A true-crime, coming-of-age story with a tragic twist: a New York editor’s quest to uncover the truth about the brutal murder of her wild and seductive friend in a “riveting…and thoughtful examination of how we grow up and apart” (Cosmopolitan).
As girls growing up in rural New Jersey in the late 1980s, Ashley and Carolyn had everything in common: two outsiders who loved spending afternoons exploring the woods. Only when the girls attended different high schools did they begin to grow apart. While Carolyn struggled to fit in, Ashley quickly became a hot girl: popular, extroverted, and sexually precocious.
After high school, Carolyn entered college in New York City and Ashley ended up in Los Angeles, where she quit school to work as a stripper and an escort, dating actors and older men, and experimenting with drugs. The last time Ashley visited New York, Carolyn was shocked by how they had grown apart. One year later, Ashley was stabbed to death at age twenty-two in her Hollywood home.
“Original and engaging” (Kirkus Reviews), The Hot One is the story of Carolyn’s emotional quest to find out what really happened to her oldest friend. It’s a journey that takes her through the hills of Hollywood, into courtrooms in Los Angeles, to strip clubs in Las Vegas, and back to her own childhood memories as she tries to unravel why she and Ashley became so different. How did Ashley end up the overtly sexual risk-taker—the hot one—while Carolyn was seen as the smart one, the observer? Carolyn’s “memoir will shock and fascinate” (Booklist) readers as she explores the power of female friendships and pays tribute to the ones that stay with you long after they’re gone.
The Hot One 1 FRONT PAGE SHE WAS FOUND by her roommate in the hallway of their split-level bungalow at 1911 Pinehurst Road in the Hollywood Hills at approximately 9 a.m. and pronounced dead by paramedics at 9:28, February 22, 2001. Her body was faceup on the carpeting near the entrance to their bathroom, and when Jen opened the front door that morning and saw her from across the room, she at first thought it was some sort of practical joke. Ashley was known for her occasional put-ons and tricks, but as Jen got closer, it was impossible to miss all the blood.
It was trailing from Ashley’s nose and mouth and matted in her hair. It had drenched the green terry-cloth robe she was wearing as well as the blue tank top that was stretched around her torso and the shorts that were bunched around her thighs. It covered her arms, legs, and hands with a sickening sheen, nearly obscuring the bracelet tattoo she had around her left ankle. It had turned the carpet around her body a dark, angry red.
Jen bolted out the door to her car to call 911, not wanting to remain in the room for another second. She would never spend a night in that house again.
The fire truck was the first to arrive, and then came Detective Thomas Small of the LAPD, Hollywood Division. He noted that the victim was a twenty-two-year-old Caucasian female who was last known to have been alive as of 8:15 p.m. the previous night. He noted that there had been no forced entry into the residence, and no obvious weapons had yet been recovered. He also noted that due to the time lapse, she wasn’t a viable candidate for tissue donation.
An external examination of the body revealed forty-seven stab wounds, twelve of which were later deemed fatal. Defense wounds were also observed on her right forearm and hands. Ashley’s neck organs had suffered extensive trauma, and her windpipe and right artery had been cut in two. Stab wounds blanketed her back, stomach, and arms, and her head had been partially dislocated from her spinal column.
Bloody shoe prints were noted in the house entryway. The official report from the deputy medical examiner wouldn’t be filed for another two weeks, but the manner of death was obvious: homicide.
She was officially identified at approximately 11 p.m. via DOJ fingerprints as Ashley Ellerin, of Los Altos, California. An hour later, a local police sergeant was sent to notify the next of kin: her parents.
It took another five days for the news to reach me.
• • •
We sat around the kitchen table, my parents and I, with the paper between us. The story had made the front page of The Bernardsville News, below the pictures from the latest hospital benefit and an article on deer population control.
I read it while they stared at me. I was just under two months out of college; in a few weeks I’d turn twenty-two, just as she had been. I had graduated a semester late, and although I still had my same apartment in the city, something about the new stretches of unstructured weekend time unnerved me. How did you fill it all, all by yourself with no essays to write or assigned reading to get done? I had taken to visiting my parents in New Jersey more regularly while I sorted things out. At the end of February there was a bit of snow left on the ground, and my eyes kept settling upon the patches of whiteness outside every few sentences as I read. “Former Peapack Resident Murdered in Los Angeles,” the headline shouted. I blinked and knew instantly what was coming.
The article quoted a family friend—someone I had never heard of—who said Ashley had recently transferred from UCLA to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, and called her “an accomplished pianist and a talented artist.” There would be a private funeral in California, the article said. Her remains would be cremated and her ashes scattered in Hawaii, “a place the family had visited frequently and where Miss Ellerin had wanted to live and work.”
I felt detached, numb. The time-appearing-to-stop thing you hear about, that was there. The feeling of floating on my back in the middle of a cold lake, staring up at birds chirping in the trees above my head but not being able to hear them—that was there, too. I wondered if my parents expected some sort of emotional display from me and how they’d handle it if I produced one, or if I didn’t. Should I cry? Should I drop my head into my hands and wait for my mother to say something? Should I excuse myself? Nothing seemed appropriate, so instead I stayed silent.
I wanted to tell my parents what I knew about Ashley, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to tell them the things that would shock them, scare them, and cause them to shake their heads and go silent. I wanted to unburden myself and push them up against the limits of their parental aptitudes. How would they make sense of this one? There was no way to. I felt angry at her, and I wanted them to be as well. How could her life have ended up this way? But maybe it wasn’t my place to share what I knew. They could find out from someone else, or maybe not at all, or perhaps there’d be another occasion to talk about it when things weren’t so fresh.
I would wait this time. There were still a million questions yet to be answered. I knew I had secrets about Ashley I was quite certain she had told few others, but I still didn’t know what had happened to my oldest friend at the end. So what did I really know, anyway?
This reading group guide for The Hot One includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Carolyn Murnick. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Carolyn and Ashley are childhood friends who grew up together in rural New Jersey playing piano, taking photographs, and dreaming of the future. By the time the girls have become young women, they’re living on two different coasts and leading two very different lives. Carolyn is a college student at Columbia University and Ashley is living in Los Angeles, occasionally attending school while working part-time as an escort and stripper. The last time Carolyn sees Ashley is during a visit to New York, a visit that solidifies that their paths have diverged and their friendship is not what it used to be. At age twenty-two, Ashley is found brutally murdered in her Hollywood home. The Hot One traces Carolyn’s journey as she investigates the murder, a decision that leads her through the final days of Ashley’s life, her secret work, and the circumstances that led to the two friends having such unfairly different experiences in the world. This memoir is sad and funny, a coming of age as much as a true-crime narrative. In her quest to find closure for Ashley and herself, Carolyn Murnick ultimately comes to wonder about female friendship, the male gaze, and the labels that define who we become.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the prologue, Carolyn Murnick describes a pseudo-sexy photo shoot she and Ashley did as teenagers. When Carolyn’s mom confronts her after being told that the store would not “develop smut” (3), Carolyn describes the realization that comes over her: “It was my first flicker of understanding that part of being a girl meant being looked at, judged, maybe criticized . . . and I didn’t like it one bit” (3). Discuss how this idea—that girls in particular are subject to scrutiny based on physical appearance—acts as a theme for Ashley’s life. Do you agree with the author’s assessment of the female experience in our culture?
2. In contrast to the innocence of the photo shoot scene, Chapter 1 begins with a description of how Ashley’s body was found by her roommate in their Hollywood bungalow. How do the two descriptions of Ashely—who she was and who she became—compare? What conclusions about youth vs. experience can you glean from these two versions of one person? Is it fair to say that everyone, including the author, becomes a different version of herself by age twenty-two?
3. How would you characterize Ashley and Carolyn’s childhood? Did it surprise you that the two grew distant as they entered adulthood on different coasts, becoming “more like distant cousins than present-day friends” (41)? How do you think the physical spaces in which they lived affected their lives?
4. The author asks a chilling question on page 58: “How had we ended up in such different places?” Discuss with your group what you believe the answer to this question might be. Do you think that the author ultimately comes to an answer herself?
5. Why do you think that the author considered sleeping with Oliver on her first visit to LA? Does her fleeting wish seem more as a connection to her lost friend or a competitive urge?
6. Much of The Hot One considers the stereotypes and labels that accompany women. How does Ashley’s character as presented by the author transcend the label of “the hot one” that gets attached to Ashley during her trial? Do you agree the author views Ashley as “the powerful one” of the duo? Why or why not?
7. The paradox of death is explored throughout this memoir. On page 107 the author asks “what was the best way to hold two mutually exclusive ideas in my head at the same time?” What ideas about death, and Ashley’s in particular, feel “mutually exclusive”? Do you think the author ever resolves this paradox for herself?
8. What aspects of Ashely and Carolyn’s friendship feel unique and which seem typical of female friendship? Do you agree with the editor who writes that “at its heart, this is truly a story of female friendship”? Why or why not?
9. Why do you think Carolyn decides to stay in the courtroom if the pictures are shown during the trial? Would you stay?
10. What aspect of the trial did you find most chilling? Do you think the fact that Ashton Kutcher is part of the story change your perception of Ashley? How so?
11. Carolyn writes that she decides to do the 48 Hours interview in part to learn how to investigate a crime without a personal stake in the outcome, to have a “conviction that the work . . . could help bring . . . justice and, perhaps, peace” (192). Ultimately does the author find a purpose for her investigation of Ashley’s murder? What is it?
12. Respond to Carolyn’s belief that “the truth was becoming a more and more abstract concept” (203). What is abstract about the truth of Ashely’s life and death? Do you think she succeeds in shifting her focus “from fact-finding to letting go” (203)?
13. Reread the last line of the story out loud to your group. What do you think the author is implying by saying she can turn her “gaze inward” or “up to the sky” (236)?
14. This story is a memoir, which deals with memories from a personal point-of-view. What memory of Ashley survives in the pages of this story? Do you think that the writing of her friend’s life and death gives the author a sense of peace? Does it right any wrongs regarding Ashley’s portrayal in the media and on trial?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Part of what makes The Hot One so chilling is the fact that Ashley’s accused murderer might very well be a serial killer, that Ashley might be one among a list of his beautiful, young victims. Host a viewing party with your book club to watch the CBS 48 Hours special on Michael Gargiulo (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-boy-next-door-3/). After watching, compare how Ashely is presented in the show with how she is presented in The Hot One. What was similar about the two stories of Ashley’s life and death? How were they different? What verdict might you give Gargiulo if you were on the jury?
2. On page 126, Carolyn muses over a picture of Ashley from her LA days. She is reminded of their shared childhood obsession with taking photographs of one another, and she writes that in hindsight perhaps the act of creating a lasting image, something permanent, attracted her and Ashley to the camera. “The recording of the moments was the fun part, the extra sense of importance it would convey to things. With every click, every roll of film, we were showing each other we were worth remembering” (126). Spend time remembering with your book club. Choose an old photograph of yourself and describe the time that it was taken. What were you doing? What age were you and where were you living? What was special—or typical—about the day this photo was taken? Share any details you can remember about who you might have been in that photo and how that person compares with the you of today.
3. Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman admitted to the California bar, becomes the author’s “spirit animal” as she embarks on her journey to understand Ashley’s death. Research some quick facts about Foltz’s life to share with your group, explaining why you think the author felt fortified by her spirit. If you were about to face a difficult task, who or what would be your spirit animal? Share with your group your spirit animal and reasons behind your choice over dinner.
A Conversation with Carolyn Murnick
Author Kate Bolick has said The Hot One is a memoir that is “never morbid or sentimental, always honest,” one that “unpacks the often vexing reality of what it means to be a young woman in the 21st century.” What would you name as your main goal in writing this memoir?
Ashley was my “friend who got away,” which I think is an experience everyone has had in one way or another, whether you’ve lost someone to death or simply to life-paths diverging. You always kind of wonder if you should have stayed in touch, whether you could rekindle something, and the relationship becomes a touchstone for your life and growth, a way to see how much you’ve changed as you look back. As I began to talk about Ashley in the years after she died, I realized that people were connecting to her story and to that universal sense of wistfulness for the road not taken. I wanted to honor those formative relationships we’ve all had, and to me, searching for answers about what had happened to her, trying to get closer to the truth, was my way of doing that.
Describe the research that went into writing this memoir. What was the process like?
I worked on The Hot One for over eight years, so at times it felt like my writing, my research, and simply living my life were one and the same. Some scenes in this book took place over a decade ago, while others happened just a few days before I wrote them. I interviewed childhood friends and teachers; I talked about Ashley and our friendship with people I met and connected with; I paid attention to how my own female friendships had evolved over the years—all of that I considered “research.” I also did more traditional reporting: I attended court hearings; I pored over transcripts and police reports; I hunted down old newspaper clippings and archived photos. The book is a blend of both traditional, reportorial research, and the sticky, emotional research of excavating my own memories and mining them for insight.
Without a background in criminal investigative reporting, how did you decide how to write about Ashley’s trial proceedings? What was the most difficult part about investigating the murder of someone who was once your closest friend?
I’m an editor at New York magazine, but my beat is restaurants and travel. Nothing in my background prepared me for poring over coroner’s reports and transcripts and interviewing people who had lost a loved one and attending court hearings. When I was at one of those hearings, one of the defense attorneys asked me why I was there and then answered his own question: You’re here to bear witness, he said. That was something I thought about a lot during the reporting and writing of this book. That phrase stuck with me: to bear witness. What is the value of bearing witness? It means not turning away, not abandoning my friend. There are things that I learned, documents that I read that no one ever wants to read. Medical examiner reports detailing each of the forty-seven stab wounds Ashley received. This is the stuff of nightmares. It’s unspeakable. But as much as I would like to turn away, to not read these things, I can’t look away because that would mean turning my back on Ashley. It would mean leaving her to experience the worst moments of her life alone. Ashley had to experience all of this, the least I can do is read about it.
In the book, you explore the idea of “closure” and whether getting to a state of closure is ever really possible. Ashley’s alleged killer has been in county jail awaiting trial for over nine years and the trial date still hasn’t been set. How does that affect your sense of closure?
If and when Michael Gargiulo is convicted, that won’t be the end for me. Some losses are too big to ever be wrapped up in a little bow. I’m not sure closure is ever really possible after something like this; in many ways, my sense of loss has only deepened as the years have passed. To me, it’s always been more important to focus on honoring Ashley’s memory and reflecting on the adult life she never got to have as I go about my own.
Do you see the act of writing this memoir as a tribute not just to Ashley but to female friendship in general? What do you think it is about female friendships that are so powerful?
It’s not easy growing up female in our culture, being defined by our appearance and our bodies and internalizing the message to smile and be deferential and not take up too much space. I think girls look to our friends to be allies in that strange and oppressive environment that we don’t quite understand. Ashley and I were two young girls figuring out this world together. In some ways I think I formed my identity in reference to her. She was my first best friend, and when I think of her, I remember childhood and innocence and companionship based on the simplest criteriwe liked spending time together. As we got older and started making different decisions about drugs and dating and sex, things changed between us, but I’m not sure I ever stopped comparing myself to her. I’m still learning about myself from my friendship with her, even sixteen years after her death.
Part of The Hot One is a critique of how Ashley was portrayed in the media and in court hearings because of her lifestyle, her physical appearance, and her gender. What bothered you about the way she was described?
To be cynical about it: television, movies, tabloids, and even crime journalism love a beautiful dead girl—think Twin Peaks, 13 Reasons Why, The Killing—she’s an object there to move the plot forward, and often little concern is given to who she was as a person. Give that dead girl an active sex life and out comes the slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Ashley was subject to all of that treatment and more in the media and in court hearings, and even worse than that, in a lot of coverage she was almost entirely eclipsed by Ashton Kutcher. Outrageously, her murder became a thing that happened to him. The Hot One pushes back against the way female victims are often portrayed in the media and in court, and it shares a human, complex portrait of who Ashley was before she died. She wasn’t just a party girl who hung out with Ashton Kutcher, and she wasn’t just one of the many victims of a serial killer. She was a real person with a childhood and people around her who loved her and still remember her. She was only just starting her life.
How did you come up with the title The Hot One and what does it mean to you?
The Hot One refers to the way our culture tries to put girls and women into boxes, and implicitly holds them up in comparison to one another. You’re the hot one or you’re the smart one, or you’re the tomboy or you’re the good girl. If you hear it enough times from others, eventually you start to believe it about yourself. “The hot one” was the way people saw my friend Ashley, and, though we never discussed it, I think it partly informed the way she saw herself in the last year of her life, as much as she might have chafed against the confines and expectations of the label. It’s certainly how I saw her in our last weekend together, and, by comparison, I felt like I became “the smart one” in reference to her, a label I certainly chafed against as well.
What do you hope readers will take away after reading The Hot One?
The details of my story and of Ashley’s life and death are unique, but almost everyone has lost a friend, either to death or simply by growing apart. I hope readers will connect my experiences with their own lives. I think that’s one of the greatest things about memoir: we learn from each other, and about ourselves, by sharing our stories. I hope The Hot One can honor Ashley’s memory and contribute to a dialogue about how the lives of murder victims are remembered—or misremembered—after their deaths. I never got a chance to rekindle my friendship with Ashley, to reforge the bond we created as children and to share the joys and pains of growing into women in our twenties and thirties. Maybe some readers will be inspired to reach out to the elementary school friends they’ve lost touch with, or to reconnect with the person they once were and reflect on the formative relationships that made them who they are.
Carolyn Murnick is an online editor at New York magazine. She received an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Aspen Institute in 2014. Her personal essays have appeared in two anthologies: Before & After: Stories from New York and Lost & Found: Stories from New York. She lives in Brooklyn and The Hot One is her first book.
"Both an introspective look at young female friendship and a riveting true-crime tale." – Entertainment Weekly
"Murnick is an engaging writer and her story of the seamy side of young Hollywood sucks you in like a link to TMZ." – USA Today
"Riveting...A thoughtful examination of how we grow up and apart." – Cosmopolitan
"Darkly beautiful...Poetic and riveting." – Interview
"While the specific story is tragic and interesting in its own right, the central themes — of friendship, and of how you can share a childhood with someone, then come to hardly know them at all — will resonate with many." – The New York Post
"A rueful exploration of how two New Jersey girls, such close friends in fifth grade that they felt they were nearly the same person, found themselves on very different paths." – Slate
"An elegy to female friendship and the ways it shapes us, even as we grow older and grow apart." —Refinery29
"Thoughtful and thorough, both in exploring the dynamics of female friendships and reporting from chilling courtroom hearings." – The Cut
"A true crime page-turner and also a really lovely meditation on friendships between women and the way they change." – Slate's DoubleX Gabfest
"Murnick’s memoir will shock and fascinate." – Booklist
“Original and engaging.” – Kirkus
"This fusion of memoir and procedural should be welcomed by readers of autobiography as well as true crime." – Library Journal
"Carolyn Murnick’s insights into the freighted complexities of youth, beauty, and sexuality, and how these forces collide within long, close female friendships, turn an already affecting murder mystery into a story for our time. Never morbid or sentimental, always honest, The Hot One is a wholly original memoir that explores and unpacks the often vexing reality of what it means to be a young woman in the 21st century." —Kate Bolick, bestselling author of SPINSTER: Making a Life of One’s Own
"A journalist’s investigation into her childhood friend’s murder—a riveting subject on its own—is so much more in writer Carolyn Murnick’s hands. Murnick exposes the sticky complexity of female friendship and identity. She questions what our debts are to the dead and forces us to look at ourselves. Three pages in and I knew that I wouldn’t get anything else done. I inhaled The Hot One in 24 hours, riveted from its haunting preface to its heartbreaking final sentence." —Susannah Cahalan, bestselling author of BRAIN ON FIRE: My Month of Madness
"Carolyn Murnick's The Hot One is as suspenseful as it is heartfelt and honest— an affecting, revealing investigation into the mysteries at the heart of young friendship." —Robert Kolker, author of LOST GIRLS: An Unsolved American Mystery