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Elizabeth Wurtzel, ‘Prozac Nation’ author who spurred a memoir boom, dies at 52

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the memoir “Prozac Nation,” holds up a locket with the word “Prozac” and poses for a 1991 portrait in front of a window display of a hand holding pills.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the memoir “Prozac Nation,” holds up a locket with the word “Prozac” and poses for a 1991 portrait in front of a window display of a hand holding pills. (Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Wurtzel, who chronicled her struggles with depression and drug addiction in best-selling memoirs that helped spur a boom in confessional writing, turning her into a Gen X touchstone at 27 with the publication of “Prozac Nation,” died Jan. 7 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 52.

Ms. Wurtzel announced in 2015 that she had breast cancer, a challenge that she dismissed as “nothing” compared with stemming her drug use or overcoming the death of her rescue dog Augusta. 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, Ms. 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. Ms. Wurtzel was instead a self-described “20-nothing,” largely unknown outside circles who 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), established her as one of the most provocative writers of her generation, generating awe among readers who saw in her work an honest depiction of depression and mental health issues, as well as derision from critics who accused her of self-absorption, narcissism and relentless self-promotion.

The book took its name from an antidepressant that she was one of the first to be prescribed, and it drew comparisons to William Styron’s memoir “Darkness Visible” (1990), which had kick-started a national dialogue surrounding depression, and Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” (1993), which recalled the author’s mental health struggles as a young woman in the 1960s.

Ms. Wurtzel was decades younger than Styron and Kaysen and far more explicit in her descriptions of razor blades that she used to slice 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. Its description of a young woman’s messy, emotionally torturous journey into adulthood was later viewed as a precursor to television shows such as “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham.

“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.”

Other critics were far less positive, including in the Times, where a Book Review contributor described Ms. Wurtzel as “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna.” But the memoir’s influence was undeniable in the ensuing wave of confessional literature, said author and Yale writing instructor Anne Fadiman, notably 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.”

“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.”

Ms. Wurtzel went on to make “a career out of my emotions,” as she later put it, receiving a reported $500,000 advance for her second book, the essay collection “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women” (1998). For the cover photo she posed topless, sneering at the camera and raising a middle finger; the opening pages included scathing quotes from reviewers, in addition to the usual roundup of praise.

By then, Ms. Wurtzel’s life had been upended by cocaine, heroin and other drug use, including crushing and snorting 40 tablets of Ritalin a day. In her memoir “More, Now, Again” (2002), she recalled smuggling cocaine into Scandinavia through her diaphragm and enlisting her drug dealer to send “an eightball of coke” via FedEx.

Those misadventures came to an end in 1998, when Ms. 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 working for several years at the white-shoe firm of Boies Schiller Flexner.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks had left her feeling “powerless” and unable to write, she told the Times, explaining her decision to become a lawyer. (Elsewhere, she said she simply went on a whim.) But her writing never stopped — and, as it had from nearly the beginning of her career, her own life remained a focus.

In a 2018 essay for New York magazine, she wrote of discovering that Donald Wurtzel — the man she had believed for 50 years was her father — was not, in fact, her father. Instead, she said, she learned that she was the daughter of photographer Bob Adelman, a leading chronicler of the civil rights movement.

“Life,” she wrote, “is just a shock to the system.”

Elizabeth Lee Wurtzel was born in Manhattan on July 31, 1967. Her mother, Lynne Winters, was an assistant at Random House when she had an affair with Adelman, according to Ms. Wurtzel. He remained a family friend, lived a block away and died in 2016. Ms. Wurtzel said it was only after his death that she learned of their relationship, through a call from his girlfriend and then from Winters.

At the time, Ms. Wurtzel was traveling to a physical therapy appointment as part of her breast cancer treatment, the result of a diagnosis that she attributed to the BRCA mutation. She later found that she had inherited the gene from her father.

She described her other “father” — Donald Wurtzel, an IBM data analyst — as “hard to reach” and said that she spent years trying to make sense of their relationship, “in writing and therapy and conversation, with cocaine and heroin, with recovery and perseverance, and with my thoughts.” She was 2 when her parents divorced.

A precocious writer, she began putting together short books about pets at age 6, adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” into a play, and studied at the Jewish day school Ramaz. She also faced crippling depression that sometimes left her unable to get out of bed.

Ms. Wurtzel graduated from Harvard College in 1989, after receiving a college journalism award from Rolling Stone for her stories in the student-run Crimson newspaper. She was fired from a Dallas Morning News internship amid accusations of plagiarism but soon found work as a music critic and began turning an unpublished 20,000-word article about Harvard into a personal account of depression.

“I was encouraged to either turn it into a novel or make it more of a sociological study of depression in young people or something,” she later told the Crimson. Originally titled “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” it was changed to “Prozac Nation” at the insistence of her editor, and adapted into a 2001 movie starring Christina Ricci.

Ms. Wurtzel also published an advice book, “Radical Sanity” (1999, later known as “The Bitch Rules” and “The Secret of Life”). After receiving her law degree in 2008, she wrote about intellectual property law in the 2015 book “Creatocracy.” She married Freed that year in a ceremony presided over by her friend and law-firm boss David Boies.

She later separated from her husband, but the couple remained close. In addition to Freed, of Manhattan, survivors include her mother, of Manhattan and Fort Lauderdale.

In a 2013 essay for New York magazine, Ms. Wurtzel wrote that she was “fortunate to have been well paid for an almost pathological honesty,” a kind of unfiltered openness to the world that she found impossible to live without.

“I have always made choices without considering the consequences, because I know all I get is now,” she concluded. “Maybe I get later, too, but I will deal with that later. I choose pleasure over what is practical. I may be the only person who ever went to law school on a lark. And I wonder what I was thinking about with all those other larks, my beautiful larks, larks flying away.”

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