‘Prozac Nation’ helped birth a wave of self-examination
The gifted essayist Elizabeth Wurtzel, best known for her 1994 memoir Prozac Nation, died today at 52. The cause was breast cancer.
Wurtzel dealt with the disease as she dealt with all the other challenges in her life – frankly and publicly. In a 2015 story for Vice, the author wrote “So 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.” According to her husband, the author and photo editor Jim Freed, Wurtzel underwent a double mastectomy only to see the cancer return and metastasize to her brain.
Wurtzel retained the funny and self-aware voice that made even searing personal revelation bearable. Her Twitter bio consisted entirely of the way the New York Times had once described Wurtzel: “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna.” Fittingly, reaction to Wurtzel’s demise on social media was immediate and intense, particularly from other writers – fitting for someone who died young after helping spark a boom in personal memoirs.
Maer Roshan, the editor of Los Angeles magazine, wrote, “I am truly devastated by the death of Elizabeth Wurtzel, a brave, brilliant, maddening and hilariously funny friend of mine for nearly two decades. The world will be a much less interesting place without her.”
New School professor Susan Shapiro, author of The Byline Bible, wrote, “RIP Elizabeth Wurtzel, 52, funny, provocative, ballsy NY Jewish memoirist of Prozac Nation, Bitch & Now Again who died of breast cancer. In book panels we did together, she was smart, helpful, professional, candid about her depression and addictions & generous to the young fans who loved her.”
Like many of her admirers, the writer Mikal Gilmore praised Wurtzel’s outspoken bluntness. “Wurtzel was a brave and valuable voice, a groundbreaker. There was an unsparing candor in what she wrote, and indeed the self she chronicled was a nation of depression sufferers who are too often still subject to misunderstanding and contempt.”
The writer and editor John Podhoretz said, “I am heartsick to hear about the horribly untimely passing of Elizabeth Wurtzel from breast cancer. She wrote an essay in the early 1990s about the condition of homesickness published in an essay collection I don’t remember the title of. It was, I thought, a masterpiece, and I wrote her a letter of praise. We became friends for a time. She was vivid and funny, at least when I knew her well, so much so that one forgot about her profound wounds. Baruch dayan emet.”
Tevi Troy, author of the forthcoming Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump, attended Ramaz with Wurtzel. He told Book and Film Globe, “It was obvious back in high school that the supremely talented Elizabeth Wurtzel was going to be a successful writer. I’m not sure the religious high school we attended quite anticipated or appreciated the explicit nature of her writings, but her classmates were both prouder of her and much less surprised. She was taken from from us far too early.”
And the writer Lisa DePaulo wrote of Wurtzel, “This is sad and shocking. 52. Breast cancer. Though best known for Prozac Nation, She wrote one of the best essays ever on the dynamics of the Clinton marriage for George Magazine. It was her theory that Hillary was crazy about Bill from the jump start because all the other boys she met at Yale wanted to be in her study group and he wanted to feel her up. A splendid mind.”
Wurtzel continued to write even as her odds of prevailing against cancer grew dimmer. In a piece published in October 2019, Wurtzel the Generation X icon argued that the Democrats needed a Generation X candidate to defeat President Trump: “Instead of making fun of Biden’s senility, which came across as nasty, Julian Castro should celebrate his connection to the next generation. Biden is too old to be president because he was in the Senate at a time when it was acceptable to hold positions that we now know are racist and sexist. It is no good that he worked with segregationists, because that means he was doing this when the South still pined for separate water fountains. Many of us remember Biden’s wretched treatment of Anita Hill. Joe Biden missed his chance. It is too late.”