The human condition: Here comes trouble
After Prozac Nation comes Bitch, Elizabeth Wurtzel's hymn to bolshy womanhood. Hettie Judah meets a girl who has turned provocation into a lifestyle, not to mention a career
Sunday 24 May 1998
"I have a tough time feeling that feminism has done a damn bit of good if I can't be the way I am and have the world accommodate it on some level," Wurtzel has written. In light of the button incident, and a lifetime of other square peg scenarios, one can't help wondering whether this uncompromising behaviour has less to do with gender politics and more to do with Wurtzel herself. This is a woman so apparently hell-bent on not fitting in that when she was eventually diagnosed as having atypical depression one could almost imagine her whooping "Atypical? Hot diggidy, at least I'm nonconformist to the end!"
A freshly- minted 30, Wurtzel has been dogged by depression for 18 years; through the childhood aftermath of bitter divorce, growing up alone with her mum in New York City, through Harvard, and a career in journalism. The black waves have been interspersed with episodes of manic creativity which earned her top grades at school, student writing awards, a good degree and the energy to document her life so far in the best-selling Prozac Nation.
Now Wurtzel has released her new album, Bitch. It contains seven tracks, five of which are of Wagnerian scope. She appears topless (and mysteriously nipple-free) on the sleeve. Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith are cited as major influences. Unfortunately, since Ms. Wurtzel can neither sing nor write music, she has produced it in "the only medium I have any talent in at all" - that is to say, the written word. The essays in Bitch scrutinise the fateful lives of difficult women, from Delilah to Sylvia Plath to Hillary Clinton, and ask what makes them the way they are - usually bad choices, usually men. The whole is a maddening sprawl cemented by its epic digressions in much the same way that a cowboy's jeans are held together by years of dirt; if you try to wash this stuff out there is a real possibility that the whole thing will fall apart. It holds theses of sparkling intelligence and vast chunks of brain-aching naivete; in real terms this is not a revolutionary feminist text but that doesn't really matter. Ms. Wurtzel smugly flips the bird on the book's cover as if to say "Vous, mesdames, the readers of the feminist establishment, can go swivel," because this really is a book for girls who have probably never read anything more elevating than the back of a condom packet. Because of the power of the cult of Wurtzel, they will probably buy it.
Wurtzel could not have made herself a better marketing story if she'd planned it; she has posed nude for GQ, taken every prescribed or illicit drug imaginable, attempted suicide, f****d voraciously, got tattooed, got rehab, got a degree from Harvard and been falsely accused of going down on most of the major stars in America's rockocracy. It is something of a shock that in person she is unrecognisable as the pneumatic minx of her book jackets and looks oddly wholesome, most definitely all-American gal. Pretty, yes, but definitely a member of the Hillary Clinton / Monica Lewinski gene pool. It is hard to imagine that she wrote Bitch so smacked up that she signed straight into detox clinic afterwards.
Instead of the manic rush of words I had anticipated, everything is very low key, very slow, like Alanis Morissette played at 12rpm. It is hard to detect the hunger and the anger that drove Wurtzel to create such a ranting work of pop philosophy. But when she talks about her drive to write Bitch, saying, "This stuff was really driving me nuts," or "This stuff was just eating me up," you sense that she felt like there was no way she could not write this book.
It was when she was a rock critic for the New Yorker and someone pointed out to her that no woman worked in her profession over the age of 30 that she began to formulate her bitch philosophy. She claims to have found a pattern in the various problems, the "negative behaviours," she was experiencing at the time (composed mainly, she says, of "sex rumours and nit picking.") "There are other female music critics who get on fine, but they are very low-key people," she explains. "They are not characters, and I think I'm kind of a character. I was as qualified as anybody and people felt free to be nasty to me in a way that wasn't about me being female but was about me being a certain kind of woman. I wanted to define what it was that certain women do that makes them just seem unmanageable and gets men all riled up."
Wurtzel identifies very strongly with a very particular kind of tragic creativity. She is convinced, she tells me, that there are "really only four personality types or emotional types, if that; maybe there are only two." Conveniently, her emotional grouping also includes Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Courtney Love. Bitch, in all its scattergun madness, is really a collective biography of these brilliant, uncompromising, fucked- up femmes, almost all of whom come to a sticky end. It is a book about Wurtzel's kind, so it is almost a symbol of her failure to comply to type that she is still living. She sees an inevitability in a certain kind of death for a certain kind of woman, not suicide necessarily but a foreshortening. As we discuss Nicole Simpson she says, "It is very rare that when somebody is pained by love there is a unique twist to it. That is what is so bizarre about O.J. acting like he didn't kill Nicole; it is just so obvious that everything that was happening was leading to that end; it was a relationship in which something bad was going to happen."
In a way this talk of types is a loophole to release Wurtzel from the "zillions" of serious criticisms that can be levelled at her over Bitch. How can she, I ask at one point, write so surely about sexual abuse, domestic violence, uxoricide, even marriage and children, when she has had no experience of any of these things herself? "Any keen observer of humanity... " she starts, then up come the types again. I can't help feeling that some mother stuck in a rut out in Saskatchewan is going to feel a little finessed by this call to arms from a beautiful, childless, single, middle-class, rich, Harvard graduate who is telling her to get off her ass and get a job to make her marriage a working partnership. Then again, it might just work, because Wurtzel is revered by disaffected women in the same way that she herself reveres Plath, Sexton et al. People who never bought a book in their life bought Prozac Nation. "You identify with these people not because it's grandiose but because this is stuff that no one talks about," she says of her own depressive heroine worship. "Pop culture does discuss it and does give it an outlet. There is this common emotional thing that links beyond situation."
It is hard to make these assertions fit with the compulsively uncompromising personality of Wurtzel herself. Even discussing the Teletubbies she announces, "Oh well, if everybody else really likes Po then I will probably like Laa Laa," but maybe this is just her acting according to type. Of all the women in Bitch, the one I associate her with most is Courtney Love; the survivor against all odds; the woman who will never be taken intellectually seriously because she operates within pop culture; the nonconformist, part of whom craves to be accepted into the establishment. Love sings "I want to be the girl with the most cake" - Wurtzel not only wants the most cake, she wants to be sure it was made specially for her, contains just the right amount of cream and probably comes with a side order of sardines as well.
It is this omnivorousness that makes Bitch so ultimately flawed. Whether speaking, writing or bulldozing her way through life, Wurtzel seems to lack any kind of internal editor; answers to even the simplest questions rarely come in at under twenty minutes and follow no apparent logic. It is almost as if she is scared to miss something out; appropriately enough for a scholar of the Torah, her sentence construction carries more "ands" than the Bible. Of the compulsion to tell all, to everybody, all of the time she says "It is my nature." "Somebody who needs things to be really clear and linear and orderly is going to hate this and shouldn't read it, they should really avoid it," admits Wurtzel in a rare moment of self- critical clarity.
Yet the more she tells, the more one has a compulsion to dig deeper, to thrust the contradictions in her face. Why, when she claims that women alone occupy the territory of beautiful, dead, modern icons, is the book in memoriam to the beautiful, dead, iconic Jeff Buckley? How can she advocate choice and be so cuttingly, constantly, didactic? And most of all, who the hell does this infuriating girl-woman think she is? Which, I suppose, is the point.
'Bitch', by Elizabeth Wurtzel, is published by Quartet and reviewed in this week's IoS Review
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