Elizabeth Wurtzel and a career born of suffering

Elizabeth Wurtzel has died aged 52. She wrote with searing honesty and narcissism, starting with the eradefining ‘Prozac Nation’, spotlighting her depression, says Suzanne Harrington.

“I was precocious. I was early for history. I was on Prozac when it was still called fluoxetine.

I wrote a twentynothing memoir when there was no such thing. I got addicted to snorting Ritalin before there was Adderall. I was a riot girl, I was a do-me feminist, and I posed topless, giving the world the finger on the cover of my second book. I have always been the most impossible person, ever. And now I have advanced breast cancer. Cue the sorries.”

GOODBYE, then, Elizabeth Wurtzel, dead at 52 from the cancer she swore never scared her. The talented, furious memoirist and journalist, who wrote endlessly, brilliantly, about herself, long before the me-me-me era of social media or reality stars, was famously described by the New York Times as “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna.”

Her writing was a mixture of raging honesty and raging narcissism, and her first, most famous book, ‘invented’ the confessional memoir.

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, was published in 1994, when Wurtzel was 27 and unknown.

Elizabeth Wurtzel and a career born of suffering

It was meant to be a memoir about her time at Harvard, where she was depressed, took tons of drugs, and had loads of sex (twenty years after its publication, she told a BBC interview how “people are always shocked by young people behaving like young people”), but the book ended up being about her depression.

Wurtzel had been clinically depressed since the age of 11, when she first self-harmed. Back then, people talked less often about depression or mental illness, so her intimate, fearless chronicling of her own, deep depression made essential, if gruelling, reading.

I remember thinking, as I read it in 1994 (I am the same age as Wurtzel, and, at the time, had undiagnosed depression, out of which I self-medicated the living daylights), would this woman’s bleakness ever lift? Would she ever stop crying?

Only at the end, when she is prescribed shiny new SSRI medication — Prozac — does she experience normality. The sigh of relief from her Gen X readers formed a visible cloud, even as she taught us what depression was, and how to treat it. She did not do a Sylvia Plath.

“I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little,” she said. “Instead, I made a career out of my emotions.”

By calling her book Prozac Nation, she refused to accept her depression as private and individualised; she wrote about her own experiences, but her book was a conversation about why so many Americans were depressed; about whether depression was the only intelligent response to what society had become: fractured, competitive, greed-riven.

Elizabeth Wurtzel — Lizzie — was born in New York in 1967. Her mother worked in publishing, and her father was a “loser” and they separated when Elizabeth was a toddler.

Her childhood was spent listening to her parents scream at each other down the phone, mostly about her upbringing.

She stopped seeing Donald Wurtzel in 2001, and did a ton of therapy to cauterise the father-shaped hole in her life.

Turns out her real father was the civil rights photographer Bob Adelman (who took that famous shot of Martin Luther King making his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech), with whom her mother had an affair while they both worked at Random House. Wurtzel’s mother never told her; she didn’t find out until she was 50, when Adelman’s partner told her after his death.

The Cut

Wurtzel wrote an unsparing essay about it for The Cut, which was shared online after her death this week.Following Prozac Nation, Wurtzel wrote two more books: Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, a lively collection of essays published in 1998, and More, Now, Again, about her addiction to Ritalin, in 2002.

The latter was less well-received. It seemed that Wurtzel had run out of things to confess, but not the chutzpah to write confessionally. More, Now, Again was still brilliantly written, it just didn’t have the same clout as the book that made her name.

At forty, she went to Yale law school and retrained as an attorney; there, she became friends with journalist Ronan Farrow.

“We were both misfits and she was kind and generous and filled spaces that might otherwise have been lonely with her warmth and humour and idiosyncratic voice,” Farrow tweeted this week.

As an Ashkenazi Jew, Wurtzel’s chances of developing breast cancer were many times higher than the general population’s; not knowing her true paternity didn’t help (her mother did not carry the BRCA gene). She was diagnosed in 2015, underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, and wrote about it in the New York Times.

She confronted her cancer fearlessly, without self-pity; she raged at how people who had ignored her life-threatening depression expressed sympathy for her life-threatening cancer.

It was the latter that killed her; she is mourned by her husband, photo editor Jim Freed, whom she married in 2015. And by everyone who loved her writing and her fuck-you attitude: “I was a hashtag before there was Twitter.”

Yes, she was.

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