At 15-years-old I knew this: Being a teenage girl was a gamble and I was on the losing side of the bet. At 15, my beloved, terrible, irresponsible father was deep into the slow suicide that would see him dead by the time I was 18. I’d been condescended to by teachers, I’d been groped by camp counselors, I’d been flashed by men in cars. I’d been lied to (or what are we calling it now? “Gaslighted”?) about my mother’s murder. I’d been on 3 different SSRIs to treat the “depression” that made me so “angry.”
Nobody in my small, suburban life seemed to understand the complicated enormousness of being human. Certainly not the girls who passed around a J. Crew catalog in the cafeteria at lunch, circling roll neck sweaters and chinos while eating baby carrots. Certainly not the hockey boys with their casual air of violence and homophobia.
And then I discovered Elizabeth Wurtzel. I first saw Prozac Nation, Wurtzel’s first book, on a cart near the front desk of my local public library. It was a new release and so highly coveted that when I picked it up, attracted by the name of the drug I myself had been put on, to get a closer look at the image of Wurtzel on the front cover — her long tangled hair, huge eyes, hint of midriff — the librarian snapped at me, “It’s reserved.”
I had a feeling that Wurtzel had a story I needed to hear. I was deep into a Lorrie Moore phase, having just exited a Sylvia Plath phase. This was 1995, a rare time when pop culture seemed tuned to the frequency of a specific kind of pathos that gave voice to smart, messy women. Moore’s characters accidentally dropped infants on the ground at Labor Day picnics, killing them. Maggie Estep was growling out poetry on the stage at Lollapalooza. Madonna was fine, but I wanted to be Courtney Love, pelting Kurt Loder with makeup products.
The women I admired had something in common: They were messy, they were loud, they took up space. I put my name on the waitlist immediately.
In my memory, when I got my hand on the library copy of Prozac Nation a few days later, I read the book in a single day, holed up in the top bunk of the bedroom I shared with my three-year-old sister in the tiny apartment my stepmother rented, and where I felt like a squatter. I felt that way mostly because my stepmother would occasionally accuse me of being just that.
The way that Wurtzel wrote her world — her childhood in New York City, her college years at Harvard — was like getting a glimpse into a world I’d never seen while simultaneously having all of my emotions narrated. Never before had I read a book that understood not only clinical depression, but also that feeling, that desire, for more. More of what? I wasn’t sure, and Wurtzel wasn’t either, but it didn’t matter. Prozac Nation was smart, it moved fast, it made me feel like one day I might write a book. And like I might survive teenage girlhood, even if my survival was messy.
In my mind that book was written in neon. It led the way.
Elizabeth Wurtzel died from metastatic breast cancer on Tuesday, January 7. She was 52 years old. I’m writing this now with a pile of tissues around me, crying, even though I only met Wurtzel a few times, and then only in passing in the tiny community of writers who live in New York City, because that’s how I am with my feelings -- messy. Because I learned to be open with pain so that it wouldn’t destroy me. Because cancer has recently killed another woman I cared about very deeply. And because, not that it matters to literally anyone but me, if it wasn't for Wurtzel, I’m not sure I would have become a writer.
If you, like me, have written a confessional memoir, Wurtzel opened the door for you. If you, like me, felt that your feelings, your experiences, could be translated into words that other people might feel feelings about, you owe a debt to Wurtzel. If you ever opted to be honest when it might have behooved you to be silent, you are a part of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s tribe. She was our Pied Piper and I believe she would have welcomed us all.
I am so sad she’s gone. I’m so grateful she was here.