Elizabeth Wurtzel Took Up Space, Even When the Literary World Wouldn’t Have Her

American writer Elizabeth Wurtzel holds up a locket with the word “Prozac” on it, posing in front of a window display of a hand holding pills on August 14, 1991 in New York City. Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Prozac Nation was, to 16-year-old me, a book to be read sneakily. I’d discovered it tossed on my older sister’s bed and read it in chunks, tucked away in a corner of my room. Drugs, even the ones that came direct from a doctor’s prescription pad, mixed with a sliced-open candor and an imperviousness to shame, made the book feel illicit, like it hadn’t been meant for publication and had ended up in your hands entirely by some cataclysmic literary accident. Maybe she’ll want this back, I remember wondering as I read. (And this, I might add, was at least a half dozen years after the memoir was published.) But that’s the effect the book had, and maybe still has — to make the reader feel as if it is simultaneously a locked journal we ought not peer at, and a touchstone for the millions of us living under constant threat of what Elizabeth Wurtzel called “the black wave” of depression.

There was an entirely unorganized secret society of young women I met at college who were acolytes not of Wurtzel herself, but of the book and, for all its larger-than-life drama, its relatability. We were young women who’d been told our dark moods were adolescence and our tendencies toward spells of prolonged misery would right themselves with time or a shakeup in our friend group. Some of us had been given SSRIs, usually via the university mental health facility, and some of us chugged along, somehow, without them. What we all knew was that a young woman operating anywhere on the wriggling spectrum of depression must at all times regulate how she presents that fact of herself — explain it too eagerly and you’re unnaturally jonesing for attention, keep it too tightly under wraps and … you’ll still most likely be accused of jonesing for attention.

When Wurtzel died of metastatic breast cancer this week at the far, far too young age of 52, it was that unabashed, straightforward garden hosing of emotion that she was predominantly publicly remembered and loved for. That direct spray, her refusal to couch her neediness, her extravagance, her narcissism, her belief that her life before age 35 warranted not one but two memoirs, was also the reason she’d never morphed from unruly outsider into some middle-aged stateswoman of letters. She’d seemingly never wanted to — she wrote in the Cut in 2013 that “there is a lot of good, workmanlike journalism that I could have, should have, and would have done if anyone ever thought of me. I established myself as someone much too precious.” And she’d also never been allowed, by a literary community that saw her as too much everything. Published too soon. Revered too soon. Fawned over too greatly. Too boisterous, too revealing, too frank. And apparently, according to some arcane and now luckily fading law of the literary world that allows young male successes to be geniuses but considers young female successes just lucky, she didn’t deserve all that attention.

It’s hard to remember now — in a time when memoirs of illness, addiction, and profligacy filling out entire bookstore sections and blog culture have peaked and fizzled — but Prozac Nation was a shot out of left field, one of the originators of the spill-all. Out three years before Kathryn Harrison’s declaration of deviancy The Kiss, and nearly a decade before Andrew Solomon’s mental-anguish touchstone The Noonday Demon, Prozac Nation presaged both — and more. And it was one of the earliest memoirs in that turn-of-the-century boom that entered the genre less as a controlled act of confession and more as an intentional splatter on the wall.

While it circulated like mad (and continues to do so), some critics, perhaps more than a little blinded by Wurtzel’s age, candor, and, let’s be honest, her gender, saw it as nothing more than a nearly 400-page whine. In a fit of cravat-clutching for the New York Times, Ken Tucker practically patted the book on the head and sent it back to bed with a cup of milk. Wurtzel, he says “makes her emotional life,” that is, a life of clinical depression, “sound unceasingly tumultuous,” and laughingly recommends that doctors hand out Prozac with her book and say, “Read this; if you don’t watch out, you could end up sounding like her.” A review in her alma mater Harvard’s newspaper called it “an unofficial guide to whining” and asked, “How did this chick get a book contract in the first place? Why was she allowed to write such crap?” For years, critics continued to treat her work as an affront to the idea of nonfiction.

And underneath every snitty swipe at her was more than a tinge of jealousy. Wurtzel had never jumped through all those Westminster-style hoops the literary world loves to lay out; also, she wasn’t sorry. She wrote a New Yorker music column before her success. She published a second memoir eight years after her first, despite unspoken strictures against such vanity. She didn’t take staff jobs and sit lumpily behind desks in open-plan offices. She didn’t populate the city’s slush piles. She had the audacity, as Gawker writer Moe Tkacik ranted, to be interminably depressed but not commit suicide. “There is no answer,” Tkacik wrote, seemingly without fear of the reprisals of hell, “to why some self-obsessed cokehead slut could cash out and get clean and get good and re-channel her energies to the point that she felt she had something to live for while such a merited specimen as Dave [David Foster Wallace], with his voracious mind and evident hard-won goodness and doting students and wife and support system and all that deeply-felt regard of the literary community he’d left behind, did not.”

And that’s really it, isn’t it? Wurtzel would live through hell, come through it, and turn that hell into a success. Then she’d do it again — first a memoir about depression, then another about addiction, then a series of essays about the degradations and odd glories of life as a depressive and addict. Every few years she’d turn up with fresh complaints, and another dose of appreciation would flow her way from fans. What a kick in the dutiful nuts to the literary Establishment — Wurtzel never opted in and she never sold out.

Elizabeth Wurtzel Took Up Space in a Cruel Book World