Elizabeth Wurtzel: prophetess of the mental-health era

Her book, Prozac Nation, helped usher in today’s culture of oversharing. But Wurtzel was no victim.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Books Culture USA

Elizabeth Wurtzel – the American journalist and author famous for her depression memoir, Prozac Nation – has sadly died, at the far-too-young age of 52, from metastatic breast cancer.

Wurtzel grew up in New York’s Upper East Side. After graduating from Harvard in the late Eighties, she worked as a music critic for the New Yorker and New York magazine. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America was published in 1994, when Wurtzel was 27. It chronicled her experiences with depression as an undergraduate and writer.

Although ‘confessional’ books are rarely a great read, Wurtzel rewrote the rules of the genre to stunning effect. Prozac Nation might have divulged ‘too much information’ about her life, but the writing was irresistible. She is as emblematic of the 1990s misery-me grunge era as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love – and she had the kohl-eyed glamour to match.

Prozac Nation received mixed reviews after its publication. Wurtzel herself cheerfully admitted that she was ‘annoying’, and many reviewers found Prozac Nation annoying, too. But her strength as a writer, her good humour and vivid prose, meant she couldn’t be dismissed as a lightweight. She was a burgeoning talent with notable writing chops.

Wurtzel’s book has also had a lasting impact on our culture, in that it precipitated and influenced the zeitgeist around mental-health issues.

There is a tendency to view mental illness in two ways: either as a serious medical problem or as a middle-class self-indulgence. Critics’ reactions to Prozac Nation reflected this. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote that, ‘There are far worse fates than growing up during the Seventies in New York and going to Harvard’. But the book’s compelling narrative demonstrates how and why clinical depression can overwhelm the sufferer, whoever he or she happens to be.

Prozac Nation should not be seen as a part of the rise of today’s destructive therapy culture. Wurtzel may have popularised openness on emotional issues. But while contemporary therapy culture holds that there is no way out of trauma, bad experiences and depression, that we are defined by them forever, Wurtzel retained a drive to rid herself of her mental illness. She refused to fit into the stereotype of the overly fragile wallflower.

Wurtzel also made a profound point about medication. Antidepressants are increasingly viewed as a quick-fix solution to all manner of behavioural dysfunctions. But Wurtzel rebelled against this. ‘I want out of this life on drugs’, she wrote. She captured the frustrating relationship that depression sufferers have with medication.

Certainly, Prozac Nation was shrill and self-indulgent at points. But at root, Wurtzel wanted to regain her agency, rather than romanticise its dissolution.

Reflecting in 2013 on how Prozac Nation impacted her life, Wurtzel expressed great humility and self-awareness. ‘I am more pleased that I only write what I feel like and it has been lucrative since I got out of college in 1989’, she wrote. ‘I had the great and unexpected success of Prozac Nation in 1994, and that bought me freedom. And I have spent that freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude.’

RIP.

Neil Davenport is a freelance writer.

Picture by: David Shankbone, published under a creative commons licence.

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Comments

Brandy Cluster

9th January 2020 at 4:33 pm

How very sad for this women to die of this frightful disease.

Dominic Straiton

9th January 2020 at 4:30 pm

When will the “stigma” reassert itself for the mental health of millions? When will people shut the **** up about their boring problems. When will normal human emotions and stoicism gain ascendency. Heres hoping.

Femxle Penis

9th January 2020 at 9:55 pm

way to miss the point d1ckhead

Ed Turnbull

10th January 2020 at 9:49 am

Actually, I don’t think Dominic does miss the point; certainly not the point of the article, which is merely a short obit on Wurtzel. I think Dominic makes a very cogent point: that we have a culture in which the pendulum has swung too far. Yes, there’s now little, if any, stigma surrounding mental illness, but it’s been replaced by ‘over-sharing’ and, in some cases, almost a revelling or pride in one’s ‘suffering’.

For some, mental illness – real, exaggerated or wholly imagined – has become a way of garnering social approbation and sympathy. I’ve seen this at first hand in posts in my social media circles, and some of the examples have been pretty extreme. But they invariably attract much sympathy, which was no doubt the point of these posts. I don’t doubt these posters have real problems – these are people I know in the real world, not merely on the interwebz – but sharing the intimate detail of their troubles with, in effect, the entire world is not a wise move.

I’m not arguing for a return to a Spartan stoicism, simply for a little perspective to be laid on society’s approach to mental health issues. (We don’t discuss haemorrhoids or chlamydia with such gay abandon, nay *celebration*, do we?) I don’t think that’s too much to ask, is it? Victimhood should not be an aspiration.

Ven Oods

10th January 2020 at 11:56 am

“we have a culture in which the pendulum has swung too far.”
Certainly, before 50% of 18-year-olds went to uni, before grade inflation and expensive degrees that can’t get you a decent job, young people didn’t seem to be so widely depressed and even suicidal.
And that’s without even mentioning the Cassandra-like Cabbage Patch Climate Doll.

Dominic Straiton

10th January 2020 at 10:10 pm

Well actually not only have I been on prozac in the past iv also been in a mental institution and had six ,yes six electric shock therapy shocks to my brain. ECT. I know all about “mental health:”.You know nothing im sure. Its not a stigma.We never hear the end of it. on and on and on.Its really boring.

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