Life in Carolines

I’ve never met a Caroline I couldn’t fantasize about. When someone mis-pronounces my name more than once, I tell them, “It’s like Caroline, but Emma. Emmeline.” When they ask where that name comes from, I tell them my mother read it in a book. I tell them that Emmeline is often a side character in nineteenth century novels, cousin Emmeline who died young of tuberculosis before she could get married, or something like that. I used to wish my parents had named me something simpler, something that didn’t prompt a question. But as I got older, I liked the attention.

Now, at parties, I like to drag the story out. I tell strangers that my mother wanted to name me Clementine, but my middle name is already a fruit so my father had to draw the line somewhere. I sip my drink and savor the reliable laughter, the eyes on me.

Still, I feel a strange jealousy burning the back of my throat whenever I meet a Caroline. This could be because the ones I tend to meet are tall and blonde, the types of girls who wear silk blouses and delicate gold chain necklaces with little pendants that fall right in the hollow at the base of their throat.


Popular In High School Caroline

During the first three years of high school, Caroline and I were not friends. I was one of the new students in ninth grade, while she was the ringleader of a clique that had been in charge since middle school. Her father owned one of the larger real estate companies in our town, so everyone saw her last name stamped on every other construction site, which was certainly part of her mystique. Someone told me that she lived in a house that took up a full block, a former mental hospital her father had purchased and transformed into a mansion for five people. I imagined parties there, people sneaking into wings that were off-limits, where they made out in former isolation rooms. Caroline went to a boarding school in Europe during junior year for opaque reasons that were gossiped about endlessly, plot lines we ripped out of television shows and slapped onto her life: her parents are divorcing, her older brother is in rehab, she’s modeling, and came back with an aristocratic lilt in her voice and the word queue in her vocabulary.

The year she returned, I spoke to her in the early morning dark before first bell on the first day of school. Making her laugh was a better high that I’d had in high school so far, so I set to work trying to get her to fall into friendship with me the way only teenage girls can, feverish and enjoying it. She brought me to parties, and helped orchestrate my first make out. In her mint-green bedroom, on the softest mattress I’d ever sat on, she made sure I knew I was lucky. She once told me, of her friend group: we don’t always like new people, but we like you.

I don’t know how to describe being friends with her. It was like confidence, or a benediction, or free calories. I was addicted to gossip, and her secrets were the only ones I kept. I was also addicted to bread, and pictures of us were the motivation I kept in a folder on my phone.

We lost touch during college. She does not attend our high school reunions, and rarely posts on social media. The last thing I heard about her was a rumor run through two degrees of remove, maybe misinterpreted and probably exaggerated. What I heard was that her eating habits had made having a roommate untenable, that the other girl was moving out because of a fight over a squash. She wouldn’t go pick one up for Caroline before the organic grocery store closed. I imagined the voice I’d been addicted to, bubbly but burst, now tinny through a phone speaker. I wondered what she’d said, I made up the words in my mind, you know this is the only thing I can EAT.


My Best Friend’s Girlfriend Caroline

I spent my junior year of college in a three-street town falling off a crag into the Scottish ocean. I met Caroline while walking through the tall grass to a house party. Her hair was shinier than made sense in the moonlight, her legs brittle sticks that might crack. She asked for my name, and said we rhymed.

At the party, I watched the boy I had kissed the night before put his hand on her jutting hipbone. Later, the three of us took a shot, and I told myself the jealous burn in my throat was from the vodka.

I was best friends with them both, and could not for the life of me tell who I was more in love with. He and I spent afternoons on the cold sand beach getting salt in our eyes while he almost cried. He told me about his father, and how football saved his life. Caroline and I prepared for parties in her dorm room, eating Nutella from a jar and sipping poorly made gin cocktails. She told me how he was in bed, the words he liked to hear her say.

Caroline and I were often a terrifying pair at bars, dead-eyed and still buying shots. Black out or back out, we liked to say. We put the pieces of our nights together during mornings spent clutching hot coffees in clammy hands, scrolling through our camera rolls for clues.

She never ate much on these coffee dates, save a block of chicken broth stock she would drop in a cup of hot water. Her fridge was full of carrots. Bent, her arms made unnatural angles. While I sometimes day dreamed about surviving like she did on diet soda and barely dressed salads, I had supposedly recovered from my eating disorder, and I wanted to tell her that we were allowed to walk around without being woozy from hunger, that sometimes it was boring but mostly it was like a warm bath. I brought it up once, my hot fingers on her frigid, tiny wrist. She did not seem interested in changing, and I didn’t feel like I had enough to offer her on the other side. I had a stomach that didn’t gnaw at me all day, but it wasn’t flat, and I didn’t have her boyfriend or her instagram following.

Sometimes her boyfriend, my friend, got aggressive when he drank too much. His insecurity and his rage, kept meticulously separate in daylight, mixed with liquor and sparked. Across the room, I saw him grab Caroline’s arm and shout something in her ear. He pushed her against the wall and the confusion on her face rapidly became fear. I pulled him off of her and dragged him outside, what the fuck are you doing.

His suit was too big for him, and my dress was too small. He balled his hands into fists and rubbed his eyes like a child while he cried in the spitting rain, and I couldn’t go back inside. I walked him home, my breath and my heels catching on the uneven cobblestones until I took off my shoes and started crying too. I tucked him into bed and slept on the couch in his living room.

In the morning, he wrote her an apology letter, and I begged her to forgive me over text. She told him not to contact her again, and met me in one of our coffee shops. We were supposed to go to Budapest the next day with a few other girls. I thought she was going to ream me out for helping him get home, but instead she brushed it off, dropped her cube of chicken stock into a paper cup of hot water and murmured ‘I’m scared to go to Budapest’ so softly I barely heard her. She shivered as she told me the prospect of only eating meat and potatoes terrified her. She kept her coat on throughout the conversation, because she was cold or because she wanted to keep it brief or both, and told me she had cancelled her flight already. She said she hated that she canceled social plans because of food, but it was an anxiety thing, and that she didn’t want to talk about it. I told her we could find things she could eat, that I had been like that too, that she could tell me more. I offered to stay in town, to buy her a pastry, to buy dinner.

She told me to go, so I went to Budapest, and when I came back she swerved my invitations to hang out, feigned sick and busy. We still hugged emphatically at parties. She clutched me momentarily in her skeleton frame as her ribs strained against her crop top. I don’t know whether she really was angry about that night or whether she couldn’t maintain a friendship with someone who might ask about her eating, or someone who simply knew her limbs did not refuse flesh naturally. I wonder whether she told me only once I had betrayed her, so she would have an alternate excuse. I still follow her on instagram, where she shrinks into the Instagram square, grows increasingly bony to a steady stream of comments reading “omg so beautiful” “fire emoji fire emoji fire emoji,” and “teeny tiny skinny legend.”


Dead Author Caroline

After college, I worked in a corporate fashion job I hated and recommitted myself to my eating disorder. I lost twenty pounds and collected compliments and coffee shop loyalty cards, both bittersweet and addictive. Eventually, like my high school friend Caroline, my selfish antics drove my roommate not out of the apartment but into slamming her door the minute she got home. I couldn’t drink as much on an empty stomach, and kept needing to be taken home.

My mother’s friend, a recovered alcoholic, recommended a book: Drinking, A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. I devoured it, and ordered her other book, Appetites: Why Women Want, about her anorexia. For her as for many of us, these issues are deeply entwined. But she was the first author to overtly tell me so: saying her “starving gave way to drinking,” one denial “gradually mutating into a more all-encompassing denial of self, alcohol displacing food as the substance of choice.” Both disorders have extremely high relapse rates, a euphemism for the truth, which is that they are lifelong conditions, and both are on the rise among women.

I finished both books, and on a hunch typed ‘alcoholism anorexia hysteria’ into google. I read Melinda Kanner, who contended that alcoholism and anorexia were the twentieth century’s answers to the nineteenth century’s hysteria, “women’s diseases” with no discernible organic basis that are very resistant to treatment. I couldn’t decide how the word hysteria fit around my neck, whether it was a necklace or a noose.

Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote about the nineteenth century ‘cult of female invalidism,’ the trendy exhaustion that male doctors diagnosed wealthy women with basically whenever they evinced a desire to have a thought, prescribing them a rest cure that was simply their existing lifestyles, distilled to a fine cognac and meant to be drunk in bed. Under a medical surveillance system that interpreted dissatisfaction with a life of leisure as indicative of imminent physical breakdown, a new disease began festering in the bedpans under women’s sickbeds.

Some of the lounging ladies began shaking the bars of their gilded cages, seizing and fainting, going mute and refusing to eat. The doctors called this hysteria. Ehrenreich and English wrote about the doctors who, because their treatments had little to no effect on the disease, accused women of pretending, and began outlining a “hysterical type” in their medical treatises: she was a “petty tyrant” with a “taste for power.” Carrol Smith-Rosenberg understands hysterical fits as revolutionary outbursts: women expressing rage, despair, or even just pent-up energy within the language their doctors had given them, fucking up the master’s house with his prescription pad, if you will. Ehrenreich and English wrote about women “both accepting their inherent sickness and finding a way to rebel against their intolerable social role.”

After her multiple recoveries, Knapp refused to give up cigarettes, and died in her early 40s of lung cancer. Honestly, I get it. We all need a barrier between our rushing, bloody insides and the bracing cold of living in society, and replacing the warm fur jacket of alcohol with a layer of flesh between your skin and your bones is exhausting, especially without the warmth of nicotine coursing through your veins. I want to have been in her diagnosis room, and have seen her laugh or cry.


Joe Biden’s Niece Caroline

At the peak of hot girl summer, my friend kept seeing the same woman outside a bodega in Tribeca. Eventually, she spoke to her, an interaction she recounted to me days later. The girl was wearing massive, face-obscuring sunglasses and a huge black knee-length coat in eighty-degree weather. I wanted to know where she gets her hair dyed, because it was the perfect blonde, my friend says, so I went up to her and said hey, you look so good, can I ask where you get your hair dyed?

She rips her sunglasses off and grabs my arm like we’re friends and says, in one breath, oh my god no I don’t I literally spent all morning throwing up. I ate a STEAK last night. Anyway, the salon is like three blocks away, tell them Caroline Biden sent you.

On swiveling seats in a dimly lit bar, my friend instructed me to google Caroline Biden. I did, and the results included a New York Post article titled “Joe Biden’s Niece Remorseful After Avoiding Jail in Credit Card Scam” and a New York Daily News article titled “Joe Biden’s Bad-Girl Niece Gets Probation For $110G Credit Card Theft.” I quickly learned that Caroline Biden borrowed someone’s credit card with permission to spend $600 at the luxury cosmetic store C.O. Bigelow, and instead spent $110,000. Caroline Knapp, in Appetites, wrote not just about women’s appetite for food and drink, but also for things. A hysterical consumption: many privileged white girls dabble in kleptomania. She wrote about “the ravenous displaced need” fueling addictive behaviors, from alcoholism to shopping addiction. She wrote about women falling into thousands of dollars of credit card debt, their “deflection of hunger writ large and etched in plastic.”

She wrote that “consumerism thrives on emotional voids,” and anorexic and alcoholic women have those in spades. The language of madness, the hysterical tendency, creeps into her analysis of the allure a new belonging can hold in a society where women feel constricted in so many ways: “there is abundance in shopping instead of taboo, and so it’s no wonder a woman can go mad with acquisitiveness.”

To her hearing for the C.O. Bigelow larceny in Manhattan Criminal Court, Caroline wore a huge brown fur coat over a plaid schoolgirl skirt, a tight black tank top, sunglasses, and a crucifix necklace. In the photos of her in the courthouse, her dye job is objectively impeccable. She is a 26-year-old woman dressed like a schoolgirl. Every ligament in her upper arms is visible when she shrugs off the fur. I want to know which pocket of her coat is hiding a flask.

I would love to hate her (spoiled brat, .01% wealthy and stealing), but honestly, I hate that I kind of love her instead. She is Serena Van Der Woodsen shimmying into her school uniform after leaving the scene of the crime, still drunk, or Caroline Kennedy on Ketamine. She is the petty tyrant those condescending nineteenth century doctors wrote about, throwing a fit in the language she was raised speaking (luxury) and wasting the court’s time. Heiress fucking with her fortune, political scion lighting the revered patriarch’s reputation on fire. Girl, interrupting. I can’t stop scrolling.

Another article, titled ‘Biden’s Niece Booked by NYPD’ is only four brief sentences, which describe Caroline slapping a cop who tried to break up a fight she was in with her roommate. This is accompanied by a photo of her wrapped in a white sheet and strapped to a chair, her small frame concave. The only visible part of her body is a slim wrist poking out of the sheet, pulling it over her face. A policeman is pushing the chair across the street as paparazzi jostle to photograph her.

Someone who purports to be her friend describes her as a “hot mess” addicted to alcohol and Adderall. From a rehab center, this source tells the New York Post her antics are “a desire for attention, a cry for help. She’s a very complicated girl who has a lot of feelings and a lot of issues.”

The female hysteric throwing a fit, communicating the only way she knows how.


Famous on Instagram Caroline

But the hot blonde addict who really captured our attention last summer was Caroline Calloway. As a narrative genre, her dramatic friend breakup with the girl who used to ghostwrite her Instagram captions might be Elena Ferrante for coked out girls with disposable income.

We received the story in chapters, like the equally overwrought serials about private school girls we used to buy at suburban Barnes & Noble, but now we waited over our phones with breath caught in our throats, reading the story in Instagram captions. We gasped and retweeted when we read Caroline’s proposed title for her memoir, And We Were Like, “as in the way girls tell stories.” This might be the vocal fry feminist manifesto of the century, we wrote in our group texts, unsure whether we were mocking her or ourselves, but aware that someone needed to be mocked.

I read the essay while biting my lip until it bled. I met a girl who was everything I wasn’t, wrote Natalie Beach, now estranged from that girl after a tumultuous, obsessive friendship.

Soon after meeting Caroline, she became her “conspirator and confidante,” a role I knew well from my own obsessive relationships with girls named Caroline. She listened raptly whenever Caroline opened her mouth, standing in the streetlight glow of her attention, balanced on one foot to stay in its thin band of light. She craned her neck to see into Caroline’s closet and hoarded her compliments like heirlooms, running her finger over their gilt lining until it wore down, showed the nickel underneath. But then she took it one step further, offered to write her Instagram captions, and became her voice.

She did what I never could with either of my own Carolines. She came right out and said what she wanted, can I step into your mind, and Caroline said sure, unlocked the door and let her into a room painted tiffany blue. “What happens to me next?” Caroline asked her, and Natalie forgot all about her own life and began writing in a tense she calls “first person beautiful.”

This is a tense many girls dream and journal in. Watching my Carolines live in it was harrowing, a fact Natalie’s jealousy prevents her from seeing. When Caroline leaves a restaurant abruptly after a group of men in suits sends free shots to their table, Natalie does not consider the possibility that she might have been afraid of their intentions.

Natalie and Caroline spent nights getting high and writing pages of memoir, speaking fast until their voices grew hoarse, and then they opened their laptops and spoke with one voice. Together, they created “the Caroline character,” a “fantastic YA protagonist” who “looked good crying.”

When they cried, I thought my Carolines were so beautiful it made me dizzy. In retrospect, I can see that this was console them. I was Natalie offering to write Instagram captions, desperate to become indispensable. I read them love letters I’d written in my head, in the tense I’ll call second person beautiful, and when they sniffed and asked if I really meant it I nodded so zealously I could have given myself whiplash.

In my relationships, I was Natalie with Caroline’s addictions. While I was starving for affection and anxious to please, the only thing I wanted more than the approval of a girl who was everything I wasn’t was to be her, and since I couldn’t do that being in the void of a substance high could at least get me out of my own mind (a more all-encompassing denial of self).

Natalie mentions Caroline’s struggles with substances only obliquely, too distracted by her ability to attract men, her blonde hair and expensive shoes, to notice that living in the first person beautiful has become unsustainable. At the tail end of their friendship, when everything is going awry, Natalie visits Caroline in Cambridge, where she has ripped the carpeting off her dorm room floor with her bare hands, and where she stays up all night online shopping in a fur coat. At first, Natalie attributes the destroyed floorboards to Caroline’s superficial desire for hardwood floors. And then, she tells us, I saw a trash can full of daffodils beside a trash can full of prosecco corks, and empty Adderall capsules in a drawer.

When Natalie was watching it unfurl on Instagram, a filtered stream of European boyfriends and sundresses in Roman ruins, Caroline’s mirage shimmered. Then Natalie crossed the Atlantic and watched it crack, saw not “someone I wanted to be but a girl living with one fork, no friends, and multiple copies of Prozac nation…a person in need of help that I didn’t know how to give.” This became clear when they traveled to Amsterdam together, and one night Caroline returned to their rented apartment with the only set of keys, and for unexplained reasons that probably include alcohol and sleeping pills, did not answer any of Natalie’s calls until the following morning.

Caroline Calloway ignoring her best friend’s calls, getting high in her room alone. Caroline Biden eating pills and screaming at her roommate until she calls the police. One Caroline alone, instagramming her way to fame and fortune. Another Caroline also alone, on the street, being pushed around by a male security professional. Or in court, surrounded by her lawyers.

Ehrenreich and English’s final judgment of hysteria acknowledges that hysterical fits worked decently well as temporary power plays, giving women “brief psychological advantages over a husband or a doctor” but points out their fatal flaw as a form of revolutionary guerrilla warfare: “hysterics don’t unite and fight.” Instead, they usually end up ensnared in a web of male professionals, policemen or doctors or reporters and paparazzi.

I know my own hysterics isolated me, left me alone even in crowded rooms. My college friend Caroline and I, each mired in our own quicksand’s, could not hold hands tightly enough to pull each other out. I imagine Caroline Biden and Caroline Calloway meeting in the halls of a rehab center someday and wait with bated breath for one of their memoirs.



Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English, Complaints & Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, 1971

Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story, 1996

Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want, 2003

Natalie Beach, “I Was Caroline Calloway,” The Cut, 2019

@carolinecalloway, Instagram, 2019

BF Grant et. al., “Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013,” JAMA Psychiatry, 2019 Marie Galmiche, Pierre Dechelotte, Gregory Lambert, and Marie Pierre Tavolacci, “Prevalence of Eating Disorders Over the 2000-2018 Period: a Systematic Literature Review,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2019

Emmeline Clein

EMMELINE CLEIN is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia University, and her work has been published in The Nation, Smithsonian Magazine, Buzzfeed News, and ANTIGRAVITY.

Contributions by Emmeline Clein