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On Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Unbelievable, All-Too-Real Life

The ‘Prozac Nation’ author was many things—an influential essayist, a scourge of critics, a quintessential New Yorker—but most of all, she was an original

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After writer Elizabeth Wurtzel died at age 52 on Tuesday from complications related to breast cancer, the news was sandwiched in my Twitter feed between responses to one of those uncool yet irresistible tweet-prompts from a rando that had been going around for days. “Tell me a story about yourself,” the user “adribbleofink” had asked, that “sounds like a lie but is absolutely true.” The thousands of replies felt almost like an elegant, if inadvertent, tribute to Wurtzel, a woman who spent decades doing exactly that.

People shared embarrassing celebrity interactions and creepy cases of déjà vu; they recounted the circuitous ways they once got out of jams or backed into jobs or met the loves of their lives, each one a tiny little memoir of varying quality starring the storyteller in the lead role. Wurtzel would have aced this challenge; the only hard part would have been figuring out which day (which hour!) of her uniquely bold and bedraggled life to pick.

She could have mentioned the time her debut book, 1994’s Prozac Nation—a raw and ragged accounting of the depression that threatened her adolescence, her enrollment at Harvard, and her life—was made into a Miramax movie starring Christina Ricci that never hit U.S. theaters in part because of a stir Wurtzel caused in 2002 when she vividly recalled the view she had of the 9/11 attacks from her damaged apartment right next door. “I thought, ‘This is a really strange art project,’” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail then. “It was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. … It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone’s head.”

She was a New York original and a real character who might have mentioned, as her true story, smuggling drugs in her diaphragm en route to Sweden. Or getting into Yale Law School, where she developed a close friendship with her classmate Ronan Farrow (20 years her junior) and became a favorite of the now-semi-disgraced power-lawyer David Boies. “I knew David Foster Wallace pretty well, and he was pretty smart,” Wurtzel wrote in a 2013 essay for New York, slyly dropping names, “but David Boies makes David Wallace look like, well, some other lesser David, maybe David Remnick.” Speaking of DFW, there was the time, in 1998, when he wrote a pointed short-story-length subtweet about Wurtzel and her mental illness in the pages of Harper’s, although that one is easy to believe.

Wurtzel could have gone with the most recent wild story about her life, the story that ultimately ended it. First she found out she had breast cancer. Then she found out that she had breast cancer because of a rare gene called BRCA. And then she found out that she likely acquired the BRCA gene from her father—a different father than the one she had spent her entire closely examined half-century of a life thinking was hers. “I have been working out that relationship all of my life, in writing and therapy and conversation, with cocaine and heroin, with recovery and perseverance, and with my thoughts,” Wurtzel wrote in 2018 about the discovery. “I have perfected a two-handed backhand to clobber the lob that is coming at me that is: the wrong problem. I have aced the wrong problem.” Her real dad was Bob Adelman, famous for his photojournalism of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., which all sounds made up but is all too real.

We know so many of these details about Wurtzel’s existence because her life force was so fueled by the telling. For some 30 years, she wrote with the frank soulfulness of the unfiltered lady you might get to talking with when your bus is delayed. Later on Tuesday, I saw another Twitter prompt, this one way less viral and more thoughtful, that wasn’t about Wurtzel but reminded me of her work. “In my nonfiction class this semester,” wrote the novelist Terese Mailhot, “we’ll be writing one essay about the worst thing about ourselves, and we won’t redeem it, but we will also need the reader to fall in love.” At her best, and even (especially) at her worst, this is exactly what Wurtzel accomplished, even if not everyone knew it at the time.

Prozac Nation was published in 1994, three years after Douglas Coupland’s Generation X hit the shelves and during a mid-’90s stretch in which the stories of increasingly unapologetic women became mainstream mainstays. Another book about mental illness, Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted, which was set at a late-1960s psychiatric institution, came out in 1993. So did Liz Phair’s album Exile in Guyville, and debuts from the slightly more conventional but still compelling likes of Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge. Two years later, Alanis Morrissette released Jagged Little Pill (Morrissette, like Wurtzel, famously reminisced about blow jobs in her work).

Sassy magazine was in its subversive heyday. The earliest seasons of Real World were newly on the air, with their confessional video booths and their stopping being polite and their radical transparency. In 1996, eyelinered teenager Fiona Apple sang “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” and it became a huge hit. I was a tween in these years, which meant that my mother and 100 percent of her friends with daughters owned the omnipresent book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. But for all the fretting and pearl clutching over the racy, jaded Prozac Nation, Wurtzel’s work—honest, generous, accessible, the kind of stuff you closed your bedroom door to read—probably saved just as many selves as Ophelia ever did.

Even before Prozac Nation, Wurtzel’s work could elicit tsk-tsks; when she was briefly named The New Yorker’s pop music critic in her very early 20s, her short-lived column was “so roundly despised,” Dwight Garner later wrote in Salon, “that I sometimes felt like its only friend in the world.” The discerning New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani mostly praised Prozac Nation, understanding that the urgency of Wurtzel’s voice derived not only from its insights but also from its glaring, gaping faults. Elsewhere, Wurtzel’s work was straight-up savaged. Writing for The Washington Post, Lorraine Adams, who had crossed paths with Wurtzel when both worked at Dallas Morning News, called her a fabulist, a plagiarist, and a desktop-sex-haver; added that she’d been stiffed by Wurtzel on $300 of sublet rent; and described her as “vomitously confessional.” Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly called the book “an epic of glib, strenuously blasé self-dramatization—depression as $ performance-art piece.” In New York, Walter Kirn wrote that “what could have been a pointed roman à clef about an especially trying young woman (and probably would have been written as such in simpler, less confessional, less syndrome-conscious times) lies buried in self-obsessed case study.” And in The Harvard Crimson, at Wurtzel’s alma mater, Prozac Nation was called “almost obscenely exhibitionistic, even for our culture of confession.”

These were way harsh assessments from some pretty major cultural analysts who have remained in positions and networks of influence in the many years since. (These days, Adams is married to novelist Richard Price; Harris to Broadway luminary Tony Kushner; and Kirn to the journalist Amanda Fortini; and I’m pretty sure that the Erica Werner who slammed the book in the Crimson is the same Erica Werner who now covers Congress for The Washington Post.) It was the kind of critical-mass criticism that might silence a less impervious soul.

But shamelessness can be, if not a virtue, definitely a superpower—potent and potentially uncontrollable—and it enhanced Wurtzel’s talents and charms. When a reporter from The New York Times visited her at law school in 2007 she sighed, “let me pack up my sorrows” as she gathered up her heavy textbooks, a line that is good enough to steal. (Works well for diaper bags and laundry, you know?) Over the years she published four more books, wrote essays that only occasionally made one want to back away slowly and then break into a sprint, became close pals with Kirn and Fortini, paved the way for the rise (and fall!) of a generation of worthy and pitiful imitators, got mocked on law blogs for failing the bar exam, got mocked on Gawker for her every move, and more than once surprised her various tormentors by being extremely gracious about all of it. Even her reaction to the disastrous Prozac Nation movie was as chin-up as it gets: “You could argue that I’m a terrible writer,” she said, bummed that the script included voice-overs that weren’t her words, “but I’m the best version of me that there is.”

One 2009 interview, in which an NYU reporter two decades younger than Wurtzel describes her eyes as “still a cross between come hither and droopy” and tells her: “Your stuff is pretty racy. I’m surprised to see you so calm,” is a picture in true restraint. Perhaps Wurtzel, a former college paper columnist herself—her 1988 Harvard Crimson piece on her classmates’ various affectations is kind of stunningly timeless—felt some kinship with the kid. That same year, she reflected in Elle magazine about what it meant to get older. “Whoever said youth is wasted on the young actually got it wrong,” she wrote. “It’s more that maturity is wasted on the old.”

The end of Wurtzel’s life involved one last shenanigan, and while it almost certainly was unintended, it was also satisfyingly apt. The New York Times obituary for Wurtzel quotes from a 1994 interview with Vice that hit all the mid-’90s sweet spots, like when she talked about seeing Clerks at the Angelika theater on zero sleep. One time, she told Vice, she watched Nirvana on Saturday Night Live at her mom’s house and gleefully informed her that the appearance marked a clear win by Generation X over the baby boomers. She hinted at her desire to go to law school someday and name-dropped Sub Pop, the Seattle record label known for launching Nirvana and legendary for sneaking a whole list of made-up grunge termslamestain, swingin’ on the flippity flop, cob nobbler—into the credulous pages of The New York Times in 1992.

As it turns out, the whole 1994 Vice interview linked by the Times is itself something of a hoax too: It ran as part of a 2009 issue of the magazine that pretended to be a “lost issue” from 15 years earlier, and Wurtzel was in on the bit. This final swirl of chaotic cosmic energy, this completion of the circle from the ’90s to now, suggests that maybe Wurtzel’s critics were incorrect all along: Maybe the world really does revolve around her.

In 2009, Wurtzel wrote that “people who say they have no regrets, that they don’t look back in anger, are either lying or boring, not sure which is worse. Because if you’ve lived a full life and don’t feel bad about some of what you did, pieces are missing.” Five years later, however, she must have felt she had completed the puzzle, ending an essay about a recent engagement with the words “I guess I’ve got nothing to regret after all.” Her cancer diagnosis in early 2015 was a few months away.

As with all the other subjects she covered, from her one-night stands to her drug addictions to the things she used to do to herself with a razor blade just to feel in control, Wurtzel’s writing about cancer and death was tits-out and head-on. (This wasn’t new: Her brief, bleak tribute to David Foster Wallace following his 2008 suicide was cold, concise, and correct.) “My insides are shimmering. I am reconfigured,” she wrote in 2015 after eight rounds of chemo. “I have scans all the time. I have waiting rooms in my future, full of Golf Digest and Time from four months ago and that same issue of W that’s always there.” A few years later she stubbornly asked people to stop feeling sorry for her. “I am a con artist,” she wrote, “and cancer is my final con.”

But as the writer Emily Gould—whose own brute honesty and extroverted introspection over the years has drawn comparisons to Wurtzel—shared on Twitter, Wurtzel’s perspective on the whole scam shifted. One of the last times they exchanged text messages, Gould said, Wurtzel quoted a line from William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: “Hustlers of the world, there is one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside.”

In a 2013 Atlantic piece that was rambling and funny and ridiculous and strident and whiny and fierce and extremely her, Wurtzel observed that “nothing is more bracing than not being concerned about what other people think” and concluded her essay with a promise: “I will die screaming.” That was a long time and a lot of bad news ago, but she did keep her word. On Tuesday, as her contemporaries and fans grieved her death and celebrated her life and posted links to decades of her writing—so many rich texts filled with stories that sound like lies because the truth is so deafening—her voice rang as loud and clear as ever, and would not be unheard.