Prozac Nation, the memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel, who passed away last week, instigated a crucial conversation about mental health and inspired the tell-all writers who dominate today
“I was not frightened in the least bit at the thought that I might live because I was certain, quite certain, that I was already dead.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote these words in Prozac Nation, her bestselling memoir of depression, published in 1994 when she was 27. It turned Wurtzel into a star, appearing on magazine covers the world over and in 2001 was made into a film starring Christina Ricci. On Wednesday last week (7 January), at the age of 52, she died from complications linked to breast cancer, something she had been characteristically bullish about.
“Do you know what I’m scared of? Nothing,” she wrote in The Guardian in 2018. “Cancer just suits me. I am good in a fight.”
Cancer was Wurtzel’s last big reveal: she had lived her life post-Prozac Nation in public. She covered depression, self-harm, drug addiction, sex, bad love affairs and heartbreak, but her main subject was always Lizzie Wurtzel. “I made a career out of my emotions,” she once said. Those emotions fluctuated from intense highs to extreme lows, the rising-rising-plunging line of her inner life always weighted at points by grey flat stones of depression.
The words that made her career were raw, but crafted with precision and artfulness. Their beauty was that of a bloody plate of beef carpaccio: skilfully arranged and not to everyone’s taste. Prozac Nation does not seem as startling today as it did in 1994, but that’s because Wurtzel’s particular brand of bare-all intimacy, her ability to set down and then sell on her feelings, is far more common now, especially for young female writers. Wurtzel was the template for much of what we see today.
Often, when we look back at the 1990s, there’s an easy, sunny view. Sequinned Spice Girls; ecstatic raves; bouncing lads with their ‘lager, lager, lager’ shouting. But there was a darker strand to the decade’s pop culture too. The suicide of Kurt Cobain. The disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards. The shooting of Tupac Shakur. Models the thinnest they could be. Heroin everywhere. A formless anger, in books and films and bedrooms, based on nothing more than the beginning of a realisation that we might not have it as good as our parents. An uneasiness that this might be the last of the easy times. But with nothing defined to pin it on – no immediate financial crisis or certain climate emergency – Generation X turned inwards. Elizabeth Wurtzel, glamorous in her screwed up-ness and pouting on her book covers, was a Gen X poster girl.
BARING HER SOUL
Being one of the first voices to speak so candidly about depression and medication for mental illness was always going to be difficult. Prozac Nation covered Wurtzel’s time at Harvard University and her early career as a music writer for The New Yorker and New York Magazine. So far, so proto-hipster Ivy League graduate, but what set the book – and Wurtzel – apart were the frank descriptions of using multiple recreational drugs, her sex life and her depression. The reviews were mixed, with many critics focusing on the writer’s self- absorption, but it sold and sold. Depression is, by nature, a painful inability to get away from the self and Wurtzel didn’t swerve that aspect. Thanks to Prozac Nation, depression went from being cloaked in silence to an open topic of conversation.
Wurtzel had foremothers. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, published in 1963 and set 10 years before, chronicles the breakdown of 19-year-old Esther Greenwood. “I felt very still and empty,” says Esther. “The way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” Joan Didion had been working as a journalist throughout the 60s and published a novel, but her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem established her as a leading American voice and, while Didion wrote with a reporter’s observational detail, her edgy migraine-plagued self was present throughout.
By 1973, Erica Jong had published Fear Of Flying. The novel opens, “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them”, but the mental health of heroine Isadora Wing was less talked about than her sex life, her pursuit of the legendary “zipless fuck”. Wurtzel’s confessional memoir moved things on once more. She didn’t fictionalise, even in the thinly veiled way Plath and Jong did. She wasn’t a journalist, like Didion. Reading Prozac Nation gave you a pure hit of Elizabeth Wurtzel: any attempt at diagnosing wider issues felt secondary.
It’s as easy to see her direct descendants. Wurtzel’s influence is in Lena Dunham’s non-stop confessionalism, and in Dunham’s creation Hannah Horvath’s certainty that “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation”. Former beauty editor Cat Marnell’s fall, on failing wings of angel dust, was chronicled, first in real time on the now-defunct website xoJane and then in her memoir How To Murder Your Life, owes an enormous amount to Wurtzel’s style and preoccupations.
Now we recognise the importance of talking about mental health. Of speaking about addiction. Of taking the stigma away from good sex and refusing to silently cope with the bad or coercive. A good personal essay should have art to it, but it should also allow for empathy, or a shock of recognition. We read the intimate stories of others to know we are not alone. Much of this is Wurtzel’s doing – in Prozac Nation, in her subsequent books, in her one-off essays. Her early work, published in a largely pre-internet era, was all the more valuable to readers – especially young women – because, finally, here was someone who understood.
CONFESSION IN THE DIGITAL AGE
The advent of easy internet access for all changed the game again. Blogs and LiveJournals and Tumblr meant that anyone who wanted to could write about their experiences: there was no need to be an established writer, or famous in any way at all. Then media organisations started to pick up on the confessional first-person essay too. They were a great way of getting readers to click on links and engage with a website, but they also didn’t cost as much as research and reporting. By the late 2000s and throughout the following decade, tell-all pieces flourished – enough for US website Slate to refer to the phenomenon as “the first-person industrial complex”.
One of the best things to come from this essay boom, and from the blogging era that went before it, was a flattening out of who got to write, of who got to tell their story. Suddenly there were many voices. You didn’t need a Harvard degree or to have worked at a magazine. You didn’t need to be rich or middle-class. You didn’t need to be a thin white girl who would always remain pretty, even as the mascara stained your cheeks. Here were women of colour, queer women, poor women, fat women, trans women, women without a university education, women outside major cities. The chances of being able to read about someone else who was just like you had multiplied.
The flipside to this, of course, was that personal confession became devalued. Ever more shocking headlines proliferated and it could seem that, for young women, the expected route into writing was to confess, to bare all for little money. Jezebel’s lost tampon tale stands out, a detailed description of finally removing a forgotten sanitary product (“greyish brown and bloated like a corpse in the harbor”). Vice, prior to its #MeToo reckoning, published sexual confessions from girls still in their teens. xoJane ran with Cat Marnell’s drug addiction and also gave us headlines like: “My gynaecologist found a ball of cat hair in my vagina.”
MOVING PAST VOYEURISM
That lurid phase has passed now. The world became much more serious and readers didn’t want to feel like voyeurs any more. What we are left with is a range of brilliant women, writing from personal experience but also about wider issues. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was one of the most talked about books of last year.
Samantha Irby has turned her sharp, funny online presence into two essay collections (her third, Wow, No Thank You, is due out in March). Sloane Crosley’s engaging, eccentric worldview made her an It Girl on the New York lit scene. Dolly Alderton’s memoir was a smash hit. Sinéad Gleeson wrote beautifully about pain and the body. Michelle Tea, a near- contemporary of Wurtzel’s in age but too poor and too queer to break out of the underground, is finally getting the recognition she deserves. Megan Nolan, writing in the New Statesman and The New York Times, makes clear-eyed sense on emotional topics. And there are more, so many more.
All of this is part of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s legacy. She knew her faults (“I’m impossible,” she once stated), but she was also brave, very talented and always herself. Fifty-two is no age to die, but it does seem miraculous that Wurtzel didn’t go earlier, taken down by pandemonium and drugs. What had happened, in the background, was that she – like so many others in Generation X, like so many millennials now, found a way to grow up. She married. Got a law degree. Adopted a dog to walk in the mornings. And she remained a brilliant writer, a star created out of her own darkness.