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

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/7/2020 Harrison Smith

Elizabeth Wurtzel standing in front of a building: A 2015 photo of author Elizabeth Wurtzel. © Dan Callister/Writer Pictures via AP A 2015 photo of author Elizabeth Wurtzel. Elizabeth Wurtzel, who chronicled her struggle with depression and drug addiction in best-selling memoirs that helped spur a boom in confessional writing, turning her into a Gen X celebrity at 26 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 to giving up drugs. She underwent a double mastectomy, but the breast cancer had 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 bold-faced names. But Ms. Wurtzel was largely unknown outside circles who had read her rock criticism in publications such as the New Yorker and New York magazine.

Her literary debut, “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” (1994), took its name from an antidepressant that she was one of the first to be prescribed, and drew immediate comparisons to William Styron’s book “Darkness Visible” (1990), which helped draw increasing attention to 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 that Stryon and Kaysen and far more explicit in her descriptions of razor blades that sliced 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. Before turning 35 she published her second memoir, “More, Now, Again” (2002), which documented drug abuse that landed her in and out of rehab and derailed the writing of her second book, the essay collection “Bitch” (1998).

Ms. Wurtzel’s uninhibited style and public persona — the first edition of “Bitch” featured a cover photo in which she appeared nude, sneering at the camera and raising a middle finger — helped make her a generational touchstone, and divided critics, some of whom accused her of narcissism and self-obsession.

“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.” 

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