The Essay That Started It All

In her book Adult Drama, Natalie Beach reckons with her decision to write about Caroline Calloway and what came next.

Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Beach
Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Beach
Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Beach

“This is all I ever wanted,” I lied. 

That would have been the first line of Caroline Calloway’s memoir. At least the draft I was writing in 2017, before our collaboration ended, as they often do, in competing narratives. The book was never finished, but it’s a joke now that anything about Caroline has gone unwritten. Since we met, almost a decade ago, the revisions and retellings have kept piling up; we became friends in a creative nonfiction class, co-wrote Instagram captions introducing Caroline (or a character named Caroline) to an online audience, and sold a book proposal based off those captions, but because Caroline is a writer who often, in lieu of writing, creates her character by living, we never came close to finishing the book, and so I wrote my own personal essay about it all here in the Cut, for which I received an obscene and life-changing amount of attention that I leveraged into money to buy myself more time to write, this time just about myself. In the four years since, there have been think pieces, a robust sub-Reddit, discourse. A publicly traded company owns my life rights, and a very talented showrunner has been hard at work turning my essay about Caroline into a limited series, because at this point, what’s the harm in one or two more adaptations?

As a condition of the TV deal, I’m obligated to provide the production with supporting material — early essay drafts and emails, even my diaries, which feel like they should be handed over in a lead box the way plutonium is transported. I’ve also sat for a few interviews in the showrunner’s sunroom. She’s asked me about what kind of shoes I wore back then, my politics, my body image, the books I read, the vibes of my childhood home. (This is an extremely flattering process, throughout which I disregard everything The Journalist and the Murderer warned me about.) Most of all, the showrunner wanted to know about my decision to finally turn the tables. “When did you decide to write as yourself instead of as Caroline?” she asked me. “Set the scene.” And suddenly, I’m paralyzed with dread. As if looking back to 2019 will turn me to salt.

It’s true, in the original essay, I don’t make it explicit why I decided to finally write about Caroline. Reading the story, you might have come away with the impression that one day I felt melancholy and introspective and put pen to paper. Or maybe I had been reading about Caroline in the news, and like a retiree who writes to the newspaper identifying minor grammatical errors, I felt duty bound to correct the public record. Or maybe I wasn’t as adept at hiding my true feelings as I thought I was. The truth wasn’t so bloodless. In retrospect, my betrayal of Caroline seems inevitable.

For the two years after we had stopped speaking, I had tried to put Caroline out of my head, but when she resurfaced at the top of 2019 with a series of “creativity workshops” marketed to her fans, I felt my unexpressed feelings turn gangrenous. All those years I had spent serving Caroline’s artistic vision. Obsequious as a Claude Rains character. I turned myself into any literary device she needed while barely writing anything of my own. And why was Caroline never anxious that I’d write about her? Did she forget that I was a memoirist, too? Did she think I didn’t have the killer instinct? Maybe she failed to see the distinction between the real me and the character I wrote for myself in her book. The Natalie on the page would never sell Caroline out. That version defines herself not as a writer but an editor, and exists solely to provide literary support and the occasional pithy remark to Caroline. In real life, my POV threatened to burn a hole through my forehead like a third eye.

It was on an overcast January morning and I was sitting at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood listening to my friends joke about Caroline’s orchid crowns and Mason jars. Overcaffeinated and enraged, I smacked my hand down on the Formica table. “Fuck it!” I screeched. “I’m writing about her.”

Later, when the essay was published and I sold the television rights, the executives I met were all effusive and prepared — I had something they wanted — as they pitched me their version of my story. Single White Female meets Eighth Grade. Gender-swapped The Talented Mr. Ripley. More than one VP asked me, pen poised over legal pad: “What genre do you see yourself in?”

I wish I knew! Caroline and I became the internet’s main characters, and everyone had their own opinion about who we were. My inbox swelled with media requests, hate mail, sob stories, considered critique, vitriol. There was drama in the pencil community, an editorial oversight involving lettuce wraps. A photo of my sister circulated as me. Reporters called my old employers, and for some reason I told the paper of record about losing my virginity. I wondered why so many adults were obsessing over a story about a friendship breakup between two girls, and I had to remind myself that I was also an adult and had cared enough to write it. In the six months I spent writing that essay, I tried to preserve the story’s nuance, but when it dropped, Caroline and I were instantaneously flattened into a blonde versus brunette binary — “Are you a Caroline or a Natalie?” asked a BuzzFeed quiz. Taking it, I was relieved to learn I was still myself, but that was becoming a fuzzier concept.

I had become, it appeared, a brand. Scam victim, social-media survivor, casualty of “pretty privilege,” spokeswoman for nebbishy friends everywhere. People seemed to want that story from me, not just teens asking advice but producers making documentaries about online fame, YA publishers soliciting novelizations of my story. A magazine editor offered good money to commission my take on Olivia Jade. A booker for Dr. Phil tried valiantly to get me on the show to talk about “influencers and their relationships with family/friends and loved ones.” The day after the essay published, I called out of work and spent the next eight hours lying facedown on the couch vibrating with anxiety.

All the while I knew Caroline was getting it worse. I had tried to be generous and understanding to her on the page, for the sake of the work and her well-being, which of course I cared about, even if I knew that writing about her would unleash a level of attention that can crush a person flat. Naïvely, I thought that as long as I depicted the both of us as complicated and messy, tempered my pluck with self-loathing, and remained true to my memory and the archive, that in the end Caroline would come out unscathed.

I truly believed this, despite the fact that I had dramatized the moment when Caroline threatened self-harm. It would have been impossible, I reasoned at the time, to explain the end of our relationship without it. I remember standing barefoot in my kitchen after that phone call ended, feeling helpless, and then feeling liberated by my helplessness. I thought, how am I supposed to work under these conditions? The answer was, I couldn’t. Two years later, I brushed aside ethical misgivings and published a paraphrased account of the conversation. Being delicate had gotten me nowhere. I told myself that getting the story right would be a moral victory in and of itself.

In an essay she published in response (which is no longer online), Caroline wrote, “Of all the stinging insults and intimate secrets Natalie published about me, one hurts more than anything else: She made my suicidal ideation part of the public record.” She goes on to say, “I talk about suicide openly now that everyone knows, and it turns out it’s not even as bad as I thought it would be. But I wish I had been able to make the choice of when to share that part of me with the world.”

Other people’s lives aren’t content, only if you do what I do, of course they are.

When we worked together, Caroline often made the argument that she was entitled to write about whomever she wanted — friends, classmates, boyfriends both former and current. When I visited her in Cambridge, a group of future world leaders who had spent a night doing drugs with Caroline threatened legal action if she went ahead with her plan to publish a photo of all of them partying. In awe, I watched as Caroline stood her ground.

I, too, was surreptitiously taking notes, and what writer takes notes without a plan to use them? Like Caroline, I’m an unreliable narrator. I’ll adjust the truth at the margins in service of a sentence. I hoard the stories of those closest to me like a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race grabbing shower curtains during an unconventional-materials design challenge. I didn’t come here to make friends.

And what then does that say about the years we counted each other as real friends? Was it all bullshit? Pragmatically, you could argue that I used Caroline as a subject just as she used me as an editor and ghostwriter. Looking back, maybe we were compatriots for a time, but not friends so much as collaborators in the projects of our separate lives.

I’ve grown terrified that I no longer know the difference between a person meaningfully growing and changing, or just rebranding themselves. I am worried I confuse brand loyalty for friendship. And that the most genuine relationship most of us have is with our phone, where everything we say and look at makes someone else money. You feel it, too, right? In an attention marketplace that has made a memoirist out of almost all of us, and if all memoirists are duplicitous, can we trust any relationship? But there I go again, hiding behind the first-person plural. What I mean is, can I trust myself?

I feel the need to reiterate that I have a full life of friends and endeavors that have nothing to do with a ghostwriting catastrophe. And yet, after my interviews with the showrunner, I feel less of a person than a character, someone who doesn’t exist outside the edge of the page. That might explain why, lately, I’ve been having this waking nightmare where I’m a contestant ambushed on Billy on the Street. Billy chases after me, screaming, “MISS, FOR A DOLLAR, NAME A THING THAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU” and I’m only able to sputter, “Caroline Calloway!”

I didn’t know how to answer the studio execs when they asked what genre I saw myself in. Creatively, a coming-of-age dramedy makes sense — form reflects content — even if I’m exhausted by the genre. How many times am I expected to come of age? For once, grant me an adult drama. Let my character wear a tailored suit and hold in her tears. Give me a story where each day isn’t a hormonal meltdown, where every personality isn’t an open wound. What if I didn’t need to go on another journey of self-discovery because I already knew who I was? And if I’m not running around, constantly wondering Who am I?, what else might I think about?

Recently, I reread the draft of Caroline’s book we never finished and was reminded that I structured the narrative around scenes of authority figures asking Caroline to “explain yourself.” For cutting class to party throughout Europe, for lying on LinkedIn about her internships at Gagosian and Christie’s. It was a framing device, the idea being that the book itself was Caroline’s explanation of why she was the way she was. As her collaborator, I thought if I tried hard enough, I could figure out who Caroline was, and when I did that, I could write her memoir and, I don’t know, save her life. The problem was, she never asked me to save her life. For that matter, she never asked me to write her memoir. I just thought that if I didn’t, then no one would, and it would have all been for nothing.

In the early days of knowing each other, Caroline mentioned she had a stint as a child actor and even had a bit part in the 2007 Nicole Kidman movie The Invasion. I actually saw The Invasion by accident, when a theater usher bounced my underage friends and me from Superbad. I remember it as a lifeless remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, itself a paranoid classic about lifeless remakes. (And perhaps ghostwriting.) Caroline told me she played a girl who finds a piece of space debris, but she was cagey and changed the subject whenever I pressed for details. She’s listed in the credits under a different name, she told me, it was no big deal, she hardly remembers the shoot. Over the years, I assumed this was another one of her incomprehensible but harmless lies. But recently I rewatched The Invasion, and there Caroline was, four minutes in. At least I think that’s her. We only see her from behind. She’s young and wearing a flannel shirt with her hair half-up. In the scene, Caroline — or the girl I think is Caroline — hands a government bigwig a metal scrap. “Sir? This was on our roof,” she says. The official reaches for it and cuts his finger, and that night fungus encases his face and he spends the rest of the movie using the full might of the CDC to spread the infection via flu vaccines (yikes!), turning people so sane that they’re crazy.

In the first essay I wrote about Caroline for the Cut, I ended with the idea that she’s somehow trapped in a story she can’t stop telling. And yet, here I am, still running back the tape. I spent so many years wondering — at times, obsessing over — why Caroline behaved the way she did, where would she wind up. It was this curiosity back when we met that started this whole thing. Who is this girl? Let me stick around and find out. As if it’s possible to know anyone, let alone Caroline Calloway. For that matter, the relationship between the two of us is impossible to explain, but that’s the case with most relationships. When our friendship ended, it left an absence. I know it was real because it still hurts.

Anyway, after she accidentally kick-starts the alien invasion, Caroline disappears from the movie. I couldn’t tell you what I was searching for, but I watched the scene over and over.

Excerpted from Adult Drama and Other Essays by Natalie Beach © 2023 by Natalie Beach, used with permission by HarperCollins/Hanover Square Press.

The Essay That Started It All