dude I’m not dead!!! On Alissa Bennett’s “Taxidermist’s Handbook”
By Ariella GarmaiseSeptember 13, 2023
Taxidermist’s Handbook by Alissa Bennett
Trash abounds online, and fortunately, Alissa Bennett is our most promising internet garbologist.
A fashion model–turned-writer-and-podcaster (she co-hosts Luminary’s The C Word with Lena Dunham), Bennett occupies an odd liminal ground between public personality and layperson. First and foremost, she’s a fan. In The C Word, Bennett and Dunham “sif[t] through the cultural trash heap of history” (as per their intro) to better understand famous, fallen women maligned as crazy. Bennett is an expert researcher and internet stalker, pulling from obscure fan forums and shuttered tabloids to paint heartbreaking portraits of fame. She has also put her sleuthing skills to work in her Dead Is Better zine since 2016. To date, Bennett has published five issues about celebrity deaths, obsessive fandom, and bad behavior to critical acclaim: her work has been profiled by the likes of The New York Times, Vogue, and SSENSE. Now, with indie publisher Heinzfeller Nileisist, she has anthologized her essays in her debut book Taxidermist’s Handbook, which came out last month at the L.A. Art Book Fair.
Bennett believes that fandom operates like a sort of feedback loop—we latch onto certain celebrities because we see ourselves mirrored back. In Taxidermist’s Handbook, each essay is like an obituary, or an autopsy, for a given dead celebrity or notorious criminal. Bennett’s subjects run the gamut from River Phoenix to Judy Garland to Jodi Arias.
Her essays are epistolary, written directly to her subjects (“I LOVED YOU. I loved you!” she proclaims to Brittany Murphy in one essay), but are also like diary entries, in the way that yelling at your television is really just talking to yourself. Bennett has little interest in the taxidermist’s quest for verisimilitude. She stuffs her subjects with bits of biographical information, mixed with whatever gory details catch her eye as well as pieces of herself. “I have thought a lot about the distance between the fan and the celebrity, and most often I find this space beautiful,” Bennett writes. “Loving a celebrity is like finding some small glimmer of your ideal self in someone else—it is intimate and personal and reflective, it does exactly the same thing as art and literature.” Taxidermist’s Handbook compiles the ways in which we stuff too much of ourselves into other people, and the inevitable moments when those glimmers of our ideal selves give way to madness.
Bennett’s interest in others is prying, invasive, and so she opens Taxidermist’s Handbook with an essay about when, at 10 years old, she was asked to feed her neighbors’ cats while they went away on vacation. She was given a house key, for emergencies only, which she immediately used to sneak into the eldest daughter’s en suite bathroom and rifle through acne creams and makeup. “I am relating this story to you mostly to say that I have been like this for as long as I can remember,” Bennett writes. “[T]here hasn’t been a time when I didn’t feel some great compulsion to find solipsistic intimacy with strangers by looking through their things.”
The bathroom is a recurring set piece throughout Taxidermist’s Handbook. In her essay dedicated to Brittany Murphy, Bennett recalls when, just months after her death, Murphy’s husband invited Radar to gawk at the bathroom where his wife collapsed. Whitney Houston’s family sold photos of her filthy bathroom after the singer died too, and at the end of her Houston missive, Bennett leaves readers with a particularly haunting image of a gravy boat filled with olive oil, floating in the bathtub where the starlet drowned.
What is it about a bathroom that tells us everything we need to know about a person? As you step into a stranger’s bathroom at a house party, the imaginary stopwatch instantly starts to tick. You have two, maybe three minutes, not just to snoop through prescriptions stashed in the medicine cabinet but also to examine the remnants of powders other partygoers have littered on windowsills, the grout that amalgamates between tiles, the stains that build up on the sides of a toilet. Who really lives here?
Bennett’s voyeurism is not indiscriminate, and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what compels her to write about someone. “[T]here is no telling which remote losses the heart will render meaningful,” Bennett writes. “[T]here is no way of predicting where we will find glimmers of ourselves in people who begin and end as total strangers.” Once a model with punk predilections, Bennett admits to a secret love of Laker girl–turned–pop star–turned–American Idol host Paula Abdul. In 2005, when Bennett was a “depressed shop girl” at an Alexander McQueen, and rumors of Abdul’s pill abuse had long been circulating, the dancer herself walked into Bennett’s store. Bennett, herself flirting with addiction and troubled by a disintegrating marriage, bore witness to a disoriented Abdul checking out with thousands of dollars, having just defecated in the bathroom garbage can.
The moment of self-recognition prompts Bennett to recount the life of Paula Goodspeed, Abdul’s number one fan. Born Sandra May McIntyre, Goodspeed renamed herself after Abdul, plastered her walls with posters of the dancer, and auditioned for American Idol, only to be rejected by her idol. “The thing about number one fans is that they are NEVER satisfied by meeting the objects of their affection because the ultimate goal isn’t simply recognition, it’s intimacy,” Bennett writes. Goodspeed dedicated the end of her days to stalking Abdul, until November 2008, when she parked her Toyota Camry with the license plate “ABL LV” by Abdul’s home and overdosed on “about 700 different types of medication.”
(I’m too young to remember 9/11, but I remember where I was when Paula Goodspeed killed herself, and I remember just months before, when Abdul told an American Idol contestant that she didn’t quite care for his second performance—he had only sung once, an anxious Randy Jackson pointed out, and speculation about Abdul’s pill usage bubbled up yet again.)
“We love celebrities because they somehow give us back to ourselves whole, they show us who we are, who we want to be, but it is inarguably terrifying when that circuit goes haywire,” Bennett writes. Abdul rarely spoke of the other Paula after her suicide, and maybe this circuit is reciprocal, Bennett posits. Maybe Abdul saw more of herself in Goodspeed than she was comfortable confronting. Fandom can have something of a Droste effect, the illusion of an infinite hall of mirrors bouncing back and forth the same image as far as the eye can see.
The word stan has dual origins: it’s a portmanteau of stalker and fan, a Venn diagram of which Bennett is an expert; it also originated in Eminem’s 2000 song, wherein Stan, Slim Shady’s biggest fan, drives himself and his pregnant girlfriend off of a bridge when his letters to the rapper go unanswered. I Wikipediaed the origins of the song, hoping (in vain) it was based on some true event, if only so Bennett could write about it. Stanesque incidents pervade the collection—Bennett writes about Gianni Versace’s murder at the hands of longtime admirer Andrew Cunanan and recounts the time Selena was shot dead by her self-identified number one fan. “When a person is on TV, the rest of us get some psychotic idea that we kind of know them,” Bennett writes about Christina Grimmie, a burgeoning pop star killed by a man who unnerved his co-workers with his proclamations of love for the young singer. “Thankfully most of us know where it stops.”
Bennett knows where it stops, but she also knows that the internet makes creeps of us all; her own obsessions take her from her neighbor’s bathroom to the online sale of the handles from Judy Garland’s casket. (Her other favorite websites include Findadeath.com, Websleuths.com, and Pillfinder.com).
Bennett suffers from no delusions that her interests are anything but perverse, even as today's stan culture often conceives of itself in morally upstanding terms. The 2021 #FreeBritney protests looked like scenes from Occupy Wall Street; Taylor Swift fans attempted to organize a boycott until the singer dropped a problematic boyfriend of two weeks. Even the morbid speculation that abounds in popular true crime is veiled in women’s self-defense activism. Looking at the neon #FreeBritney signs can feel confounding. What happened in the course of almost 15 years that the same public attention that once drove the pop star to insanity now manifested as cousin to a social justice movement? Did we too feel trapped by Britney’s mistreatment? The obsession with Britney is still churned through the same machines of capital and exploitation that once drove the star to wield that notorious umbrella.
But now, in the span of a year, there have been four documentaries about Britney, none of which she approved. When Millie Bobby Brown said she’d love to play the pop star in the biopic, Spears herself took to Instagram to remind everyone, “dude I’m not dead !!!” Bennett’s interest in our relation to fame isn’t in this righteous contemporary self-conception but in its roots, in the letters to an uncommonly bespectacled Eminem, reading of his number one fan’s murder-suicide.
When I was five years old, I told my class that my parents were the Jewish Canadian husband-and-wife children’s musical duo Judy & David. They were pretty much popular only in my own household, and no one believed me anyway. I stopped lying about it after I had a nightmare that the duo tortured their real-life daughter by locking her in a closet bathroom and dumping maggots on her head. I was only in kindergarten, but I still feel a flush of humiliation to think of the Judy & David incident—I can feel in myself that same grotesque desperation to come as close to any celebrity I can, to prove I’m special. In the bathroom, the same room where Bennett’s collection begins and where so many famous lives concluded, I learned, at least, where to stop lying.
Bennett knows best what A. J. Weberman proclaimed in his manifesto, My Life in Garbology, some 40 years ago: that in garbage we find a “mirrored image of human behavior and the modern world in which we live.” Be it amid metaphorical, cultural trash or prompted by the feces Paula Abdul discarded in an Alexander McQueen garbage pail, “[s]elf-reflection is one of the most significant mechanisms of obsession and you can’t pick the places that happens,” Bennett explains; “you just never know where you’re going to see yourself.”
Ariella Garmaise is a Toronto-based assistant editor at The Walrus. Her writing and cultural criticism have been featured in Lit Hub, Catapult, The Walrus, and other outlets.
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