Paternoster's mother and father met while both teachers for the Elizabeth, New Jersey Public Schools. Her mother, Leslie Okun, was a gifted art teacher who suffered from fragile health and now resides in Florida. Her father, Angelo Paternoster, taught her how to play guitar. Marissa attended Roselle Catholic High School and then Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts where she became interested in music and formed Screaming Females.
In a 2012 list she was named the 77th greatest guitarist of all time by Spin magazine.