‘The Hot One’ is a memoir of murder and the male gaze

Investigating the violent death of a childhood friend, and how she got there.

“Childhood friend” is a double-edged status: It conveys intimacy and distance at the same time. Is there any claim to another person’s life more legitimate than to say you knew and loved them way back when, before they were corrupted by the outside world, before any significant success or failure altered the course of their post-pubescent lives? But is there anything further away from an adult than their childhood, and all the people who populated it? To identify as someone’s friend from the past is, at least in part, to acknowledge something has shifted in your present; it’s a relationship from another time, from when you both were different.

Carolyn Murnick’s childhood friend, Ashley Ellerin, was murdered at 22. The last time Murnick saw Ellerin, she was startled by the young woman her friend was turning out to be: Someone gorgeous and wild, with appetites and impulses Murnick barely recognized and didn’t share. As Murnick writes in her memoir-slash-investigation of Ellerin’s life and death, The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, Ellerin appeared “tan, toned, and feral” and reported, with little dramatic flair, that she was a stripper and sometime sex-worker, jetting from her home in Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the weekends for gigs. As what would turn out to be their last weekend together got underway, Ellerin’s “confessions were picking up speed — actors, crystal meth, the lease to her car being paid for by some guy in his 50s, how much she charged for an hour.” Ellerin called a couple times after that, but Murnick kept her distance, and eight months after Ellerin left her a voicemail that Murnick didn’t return, Ellerin was dead.

Murnick, an editor at New York magazine but not a crime reporter by training, decided to investigative her friend’s murder and try to piece together what, exactly, had happened to Ashley in the years since they grew apart; if her seemingly torrid “lifestyle” — as the accused killer’s defense attorney would refer to it — was what led her to the man who stabbed her 47 times. The resulting book, The Hot One, is as much a rumination on female friendship as it is a true crime story, maybe even more so. Murnick spoke with ThinkProgress about the decision to write about her friend’s death in this way, how readers have responded to the book so far, and the power of the male gaze on even the most intimate relationships between women.

What’s it been like to have the book, which is obviously so personal, out in the world? How are people responding to it?

There’s so many different reactions that are coming in, which is really fascinating and speaks to [the fact] that this book is resonating in a lot of different ways. There’s lots of ideas people are picking up. Some people say, “This really captured what I feel about about female friendship.” Other people said it reminded them of their early twenties and the ’90s. And other people who found me online and said they knew Ashley through different parts of her life and wanted to share some memories, which has been really fascinating. In some of the interviews and live events I’ve been doing, people have been picking up on the more conceptual ideas; I’ve been asked about the male gaze and how I’m exploring how that affects female friendships. That’s one of my big concepts that I allude to in the book. I’ve been surprised at how people connect with that.

In the book you describe a realization about the male gaze, that it was like this “odorless, colorless gas,” and you felt it as soon as it hit, as soon as you and Ashley were old enough to attract male attention. The specific terminology didn’t come about until later, though. Do you think that’s something you appreciated more in hindsight? Or did you feel it very strongly in the moment?

Certainly the language around describing what was going on — male gaze, patriarchy, feminist buzzwords that are more contemporary — those are the things that came more in retrospect as I was writing. But the emotions I write about, in that section of the book in the last weekend, that was very immediate. And even as a teenager, it’s obvious to take in the feelings to be with your friend who is getting hit on by guys, getting a lot of attention. You don’t have to necessarily identify what is going on in an intellectual way to take it in and feel it and realize it makes you feel insecure and doubt yourself, and to go from there. And in some ways, the writing of the book was a combination of the memories and the hindsight, and adding a more intellectual perspective.

My sense is that, for women in friendship, there is no getting around the way the male gaze will affect how you relate to each other. But do men have the same issue, with the awareness of women messing up their dynamics? Have you heard that from male readers?

Yeah, there’s no getting around it. For guys, I’m not sure it’s quite the same. I’ve talked to guys about. When I’d talk to male friends about the story of Ashley and the idea of having a friend from childhood you had everything in common with and start to take different paths and how it feels, guys would say it resonated with them. But instead of the sex stuff, it was more applied to getting in fights and law breaking. I had guy friends who said, “This one guy and I were close, but as we got into our teen years, he was getting arrested. Both of us were picked up for pot once, but he got into worse trouble, and now he’s in jail.” Or people who grew up in New York, and this guy who always jumped over the subway turnstile started getting into more dangerous stuff. Boys are comparing themselves to their friends, but instead of the male attention factor, it’s other things that are maybe connected to strength, or, I don’t know, [being] powerful or adventurous.

“The last time I saw her she told me she was working in the sex industry, and had these older guys and actors, these things I couldn’t relate to. There had to be a connection.”

I’m curious about your decision to really build the whole book around that idea of how men see women, right down to titling this The Hot One. Why did you pick that framework?

I think everything started around that last weekend I had with Ashley. I write about it in the first section of the book. Having a friend from childhood come back into your life for a weekend, and taking stock of where you are, and how Ashley had gone in what felt like a very extreme direction and how destabilizing that weekend was, in terms of how it made me feel about myself and what the future of our friendship could be. I felt out of my depth on so many levels. And about a year later she was found dead.

I had a bunch of complicated feelings around that, including, what the hell happened? The last time I saw her she told me she was working in the sex industry, and had these older guys and actors, these things I couldn’t relate to. There had to be a connection. What’s happening? [I thought]: One day when I’m older and I have time, I want to find out more about what happened to her. And if and when I ever write a book, maybe it’ll be about this. I knew there was something there, reporting how this young girl got murdered, but also these things about friendship and comparison, I knew there was something there.

And as I started to talk about her in the years after her death, I was recognizing that people were connecting to that “friend who got away” idea, that everyone had had someone in their life who reminded them of Ashley. How that can feel painful, watching your friend develop into this very sexually-forward person and how you can turn that inward. I just started noticing that there were some big concepts here resonating with people, and I wanted to figure out a way to tie that together. I was always definitely much more interested in the bigger ideas around our friendship and what it meant.

It’s interesting because, as you say, you assumed a connection between Ashley’s sex work and her lifestyle and her death (and it turned out that her death had nothing to do with any of that; she just likely crossed paths with a serial killer) but you also were really taken aback by the way the defense tried to connect those same dots at the hearing.

Because by the time I got to the hearings and I learned that this guy who is the alleged killer, who really seems like he did it, isn’t connected to that lifestyle, the question is already answered there. So why are we still going into this? I think that was where the outrage came from, even though I know it’s not an unrealistic leap to make: You hear someone is in the sex industry, and doing whatever drugs she was doing, and then she’s found brutally murdered. I think it’s natural to think there’s some connection there.

But every step of the way, as I would learn more about it — by the time I got to the hearings, I’d learned who he was and that he was someone known to her and her friends — there was one surprise after another busting my expectations of what could have happened.

It feels like our culture is in the phase regarding female friendship where, in this well-intentioned effort to support each other against the constant judgment of a sexist world, the one cardinal sin is to judge each other. You basically always have to tell a friend, no matter what choice she is making, that you don’t judge her choice. And in some ways that is beautiful, and in other ways it’s a trap: everything short of wild affirmation is “judging” and therefore off-limits. Did you feel at all, during that last weekend with Ashley, the same sort of pressure: That you couldn’t really express any reservations about her life or her choices because you couldn’t “judge” her?

That’s interesting! So much has sort of changed and evolved in the culture around how we talk about girls and women and friendship, and having female stories be a bit more elevated now. Certainly since 16 years ago, when Ashley died, but even in the past five or ten years working on this book, things have been really rapidly evolving in terms of, I think, what you’re saying: A greater acknowledgment of our culture of misogyny that’s all around us and the ways that young women are trying to adapt to that and fight that. I’m grateful for a lot more conversation about that.

The one question that used to come up, when I talked about the last year of my relationship with Ashley and how she told me all these things she was doing, and I felt confused and judge-y and insecure and, how do we even address this? I was 20. And people ask, “Did you feel guilty that you let your friendship go with her?” Because she did reach out to me a few more times after that trip. But I have, I guess, empathy for who I was at the time as a 20-year-old. I don’t think many 20-year-olds had the maturity to speak to each other in the terms of, “Are you happy? Is this what you want in your life?” We were so young, and that’s not the level of awareness that I had with any of my friends.

Certainly now in my thirties, the conversations I’m having now with female friends about what’s going on in their lives, and is this good, and here’s what I think, it’s different. I think it’s maturity and maybe some of it is about what’s happening culturally. We’re all learning more of a vocabulary around expressing our emotions and how to support each other. But I don’t think many 20-year-olds are, and I don’t feel judgment of myself for not being at that place when I last saw year.

As you started to put this book together, you must have had so much material: Your memories together, all the reporting, information about the other victims of Ashley’s alleged killer, riffs on these bigger issues. How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out, and how to structure the book?

That’s a great question. And I think all along I felt like, there’s so much material here and so many big themes and, like you said, other victims, different cultural context, different ways to structure this book, and maybe they all could be good in their own way. But my original vision started taking shape in 2008 when this guy was arrested and I learned he was connected to three other victims. That was my first year at New York Magazine. I felt it was shocking and overwhelming and this story is so much bigger than I imagined, and it also feels so over my head. I work in media, but I mostly edit lifestyle, restaurants and travel stuff. So I really have no experience digging into court documents, talking to detectives, looking at coroners reports. I felt driven by the questions of what happened to her, and I wanted to explore these bigger themes about female friendship. So those were the driving forces that got me started in 2008, the idea being I have this moment with this real time court case going on that I could start to get some information and build things around the trial.

In 2010, they had the preliminary hearing, and it was after that that I wrote a proposal and sold the book. My structure was going to be around attending the trial, which I was told would happen within the next year, 2011. And as we know now, it still hasn’t happened. There’s been so many delays… all these things kept setting the clock back. I felt that I wanted to keep waiting as long as I could. After about six years of that, I realized that I sort of had to shift the original vision. I wasn’t sure if and when the trial was ever going to happen, and I’d had enough insights and different ideas of things to explore along the way, I could structure things in a different way. And I spent seven years on it and in some ways, I’ve become a different person than the person I was when I started it.

This gets a little conceptual but my decision to finish things as I did, in some ways, it had a lot to do with growing up and moving into a different stage of adulthood. When i was in my mid-thirties, I realized, I feel like a different person than I was when I started this book. Ashley died at 22, I sold the book when I was 30, and I had imagined it would be coming out in my early thirties, and I’d just be talking about this one chapter of early womanhood. I realized I don’t quite feel in that same “young woman stage” anymore, and my perspective on events is getting a little too unwieldily.

In the writing world, in publishing and in film, there have been lots of conversations about what stories individual writers have a right to tell. Can a white author write a protagonist of another race? What historical events belong to which storytellers? Is everything up for grabs for everyone, or is it not as simple as that? As you write in the book, Ashley’s family doesn’t really get back to you as you decide to work on this book and you essentially move forward on this project without waiting for a green light from them. Did you wrestle at all with that idea of needing permission, or questioning if this was your story to tell?
 
I think it’s a great question. I have been in touch with her family this year, and they have the book. I don’t know if they’re reading it. They wanted me to send it to a family friend who has read it and thought it was sensitively done, and he was going to tell them it wasn’t anything to be upset about. I want to respect their privacy. But the question about who gets to claim a story of loss, I think it’s a really great one and one people will have a lot of opinions on.

“Is it okay that there have been reporters that write about Ashley that didn’t know her at all? Is that better than someone who did know her?”

From my perspective, it was something I felt in a visceral way when I showed up in court for the first time. There was no one else in the courtroom but two women who were press, and I realized, well, I’m not press, I’m Ashley’s childhood friend. And I was treated differently than the reporters were. But I am press, sort of. I’m with New York Magazine, and I’m going to write something, probably. But I’m also a friend of the victim. I have this hybrid role that feels complicated, but also feels like what makes my place here more significant in a way. I’m bringing something to the story that, I guess, no one else can. And it’s interesting: Is it okay that there have been reporters that write about Ashley that didn’t know her at all? Is that better than someone who did know her?

And on the other hand, I have a friend who published a great memoir about her mother’s murder earlier this year called Down City, by Leah Carroll, and it goes into issues of, was her mother maybe a mafia informer? And her mother’s drug use. And Leah told me, she got very accepting positive feedback about the book, and some of that had to do with, someone’s mother gets murdered, there is universal sympathy for that. If the daughter is a writer and writes about it, that’s something that’s acceptable. But the tone might shift a bit when it’s a friend. I’m also an editor; might someone think that is potentially exploitative? I think what I tried to remain rooted in was my sense of, I’m telling my personal story here, in my journey through loss and understanding and searching for answers. And the core is, what happened to my childhood best friend? And I definitely feel like this is something I have the right to tell.

As you’re writing the book, you have your friend lens of, what is meaningful and what is true? But you’re also an editor, as you say, so you bring that editor vision of: Is this entertaining? Is it good to keep in salacious details about sex work, for instance, because that’s the kind of thing that keeps a reader engaged?  

Another sort of aspect of writing this book that made it more complicated but also a little bit clearer is, there’s already been media attention about this case because of the serial killer and the Ashton Kutcher connection. (Editor’s note: Kutcher was supposed to meet Ellerin on the night of her death; in In Touch, the celebrity tabloid, coverage of Ellerin’s murder ran under the headline: “Ashton’s TRAGIC NIGHT.”)  All sorts of facts are out there. The most salacious stuff that could be revealed about her has already been rocketing around the internet and tabloids for years now. So there isn’t necessarily any shocking thing I have to say that hasn’t already been said by someone else less sensitively and possibly less correctly. So that was my guiding principle a lot of the times: If I’m including something that is already on the public record from court hearings about her sex life or drug use, is that disrespectful? I think it’s only disrespectful if you’re applying judgment to those life choices in the first place, and what I was trying to do with this book is lay them out there in a plain way. Ashley, in the last year of her life, was this person, and I knew her in childhood as this person, and both are true.

Can you talk about writing the scene where you read through the coroners report? (Ashley was stabbed.) How did you determine what information was useful, and what was too graphic to include? Was anything too graphic?

This was always rooted in my own experience, and I knew that, I was the proxy for the reader. My job was to, as closely as possible, try to record my own emotions and experiences around digging through this material. Because I’m a human being and I was her childhood friend and it had a great effect on me emotionally all these years, if a reader was going to connect to something, it would be that: Me making my way through the material, not the material on its own. So I did what I could to narrate what felt: what was resonating for me, and what was emotionally really gutting me. People have asked, were there things that were scaring you? And I sort of felt like, yeah, there’s a lot here that’s really scary. When I tried to see if I could interview the alleged killer, I certainly was not excited, and I was terrified by the idea of having a jailhouse interview with this guy here. That sounds like the worst thing. But I also knew that whatever happens, it’s okay, because I’m going to be writing about my experience. Say I schedule a jailhouse interview and I show up to the jail and have a panic attack in the parking lot and can’t go in, that’ll be relatable and I can write about that.

In the seven years you spent reporting and writing this book, there’s been a bit of a resurgence of true crime stories in pop culture: Podcasts like “Serial” and “My Favorite Murder,” shows like The Jinx and Making a Murderer. Even this revived interest in O.J. Simpson is part of that, I think. Did your experience, and your work on this book, this change how you consumed (or avoided) those shows?

That’s a good question. The truth is, this book was sort of conceived and started and originated earlier than all of that stuff, in 2010. So before this wave of sophisticated true crime, which a lot of it, I’m really into. So this shows that I’m connecting to now, The Keepers is one I’m really impressed by, all of that has happened after my book has been done and in a vault. And I’m excited by that but it feels like a coincidence that it’s coming out at the same time. But I get it, why true crime is having a moment. It’s a way into bigger questions around social justice and misognyny.

I would be proud to have my book considered as part of that conversation as well, and speak to the female perspective on all of this. I’d like to think that feminist true crime is having a moment. Like “My Favorite Murder,” the podcast, that’s this community of women embracing their interest in these grisly true crime stories. I think women are getting a sense of community and having an opportunity to express their fears, and to push back against narratives that are victim-blaming and slut-shaming. And I’d love for my book to be considered as something that pushes back those narratives as well. And how the men involved in these stories, in this case, Ashton Kutcher, end up eclipsing the victim herself. Ashley’s murder, in a lot of accounts, is just a thing that happened to Ashton Kutcher. I would love to have this book shine a light on that and bring back humanity to female victims.