The Jewish Author Who Dared to Talk About Mental Illness and Its Treatment

Gili Izikovich
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Elizabeth Wurtzel poses for a photo in New York, 2010.
Elizabeth Wurtzel poses for a photo in New York, 2010.Credit: Dan Keinan
Gili Izikovich

Elizabeth Wurtzel always had her own way of talking about her life, but even people who grew up on her books and essays – who were familiar with their uncompromising honesty and total emotional exposure – were gobsmacked by the opinion piece she wrote in The Guardian in 2018: “I was on Prozac when it was still called fluoxetine. I wrote a twentynothing memoir when there was no such thing. I got addicted to snorting Ritalin before there was Adderall. I was a riot girl, I was a do-me feminist, and I posed topless giving the world the finger on the cover of my second book. I have always been the most impossible person ever. And now I have advanced breast cancer. Cue the sorries,” she wrote, leaving her readers stunned (as usual). 

This witty and no-holds-barred column must have been echoing in the minds of everyone who has followed Wurtzel, who died two days ago due to complications of breast cancer. She was 52, and as she herself wrote, her biography included a variety and number of extreme experiences enough for several lifetimes. 

Media outlets everywhere hastened to report the news of Wurtzel’s death on Tuesday, a testament to her importance as a writer and the tremendous influence of her work. She was considered the voice of her generation, years before Lena Dunham turned the expression into a joke, and someone who made subjects like depression and psychiatric medications not just things that were OK to talk about, but a generational trait. And she accomplished all of these things before turning 30. 

“Prozac Generation,” Wurtzel’s best-known book, came out in 1994 when she was 27. It was the memoir of a brilliant young woman who was diagnosed with depression at the age of 10 and had attempted suicide by 14. “Prozac Generation” details Wurtzel’s struggle with depression and the psychiatric drugs that ultimately saved her, after years of taking other psychiatric drugs. The book caused quite an uproar, thanks to Wurtzel’s talent and, in retrospect, also thanks to the combination of her writing style, her personality and the era in which it was published.  

Prozac, in its modern incarnation, was first distributed on the American market in 1987. Until then, chronic depression was shrouded by stigma, perceived as a possibly imaginary illness that affected bored housewives, or as nothing more than drama-enhanced youthful mischief. The drugs that were used to treat depression at the time had serious side effects, and talk about mental illness and treatment for it was practically silenced out of shame. 

Wurtzel wrote about her experience as a young girl, teenager and young woman with depression who was also the essence of cool: a brilliant and successful New Yorker who, like many of her generation, was the child of divorced parents. Even before college, she had written for Seventeen magazine and interned at New York Magazine, while her life was a routine of drugs and parties, as she describes in the first pages of the book. 

The twenty-something Wurtzel was thus one of the first users of the medication that changed the face of her generation, and probably the first to write about it with such astonishing openness.

Praise was near-instant: The book became a best-seller and top critics raved about it for its combination of self-awareness, self-analysis and self-humor. Wurtzel was compared with Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath, her humor with Bob Dylan. In 2001, a movie version was made starring Christina Ricci, who bore a startling physical resemblance to the young Wurtzel.

Influential confessional style

“I think that in my first 20 years on earth, I wasn’t happy even once,” Wurtzel said in a 2013 interview with Calcalist during a visit to Israel. “The people who invented the antidepressant changed the world. They saved millions of people just like me.” 

Wurtzel was born in New York to Jewish parents who divorced when she was 2. Her father (actually the man she believed to be her biological father, up until just a few years ago) gradually disappeared from their lives, and her mother supported them with odd jobs.

Wurtzel won a scholarship to a private Jewish school, where subjects were taught in Hebrew and English, where she excelled. She earned a B.A. in literature from Harvard. Years later, when she was 35, she got a law degree from Yale. In the interim, she wrote for magazines and newspapers and published more books. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The Harvard Crimson and for the Dallas Morning News. After graduation, she worked as a music critic for The New Yorker, New York Magazine and, later, for the Wall Street Journal, and wrote occasional opinion pieces for The Guardian. 

This undated photo provided by Penguin Random House shows the book cover of Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir, "Prozac Nation"Credit: Courtesy of Riverhead/Penguin Random House via AP

Four years after “Prozac Generation” (which was translated into Hebrew and published by Pen Press), Wurtzel published a second memoir: “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.” It met with mixed reactions, but her wit and sharp analysis were praised by reviewers. 

A third book, “More, Now, Again,” about her addiction to Ritalin, came out in 2001 and earned mostly negative reviews. The same unbridled honesty that had initially brought her fame was later seen by some as narcissism, confusion and infatuation with ideas. 

A 2013 column she wrote about herself in New York Magazine (a Hebrew version of which was published in Israel’s Calcalist business daily) was seen at the time as excessive, as a provocation that should have been stopped by the magazine’s editors, but a rereading of it now inspires a feeling of admiration. In the piece, Wurtzel wrote about adolescence and about aging, about drug addiction and failure in forming a relationship, having a family, buying a house and rational management of finances. This confessional type of writing that Wurtzel pioneered, one that kneads life’s emotional torments into a dense and scathing and “diaristic” text, eventually spread and came to influence other writers and the very decision about how to write and what constitutes literature. 

“I was a very unhappy person for a long time,” she said in an interview with Time Out Israel (Hebrew) in 2013.

“It’s very complicated, life. I think people feel they need to know where they stand and where they should be in life by a certain point in time, and it’s just wrong. There is no one right way or age where we’re supposed to be fine and understand where we stand and where we go from here. It could be that all of life is just the process. They try to tell us that, biologically, we must do such and such by this or that age, and that’s a terrible mistake. I think that people should do things when they are ready. We can only do the best that we can do. I did the best I could and sometimes it turned out pretty badly but I think it was great all the way, even if other people thought differently. The point is that I’m fine and that everyone will be fine if they follow their heart.”