A few weeks ago, we reported that The Flight Attendant’s Susanna Fogel was set to direct a big-screen adaptation of “Cat Person,” the viral New Yorker story by Kristen Roupenian from 2017 about (more or less) a particularly bad dating experience between a young woman and an older man. Coming in at the height of #MeToo, the story was an effective illustration of a certain kind of male behavior that some people immediately recognized and other people immediately used to tell on themselves with exaggerated defenses of the man in the story. One reader named Alexis Nowicki didn’t just recognize the behavior of the man in the story, though, she recognized character details and plot points and the name of her hometown… because it turned out that “Cat Person” was based on (or at least inspired by) her life and her relationship with an older man, even though she had never met Kristen Roupenian.
Nowicki has written about her experience in a new Slate essay called “Cat Person” And Me, and it adds an interesting new layer to the “Cat Person” story and offers a reminder about what “fiction” is (and “Cat Person” was never presented as anything but). The Slate piece doesn’t invalidate “Cat Person” because it reveals that it was actually about someone and that someone wasn’t the author, it’s just a fascinating and weird story that must’ve been completely bizarre to live through—if anything, the Slate piece is like a meta sequel to “Cat Person” where the story becomes about the storyteller, and it would honestly make for a better movie than “Cat Person” itself.
At this point, it’s probably best to just read Nowicki’s account of her own experience for once, but the short version is that Nowicki met the guy, who she calls Charles here, when she was in high school and he was in his 30s. He was unexpectedly sweet and disarming, and they fell in love even though both of them were perpetually on edge about someone making them feel embarrassed about their relationship. There was certainly an imbalanced power dynamic, with her just starting a new life in college and him being in his 30s, but unlike the bitter display of male fragility in “Cat Person,” this relationship seems to have just sort of fizzled out when Nowicki started to realize she didn’t need to depend on this guy anymore.
“Charles” died last year, which led to Nowicki finally reaching out to Roupenian to ask how she knew so many details about the relationship. The answer isn’t wholly surprising (there’s no huge twist or mystery), but the interaction between the two of them does raise some points about who gets to tell stories and who has to face the reaction that those stories are met with, not to mention Nowicki’s conclusion that we’re all our own “unreliable narrators.”