YOUNG: Especially in your early twenties, where we’re all figuring out who we are, pushing boundaries and shedding old versions of ourselves. So when you’re around someone pushing harder than you are, it makes you question.
MURNICK: Yeah, and feel insecure. To be around someone who seems like they are living this glamorous life and have it all together. The last time I saw Ashley in New York, I was underage. Even though we were less than a year apart, she was 21 and that amplified even more the feeling that she was in a different world. It’s so hard to remember now what that feeling was like to be in New York underage.
YOUNG: You write that Ashley was past the point of being affected by the potential fall-out from casual sex and you felt like a prude, the one holding back. How do people who are doing potentially dangerous things make us feel like we are living too safely in a way that maybe shakes things up in us?
MURNICK: So much of this has to do with being young and vulnerable and not figuring out who you want to be yet. Her coming into New York and seeming like she was adult when I was a student barely getting into having my first relationship, it really threw me for a loop around my sense of self. I didn’t feel good about myself around her. It wasn’t her fault. But it was real.
YOUNG: How did her death shift everything? How has it changed your perspective and started you off on this journey?
MURNICK: It happened over many years. I was 21 when she was murdered and she was 22. I found out about it in my town newspaper in New Jersey. All I knew was the last time I saw her, she told me about this wild life she was living, which I was confused and intimidated and worried for her by. Suddenly, a year later, I learn she’s been mysteriously murdered. For many years I felt there had to be a connection to sex work or drugs. I felt compelled to understand what happened to her. Then in 2008, I found out a man had been arrested for a murder, which was connected to three other victims and I thought, “Holy shit.”
YOUNG: What is it like knowing someone in death? How do you continue to grow with them and how do your lives still connect or touch?
MURNICK: As I get older, I understand how loss can deepen. I feel more and more how outrageous it is that her life ended at 22. I’m 38 now and what I’ve done and experienced in the last few years is huge. The injustice of that feels stronger, and 22 looks younger and younger. She was really just a kid.
YOUNG: Definitely. We all have secret lives.
MURNICK: Everyone has one. For Ashley it was sex industry stuff. I think she wanted to compartmentalize her life. She would go to Vegas on weekends and her L.A. friends knew to not ask questions. I wish we had gotten the opportunity to talk about why; who knows how it would have all played out.
YOUNG: How do you feel that your life and Ashley’s connect?
MURNICK: We started out our childhood very close. The last time we saw each other we were growing apart, but this book is about how we reconnected as friends and a spiritual sense of how our relationship has continued. I’ve devoted the last decade to exploring her life and what happened to her. It’s a tribute to her importance in my life. Searching for answers is one of the ways her friends are keeping her alive.
THE HOT ONE COMES OUT TOMORROW, AUGUST 1, 2017.