Her novels skim the surface of her distinctly feminine experience: teenage angst, immature love, beauty and celebrity are major themes. Her journalism deals with similar subjects, peeling away the fluff of stardom to reveal the dark underbelly of fame, and how its ascendancy is glamorous and dominating, but with powerful consequences.
She also reveals herself. This pretty writer is the guardian of a tragic emotional past.
This week, Emma relates to Britney Spears, writing how her own demons left her unhinged, self-mutilating and suicidal.
It was Spears’s appearance at the MTV Awards in September, with her spray-tanned skin, bright blue contact lenses and blonde extensions - as if to say ‘this is not my hair, these are not my eyes, this is not my skin, I don’t know who I am’ - that started my flashbacks.
I don’t like relating to Britney Spears and I’m grateful for the ways in which I don’t. I haven’t given birth to two children in two years, I’ve not been through divorce and I don’t have multiple-personality disorder. People ‘out to get me’ because they think I’m chubby or rubbish at my job have posted those opinions online, but they’ve never followed me with cameras and then plastered the web with upskirt shots of my menses-stained underwear. I have, however, earned a living in a glamorous arena - writing journalism and books - since I was 15, had a massive nervous breakdown and ended up, in my twenties, committed to a psychiatric hospital.
I was 22 in 2000, living in New York on contract to this newspaper and about to have my first book hit the shelves. What I could write wasn’t good but, basically, I couldn’t write. I didn’t have the words. Beginning as writer’s block, it evolved into a profound self-loathing made visible around my studio apartment by a knee-deep mess of newspapers, magazines, books, clothes. Many of the clothes were bought but never worn, just dumped on the floor - inky black Rorschach tests that always looked like doom to me.
Cutting always came like a fever, so I’d be looking at my arm or my thigh or my stomach, a surprised spectator. When, eventually, I tried to kill myself, my suicide note wasn’t anything to do with despair; I was mentally divergent, sleepless from mania. I’d come from a showing of Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog and thought that I, too, was a samurai and that my family needed protection, but for that to happen I needed to die.
I accept that I will be on medicine for the rest of my life and I have no problem with that because the quality of my life is so vastly improved. And, far from dimming my creativity, medicine has only helped. I also know now that there is mental illness on record as far back as the Bible. Rabbi David Wolpe, who held a mental-health conference at the synagogue I attend, explained: ‘If you read the first book of Samuel, it’s clear that King Saul has a mental illness. He becomes paranoid, draws him close and then tries to kill him.’
And still it remains the last taboo. If you can no longer make fun of someone for being black or gay or even disabled, you can laugh at them for being ‘wacko’. Perhaps Heat magazine or TMZ.com would argue that once you know all there is to know about a celebrity’s life, all you can be interested in is their death. ‘To lose your humanity in the face of celebrity,’ says Wolpe, ‘is still to lose your humanity.’