ON THE EVENING of February 21, 2001, Ashley Ellerin, 22, was viciously attacked in her Hollywood Bungalow apartment, stabbed 47 times and nearly decapitated. She was young, she was hot, and she was dating Ashton Kutcher. None of these are the reason we care about this girl though. We care because Carolyn Murnick does. Even though much of the story in this book unfolds from the back of a Los Angeles courtroom during the pretrial hearings for Ashley’s alleged killer, The Hot One is less about discovering who wielded the knife than it is about understanding social constructs, female friendships, the cult of beauty, and our fascination with fame.

In elementary school, Carolyn Murnick and her best friend Ashley were inseparable. They talked alike, wore the same clothes, and spent countless nights sleeping in the same bed. And though Murnick may have gotten better grades, “the real dividing factors, the social signifiers — drugs, sex, male attention — were still years ahead” of them. As it often happens with childhood friends, the girls grew apart when Ashley’s family moved to California. The girls found out just how significant 3,000 miles and “years ahead” were in 2000, when Ashley leaves Los Angeles to visit Carolyn in her college apartment in New York. For Murnick, seeing Ashley again put the intangibles that amplify a woman’s self-consciousness front and center. Now, “Ashley was tan, toned, and feral […] She talked fast and unselfconsciously, moving through the crowd with a physical ease not unlike that of a dancer or a celebrity.” Measuring herself against her newly glamorous friend was exhausting. Murnick couldn’t wait for the week to end, saying, “I felt as though my self-esteem were at an all-time low.”

Female friendships can be fiercely hierarchical. Placing yourself in relation to your friends can be the only way you have of seeing yourself in the world, knowing where you stand. The hot one, the funny one, the smart one — we package ourselves to make us more digestible to the outside world. Murnick mourns how limiting this can be for a young woman, though eventually realizing that these labels are often malleable, “one man’s hot one was another man’s smart one.”

Eight months after her visit, Ashley was dead and Murnick was left wondering what happened to her childhood friend. Not just that night, but in the years, months, and days in between. How did Ashley morph from the misfit Murnick remembers into the magical unicorn molting glitter?

It happens. At 12, I was a member of the debate team with the highest grades in my junior high, and by 22, I was a bartender with breast implants, trying not to flunk out of a prestigious university in Canada. By 26, I was living in Los Angeles. It was the turn of the century and I was high on ecstasy, watching Alexis Arquette throwing up in an alley behind the El Rey Theatre while Ashley was dancing in Vegas and sleeping with celebrities. By the time she was murdered, both of us had been living in the city for close to two years. So what were the motivating factors for me? How did I decide that being hot was better than being smart? Murnick is left to speculate in this book’s pages as to how it happened with Ashley, but I would hazard a guess that Hollywood had something to do with it.

How many times have we seen the nerd shed her glasses and shake out her ponytail for instant popularity? Sexy trumps smart. If Murnick seems obsessed with the hot one, it’s only because all of us are. Consider the $16 billion Americans spent on plastic surgery last year. Also, remember that these are girls in their 20s, just discovering the power of their sexuality, and while Murnick has the wisdom of age as a filter, part of her is stuck reliving that last visit with Ashley, in this book and perhaps for the rest of her life. Carolyn can’t let go. Ashley is there even when she closes her eyes. In a dream she sees Ashley in court for her own murder trial. “What are you doing here?” Ashley asks, laughing, happy, like isn’t all of this hilarious? At which point Murnick bursts into tears and says, “I’ve always been here.”

Hers is a complicated grief:

It was what happened when you hadn’t cried — at least not yet — and you hadn’t gotten depressed, but you still couldn’t move on, either. “Why is my needle stuck in childhood?” asked Maurice Sendak. “I guess that’s where my heart is.” I felt something similar.

As she turns it over in her mind, we’re lead to a greater understanding of how impossible it can be to see yourself clearly as one half of a bonded bestie. Murnick tells us that next to her, Ashley “was the hot one,” going on to explain, “you couldn’t have two of those, regardless of how I might have looked. On the flip side, that made me, it seemed, the smart one when I was next to Ashley, regardless of how smart she was, because clearly, you could only be one or the other.”

From her office, working as a senior editor at New York magazine, Murnick uses an online information portal to search for news about Ashley in the years following her death. First, in 2004, she learns that Ashton Kutcher was dating her friend when she died, and then, in 2008, finally there is “a suspect, an arrest, and an indictment.”

This story is salacious, it can’t help but be — a young Hollywood insider was stabbed 47 times in her bungalow just a few blocks from Mann’s Chinese Theatre — but Murnick does a good job of giving us all of the details without belaboring the celebrity connection. She could have mentioned that the actor Ashley was talking about on her answering machine was Jeremy Sisto. She could have linked Ashley to Vin Diesel. She does neither, presumably because it shouldn’t matter. I would argue that it does, to some extent. I should point out that part of the reason I Googled this case so extensively is that figuring out where you fall on the Hollywood hierarchy is just a part of living in Los Angeles, visiting Los Angeles, reading about Los Angeles — you get where I’m going with this. The fact that Ashton Kutcher was at Ashley’s house on the night of her murder gives the reader an access point into this story, a greater understanding of just how inside this girl was in such a short time on “the scene.”

We begin to realize the strength of her magnetism wasn’t restricted to her childhood friend’s interpretation of her. (Going to the same club as Vin Diesel isn’t the same as going to the club with Vin Diesel.) Ashley belonged in Los Angeles, in the Hollywood circle, in her own skin, which is something Murnick finds herself struggling to do throughout this story. In more than one situation we hear Murnick’s internal monologue, asking questions like, “Do I deserve it? Am I an imposter? Am I one of them, or am I one of the others?”

Starting with that last ill-fated visit to New York, moving through the pretrial and beyond, we are left to contemplate the power of the female body in a society that worships beauty while punishing the woman who possesses it, or uses it to her advantage. It becomes apparent that how the body looks, who sees it, and what we do with it can be used in judgment against us. Murnick rails against the defense attorney, “trading in slut shaming and a woman’s promiscuity as fuel to inflate reasonable doubt,” but realizes that he’s just doing his job. If he can prove that Ashley was promiscuous, not only does that broaden the scope of suspects in a case with no DNA evidence, but it could also make a jury less sympathetic to Ashley’s plight. Rape culture tells us that a short skirt and a sexy smile means a woman is seeking sexual violence. Murnick struggles with this kind of ingrained thinking herself, acknowledging how a woman’s power can make her a target, and how unfair that is. We reward women for being hot, but we punish them, too. Murnick wants us to wonder why. What would have happened if Ashley had found herself on the smart half of “the hot one” equation? How would she have learned to exist in the world?

What if Ashley hadn’t been “the hot one”? Would she have been able to avoid the killer’s gaze? There is even a possibility that she slept with the “Chiller Killer,” Michael Gargiulo, before she died. The reader is left to consider the value of a life, a body in lucite heels, that put itself in harm’s way, again and again. Does that make Ashley’s death any less tragic? As Murnick sees it, it does. To the broader audience. To the readers of US Magazine, Ashley “was not the story people cared about […] she existed only in reference to Ashton, a sad blip on his bio, his ‘tragic missed encounter with a beautiful young woman on the night she was murdered.’”

In the pages of this, her first memoir, Murnick admits to a fear of trespassing, worried perhaps that she didn’t have the right to tell this story (there’s that fear of unbelonging again). I would argue that these fears are unfounded. Yes, The Hot One is full of sex, drugs, and murder, but the questions raised in its pages are a fitting tribute to a life lost. I can’t imagine Ashley not giving her blessing to its telling.

¤

Amanda Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and currently working on her memoir.