Elizabeth Wurtzel Wasn’t Sorry About Anything

The memoirist helped set the stage for an entire era of confessional writing.

In her 2001 book, More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction, Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote, “Then I need more. I always need more. For all of my life I have needed more.” The sentiment was specifically about her relationship to Ritalin, but it also encapsulated the way Wurtzel’s life and work made art out of her emotions and desires and the lengths she went to to fulfill them.

The writer’s untimely death from cancer at 52 this week immediately made news and sparked an outpouring of grief on Twitter. Many obituaries have highlighted how her bestselling 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, was groundbreaking as a book by a young woman that opened up a conversation about mental health.

Colleagues and women in media who came up during the era of Wurtzel’s peak media celebrity shared how much she meant to them. “She stood for a very specific form of GenX femininity, confession, rage,” tweeted journalist Erin Blakemore. “We learned from her—and from how intensely she was mocked for writing about her own life.”

Before writers like Cat Marnell and Emily Gould became lightning rods for “oversharing” and big book advances, Wurtzel constantly sparked controversy about commodifying her messy life. Still, she had a sense of humor about the mockery; her Twitter bio is an infamous phrase from a New York Times book review that described her as “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna.” Her whole life and work were almost like a carefully curated performance art project, responding: “Yeah, so?”

Perhaps she didn’t mind the jokes because she knew, as she insisted until the very end, that writing about your life isn’t any less of an art form than any other kind of writing. “Either you know how to write or you don’t,” she told musician Liz Phair in 2017. “Lots of people try to write memoirs because they think, ‘I rode my motorcycle cross-country—I have a memoir.’ But it’s not like that. It’s not about whether you have an interesting story; it’s about whether you know how to tell it.”

Wurtzel’s confessional writing is often described as “raw,” as if it was some unmediated reflection of her experiences, but before she published a memoir she had honed her voice as a writer in commercial magazines; she had written personal essays for Seventeen magazine in her teens, she explained in a 2013 Longform podcast interview.

Prozac Nation actually underwent multiple iterations. It began, Wurtzel revealed, when she was an undergrad at Harvard and was asked to write an article for New York magazine about the 350th anniversary of the school. She unexpectedly wrote 20,000 words, and her editor suggested she turn it into a book. Prozac Nation, then, became a book about “growing up.” Because the publisher was worried that a memoir by a 26-year-old wouldn’t sell, the book had a less personal, almost sociological-sounding title, but it was ultimately about Wurtzel’s life and introduced the writerly persona that she would continue to inhabit and refine for decades.

Wurtzel’s candid writing about her experience with depression — including her admission that she had been cutting herself before she was a teen — came at a moment when mental illness (especially for women) was still deeply stigmatized. The story was true to the complicated, ever-evolving reality of living with depression and a lot of other mental health issues: In it, Wurtzel questions how much she knows herself on medication, and by the book’s end, she’s not “cured.”

The memoir also demonstrated her talent for snappy, provocative writing about sex (“My mouth was getting tired and chapped from giving so many blowjobs”) and culture: “Perhaps the next time half-a-million people gather for a protest march on the White House green, it will not be for abortion rights or gay liberation, but because we’re all so bummed out.”

Wurtzel wrote about her complicated relationships with men and with women friends, with an absent father (who, she recently wrote, turned out not to be her biological father) and her frustration with her overly practical mother (who turned out to have an artistic side). The book was full of ridiculous (though to Wurtzel’s credit, still self-aware) complaints — like not being raised by hippies — that made her a target for critiques about #WhiteGirlProblems before it became a hashtag.

“I’m convinced that it was worse to have grown up in revolutionary times, in the midst of a wildly vibrant city like New York, raised by people who were not really involved or engaged in the culture,” she wrote. “Does anyone really want to be a wallflower at the orgy?”

Of course, there had been other big books by women and their experiences with mental health issues; just the previous year, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, about her hospitalization for borderline personality disorder, had become a bestseller. But Wurtzel was a savvy self-promoter, using, as she later explained, rock stardom as her model for literary celebrity. She demanded to be on the book’s cover because she wanted it to look like a rock album. (She idolized Bruce Springsteen.)

There was an anarchic, contrarian quality to Wurtzel; she was against pedagogical, anti–train wreck feminism, and her own life is a testament to that philosophy. 

In the iconic cover photograph for Prozac Nation, Wurtzel looks directly at the camera in a belly-baring blouse, owning a sexy sullenness and beauty that was an unquestionable aspect of her celebrity. (Beauty was one of Wurtzel’s enduring themes; in her subsequent book, 1998’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, she’d complain about the Democratic Party lacking pretty women, and later wrote about her fear of “losing her looks.”)

Prozac Nation became a sensation, and Wurtzel became a literary star and a kind of symbol of Generation X anomie; she autographed her books with the acronym “FTW” — Fuck The World. She was also subjected to slut-shaming and gendered critiques about her “histrionics.” One woman colleague wrote an entire article about her annoyance at Wurtzel’s success despite writing about fucking someone on her desk during an internship at the Dallas Morning News. (It’s also true that Wurtzel undoubtedly benefited from white girl privilege; despite being fired from that internship for plagiarism, for instance, her journalism career was unaffected.)

Despite — probably in part thanks to — the detractors and controversy, Wurtzel endured. She got a $500,000 advance for Bitch, a book that she said she wrote because she felt feminism had gotten boring and she wanted to make it “juicy” again. She posed topless on the cover, coyly giving the finger.

The book was supposed to be a kind of history of female misbehavior, but it lacked a conventional argument. Still, it was undeniably entertaining to read an idiosyncratic meditation on white femininity in Wurtzel’s voice: She wrote about her disappointment that Courtney Love submitted herself to plastic surgery and wore Ralph Lauren to achieve Academy Award respectability, complained that feminists didn’t speak out for Amy Fisher, and defended Sylvia Plath from a writer who complained that she’d helped herself to an entire plate of foie gras.

What once again stood out was that you could really hear Wurtzel’s voice in the writing; it was conversational — often starting her sentences with “Look,” — and chock full of pop culture references in a way that presaged blogging and internet culture. Despite complaints that she was a “tad-too-calculated human train wreck,” the book became another bestseller.

In More, Now, Again, Wurtzel revealed that she had actually been addicted to Ritalin during the writing of Bitch. The new memoir focuses on her time writing the book in Florida while her addiction intensified, and she once again chronicled her numerous fuck-ups, like getting arrested for shoplifting, missing and flubbing promotional appearances, and hiding drugs in her vagina. A decade before Cat Marnell started glibly documenting her own addictions and professional disasters for xoJane, Wurtzel had cemented her persona as a bad-girl insider with the privilege to keep fucking up on her own terms.

More, Now, Again was Wurtzel’s last memoir. In the mid-aughts, she famously went to Yale Law School because she’d started to feel powerless as a writer in the aftermath of 9/11. The culture got political (and global) in a way that seemed to move beyond her interests or purview, and Wurtzel’s tone-deaf comments about 9/11 tellingly got the movie version of Prozac Nation shelved. (Starring Christina Ricci and Michelle Williams, it was eventually released on DVD.)

In the interim, the internet was making Wurtzel’s style of writing — from the emphasis on wresting meaning from pop culture to the confessional bent — the norm. When she started writing again in the later aughts, for instance, recapping The Bachelor, or analyzing Hillary Clinton and the failure of feminism, her voice was just one among a suddenly vast array of online commentators, and the limitations of her perspective perplexed many.

But what gives artists staying power and impact isn’t how long they keep up with their culture, or whether they have a broad perspective; it’s whether their writing and perspective feels true to something — even if it was capturing a very specific moment. Clearly, for her millions of readers, Wurtzel’s writing spoke to something true.

There was an anarchic, contrarian quality to Wurtzel; she was against pedagogical, anti–train wreck feminism, and her own life is a testament to that philosophy. “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,” she wrote in one of her last articles about her illness. “And now I have advanced breast cancer. Cue the sorries. Seriously? Sorry for what? I’m not sorry about anything.” ●

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