Caroline Calloway’s ‘Scammer’ is a beautiful crash-course in the theatre of the self

Amber Rawlings reviews Caroline Calloway's highly anticipated book, and finds that, yes, the chronically online 'scammer' really can write.

When I told people that I’d secured an advanced copy of Scammer, Caroline Calloway’s long-anticipated memoir, I was often met with the same response: “who?” I struggled to explain Calloway to whoever was asking. Mostly, I resorted to saying she was, as the title of her memoir suggests, a “scammer”. This, more than anything, just elicited concerned looks. For anyone still adopting the pre-internet definition of the word scammer, getting offered a free book from a self-proclaimed con-artist probably read as me being a gullible more than anything else. As more people asked, I went back to the drawing board and came up with this instead: if there was a Venn diagram with one circle containing “unhinged women” and the other containing “scammers”, Calloway would sit in the circle that joined the two.

She’s half Cat Marnell, the author of How to Murder your Life, and half Anna Delvey, the infamous scammer in the more traditional sense of the word. But my Venn diagram and Calloway’s position within it wouldn’t be the right way of describing her either. What I gleaned after reading Scammer is that Calloway is not only neither of those things, but both so much more, and so much less.

While I can’t pinpoint exactly when I first heard about Calloway, I do remember becoming somewhat transfixed with her around the time that she painted the hardwood floors of her New York apartment a stark white while simply working around whatever was on the floor at the time. However it wasn’t until January of this year, when I listened to Calloway absolutely school the hosts of the Celebrity Memoir Book Club podcast, that I began to take her more seriously.

Of course, not everyone is the type to become enamoured with women that have a penchant for impulsive DIY. For those of you who hear the words “painted hardwood floors” and don’t get flashbacks to the Instagram stories that documented her interior design massacre in real time, I’ve prepared a little highlight reel of Caroline Calloway’s hijinks. Calloway first appeared on the scene back in 2012, where, with the help of her NYU classmate Natalie Beach, she documented her life on Instagram. While just how much Beach contributed to the first iteration of Calloway’s online persona is up for debate, what’s important is that long captions about masked balls, palazzos and princes captured a lavish life spent travelling Europe and studying at Cambridge University. In 2016, Flatiron Books commissioned Calloway’s memoir, And We Were Like, though this book never materialised thanks to a heady mix of Calloway’s Adderall addiction and the fact that she didn’t really want to write something containing a false version of her life. In 2017, Calloway withdrew from the book deal, leaving her in $100,000 of debt with the publishing company. In early 2019 her similarly un-materialised “creativity workshops” took centre stage, and then later that year Beach’s tell-all essay, I was Caroline Calloway, went viral. 6000 words dedicated to her experience of Calloway came peppered with a character assassination that felt like the closest thing Beach could get to shoving the influencer’s flower-crown adorned head into the stocks. And in a particularly horrible twist of fate, just days later Calloway found out her father had died by suicide.

Then Scammer was announced. Then there was her OnlyFans. Then there was Snake Oil. Then she moved out of her apartment leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Scammer was actually released. Cue: me.

Let me tell you: Scammer is great. Given I’d only recently read I am Caroline Calloway (Calloway’s essay response to Beach and something she openly talks about recycling for Scammer), it was a bit Groundhog Day for a while. But she won me over with her beautifully evocative prose, as well as her characteristically flowery descriptions that render even the places and people that she’s clearly indifferent towards as glowing and vivid. Her words are also carefully selected to paint the most grizzly of images. Sarasota, where she now resides, “retired from the plot”, is described as having rainclouds “so thick that the view outside blanches blank as if someone forgot to download the world that day”. Meanwhile, the nerves she experiences before a date are likened to “an animal gnawing off its own hind-leg to escape a steel-jaw trap”.

Tucked alongside the kind of revelatory details that readers want from Scammer, the minutiae shines even brighter towards the end of the book. Her preoccupation with a family of dolphins that clearly mirrors her own dysfunctional brood (“in the spring, they had a baby, its little dorsal fin always peeking out over the water a second behind its mother’s. Dad nowhere to be found”) is almost child-like… In the best way possible. It oozes with a tenderness that indicates Calloway has just undergone her most radical act of “infinite rebirth” yet; she is “finally building a life around what matters to [her] most”, she is happy, or happier, anyway. And in turn the reader gets that warm, fuzzy feeling that makes parts of Scammer such a pleasure to read.

Given my use of the term “flowery” is often a shorthand for “pretentious”, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Calloway gets bogged down with language in Scammer. On the contrary: when Calloway isn’t painting pictures with her words, her writing sounds like a monologue from a film. A paragraph about her family (“My uncle dropped out of Yale […] because he discovered that the U.S. government had implanted a radio-chip in his back- molar. Full-blown schizophrenia”) reads like the voiceover from a classic. And I love that. It’s what keeps Scammer engaging and unostentatious, balancing out the bits where it’s verging on being the opposite. While the simplification of her family’s fraught history with mental health could be read as tactless, segments like this also tap into one of the overriding concerns of Calloway — what is the appropriate or “right” way of dealing with these difficult subjects? As Calloway points out, those who criticise her for “feeding off of tragedy” (those who say she shouldn’t write about her father’s suicide) “often have living fathers”.

Scammer is sprinkled with wry little observations about broader aspects of our culture too: “Dating a body without a jiggling belly was a kind of permission to keep my own. As if a physically ideal specimen interested in f*cking only me was my licence to continue not-dieting”. When the subject of her OnlyFans rolls around, it was embellished with this: “My goal? Make porn that people could feel as intellectually superior as possible about consuming. I thought it might be a lucrative antidote to the shame some people feel towards sex”. While these might be inconsequential and semi-pointless in the context of Scammer, they’re a pleasure to read nonetheless. You get the impression that they’re there for no other reason than illustrating Calloway has the intellectual capacity to do so, to show that she’s clever. It’s something I’d do too if my career up to that point had been defined by people saying otherwise.

But all of the above isn’t to say that Scammer is without fault. If you read I am Caroline Calloway prior to Scammer, I think you’ll agree that the sections where she mentions her crush on Beach feel a little clunky: shunted in to create a narrative where Calloway’s actions feel more redeemable. But I’m also aware that that’s a very easy line of argument to take. It’s a lot harder to go against the collective perception of Calloway as a conniving “Extremely Online Pretty Girl” and accept that she did have these feelings. Though it’s made somewhat difficult given her track record, we should probably try and trust what’s written on the pages of Scammer. It’s a privilege we afforded to Beach, after all.

Calloway’s beautiful descriptions are also contrasted by moments of what could be construed as callousness. The comments on Beach’s “adorable pot belly” feel unnecessary and the extended segment where Calloway fantasises about killing Beach is uncomfortable to say the least. Inclusions like these often leave you wondering who the real Calloway is. I’ve tried to brush off the almost contradictory nature of her writing: I’ve attempted to see it as part of her “theatre of the self”, complying with her request to “stop pathologising [her] command of craft”. But still I wrestle with whether, like Beach, I’m being taken for a fool. At certain stages, it felt as if I was most definitely was. With my copy of the book arriving a lot later than expected, at times I thought Scammer might truly be a scam, the syrupy texts I’d been receiving from Calloway in fact completely disingenuous… But given the book is now in my possession, I don’t think they were. In reality, it appears that Calloway’s sweet nature – the kind that’s resulted in her being likened to a therapist by other reviewers – is to a fault. Calloway put it best herself “I’m myself in spite of myself.”.

But despite its flaws, Scammer is unapologetically Caroline Calloway. And given how long this memoir has been in the making, the notion of what it should be growing day by day, that’s the book’s biggest feat. Calloway hasn’t made any attempts to mould herself into the Calloway readers might want or expect: she indulgently flits between styles in a way that evokes her passion for the memoir form. She’s not reformed. She is apologetic (but she also asserts herself when she feels it’s necessary). She’s gratuitous, as illustrated by her comically long acknowledgements section that reads like a list of quasi-apologies more than anything else… Which, by the way, I love.

There is a prerequisite to my enjoyment of Scammer, though. Namely, I’m a fan of Calloway. More than that, I see myself in Calloway in a big, big way. I too am someone who’s constantly plagued with thoughts of their own privilege. I therefore appreciate the candour with which Calloway says things like “upper-middle class girls like me were just supposed to be grateful we didn’t have it worse.” I admire her for trying to grapple with a life defined by apologising for your existence, all the while having suicidal depression. Because of this, it is the passages related to her father’s suicide that have the most power. Not necessarily because they are poignant and arresting. They are good, sure. More, though, I see them as hopeful pleas for someone to recognise her suffering. For her to be given the same treatment that we gave Beach.

This was, in essence, my main takeaway from Scammer. That is, the story of Calloway – someone you apparently need to be “chronically online” to know about – is too often tried to make into a parable about trolls and the internet. There are elements to that with Calloway. As Elle Hunt, the person who profiled her for The Guardian, pointed out, “it is hard to imagine Caroline Calloway being of any time before the internet – like picturing a present-day Joan of Arc”. I do think, however, that Calloway’s story taps into broader issues: in particular, who, in our contemporary culture, is afforded our sympathy. I personally see the experiences of Calloway as a parable against the demonisation of the privileged and the erosion of nuance. Sure, there are people who have it harder than Calloway. But this is the case with every person that walks the Earth, and it isn’t something that means her lived experiences can be erased.

What’s most maddening about the treatment of Calloway is that, deep down, we clearly don’t want her experiences to be erased either. We have a burning desire to hear them only so we can dismember them piece by piece then voraciously lap up a written account of the whole affair like a dog on a summer’s day. That’s why Beach’s essay was The Cut’s most read piece of 2019. It’s why we can’t get enough Calloway-related content either.

Calloway isn’t a “scammer”. She’s not just an over-privileged “bougie bitch” either. As I said about ten paragraphs ago, Calloway is so much less than these sorts of labels. What Calloway really is, is human. She is, admittedly, a human that’s got a penchant for self-mythologisation and the “theatre of the self”, but I think deep-down we all know that’s kind of the point of social media. Most of all though, as Scammer confirms, Calloway is a human that can write.

WriterAmber Rawlings
Banner Image CreditCasey Brooke