Now That She’s Dead, The Thank Yous Come In For Elizabeth Wurtzel Paving a Certain Long and Whining Road for Many Subsequent Female Writers

Elizabeth Wurtzel was all too aware of the scandal and outrage she was about to wreak with the release of the then most “self-indulgent” (read: privileged white girl) novel–nay, memoir–of all-time (put out on the heels of other “whiny” Gen Xer fare, including Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book, Generation X, and Susanna Kaysen’s [though not a Gen Xer herself] 1993 Girl, Interrupted). And even if she wasn’t, she didn’t really care either way. She had something to say, and she was going to say it regardless of whether that made her “good” or a “bitch” (the title of her second book, released in 1998, as it were).

Of Prozac Nation, the memoir that would launch a thousand unknowingly imitative blogs (though, please, can everyone stop comparing it to what Lena Dunham did on Girls, and, worse still, Tiny Furniture?–it would be more accurate to compare her to Melissa Broder with So Sad Today), Wurtzel would later muse, “It was the most gobsmacking crazy idea that a woman who had only just started life had already written a book about her life. The New York Times Book Review accused me of being ‘Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna.’ Can you imagine that they meant that as an insult?” It was this attitude of Wurtzel’s that would make her the enfant terrible of the literary world–at last, a woman in the role. And it was one that Wurtzel relished, all too happy to revel in her narcissism while simultaneously despising it. In fact, this was the entire crux of the Prozac Nation “narrative,” one long, meandering expression of self-loathing and, by the same token, self-pity. This much was immediately made evident to her publisher when she originally wanted to title it I Hate Myself and I Want to Die (in the end, she had to settle for it as the prologue’s title). And yet, this summation is the nature of self-hatred and self-regard.

Writing depression, too, is not glamorous–try as Silver Linings Playbook might to make it look endearingly “quirky” when Jennifer Lawrence plays it. Or that other depression classic, Girl, Interrupted, with gamine Winona Ryder playing the part of Susanna Kaysen and Angelina Jolie theoretically in the “supporting” role of Lisa, who has been romanticized to the point of being made into an effortless Halloween costume with her distinct coat (second only to Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane in Almost Famous). In truth, a more accurate–albeit brief–cinematic depiction is Goldie Hawn’s in Death Becomes Her. As Helen Sharp, her intense jealousy over “frenemy” (but really just enemy) Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) stealing every boyfriend and fiancé she ever had manifests into a resigned depression that turns her into a morbidly obese shut-in. Because, contrary to popular portrayal, being “depressed” does not a waifish manic pixie dream girl make. Or even a “New York intellectual” (which is how Dunham has tried to play it off).

Because of how maligned Wurtzel was, many women took a while to catch up to her. Particularly in the literary realm. For it wasn’t really until 2011’s Green Girl by Kate Zambreno (later re-released by Harper Perennial in 2014) that a female author “dared” to get that “dark” again. After all, when women talk candidly about depression, it is automatically met with the eye rolls not just of men, but even their own gender. As though a girl–especially one that hasn’t “suffered” in the conventional ways of outright destitution–ought to just shut up about it. Ought to just “deal with it.” Stiff upper lip. There are other, “realer” problems in the world, therefore you do not get to “complain” (the word associated with female expression of any “lengthy” variety).

A random note to self in Zambreno’s latest non sequitur series of anecdotes and essays, Screen Tests, asks, “Elizabeth Wurtzel vs. Kathy Acker?” This is a thought that trickles in upon Zambreno seeing Wurtzel enter the same West Village coffee shop she’s sitting in (since apparently both of these writers have that Carrie Bradshaw thing where we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief about how lucrative writing is, or rather, isn’t). As one of Zambreno’s beloved “wounded monsters” (for she seems to love collecting “damaged” women like dolls), the sight of seeing her do something so functional is tantamount to that old cliche about a dog walking on its hind legs. Guess we can thank the Prozac. And the advance money that came from “capitalizing” on her anguish in various stages throughout her life.

Where Wurtzel wrote from the first person perspective of her depression, Zambreno channeled it into the character of Ruth, a London-based shopgirl working at “Horrids.” Initial drafts of the manuscript were as lingering as Wurtzel’s own internal monologue, for Zambreno wanted to take much more time in elucidating the unbridled monotony of a depressive’s day-to-day, writing scene after scene of “Ruth stay[ing] inside and sleep[ing] all day for at least thirty pages. Pages upon pages on her dirty mattress on the floor, shuffling back and forth from the fridge, watching screens until she was bleary-eyed. Everyone who read it told me to cut it down. All that depression–who wants to read it? They didn’t understand the grand spectacle, the funereal ritual she needed to undergo. And also I wanted to somehow convey the boredom and banality of being depressed.” 

Something Wurtzel was all too emboldened enough to do with passages like, “The thing I want to make clear about depression: it’s got nothing at all to do with life. In the course of life, there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in their right time and season, are normal–unpleasant, but normal. Depression is in an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead.” At age twenty-seven, maybe Wurtzel was briefly awakened from that living dead girl phenomenon with the prospect of getting her first book published. And a book that was, for the time, rather uncensored in its gruesome approach to the subject matter.

Wurtzel’s candor in discussing how so many preadolescents and adolescents end up “depressed” before becoming legitimately depressed (something that would also later be illustrated in 2003’s Thirteen) is most manifest in the description, “I thought this alternative persona that I had adopted was just that: a put-on, a way of getting attention, a way of being different. And maybe when I first started walking around talking about plastic and death, maybe then it was an experiment. But after a while, the alternative me really was just me. Those days that I tried to be the little girl I was supposed to be really drained me… I remember being in a panic one day at school when I realized that I could not even fake being the old Lizzy anymore. I had, indeed, metamorphosed into this nihilistic, unhappy girl.” 

The conversation of persona was big in 2019–of where one’s real personality began and the spotlight iteration ended–particularly when talking of the ultimate “Depression Diva” of the 2010s, Lana Del Rey. Wurtzel herself could be argued as a floodgate to someone like Del Rey feeling comfortable with such “gloomy” confessional lyrics. And while she (Wurtzel, not Del Rey, though the latter did have her own lynch mob at the beginning of her career) was in the constant line of fire for being a talentless fluke capable of emitting nothing but “poor me” rants, the literarily inclined failed to realize the great debt they owed her in breaking that final glass ceiling toward women speaking unabashedly in this tone (of course, the more pompous ilk would like not to thank her at all for making the blog post a viable medium for the personal essayist). The one that might be part of a persona until, after a while, it’s not. But at least a girl can profit from her pain now and again. The point in the Elizabeth Wurtzel vs. Kathy Acker column is ultimately given to Acker by Zambreno. But right at this moment, in the wake of her death, it feels as though Wurtzel has somehow won now that the non-grudging acknowledgements are finally rolling in. Ironic, to boot, that her death should not have been a suicide, but instead as a result of a feminine attribute.

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