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Female victim, footnote, friend

  • Carolyn Murnick Celeste Sloman

  • Carolyn and Ashley at a piano recital in 1988. —Courtesy of Carolyn Murnick



For the Bulletin
Sunday, September 10, 2017

In her debut book, “The Hot One,” author Carolyn Murnick fuses journalism with memoir to investigate what really happened to her closest childhood friend, Ashley Ellerin, who in 2001, at the age of 22, was found brutally murdered in her Hollywood Hills home. It’s a story that Murnick, an editor at New York magazine who is originally from New Jersey, has been unraveling slowly, for years, and one that still leaves many unanswered questions. But Murnick answered some of our questions, here, and she will be on hand to discuss her book more in depth next Wednesday, September 13, at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton.  

I remember first hearing about this project from you years ago [we share a literary agent] ... How long ago was it that you first started investigating your friend Ashley’s murder in a serious way, and did you have any idea of how long it would actually take and where it would take you, both geographically and emotionally?

“Ashley was my first best friend — we met when we were nine years old in the late 1980s, and in some ways I think I formed my identity in reference to her. When I think of her, I remember childhood and innocence and companionship based on the simplest criteria: We liked spending time together. As we got older and started making different decisions about drugs and dating and sex, things changed between us, but I’m not sure I ever stopped comparing myself to her. 

“When she was found brutally murdered in her home in Hollywood in 2001, I was shocked and devastated and had so many unanswered questions. In the years after her death, as the case continued to be unsolved, I decided that if and when I were to ever write a book, I wanted it to be about figuring out what happened to Ashley, though I had no idea when I’d feel ready to take on that project. In the fall of 2008, I learned a man was arrested for her murder and was connected to three other female victims, and everything changed. I realized, ready or not, the opening was there for me to begin learning more about what happened to her, and the seeds of this book began then.

“I had intended to structure ‘The Hot One’ around the trial of Ashley’s alleged killer, which was supposed to have started by 2011, but due to unforeseen circumstances and lots of twists and turns in court, four years later, we were still waiting. I made the decision to shift the narrative and complete the book without the trial two years ago, and I finished the book in 2016. I would never have guessed that I’d have worked on things for so long. And: spoiler alert, as of fall 2017, the trial still hasn’t started yet.”

With “The Hot One,” you are both journalist and memoirist — was one role more comfortable to inhabit than the other, and if so why?

“Both were incredibly challenging for entirely different reasons. On the journalism side, I’m an editor at New York magazine so I certainly had some familiarity with research and interviewing, but my beat is restaurants and travel. Nothing in my background prepared me for poring over coroner reports and transcripts and interviewing people who had lost a loved one and attending court hearings. I forced myself to dig deeper in service to the bigger themes I was trying to explore: the power of female friendship, the formative role childhood friendships can play for girls, and the way that our culture puts girls in boxes like ‘the hot one’ and ‘the smart one’ and implicitly holds them up in comparison to each other.

“On the memoir side, it was anything but easy to relive painful memories and investigate the moments and relationships that made me the woman I am today, but, again, I tried to stay focused on the bigger picture. That, and taking regular breaks for more meditative pursuits — tennis, cooking, biking to yoga, yoga —  helped immensely.”

What is one question you wish you had answered or resolved in your reporting, but couldn’t resolve for whatever reason? What do you still want to know?

“There will always be another interview I could do, another report to read, another fact to learn in a case this big — I’m not sure the search for answers and for insight will ever end for me. I’ve also been asked a lot about closure, and whether, if and when Ashley’s killer is convicted, do I think that will finally bring me a sense of resolution? Over the years of working on this book, I’ve come to terms with the fact that if and when Michael Gargiulo is convicted, that won’t be the end for me. Some losses are too big to ever be wrapped up in a little bow. I’m not sure closure is ever really possible after something like this; in many ways, my sense of loss has only deepened as the years have passed.”

You had mentors and guides during your investigation into Ashley’s death. Who are some of the people who helped you or fortified you most, and what did you learn from them?

“I learned some of my most memorable lessons from watching and speaking with members of the press who were covering the hearings for Ashley’s alleged killer. I met longtime crime reporter Christine Pelisek on the first day of the preliminary hearing in 2010 when she was covering the case for LA Weekly, and she’s now the author of a new book on a different L.A. serial killer, The Grim Sleeper, and we did an event together last month for our books. Just watching the confident way she spoke to detectives and attorneys outside the courtroom was deeply instructive to me.

“I also connected with the team from ‘CBS: 48 Hours,’ who worked on a show about Gargiulo that aired in 2011. The producers there shared research with me that I could never have found on my own, and I learned a great deal from listening to their anecdotes about whom they approached for interviews and whom they didn’t. ‘Someone has to have their own reason for talking to us,’ they said. ‘We’re not in the business of trying to convince anyone.’ ”

A murder victim can lose her identity in the press. This happened to Ashley when she was basically treated by the tabloids as a footnote to the actor Ashton Kutcher, with whom she was about to go out on a date. Were you hoping to give Ashley her identity back with your book? 

“To be cynical about it, television, movies, tabloids and even crime journalism love a beautiful dead girl — think ‘Twin Peaks,’ ‘13 Reasons Why,’ ‘The Killing’ — she’s an object there to move the plot forward, and often little concern is given to who she was as a person. Give that dead girl an active sex life, and out comes the slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Ashley was subject to all of that treatment and more in the media and in court hearings, and even worse than that, in a lot of coverage she was almost entirely eclipsed by Ashton Kutcher. Outrageously, her murder became a thing that happened to him.

“ ‘The Hot One’ pushes back against the way female victims are often portrayed in the media and in court, and it shares a human, complex portrait of who Ashley was before she died. She wasn’t just a party girl who hung out with Ashton Kutcher, and she wasn’t just one of the many victims of a serial killer. She was a real person with a childhood and people around her who loved her and still remember her. She was only just starting her life.”

Of course, a big theme of this book, and what grounds it emotionally, is the friendship between you and Ashley, and how it changed over the years. What are some books/movies/TV shows/songs that you feel capture female friendship especially well, and why?

“Call it the Ferrante effect: I’m thrilled that we seem to be at a new moment for female-focused storytelling. I loved ‘Girls,’ of course, but newer shows that have grabbed me just as much include HBO’s ‘Insecure’ and ‘Fleabag’ on Amazon. Both feature imperfect heroines finding their paths through trial and error.

“As for movies, though it’s about sisters and not friends, the French/Turkish film ‘Mustang’ deeply resonated with me for the way it portrayed that exciting, murky and potentially risky time for girls between childhood and adolescence, and how your relationships start to shift with the introduction of the male gaze. Also: ‘Girls Trip.’ Just see it.”

Carolyn Murnick will present her book in conversation with Brooke Hauser at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 13, at Broadside Bookshop, at 247 Main Street in Northampton. Call 586-4235 or visit broadsidebooks.com.