Elizabeth Wurtzel — author of the best-selling memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America — died in a New York City hospital on Tuesday, according to the New York Times. She was 52 years old.
Wurtzel’s husband Jim Freed cited the cause of death as complications from leptomeningeal disease, a condition that results from cancer spreading to the cerebrospinal fluid. Wurtzel was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.
Wurtzel first rose to prominence at the age of 26 with the memoir Prozac Nation, which documented her struggles with depression and substance abuse. The memoir garnered wide acclaim for Wurtzel’s explosive, deeply confessional style, and wry, self-deprecating voice. Wurtzel was an early advocate for destigmatizing mental illness, and is widely credited with ushering in the explosion of the first-person essay and memoir genre that marked the early years of the internet.
Above all else, Wurtzel’s work was characterized by its relentless, unapologetic honesty. “She had this saying: If you’re truthful, people will love you,” her husband, Jim Freed, tells Rolling Stone. “And Elizabeth was always the Elizabeth from her books. She’s an intense person to be around. She painted an honest picture, warts and all.”
As a friend, Wurtzel could be “endlessly demanding, and generally a mess, but she was also the sweetest person I know,” says her longtime friend, writer David Samuels. “She was remarkably un-self-pitying, and had nerves of steel.”
Born on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1967, Wurtzel was the only child of Jewish parents who divorced when she was young. As she detailed in a 2018 essay for the Cut, she later discovered that her biological father was the photographer Bob Adelman, who had had an affair with her mother during the 1960s; Adelman died in 2016.
As documented in Prozac Nation, Wurtzel was a gifted but troubled child, entering therapy at the age of 11 after she was found self-harming in a school bathroom. She was admitted to Harvard University, where she struggled with depression and substance abuse as an undergraduate and stayed in various mental hospitals; she graduated in 1989.
Rock music was a huge part of Wurtzel’s life, and she wrote extensively about her love for musicians like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen; most recently, she had become obsessed with the new Beck album, 2019’s Hyperspace. “Lizzie was a rock and roll writer, by which I mean that she wrote songs and whole albums that were meant to be read rather then played or sung,” says Samuels. “The music she loved is everywhere in her writing. Rock and roll music shaped the way she wrote, because she listened to it all the time, and because it promised salvation.”
In 1986, Wurtzel won the Rolling Stone college journalism award for a piece she wrote about Lou Reed, which Samuels says she widely credited with kickstarting her journalism career; according to Freed, the award is still on display in their apartment today.
While in college, Wurtzel received an internship at the Dallas Morning News, though she was fired in 1988 following accusations of plagiarism. She contributed pop criticism to New York Magazine and the New Yorker prior to the 1994 publication of Prozac Nation, which led to her widely being hailed within the literary world as a publishing wunderkind. The memoir was later adapted into a 2001 feature-length film starring Christina Ricci.
In the years following its publication, Prozac Nation has been credited with bringing discussion of mental illness and antidepressants into the mainstream (“I was on Prozac when it was still called fluoxetine,” Wurtzel later wrote). At the time, however, most critics focused on how the book contained explicit details about Wurtzel’s sex life, history of self-mutilation, and drug use. Some critics, such as the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, accused Wurtzel of “self-important whining” and over-sharing, a critique that would plague her throughout her career. (Kakutani did, however, note Wurtzel’s prodigious talents, applauding her “forthrightness, her humor and her ability to write sparkling, luminescent prose.”)
Wurtzel’s follow-up effort, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998), a collection of essays reassessing the impact of complicated women throughout history, garnered controversy for its cover, which featured Wurtzel topless and flashing the middle finger to the camera. Yet its central premise, a defense of reviled 1990s pop cultural figures such as Amy Fisher and Nicole Brown Simpson, paved the way for pop culture’s ongoing rehabilitation of women like Monica Lewinsky and Tonya Harding. She followed up Bitch with another memoir about drug addiction, More, Now, Again (2002).
Wurtzel entered Yale Law School in 2004. On Twitter, journalist Ronan Farrow, who attended law school with Wurtzel, wrote on Tuesday that she was “kind and generous and filled spaces that might have otherwise been lonely with her warmth and humor and idiosyncratic voice. She gave a lot to a lot of us. I miss her.”
Although she never became licensed to practice law, she worked full-time at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP in New York City from 2008 to 2012 as a case manager and projects director. Wurtzel considered controversial attorney David Boies a mentor of sorts, referring to him as “not just an incredible lawyer but the most amazing person ever”; Boies’ reputation later suffered after it was revealed in 2017 that he hired the intelligence firm Black Cube to conduct surveillance on the alleged victims of his client Harvey Weinstein.
Following her departure from Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, Wurtzel returned to her first love. “I have thought over and over that I ought to be writing more,” she told law blog Above the Law in 2012. Her explosive, deeply sardonic tone was not always well-received, with many feminist bloggers excoriating a 2012 piece in Harper’s Bazaar that argued that “looking great is a matter of feminism. No liberated woman would misrepresent the cause by appearing less than hale and happy.”
In 2013, Wurtzel went viral for a frank, lengthy essay in the Cut about her “one-night stand of a life,” in which she expressed regret about some of her life decisions, such as her choice to stay single at 45. The essay was a deeply personal and sad meditation on womanhood and aging, yet it was widely excoriated on the internet for its rambling tone, which many perceived as incoherent or unhinged. “Earlier in her career, Wurtzel would use her words to create vivid, beautiful descriptions of the muted, horrible existence of clinical depression,” Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote. “Unfortunately now, when she pours her heart out onto the page she just makes a fucking mess.”
That same year, she met her husband Jim Freed when they both appeared at a reading. “I was kind of the opening band for her,” he says. A few months after they started dating, she gave him a copy of Prozac Nation. “It was very Elizabeth: ‘Here’s my book, you should read it,'” Freed says. “But I loved her for that because that’s who she is.” They married in 2015.
Much like her work, Wurtzel was impulsive, mercurial, and always unapologetically herself. “She was loud in everything she did. She was not quiet,” says Freed. “Explosions were Elizabeth and she was so proud of that. She was proud of how extreme she was.”
Wurtzel was frank about the fact that she had built a career out of the ashes of her own personal trauma. “I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions,” she wrote in the 2013 essay. Yet despite her obvious talents and her position as an early advocate for mental illness destigmatization, during the last few years of Wurtzel’s life, her name largely became synonymous with a specific subgenre of confessional, first-person writing made popular on websites like Thought Catalog.
In various critical essays and thinkpieces, Wurtzel was often derogatorily cited as the progenitor of the largely female-driven first-person essay trend, which many dismissed as frivolous and navel-gazing. She was aware of her impact in this regard, and often joked about it: “she would casually refer to herself as inventing the memoir genre while we were eating breakfast,” Freed says, laughing. Yet it also led to Wurtzel being taken less seriously by the literary establishment than her talents merited. “She became such a focus of envy and people’s feelings about women and sex and mental illness and all the rest of that that her work, which was really good, never got the respect it deserved,” says Samuels.
In light of news of her death, many writers took to Twitter to offer a similar perspective on her work. “People spent so many years writing about Elizabeth Wurtzel as a Sad Example Of Something — female memoir-writers, women who got famous for being themselves, young women generally — and to see her gone so young is a harsh reminder of how cruel that was,” feminist writer Sady Doyle wrote on Twitter Tuesday after Wurtzel’s passing.
In the last few years of her life, Wurtzel continued pouring her heart out and making a mess. In 2015, after her breast cancer diagnosis, she became an outspoken advocate for BRCA testing after she tested positive for the mutation. One of her last pieces was a characteristically sardonic, poignant essay for the Guardian, in which she wrote about confronting her own mortality while resisting being labeled as a victim. (True to form, the piece included a reference to her traveling through Scandinavia with cocaine stuffed in her diaphragm.)
“I hate it when people say that they are sorry about my cancer,” she wrote. “Really? Have they met me? I am not someone that you feel sorry for.”