The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Wurtzel showed us the power of ‘crazy’ women

If we take women’s stories more seriously today, we have her to thank

Elizabeth Wurtzel, best known her memoir, “Prozac Nation,” died on Tuesday. (Dan Callister/Writer Pictures/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

You know you go to a good shrink when you meet Elizabeth Wurtzel in the waiting room. I was there for an eating disorder. She was, as the millennials say, there for all of it. I was 20. She was 28. I recognized her immediately from the cover of her book. I tried not to act star-struck.

Elizabeth, as I would soon learn, spoke first. “I’m Elizabeth,” she said.

“I know,” I confessed. “I’m Galt.”

“You like this shrink?”

“I think so,” I said.

“I don’t know if she’s helping me,” she said. “But I really like her clothes. She has a really handsome husband, too.”

So began a favorite pastime of ours, conjecturing about the private life of our therapist and comparing notes on her efficacy, a sort of ’90s Yelp. We both stopped seeing this therapist. But we became fast friends. Elizabeth appeared graciously, hilariously, in the first movie I wrote and made, “Myth America.” (She played herself in a scene inspired by the absurd way we met.) Later, one of us proposed bringing her polemic memoir, “Prozac Nation,” to the screen, and though it’s hard to remember who asked, we both gleefully said yes to the project. The script, whose first draft I wrote, was not as good as the book. Still, the friendship survived the production.

Elizabeth’s scissor-sharp wit made you feel like you were playing a very challenging and exciting sport, stimulating your mind and heart and belly all at once. She was hilariously funny. Always contrary. But with the facts to back it up. She could speak with dizzying rhetorical power on subjects ranging from poetry to Pontius Pilate. She knew more than anyone I had met, not only because of her education, but because her appetite for information was as huge as her sense of adventure — and her vulnerability to dark mental depths.

What we talk about when we talk about Elizabeth Wurtzel is the word “crazy”: Pain was her primary subject, and she explored it heedlessly, inducing a kind of vertigo in readers who were simultaneously compelled and repulsed by her writing. What we talk about when we use the word “crazy” is not just mental health but women’s rights. The idea that women are too unstable or emotional to control their actions and perceptions is as cliched as a pop song. But if it grates against our ears today — if we’re more vigilant about spotting this line of attack and better prepared to refute it — we have Elizabeth, who died on Tuesday, to thank.

The past decade was lousy. Women told you it would be.

Her 1994 debut, “Prozac Nation,” chronicling the emotional struggles of her adolescence, had a mixed reception. Michiko Kakutani chided its self-pity in the New York Times (“there are far worse fates than growing up during the 70′s in New York and going to Harvard”), and Kirkus Reviews dismissed it for “narcissistic pride.” Many critics delayed assessing the book on its merits, instead subjecting its author to a sort of etiquette test, and they decided that she was behaving badly. They chastised her for unseemly self-absorption without realizing that absorption of the self was the very affliction she described. The convergence of her book’s publication and the advent of the widely effective, aggressively marketed antidepressant in its title catapulted her to international fame; it made her the poster child not just of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, but for youth, pain and the treatment of clinical depression. “Prozac Nation” turned up the volume on previously hushed conversations between helpless therapists, desperate patients and bereft families. And its contemporary critiques read, today, like variations on familiar themes: Women should be restrained and affectless, uninterested in fame, money, ambition — or in themselves. Elizabeth flagrantly (and, to some, infuriatingly) defied that convention. Her book became a bestseller.

In the essays and books that followed, Elizabeth continued writing about her youth and her pain in shocking, precise detail. Her voice was radically honest, sometimes brash, often virtuosic. Today’s feminists might, approvingly, call it “shrill,” the adjective winking at those who complain when women’s voices reach an unbecomingly high (and loud) pitch. Elizabeth made a bid for a similar re-appropriation with the title of her second book, “Bitch.” In it, she defended women in pop culture and politics, from Nicole Brown Simpson to Hillary Clinton, who had been unfairly criticized because of some aspect of their femininity; on its cover, she perched on a chair, naked. If it now seems like a cliche to admire or praise women for their “difficulty” or “impossibility,” it’s because Elizabeth helped to popularize this idea in 1998. She laid bare our moral hypocrisies, holding a flashlight to the ambiguity of human behavior in all its grisly discomfort and challenging us to hold that ambiguity in our hearts.

In her bold, blunt and brilliant way, Elizabeth contributed richly to the women’s movement, not only with what she said but that she said. She dove into a conversation previously broached by literary figures such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath and Frances Farmer, and carried it onward to a new era, which has seen the rage of the #MeToo movement and a flowering of adamantly personal, feminist writing on the Internet. She spoke unwaveringly, no matter how much she struggled. She never shied from that struggle. Indeed, she described it in gruesome detail, normalizing it as one of the many hues on the spectrum of human nature. Her writing showed us that pain is not only human but makes us more human, or more capable of compassion and humanity.

I have come to see that the word “crazy” is one side of a coin whose worth is a woman’s currency in the home, in the workplace, in the public sphere. The other side of the coin is “credibility.” Elizabeth Wurtzel taught us to value women’s credibility — and, incredibly, courageously and ironically, she did it by laying bare her wrenching struggle with equilibrium.

Read more:

How personal essays conquered journalism — and why they can’t cut it

What happens when you ask women for their stories of assault? Thousands of replies.