Elizabeth Wurtzel lived out an advance trajectory of a career in letters centered on personal charisma and the strong feelings that people tend to have about young women.
About a decade ago, when the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel rounded forty, her work—previously a gale-force project of unbridled self-mythologizing—started to look backward and inward in a different way. She began dealing more explicitly in unease and defiance, and she considered what her mythology had wrought. She wrote a piece for Elle, in 2009, about having been “temporarily credentialed” by extraordinary beauty—growing up thinking that “love would be simpler than tying a string bikini, the kind I wore a lot while waiting on the beach for my ship to come in.” She had figured out how to get what she wanted in most situations, she explained, but she hadn’t learned, either as a “terrifically brooding and mature teenager” or as “a whiny and puerile adult,” how to actually connect with the men she was chasing. Now she’d finally begun to find some attractive stability, graduating from Yale Law School and working as an attorney at Boies Schiller Flexner. But she was forty-one—on the cusp, she believed, of losing the lambent physical magnetism that she’d both used perfectly and perhaps only ever misused.
Four years later, Wurtzel published one of the best things she ever wrote, an essay for New York magazine about what she termed her “one-night stand of a life.” “I am proud that I have never so much as kissed a man for any reason besides absolute desire,” she wrote, “and 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.” “Prozac Nation,” her blockbuster memoir from 1994, had bought her freedom, and she had “spent that freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude,” she wrote. “Why would I do anything else?” Then a stalker named Maria appeared in Wurtzel’s Bleecker Street apartment and threatened to slash up her face. Being unmoored instantly lost its glamour: “At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24.” This ordeal had made her “harsh and defeated,” and yet, she added, the story had the best possible ending: she herself was telling it.
In 2015, Wurtzel wrote for Vice about being diagnosed with breast cancer, and mocked the very prospect of anyone feeling sorry for a woman like Elizabeth Wurtzel. (Later, in the Guardian, she wrote, “I am worse than cancer. And now I have cancer. All anyone can do is forgive me. Which is exactly what they have been doing all along.”) “All my life, I had problems—galore!—with no answers,” she wrote. “At long last, I find myself in trouble and there are solutions.” She knew that her cancer might kill her, but depression and drug addiction had taught her that “we are never so free as when we are running for our lives.”
A little more than a year ago, she published an essay titled “Bastard,” about learning, at age fifty, that the man she’d thought was her father, a distant nonentity with whom she’d long fallen out of touch, was not her father. Her biological father was the photographer Bob Adelman, famous for his photos of the civil-rights movement. Wurtzel saw that she had been trying, all her life, to solve the wrong problem—and that those flailing attempts to make sense of herself constituted her life. “I never understood why I was so wild,” she wrote. “I never knew how come I had to be a firebrand. I thought there was something wrong with me. Then I realized there is something right with me. Now I know I was born this way. I did not invent myself after all.” She also learned that she had inherited the BRCA mutation that caused her breast cancer from Adelman, but she didn’t report how she felt about that. “People see me now, I look the same, there I am with the same artificial blonde hair I’ve always had, and they think cancer was a phase,” she wrote. If it was a phase, she wasn’t out of it. Before she died, Wurtzel was putting together a manuscript for a book called “Bastard,” which, she told me, she often wrote on her iPhone while she was taking her dog, Alistair, to the park.
I was friends with Elizabeth Wurtzel, though something cautions me against overstating the matter. I met her in 2015, after trying to interview her, getting stalled by a publicist, and, weeks later, receiving a late-night, two-hundred-and-seventy-word text message that began “Jia. Hi. This is Elizabeth Wurtzel.” During the next few years, I became familiar with her West Village apartment, stacked floor to ceiling with books and CDs and records and filled with plants and candles and amazing curios and photos, often of her. We went out to dinner in dark downtown restaurants, sometimes with Alistair, an aloof and striking husky mix, who rebuked me with a nip every time I tried to pet him. (“People think he has this great personality,” she said. “But really it’s just that he’s so beautiful everyone gets confused.”) There was always red wine, and then more red wine, in little glasses; always her long hair and huge brown eyes floating in front of me, as if she was a deviant Alice in Wonderland and a grinning Cheshire Cat both. Returning the relentless volleys of her arguments and proclamations, I felt alternately trapped and enthralled, infuriated and liberated—a grain-alcohol-strength distillation of the way it sometimes felt to read her work. I had the sense that I was occupying a place in a procession of younger female writers in whom she’d perceived a resemblance. Like others, I was grateful for this—for the way she’d lived out an advance trajectory of what might happen when your writing career centers on your charisma and the strong feelings that people tend to have about young women, how that could boost and confine you, could make you dissemble (she once told me that she didn’t read her press or think about how her success had to do with her being beautiful), and could acquaint you with exactly who you are.
I also just liked her. I admired her singularity, and I loved her absolutely chaotic instincts. More than once she suggested that I ought to break up with my boyfriend, even though I’d given no signs of wanting to do so. She’d stopped doing drugs a long time before, but she still remembered all the best restaurant bathrooms in Manhattan for doing cocaine. She had lived through the experience of being a generational icon, and she’d only ever understood herself as someone who would be loathed and fawned over; all her recent writing had analyzed, with more devotion and brutality than anyone else could possibly muster, exactly how that had warped and lit up her life. I found these later essays much more interesting than “Prozac Nation,” the memoir that had prompted the Times Book Review to call her “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna” and had expressed an irreconcilable tension between Wurtzel’s desire to represent a collapse at the center of the Zeitgeist and her desire to be more special, more unusual, more everything than everyone else.
The original cover of her second book, “Bitch”—a collection of essays that was published in 1998 and was subtitled “In Praise of Difficult Women”—showed Wurtzel topless and giving the finger. The book’s analytical framework was amazingly inconsistent, but the essays were often several orders bolder than the endless Internet-era deconstructions of complicated female pop-culture icons that would follow. They mostly concern women who, like Wurtzel, manifested a “mixture of prettiness and pollution so striking and inexplicable that it is as hypnotic and paralyzing as a skyscraper burning down, so strange that mystification becomes inevitable.” She wonders if bad girls often meet nasty ends because of a “lack of conviction: they recoil at their own badness and try to be the sweethearts they were raised to be.”
But my favorite book of Wurtzel’s is “More, Now, Again,” from 2001, which approaches the territory that her later essays would cover, finally admitting the real possibility of regret. It’s a memoir of her prodigious descent into Ritalin and cocaine addiction while working on and promoting “Bitch,” a process that involved literally moving into her publisher’s office and getting drugs FedExed to stops on her book tour. Tweaking out in Florida, she becomes fixated on abolishing the death penalty; she tweezes out all her leg hairs individually; she spends days online tracking the status of Mir, the Russian space station. In the clarity of recovery, she announces, “I think I am ten times prettier than I actually am.” She wonders if maybe all the mess she’s made will be worth it—maybe she’ll have produced a work of genius. “Trouble is, you never know,” she writes. “You never know until it’s all done.”
I haven’t been able to concede yet that that moment has come for Wurtzel already. I was always terrified of the way she spoke about death, as if it were a joke she’d been telling to the devil for years. I hope she wrote enough of the “Bastard” manuscript that we get to read it. A new kind of grace was emerging in her writing, which felt all the more profound for coming from a person who’d long had more interest in being shocking than in being graceful. “I have always made choices without considering the consequences, because I know all I get is now,” she wrote, at the close of her essay for New York, seven years ago. “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.”