Elizabeth Wurtzel, who chronicled her struggles with depression and drug addiction in bestselling memoirs that helped spur a boom in confessional writing, turning her into a Gen X touchstone at 26 with the publication of “Prozac Nation,” died Tuesday at a hospital in New York. She was 52.
Wurtzel announced in 2015 that she had breast cancer, a challenge that she dismissed as “nothing” compared with giving up drugs. She underwent a double mastectomy, but the breast cancer recently metastasized to her brain, said her husband, Jim Freed. The immediate cause of death was complications from leptomeningeal disease, which occurs when cancer spreads to the cerebrospinal fluid.
Writing with extreme candor, Wurtzel was one of several authors who helped reinvigorate the personal memoir in the 1990s. The form had long been dominated by politicians, artists or entertainers — celebrities and other boldfaced names. But Wurtzel was largely unknown outside circles who had read her rock criticism in publications such as the New Yorker and New York magazine.
Her harrowing debut, “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” (1994), took its name from an antidepressant that she was one of the first to be prescribed, and drew immediate comparisons to William Styron’s book “Darkness Visible” (1990), which drew increasing attention to depression, and Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” (1993), which recalled the author’s mental health struggles as a young woman in the 1960s.
Wurtzel was decades younger that Styron and Kaysen and far more explicit in her descriptions of razor blades that sliced up her legs at age 11, sex acts that left her with chapped lips, and a “black wave” of depression that led to a suicide attempt.
“By turns wrenching and comical, self-indulgent and self-aware, ‘Prozac Nation’ possesses the raw candor of Joan Didion’s essays, the irritating emotional exhibitionism of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’ and the wry, dark humor of a Bob Dylan song,” wrote New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. If the memoir needed “some strict editing,” she added, it was nonetheless marked by passages of “sparkling, luminescent prose.”
Although it divided critics, its influence could be seen in the wave of confessional writing that followed, said author and Yale writing instructor Anne Fadiman, including in the 1990s bestsellers “A Child Called ‘It’ “ by Dave Pelzer, “The Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt and “The Kiss” by Kathryn Harrison.
“Even if the memoirists who followed her didn’t read ‘Prozac Nation’ (and I bet they did),” Fadiman said by email, “its success definitively announced several things that were especially important to women writers: It’s okay to be indiscreet. It’s okay to take risks. It’s okay to write something that will embarrass your grandmother. It’s okay to write about sex, drugs and depression. It’s okay to be over the top. It’s okay to be a bad girl. It’s okay if you aren’t always likable.”
“Elizabeth’s message was: Never sweep anything under the carpet,” she added. “Good, bad, whatever — it’s you. Embrace it. Own it. No excuses. No apologies.”
Wurtzel was alternately adored and reviled, described as an uninhibited feminist bomb-thrower and a self-obsessed narcissist. She seemed not to care: The opening pages of her essay collection “Bitch” (1998) featured scathing reviews alongside the usual positive quotes from critics. She appeared topless in the book’s cover photo, sneering at the camera and raising a middle finger.
By then, however, Wurtzel’s life had been upended by cocaine and amphetamines. In her second memoir, “More, Now, Again” (2002), she recalled a period of writing that was fueled and nearly derailed by drug use, which included crushing and snorting 40 tablets of Ritalin a day. Traveling to Scandinavia, she smuggled cocaine through her diaphragm; back home in the United States, she asked friends to overnight the drug via FedEx.
Those misadventures apparently ended for good in 1998, when Wurtzel said she stopped using drugs, aside from the antidepressants that she credited with keeping her alive. Within a decade, she also launched a new career, graduating from Yale Law School and joining the white-shoe firm of Boies, Schiller and Flexner in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which she said left her feeling “powerless” and unable to write.
“It seems so distant,” she told the New York Times in 2007, recalling her wilder years before law school. “Obviously it’s the same person, but I don’t know who that person was. You know that Lou Reed album ‘Growing Up in Public’? There it is. At least I grew up.”