By Rachel Zimny
The short story “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian was published almost four years ago in The New Yorker and was immediately met with critical acclaim as the magazine’s first piece of fiction to ever go viral. The story was one that happens all too often but doesn’t often get told about age gaps, power plays, overthinking and male expectations in heterosexual relationships from the woman’s point of view. It is a unique work of fiction. Or, at least, half fiction.
Earlier this month, slate.com published a response from someone who recognized the story a little too vividly. When “Cat Person” went viral, Alexis Nowicki’s phone blew up with messages from friends asking if the story was about her. And after reading it, she noticed that in large part, it was. Her life was a mirror to some of the key details: she lived in the same town as the story, had dated a man 15 years older than herself while she was in college, she had worked in an artsy movie theater at the time, and most damning, the man in the piece and the man she was with shared a name. I’ll abstain from using the man’s name out of respect.
Where the story differs from her life is in what ultimately happens. In the published story, the characters have a clumsy date and an even clumsier hookup that the narrator, Margot, overthinks and wavers on. She ultimately ends up ghosting him after he runs into her (suspiciously) at a bar she frequents. The culmination of the whole work being him texting her over and over, accusing her of sleeping with someone else, and then calling her a whore.
Alexis’ real experience was much different than Margot’s. She was in a committed relationship with the man in question for two years. They were coworkers and friends before they started dating and, although there was a serious age gap between the two and the regular insecurities regarding that, it was not a bad relationship. They ended up growing apart as many people do but kept in touch. There was no uncomfortable sex scene followed by harassment, that part is purely fictional.
This is where the line blurs. There were so many aspects of Alexis’ relationship that Roupenian put in the story that when “Cat Person” blew up friends and family members of the real people couldn’t tell which parts were fictitious. Alexis writes that the man had briefly dated Roupenian which is how she knew about the relationship in the first place, and that the man had been really affected by her portrayal of him. Who wouldn’t be after being characterized as a creepy loser?
It really sticks out in my mind that the man kept the phone he had been using from when he was dating Roupenian and, according to Alexis’ response, would sporadically go through old text messages to see if he really was this asshole that the author had depicted him as. This isn’t a full picture of him because, again, it’s a work of fiction, but it’s very easy to boil a person down to just one aspect of who they are. Especially if it’s an aspect that you personally aren’t very fond of. Yes, he served as Roupenian’s muse and it wasn’t actually him in the story, however I don’t think she really thought about it too deeply when she submitted it to the New Yorker. After all, she didn’t even bother to change his name.
We all walk around this Earth with many different versions of ourselves. There’s the self that we know, our internal monologue, goals, likes; and there’s the self that we don’t, the way we come off to others, our nervous behaviors, the things that are visible to others. Everyone outside ourselves will come away with a different read on who we are and what we’re about. That’s simply unavoidable. The man and Alexis have the self they know, the self they don’t, and the “Cat Person” self. Even though the story is not reality, it has real world effects on real life people. The man had to repeatedly reassure himself that the depiction was not really who he was even though it’s how he was characterized.
The question is, where do we draw the line? Alexis recounts a conversation she had with Roupenian about how people assumed “Cat Person” was autobiographical and how that’s the assumption behind a lot of similar modern fiction stories. People like to think they know an author through reading their work even knowing that the work is not real life. The argument can be made that this is a personal responsibility on the reader’s behalf to not over-contextualize. The way I see it, that’s just not how it happens, unfortunately.
I don’t think Roupenian could’ve possibly known how viral her story would become, or that it would end up having a real effect on the lives of the people she was so inspired by. I do think, though, that there’s a certain responsibility she carries for being careless enough to use the man’s real name. On some level, she knew there was a chance people would read this short story, she did submit it to a publication after all. Every writer draws from real life. Inspiration truly comes from anywhere. The problem is when it becomes so recognizable and defining to someone else without their control.
Alexis reports that the man passed away recently. At his funeral, people told these stories about how he would always help out the people he cared for. He was someone that others could count on. People are not so one note. “Cat Person” is a short work of fiction but I can’t shake the feeling that it just isn’t fair to characterize someone so negatively and specifically when the real person is more complex.
It also occurs to me how this piece was very much influenced by the #MeToo movement which was at its peak during the time of original publication. I can’t ignore how the actual story of “Cat Person” is so realistic and familiar to many young people who fall into these imbalanced power dynamics with older partners. It’s a good story that I think is important to tell. I also think it’s possible that Roupenian got caught up with the historic moment around her and, when meeting someone who was in an age gap relationship, projected that rhetoric on to it without actually knowing the full truth behind it.
Whatever the truth is, I think it’s really interesting to see this relationship between fiction and the reality it’s drawn from. In this case because of the subject matter, it had this intense effect on the man and Alexis. It had the power to influence how others saw them and how they saw themselves.