The fearless, relentlessly honest author of Prozac Nation has passed away – we unpack her tumultuous life and inimitable legacy with her own writing
The author and journalist – who passed away yesterday (January 7) after a five-year battle with breast cancer – turned this impossibility into fierce, vulnerable, and courageous writing that opened up the conversation about mental health, and reinvented the memoir genre for the better. Having lived a turbulent life that saw her battle life-long depression and a suffocating drug addiction, Wurtzel found fame with her bestselling debut memoir, Prozac Nation (1994) before going on to write four more books, including Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), and countless articles.
Wurtzel tenaciously avoided convention at all costs, describing herself as a “free spirit”. She asserted: “I do not know any other way to be. No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.”
To celebrate her life and supreme legacy, we explore and unpack her own fierce words.
“When I called my father and the phone was off, and the recording said there was no further information, I was relieved. The long emergency that was my childhood was over”
Elizabeth Wurtzel was born in New York in 1967 to Lynne Winters and Donald Wurtzel – who she later discovered wasn’t her real father. At the age of two, her parents divorced, and as her childhood went on, Wurtzel’s relationship with Donald slowly deteriorated. The quote above refers to her father’s disappearance when Wurtzel was aged 14, and summarises the relief she felt after realising she’d lost contact with him. Brought up in public housing, Wurtzel went to private school on a scholarship, once remarking that she “worked extremely hard” there because she “wanted to grow up and not live near rodent-infested playgrounds”. Wurtzel’s childhood was by no means easy – living in a “constant miasma”, she would hear her mother shriek at Donald over the phone at night, and always regarded herself as an anomaly in her family. “I came to terms with having the wrong parents by becoming myself anyway,” she wrote in The Cut in 2018. “I was a miracle. I was unlikely. I was inexplicable. I came from out of nowhere. No one in my family was anything like me.”
“If you are chronically down, it is a lifelong fight to keep from sinking”
As well as parental arguments, Wurtzel’s childhood was plagued with her own overwhelming depression, the signs of which materialised when she was 10 years old. As detailed in Prozac Nation, Wurtzel began going to therapy aged 11 after being caught self-harming in a school bathroom. Her subsequent teen years were spent balancing the everyday activities and explorations of youth with fraught trips to the psychiatrist. Gifted at school, Wurtzel attended the prestigious Harvard College, but was tormented with depression throughout her time there, self-medicating with ecstasy and cocaine, and later Prozac and lithium. “I am 20 and I am already exhausted,” she wrote in Prozac Nation. “I don’t want any more of this try, try again stuff. I just want out. I’ve had it. I am so tired.”
“I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions”
Though she wrote for The Harvard Crimson and The Dallas Morning News while studying at Harvard – the latter of which saw her fired after being accused of plagiarism – and later worked as a music critic at New York Magazine and a writer at the New Yorker, it was Wurtzel’s debut memoir, Prozac Nation, that saw her achieve global success and critical acclaim. Released in 1994 when she was 26 years old, the book detailed her troubled childhood and experience with clinical depression, and is credited with opening up the dialogue about mental illness and changing people’s perception of it. After its release, the New York Times Book Review described Wurtzel as “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna”, with the writer later reflecting of the mania surrounding the book: “I was a hashtag before there was Twitter.”
Excruciatingly honest, Wurtzel beautifully summarised the feeling of emptiness that comes with depression. “It’s got nothing at all to do with life,” she wrote in Prozac Nation. “Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest.” The author also expressed mental illness’ perpetually suffocating effects, writing: “That’s the thing about depression: a human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.” Years after Prozac Nation’s publication, Wurtzel has reflected on its legacy, observing – in the above quote – how she didn’t let her depression kill her, but instead used it to fuel her success.
“Depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end” – Elizabeth Wurtzel
“There is always a reason to use just one more time. There is always one more time”
Battling internal demons for the majority of her life, Wurtzel turned to drugs as a way of self-medicating. Three years after the publication of Prozac Nation, the writer spent four months in a rehab facility in Connecticut, living there during the winter of 1997-98. She has written prolifically on her struggles with addiction, admitting that the day she left the rehab centre, she immediately used. “I used to see if I still could,” she explained, “now that I was better.” With the help of near-constant addiction support meetings, as well as personal therapists, Wurtzel was clean from September 11, 1998 – less than a year after leaving rehab – until her death. “And so it is that my whole life is devoted to recovery,” she wrote in her 2001 book, More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction.
Discussing her struggles and recovery in a 2018 TIME article, Wurtzel said that “giving up drugs was the hardest thing ever” and described addiction as “a love story, or it would not survive the desperation”. She concluded: “My first year clean, the whole world was flecked in gold and coming at me. I never felt so much as I did then. Every day that I did not use was a miracle. I felt awful, but I lived in miracles and wonders. Sometimes, I miss being that alive.”
It's impossible to convey the impact Elizabeth Wurtzel had in the '90s. She was unapologetic, raw, honest. She stood for a very specific form of GenX femininity, confession, rage.— Erin Blakemore (@heroinebook) January 7, 2020
We learned from her—and from how intensely she was mocked for writing about her own life. pic.twitter.com/1KAViZL503
“I have been working out the wrong problem. Thousands of words on the wrong problem”
In 2015, Wurtzel received a phone call that rewrote her entire life’s history: her father was not who she thought he was. Having lived for 48 years believing Donald – who was absent for the majority of that time – was her father, Wurtzel was suddenly faced with the news that famed photographer – and life-long family friend – Bob Adelman was instead.
While employed at the publishing company Random House in the 60s, Wurtzel’s mother Lynne had an affair with Adelman while they were working together on a weekly newspaper assignment – Wurtzel has since labelled it a “yellow-cab romance”, in reference to their daily, company-expensed taxi rides to work. After finding out she was pregnant, Lynne quickly rushed home to spend the weekend with Donald in order to later make it believable that he was Wurtzel’s father. Though the writer has since said he probably would never have questioned it, writing: “It is so easy to fool men, who aren’t scared all the time.”
Having grappled with her relationship with Donald for half a century – through therapy, drugs, and writing – Wurtzel’s discovery of the truth was a hard pill to swallow. The quote above refers to her struggle with the news, and the frustration she felt having spent years analysing issues with the wrong person. By the time Donald died in 2014, the writer hadn’t seen him since 2001, but had always remained close to Adelman, whose death she reported to The New York Times in 2016, describing him as “the father of my childhood friend”. Wurtzel understandably felt betrayed by her mother’s secret, believing there had been a number of opportunities for the truth to come out. “My mother did not and does not see all the hurt she has caused,” the writer said in The Cut in 2018. “Men made my mother feel shabby. She thought her best bet was lying. That is the corruption of sexism: my mother lied to me too.”
“I have breast cancer, which like many things that happen to women is mostly a pain in the ass. But compared with being 26 and crazy and waiting for some guy to call, it’s not so bad”
The same year she found out about her father, Wurtzel was diagnosed with breast cancer, making the announcement the only way she knew how – via writing. In her traditionally idiosyncratic way, she negated the severity of her diagnosis, comparing it to heartbreak – “If I can handle 39 break-ups in 21 days,” she wrote, “I can get through cancer” – and celebrating her newfound popularity: “Everyone cares! People love cancer!” Since her cancer was a result of the BRCA (breast cancer) gene, Wurtzel utilised her platform to raise awareness and encourage women to get tested for the mutation. “I could have avoided all this if I had been tested,” she wrote in The New York Times. “All Ashkenazi Jewish women should be tested, because we have it at least 10 times the rate of the rest of the population.”
In light of her diagnosis, and thinking positively about treatment, Wurtzel reflected on her life-long struggle with depression. “For at least ten years, I could not stop crying,” she wrote, “which was awful, because there is no cure for that.”
“I don’t know what made me believe that writing was going to solve my problems, since all anyone ever told me was that no one made money that way. But I knew that no one did not include me” – Elizabeth Wurtzel
“This story has the best possible ending, because I am telling it”
Wurtzel was a writer like no other, who exposed herself wholeheartedly to the world, immeasurably transforming the landscape of journalism and publishing, and irreversibly altering perceptions of mental illness. She was the author of her own story, or – as The Cut called it – her “one-night stand of a life”, and wrote it exactly as she wanted right up until her death. Wurtzel – who went on to publish five books and write for Dazed, the Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, ELLE, and too many more to mention – was always determined to be a “damn great writer”, and once remarked: “I don’t know what made me believe that writing was going to solve my problems, since all anyone ever told me was that no one made money that way. But I knew that no one did not include me.” Reflecting on her achievements, she added: “I had the great and unexpected success of Prozac Nation in 1994, and that bought me freedom. And I have spent that freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude. Why would I do anything else?”
Having battled depression, addiction, and cancer, Wurtzel lived a tumultuous life, but has left an inimitable and long-lasting legacy. As the writer herself wrote in her bestselling memoir: “That’s all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.”