Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Feminist Disability Memoir

Elizabeth Wurtzel changed how we think about memoir — and mental illness.

By Patricia GrisafiFebruary 14, 2020

Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Feminist Disability Memoir

IF YOU WERE a depressed young woman in the 1990s, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir Prozac Nation (1994) was required reading. I remember standing in a New Jersey Barnes & Noble, tenderly taking the book from the shelf, and turning it over in my hands. Who was this woman on the cover? She looked so cool, her gaze both empty and knowing. I wanted to be her. I wanted her to save me.

I read Prozac Nation in one sitting and felt something like cathartic salvation. “The tears pour down after the movie as I eat dinner with my mother at a Sbarro in Times Square on Friday evening, and she demands to know what I am so upset about. And all I can say, over and over again, is that he’s a natural, he’s a natural, it’s such a gift to be a natural, it is such a responsibility, it is so hard to be natural,” Wurtzel writes, and we are right there with her at the Times Square Sbarro with its red neon lights and greasy veneer, feeling desperate.

Wurtzel is referring to the baseball prodigy Robert Redford plays in the 1984 film The Natural, but she’s also talking about herself, her perceived failure to live up to expectations, the burden she feels as a Young Woman Of Promise who keeps letting people down because of her mental illness. And, as a “promising” teenager with literary aspirations who was also struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness (which would not get addressed until a hospitalization in my mid-20s), I felt seen in a way I had not since reading Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Wurtzel, who died on January 7, made a generation of women feel as if their shitty lives might make a good book someday. She made me feel like I could get help for my seemingly broken brain.

Wurtzel’s world reminded me of my suburban New York existence — private schools crammed with girls trying to be perfect at any cost. We listened to punk rock and grunge, kept Xanax in our Hello Kitty lunchboxes for emergencies, threw up after lunch so we’d keep our figures. But we hid it well, got scholarships, didn’t really know anyone in therapy, kind of hoped someone would notice we needed therapy.

In the ’90s, more people were talking about their mental health and what it meant to be depressed, anxious, obsessive compulsive, schizophrenic, and addicted. Despite this burgeoning conversation, however, mental illness was still dismissed as either a fiction or something grotesque and shameful, something to hide. Wurtzel said fuck the stigma and became one of the first memoirists to write honestly and brutally about depression and addiction.

For that she got slammed by misogynistic critics. She was seen as a whiny brat, an enfant terrible, a narcissist. Newsweek called Prozac Nation “the self-absorbed rantings of an adolescent.” Publishers Weekly said that Wurtzel “remains too self-involved to justify her contention that depression is endemic to her generation.” Ken Tucker, writing for The New York Times, massacred Wurtzel in a review that reads like a master class in sexist mansplaining: “It is likely that few of us would want to be the author of a book in which the phrase ‘I became rambunctious with tears’ appears; in which the first-person-singular voice volunteers that her mouth once became chapped from too-frequent ministrations of oral sex.” In a line stunning for its sociopathic nonchalance, Tucker actually expressed anger that Wurtzel tries to find grace in her experiences: “It would be possible to have more sympathy for Ms. Wurtzel if she weren’t so exasperatingly sympathetic to herself.”

We understand these kinds of reviews now. They’re launched at women who dare to write about their lives and are usually composed by men who think those lives are not worth exploring. Wurtzel wasn’t famous — she was a young journalist for Rolling Stone. Yet here she was, her female experiences gushing all over the pages of a national best seller, instead of staying hidden in a secret pink journal with a heart-shaped lock. The gall.

Men can behave badly and be seen as great artists. Women, only sometimes. But mostly, if you’re young and talented and write about your life, you’re defined by that moment and are refused the opportunity to grow and change. Wurtzel said no, thanks, went to law school, received her JD, wrote a book about intellectual property law. But she also kept writing more personal material, mining her life, getting more political as Trumpism strangled our national consciousness.

Memoir is sometimes dismissed as “women’s writing,” although when men write memoirs, they are often seen as brave and bold. Critics focused on Prozac Nation as “women’s writing” and ignored that it was simply good writing. Wurtzel’s language broke your heart and made you laugh at the same time:

I don’t know if depressives are drawn to places with that certain funereal ambience or if, in all their contagion, they make them that way. I only know that for my entire junior year of college, I slept under a six-foot-square poster emblazoned with the words LOVE WILL TEAR US APART, and then I wondered why nothing good ever happened in that bed.

Wurtzel taught us that young women’s stories were worth reading but also that disabled people’s stories were worth reading. She might have balked at being referred to as disabled because of her mental illness, but invisible disability wasn’t part of the discourse in the ’90s. Yet Prozac Nation, along with Wurtzel’s 2001 addiction memoir More, Now, Again, did much to establish a literary genre — one that is burgeoning today — a genre that borrows from the ugly past and looks to a radical future: the feminist disability memoir.

Wurtzel wrote about what it means to be sick and unable to function but to look functional and even desirable on the outside; she showed the painstaking effort it took to keep her mental health struggles hidden. “You see, until the very moment when I first broke down at age eleven, I was a golden girl in spite of everything,” she writes in Prozac Nation. “[Y]ou most certainly would have described me as, well, as full of promise. That term is loaded with irony to me now because I know how false that appearance of promise is.”

In More, Now, Again, she writes about getting addicted to Ritalin and other uppers while working on her second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), in Florida. To this day, I can’t think of Florida without thinking of Wurtzel’s Fort Lauderdale, with its garish strip of Lilly Pulitzer dress stores, as Wurtzel becomes more and more disabled by her addiction. Still, she laid out the whole messy ordeal with humor, heart, and acute insight into the human condition.

When Wurtzel was diagnosed with breast cancer and wrote the essay “I Have Cancer. Don’t Tell Me You’re Sorry,” she gave us her updated, insouciant version of a disability narrative: “I am worse than cancer. And now I have cancer.” She wrote about cancer like she wrote about everything else — as part of a close examination of her life: “Cancer is excessive. It is growth run amok. It is a disease I understand.” The essay was short, staccato, stunning in its dispassionate fierceness.

With her books and essays, Wurtzel created an entire subgenre of literature. The mental illness narrative had a history, of course, but early works like Five Months in the New-York State Lunatic Asylum (1849) by Anonymous were mostly in service of exposing institutional abuses. More recent works, such as I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964) by “Hannah Green” (a.k.a. Joanne Greenberg), were written under pseudonyms and/or designated as semi-autobiographical. Even Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), which was marketed as fiction, first came out under the pen name “Victoria Lucas.” Patty Duke’s 1992 memoir A Brilliant Madness details her struggle with bipolar disorder — but then, she was a famous person. Susanna Kaysen’s book about her incarceration in a mental hospital, Girl, Interrupted, came out in 1993, but with its collage form and inclusion of visual material, it seemed more of a literary experiment than a memoir. One of the foundational texts in contemporary writing about mental illness, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, was published in 1990; in the words of Publishers Weekly, Styron’s book “evokes with detachment and dignity the months-long turmoil” the author experienced as he battled a serious depression at age 60. There was no mention of narcissism in that review.

If you review the literature after 1994, there’s a noticeable shift. Instead of autobiographical accounts thinly veiled as fiction or published anonymously, overt memoirs detailing the experience of mental illness begin to appear. After Wurtzel, people felt empowered to talk about their trauma and suicidal depression and pill addiction and self-sabotaging. She opened that gate and strode through — and an army followed behind her. In the epilogue to Prozac Nation, Wurtzel smartly took stock of the growing phenomenon she seemed to have ushered in: “I ceased to be this freakishly depressed person who had scared the hell out of people for most of my life with my mood swings and tantrums and crying spells, and I instead became downright trendy.”

When Lady Gaga recently told Oprah that she suffered from mental health issues and that, “if [she] took [her] pillbox out, it would sound like a rattle,” I thought of Elizabeth Wurtzel. A pop star sitting with Oprah on national television candidly chatting about pills, psychosis, and dialectical behavioral therapy — Wurtzel made that happen.

When she wrote Prozac Nation, Wurtzel didn’t just give us a memoir, she started a mental health revolution. Today, mental health memoirs are more popular than ever — and that’s a good thing. I never want to be part of a world where people tire of hearing about humanity’s struggles. Amid this flood, women’s mental health memoirs lead the market, with writers like Leslie Jamison, Esmé Weijun Wang, Allison Britz, Porochista Khakpour, Caroline Knapp, Cat Marnell, and Terese Mailhot shaping how the next generation writes about — and views — mental health. I’ve also published essays about my mental health struggles. The genre is not dead, it evolves.

On social media, Wurtzel referred to herself as “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna” — a reference to that shitty New York Times Book Review. On Instagram, she was often photographed wearing a massive sunhat and hugging her beloved rescue dog, Alistair. Wurtzel’s last post was a picture of her wearing a Beto O’Rourke T-shirt, Alistair at her side, her hand boldly on her hip. The caption read, “Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47 … I would like to see that happen. I am an #optimist so I #believe it will happen.”

Those might have been her last public words. Coming from a woman who defined what depression felt like for an entire generation, they were defiant and joyful. She lived a Pandora’s box kind of life but never forgot the hope lurking at the bottom.

On January 8, the day after she died, Wurtzel’s last essay was published on Medium. It is a story about her final year wrestling with cancer and the unraveling of her marriage, about the emotional toll of finding out her dad was not her dad, about the complicated bond between herself and her mother. Knowing she was at the end of her battle with cancer, she put on a tough face, but her fear is palpable. Her words are wounded animals, scared and ready to bite.

The essay is called “I Believe in Love.”


Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been featured in the GuardianSalonNarrativelyCatapultSELFViceBustle, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Salon, Narratively, Catapult, SELF, Vice, Bustle, and elsewhere. A PhD in English, she taught writing and literature for eight years and was an associate editor at Ravishly. She is passionate about horror movies and animal rescue. She currently lives in the East Village with her husband, toddler, and two rescue pit bulls.


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