Great Memoirists Lie: On Caroline Calloway’s “Scammer”

July 21, 2023   •   By Anna Dorn


Caroline Calloway

IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR with publishing, you’ll know that galleys typically arrive in a plain envelope with a press release. My copy of Scammer (2023)—a book with such a tortured prepublication schedule that many thought it didn't even exist—arrived in a package containing a felt flower inside a mason jar. If you’re familiar with its author, internet ingénue Caroline Calloway, you’ll know this presentation is decidedly on-brand.

I didn’t know about Calloway until her name was steeped in controversy. And I understand why she didn’t end up on my radar: she was popular on Instagram for partying in castles and falling in and out of love at Cambridge—wholesome American-abroad content à la Emily in Paris. Caroline in Cambridge wore flower crowns. She loved Taylor Swift. She was a proud quintuple-Sagittarius, a sign known for its psyched-to-be-here energy. She has referred to her vibe as “manic pixie dream girl, girly girl,” a phrase that entices me only in its allusion to bipolar disorder. I’m a Mary-Kate Olsen fan, drawn to slouchy waifs in all black, Dimes Square reactionaries, disaffected contrarians—girls of the variety Calloway imagines look down on her. “Enthusiasm amongst the popular crowd,” Calloway writes, “is regarded as suspect.” I, too, find Calloway’s pep off-putting. Nonetheless, a tragic desperation beneath the upbeat facade endears me to her. Obviously, I’m not alone in finding Calloway compelling. Lena Dunham bought the rights to her life.

Despite the vast ocean between our tastes, certain biographical details bind Calloway and me. We’re both from the Washington, DC, area. Both have fraught relationships with our sexuality; both have, at times, identified as “BI FOR CLOUT”; both love women and male attention. Our moms hail from minorly aristocratic Floridian families; our dads went to UVA law school. We’re both seduced by elite education in the way most people raised in DC are. (Calloway was rejected by every Ivy, then finally got into Cambridge on the third try after forging her transcript; I finagled my way into UC Berkeley School of Law off the waitlist mostly so I could tell people I got in.) We’re both a little delusional. Calloway has said in interviews, with conviction, that her writing will be taught in schools one day. In my fourth-grade time capsule, I wrote that I expected to be a New York Times Best Seller in 10 years.

It’s been 27 years since I was in fourth grade, and I’ve yet to write a bestseller. I don’t think Scammer will be taught in schools either. But I liked the memoir more than I expected to, particularly given its suspicious four-year rollout. Scammer covers Calloway’s dark childhood, in which she was raised by an ornery hoarder and forced to get her kneecaps removed due to a rare medical condition; her rise to Instagram fame after buying 40,000 followers for $4.99 and documenting her lust for life in very long captions; and the public controversies that followed—in particular, failing to produce the memoir she’d sold for half a million dollars.

The failed project was many years in the making. At 17, Calloway changed her name from Caroline Gotschall because she thought Calloway would “look better on books.” At 18, when all her friends in Martha’s Vineyard were reading Tucker Max, Calloway memorized the name of Max’s agent, whom Scammer calls “Peris Lloyd” but is actually named Byrd Leavell. Similar to how she lied her way into Cambridge, at 22, Calloway called up Leavell’s secretary and told him she needed to reschedule their meeting, of which the secretary obviously had no record. “That’s really not my problem or my job,” Calloway told her.

At the meeting, Calloway pulled up her by-then-very-popular Instagram account. Leveraging Calloway’s followers and some accompanying press, Leavell sold a book based on her Instagram captions to Flatiron Books for a fat sum, which Calloway quickly spent, which became a problem when she failed to write the book. Flatiron canceled the contract, jumpstarting a shitstorm that culminated in Calloway’s former friend Natalie Beach writing a viral article entitled: “I Was Caroline Calloway.” In it, Beach claims to be Calloway’s ghostwriter. Enter: A new wave of Calloway fans, perennial gossips plagued by schadenfreude, i.e., moi.

If Natalie Beach was ghostwriting those Instagram captions, Calloway is better off without her. Scammer is far more interesting than the image Calloway initially created for herself—the free-spirited romantic, the American princess, the manic pixie dream girly girl. What lies beneath it, perhaps behind Beach, is gritty, a bit terrifying, and very manic. Calloway may be a liar by her own admission, but she’s telling the truth when she says she’s a more compelling writer than Beach.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say, “How could someone so young write a memoir??? They haven’t lived!!!” But young people write the best memoirs. The medium lends itself to the sprightly and myopic. Chaos queens who lack foresight and perspective rule this genre. The best memoirists are obnoxious and a little cringe, the way Calloway is obsessed with proving she’s a better writer than Beach, repeatedly complimenting her own “prose,” even quoting her former teacher David Lipsky as evidence of her proficiency, apparently unable to shake that DC-bred addiction to credentials. Calloway is a skilled memoirist because she allows herself to be messy, to exaggerate, to bend the truth. Former agent Leavell called Calloway “deeply dishonest.” Well I say: Great artists steal, and great memoirists lie.

Calloway is also really funny? “It unsettled me,” she writes, “that my only relatives who found my vision for life—and the books I’d write about it—sound, were my dad and his two clinically insane siblings.” At one point, she deems herself “Hermione Granger only dumber.” I spit out my kombucha when I read that Calloway feels absolutely destined to fuck a beautiful woman one night and, deadpan, writes: “I fucked a fat guy who looked like Natalie instead.”

Calloway writes in the chatty, brazen style of my favorite memoirists, like Cat Marnell and Elizabeth Wurtzel, both of whom are referenced (and idolized) in Scammer. All three women write like they’re having fun but share an underlying, shark-like ambition. Marnell went from making fashion zines as a kid to climbing the Condé Nast ladder, then penning a bestselling book. Wurtzel went to Harvard and, after defining a generation with Prozac Nation (1994), attended Yale Law School “on a lark” before practicing at the best trial firm in the country. All three have nursed amphetamine addictions. Marnell documented her love affair with speed in her Vice column, Amphetamine Logic. Wurtzel wrote about compulsively snorting Ritalin off her pill crusher in More, Now, Again (2002). “On Adderall,” Calloway writes, “every idea demonic-possesses you.” Both Wurtzel and Calloway suffered from suicidal depression, and both relocated to Florida to write—Wurtzel at her mother’s apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Calloway at her grandmother’s condo in Sarasota, where she currently lives, per the address on my copy of Scammer.

Florida is a compelling character in Scammer, a welcome break from the tedious lionization of both New and Old England. Calloway writes, “I have Sarasota and it's full of birdsong and camp and sometimes when the sun-storms blow in, the rainclouds churn so thick that the view outside blanches blank as if someone forgot to download the world that day.” Calloway quotes Wurtzel writing about Fort Lauderdale: “Florida is glorious. […] My whole life has been erased by the sun. Whatever is going on in New York is gone, bleached out. All that’s left is me.”

Toward the end of Scammer, Calloway writes that she and her mother eat dinner once a week along the bay and watch the mama and baby dolphins. Calloway plans to use the money she makes from this book to buy her own property in Sarasota. It seems she’s left New York behind, along with the Ivy League, the British castles, the boyish aristocrats, and Natalie Beach. She’s building a life around what matters to her—“books and love.” All that’s left is her.

Among the most gutting reveals of Scammer—and there are many—is that Calloway performed at the Red Scare live show the night before she gave the eulogy at her father’s funeral. The aforementioned Dimes Square crowd was ruthless as usual. Following the show, there’d been, Calloway says, “a blizzard of New York tweets about how unstable and uncool I am.” Apparently unbeknownst to these tweeters was the grim reality of Calloway’s situation: not only her father’s suicide, but also her own suicidal feelings that plague her throughout the book. For most of Scammer, Calloway views public exposure, good or bad, as the only antidote to emotional distress.

By the end of Scammer, it becomes clear that the eagerness, the flower crowns, and the whimsy are all part of a carefully calculated defense mechanism. Given the tragedies Calloway has faced—her father’s suicide, her mother’s cancer, the loss of her grandmother and stepdad within a few months, rampant public humiliation, numerous financial woes—she lacks the luxury to assume a posture of blasé disinterest. Her enthusiasm is, quite literally, keeping her alive. And by the end, I was rooting for Calloway. I guess I always was. I love anyone who has been publicly shamed. A former criminal defense attorney, I can’t help but champion the underdog. As such, I want Calloway to find peace, to finally write the “Cambridge Trilogy” she mentions throughout the book, to settle down in Florida with the nice woman she dates (and nearly throws up on) in the beginning of Scammer, or some other woman—really anyone who makes her happy. To build a life around books and love. To want to be alive.

Before I received Scammer, Calloway sent me numerous texts asking about the status of my review. I said I couldn’t write anything until I received the book. When I finally got the book and read it quickly, I sent Calloway several fevered texts telling her how much I liked Scammer, how much we have in common. The texts remain unanswered. Perhaps I am the eager one, she the dismissive. Maybe she lacks interest in me now that I’m interested in her. Or maybe she’s just busy. Living.

As I write this, my felt flower sits perkily in its mason jar across the room. I smile at it, and it seems to smile back.


Anna Dorn is a writer and attorney living in Los Angeles.