Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel dies aged 52

Writer’s literary talent rooted in ‘her invention of what was really a new form – memoir’

Elizabeth Wurtzel won praise for opening a dialogue about clinical depression. File photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times

Elizabeth Wurtzel won praise for opening a dialogue about clinical depression. File photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times

 

Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose startling 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America won praise for opening a dialogue about clinical depression and helped introduce an unsparing style of confessional writing that continues to endure, died on Tuesday in New York City. She was 52.

Writer David Samuels, a friend since childhood, said the cause was metastatic breast cancer, a disease that resulted from the BRCA genetic mutation. Wurtzel had a double mastectomy in 2015. After her diagnosis, she became an advocate for BRCA testing – something she had not had – and wrote about her cancer experience in The New York Times.

“I could have had a mastectomy with reconstruction and skipped the part where I got cancer,” she wrote. “I feel like the biggest idiot for not doing so.” Writing about her final illness was a natural choice for Wurtzel, who had for a 25 years scrutinised her life in relentless detail, becoming a hero to some, especially to many women of her generation and younger, but also drawing scorn. Prozac Nation, her first book, was published when she was 27. It was unvarnished in its accounts of her student days at Harvard University, the drug use, extensive sex life and more.

It divided critics. “Wurtzel’s nation is a nation of one,” wrote Karen Schoemer in a dismissive Newsweek review. “She makes only tenuous attempts to draw parallels between herself and her generation and she randomly blames her parents, her therapists, her friends, the divorce rate, drugs and the times for her problems.”

But Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the book in the New York Times, found more to like. She acknowledged that its self-pitying passages “make the reader want to shake the author, and remind her that there are far worse fates than growing up during the ’70s in New York and going to Harvard”.

“But,” she added, “Ms Wurtzel herself is hyperaware of the narcissistic nature of her problems, and her willingness to expose herself – narcissism and all – ultimately wins the reader over.”

Ground-breaking work

The book became a cultural reference point and part of a new wave of confessional writing.

“Lizzie’s literary genius rests not just in her acres of quotable one-liners,” said Samuels. “But in her invention of what was really a new form, which has more or less replaced literary fiction – the memoir by a young person no one has ever heard of before. It was a form that Lizzie fashioned in her own image, because she always needed to be both the character and the author.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel: ‘I could have had a mastectomy with reconstruction and skipped the part where I got cancer.’ File photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times
Elizabeth Wurtzel: ‘I could have had a mastectomy with reconstruction and skipped the part where I got cancer.’ File photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times

In a 2013 article in The New Yorker drawing parallels between Prozac Nation and the HBO series Girls, then in its second season, Meghan Daum expressed the admiration and frustration the book inspired in some women.

“We resented her for being such a famous and hot little mess,” she wrote. “Yet we couldn’t help but begrudgingly admire her ability to parlay her neuroses into financial rewards and a place in the literary scene.”

Wurtzel followed her own lead with her subsequent writing, especially More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction, published in 2002. – New York Times