Wurtzel was best known for her deeply confessional memoirs
Elizabeth Wurtzel — the author of the best-selling memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America — died in a New York City hospital on Tuesday, according to the New York Times. She was 52 years old.
Wurtzel’s husband Jim Freed cited the cause of death as complications from leptomeningeal disease, a condition that results from cancer spreading to the cerebrospinal fluid. Wurtzel was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.
Wurtzel first rose to prominence at the age of 26 with the memoir Prozac Nation, which documented her struggles with depression and substance abuse. The memoir garnered wide acclaim for Wurtzel’s explosive, deeply confessional style, and wry, self-deprecating voice. She is widely credited with ushering in the explosion of the first-person essay and memoir genre that marked the early years of the internet, and she was also an early advocate for mental illness destigmatization.
Born on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1967, Wurtzel was the only child of Jewish parents who divorced when she was young. As she detailed in a 2018 essay for the Cut, she later discovered that her biological father was the photographer Bob Adelman, who had had an affair with her mother during the 1960s; Adelman died in 2016.
As documented in Prozac Nation, Wurtzel was a gifted but troubled child, entering therapy at the age of 11 after she was found self-harming in a school bathroom. She was admitted to Harvard University, where she struggled with depression and substance abuse as an undergraduate and stayed in various mental hospitals; she graduated in 1989.
In 1986, Wurtzel won the Rolling Stone college journalism award, which kickstarted her journalism career. She received an internship at the Dallas Morning News, though she was fired in 1988 following accusations of plagiarism. She later contributed pop criticism to New York Magazine and the New Yorker.
Following the 1994 publication of Prozac Nation, Wurtzel was widely hailed as a publishing wunderkind, and she later became known as one of the first authors to speak openly about their own struggles with mental illness. The book included explicit details about her sex life, history of self-mutilation, and drug use, prompting many of her critics to accuse her of narcissism and over-sharing.
In her review of Prozac Nation, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani echoed future critiques of Wurtzel’s work, excoriating the book’s “self-important whining” and accusing Wurtzel of being unaware of her privilege, while praising her “forthrightness, her humor and her ability to write sparkling, luminescent prose.” The memoir was later adapted into a 2001 feature-length film starring Christina Ricci.
Wurtzel’s follow-up effort, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), a collection of essays reassessing the impact of complicated women throughout history, garnered controversy for its cover, which featured Wurtzel topless and flashing the middle finger to the camera. Yet its central premise, a defense of reviled 1990s pop cultural figures such as Amy Fisher and Nicole Brown Simpson, paved the way for pop culture’s ongoing rehabilitation of women like Monica Lewinsky and Tonya Harding. She followed up Bitch with another memoir about drug addiction, More, Now, Again (2002).
Wurtzel entered Yale Law School in 2004. On Twitter, journalist Ronan Farrow, who attended law school with Wurtzel, wrote on Tuesday that she was “kind and generous and filled spaces that might have otherwise been lonely with her warmth and humor and idiosyncratic voice. She gave a lot to a lot of us. I miss her.”Advertisement
Although she never became licensed to practice law, she worked full-time at the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner in New York City from 2008 to 2012 as a case manager and projects director. Wurtzel considered controversial attorney David Boies a mentor of sorts, referring to him as “not just an incredible lawyer but the most amazing person ever”; Boies’ reputation later suffered after it was revealed in 2017 that he hired the intelligence firm Black Cube to conduct surveillance on the alleged victims of his client Harvey Weinstein.
Following her departure from Boies, Schiller, and Flexner, Wurtzel returned to her first love: “I have thought over and over that I ought to be writing more,” she told law blog Above the Law in 2012. Her explosive, deeply sardonic tone was often met with controversy, particularly among feminist bloggers, who excoriated a 2012 piece in Harper’s Bazaar that argued that “looking great is a matter of feminism. No liberated woman would misrepresent the cause by appearing less than hale and happy.”
In 2013, Wurtzel went viral for a frank, lengthy essay in the Cut about her “one-night stand of a life,” in which she bemoaned her decision to stay single at 45. (She married Freed in 2015.) The essay was a deeply personal and sad meditation on womanhood and aging, yet it was widely excoriated on the internet for its rambling tone, which many perceived as incoherent or unhinged. “Earlier in her career, Wurtzel would use her words to create vivid, beautiful descriptions of the muted, horrible existence of clinical depression,” Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote. “Unfortunately now, when she pours her heart out onto the page she just makes a fucking mess.”
Wurtzel was frank about the fact that she had built a career out of the ashes of her own personal trauma. “I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions,” she wrote in that 2013 essay. Yet despite her obvious talents and her position as an early advocate for mental illness destigmatization, during the last few years of Wurtzel’s life, her name largely became synonymous with a specific subgenre of confessional, first-person writing made popular on websites like Thought Catalog. In various critical essays and thinkpieces, Wurtzel was often derogatorily cited as the progenitor of the first-person essay trend. “People spent so many years writing about Elizabeth Wurtzel as a Sad Example Of Something — female memoir-writers, women who got famous for being themselves, young women generally — and to see her gone so young is a harsh reminder of how cruel that was,” feminist writer Sady Doyle wrote on Twitter Tuesday after Wurtzel’s passing.Advertisement
Yet Wurtzel continued pouring her heart out and making a mess. In 2015, after her breast cancer diagnosis, she became an outspoken advocate for BRCA testing after she tested positive for the mutation. One of her last pieces was a characteristically sardonic, poignant essay for the Guardian, in which she wrote about confronting her own mortality while resisting being labeled as a victim. (True to form, the piece included a reference to her traveling through Scandinavia with cocaine stuffed in her diaphragm.)
“I hate it when people say that they are sorry about my cancer,” she wrote. “Really? Have they met me? I am not someone that you feel sorry for.”