A year or two ago, when I had fallen into a friendship with Elizabeth, I mentioned in one of our long text conversations — probably discussing the ’90s, a topic that consumed us both — that I remembered reading her story.
“Oh, that,” she replied. “I don’t know why they labeled that as fiction.”
I laughed so hard I broke out coughing. She then proceeded to tell me that she hadn’t even bothered to change the guy’s name. She then told me his full name, because why wouldn’t she, but that detail doesn’t matter because even by 1995 she was already far more famous than that guy. And Elizabeth, who died this week at the age of 52, was the star of the story anyway, just as she was the star of every story she wrote. And she didn’t care if you had a problem with that.
Well, maybe she cared a little. When I got to know her three years ago, she was ready to do a victory lap. The culture had finally vindicated the kind of confessional work she had pioneered in the 1990s, so polarizing at the time. And now suddenly, the celebrated HBO series “Girls” proved that the messy, self-absorbed lives of young women — and, more to the point, not necessarily likable young women — could be rich, compelling entertainment, worth at least 30 minutes of your time a week not including all the analyses you’d consume about it the next day. Girls could be antiheroes, too, it turned out. But Elizabeth had always known this.
When she wrote about “Girls” for The Washington Post, Elizabeth took special glee in the fact that the lead character was an aspiring memoirist. Back when she published “Prozac Nation,” her 1994 chronicle of her teenage struggle with depression, it was considered “megalomania,” she wrote, that she would even have the nerve.
“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?”
She concluded: “Now look. Memoir is a category. I had a good idea. . . . Oh well. I was right. I knew all along.”
I knew her before I knew her, or thought I did. In the 1990s, she was going to Lower East Side parties with Ethan Hawke and Martin Scorsese (“I am a downtown icon,” she wrote wryly in a draft of an essay she sent me last year) and dealing with “boyfriends who broke lamps to make a point.” I was living in small towns then and at the bottom of the media ladder, far from the parties and glossy magazines but imbibing it all secondhand from the ankle-biting gossip and media criticism in Spy or the New York Observer.
Even before “Prozac Nation” I knew about her because she was a focus of resentment in these kinds of pages, the too-pretty girl who got a job as a music critic at New York magazine right out of college before jumping to the New Yorker. It was fashionable to dislike her, to doubt her talent or question the reasons for her success. I’m sure she was difficult; early fame makes people difficult. I remember seeing that “Prozac Nation” book jacket in 1994 and thinking how fierce and worldly she was, staring out at readers so brazenly. She posted that same image on Facebook several months ago. Now we know: She was just a baby then.
It was through social media that I saw another side of how the public viewed Elizabeth Wurtzel. If you looked past the hundreds who hated her, there were thousands, maybe millions, who loved her. They were in her Instagram captions, explaining how her books had changed their lives. Even before she died Tuesday, you would stumble across her bright-polished aphorisms about depression and mental health and recovery, shared over and over again on Facebook and Twitter.
“That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.”
“I need love. I need the thing that happens when your brain shuts off and your heart turns on.”
“Depression is so insidious and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.”
Her best book was still ahead of her. The past couple years had been eventful for her on many fronts — she had beaten breast cancer and discovered her father wasn’t who she thought, among other things — though hadn’t her entire life seemed eventful? But drama was still unfolding in her life, and she was itching to write about it.
She sent me some essay drafts last summer looking for advice. They were so potent and so piercing, I told her, but they just weren’t ready yet. And that was for the simple reason that Elizabeth’s subject, as always, was her life — and in this case, she was still living through some crucial chapters. She needed to wait, I thought. There would be more experiences, more reckonings that she wouldn’t want to have left out of her story; the next draft would be better, and the one after that even stronger.
Oh well, as Elizabeth would say. She was right.
“I had to write about what I was going through,” she wrote of herself in her 20s, though it was true still in her 50s, “because all that was happening to me was everything that was happening to me. . . . In other words, I was deep in the human condition.”