Young and hyped in America
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, has been described as Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna. Neglected, misunderstood, unlucky
Wednesday 17 May 1995
Or maybe she is smiling for another, less pharmaceutical,reason. For Elizabeth Wurtzel is flavour of the month. Herfriends call her a walking Prozac poster. The New York Times has described her as Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna. She was photographed for Vanity Fair last year, lying on the ground with a ring of pills for a halo. She has been dubbed the Princess of Prozac.
Across America, she has been fted as the nose-ringed, tattooed, coke- sniffing manic depressive who has been to hell and come back with a raw autobiographical tale of teenage depression and personal tragedy.
Her timing is impeccable: Elizabeth Wurtzel is capitalising on both the Prozac buzz and the media's obsession with the disaffected twentynothings of Generation X. She is the latest in a long line of middle-class media darlings, canny Harvard graduates who cash in on whatever happens to be the latest media fetish. Just as Katie Roiphe capitalised on the date rape furore, Wurtzel is making the most of America's obsession with crazed, sexy, over-achieving literary women. "Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Zelda Fitzgerald," she says, relaxing into an armchair. "There is a history of beautiful women who were very unhappy."
Poor, beautiful Elizabeth: she was neglected by her father, misunderstood by her mother, unlucky in love. Who can blame her for suffering from severe depression since she was 11 years old? When she was 22 she was given Prozac and now she is making her fortune with the story of how it saved her life.
Today, Wurtzel has copious amounts of willowy blonde hair which swishes about her shoulders and neck. She wears lizard skin cowboy boots, tight black jeans and a cropped, tummy-revealing T-shirt printed with the words SUPER MODEL, worn underneath a long black cardigan. She has three gold rings and a stud in her left ear, a stud in her nose. Her finger nails are painted with dark plum nail varnish - the Chanel Vamp worn by Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction - and she wears matching lipstick, which looms like a gash against her pale complexion. It is a groomed, happy smiling people look that is quite different to the sultry, pouting teenager image of the book cover. Which is a little confusing.
The story of her life goes something like this. She is born in New York in 1969, where she lives with her parents on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She comes from a family of depressives. Her father is an IBM middle manager who takes Valium. Her mother is a strict Jewess who can't cope with disorder. They divorce acrimoniously when she is two years old. They fight long distance and constantly, over her, over each other. Wurtzel, meanwhile, is an overachiever. She is a A-grade student. She writes a series of books about pets by the age of six, a play by seven and wins the school spelling competition five years running. But when she is 11 she is sent away to summer camp and the depression that is to plague her for the rest of her life sets in. She takes her first overdose.
By the age of 12, she spends her time gouging out her knees with razor blades while the other kids are playing softball. By 13 she is too depressed to get out of bed. Her father disappears completely when she is 14 years old, and by the time she gets to Harvard she is doing cocaine, drinking too much, sleeping around, all in a constant bid to make her parents love her and those around her to recognise that she is suffering from a mental and physical disease - chronic depression.
She spends a lot of time in the campus hospital's emergency room but still manages never to miss a deadline. "But the depression never switched off," she insists. "When you are depressed you don't have a lot of energy, but what you have you use well," she says, modestly. "I husbanded my resources incredibly intelligently. I felt like I was slipping so low and that the one thing I could do was my work, that if I could still do that I would still be part of the living."
So she keeps travelling down the fast lane to success, winning the Rolling Stone College Journalism Award as a freshman at Harvard and, after graduating, working as the pop music critic for New York magazine and then the New Yorker. And so to today. Oprah wants her on her show, the movie of the book is in the pipeline and she is nicely set up for her next book, to be called Bitch, about female villains. This month the publicist's dream poses topless in GQ. "I'll do anything for the camera," she says blithely. "If the photographer here were to say to me take your shirt off, and we were alone, I would. I am very malleable."
For Wurtzel, there is no conflict between the message (depression and anti-depressants are a serious issue) and the marketing (rock chick is blue but sexy). She is not worried that people might mistake her for a bimbo because, she says, "I'm not one. The book is so naked, that me going nakedmakes it all go together more. I think people should look at those pictures with the attitude: you get the book and and big tits, too. The reason the book is marketed this way," she says plaintively, "is because I am this way. I am still a very needy person, who needs a lot of attention; it is part of the problem."
On paper, however, the author laments the trivialisation of depression. "I can't get away from a sense that after years of trying to get people to take depression seriously," she writes, "of saying, I have a disease, I need help - now it has gone beyond the point of recognition as a real problem to become something that appears totally trivial."
She goes on to blame America's "culture of depression" on a rootlessness created by high divorce rates and a proliferation of dysfunctional families which are then cured by anti-depressants. What is left is a pill-popping Prozac nation that fails to recognise how physically and mentally devastating depression can be. When a friend takes her cat to the vet because he is pulling out all his fur, he is prescribed Prozac. When patients visit their doctor with symptoms of depression, they are prescribed Prozac within three minutes of describing their symptoms.
But what really worries Wurtzel is not that cats and teenagers, ladies- who-lunch and boost-seeking businessmen are popping Prozac unnecessarily, but that she herself had to endure years of mental and physical agony before the "happy pill", the "sunshine in a packet", the "Princess Diana drug", shone on her own stoop. "I resent that I had to go through so much pain before it was finally taken really seriously - not that I don't want other people to get help sooner."
What also bothers her, somewhat contradictorily, is that people might overlook the fact that, as one of the first people to take Prozac when it was approved in 1987, she is the ultimate guinea pig. But at least, she explains, being given Prozac was a turning point in her life. It proved that what she had been saying all along was true: there was something wrong with her and she needed help. And now, having won the attention she craved ever since she literally prised open her estranged father's eyelids in a pitiful attempt to make him look at her when she was a little girl, she isn't strong enough to walk back into the shadows.
Elizabeth Wurtzel is earnest and eager to please. She describes herself as "a moral writer". She believes in a writer's integrity and she hopes her writing will continue to be "useful", that it will "connect" with readers. The only other person who "connects" is her idol, Bruce Springsteen. "I am so in awe of him," she says. "He is the only heroic person in the whole of America right now; his integrity is so intense."
Her mother hasn't read her book. She disapproves of the cover and sees its contents as an invasion of her privacy. She hasn't heard from her father in years and has decided that he is an evil man.
But she has attained a happiness of sorts, albeit a fragile one. She is dating a film director and hangs out with "very extraordinary" people in downtown Manhattan. Her book has sold thousands of copies in America alone. Fans call her every day and she receives hundreds of letters. "One woman wrote to say that, next to the Bible, this was the most powerful book she had ever read. Other teenagers say the book is their bible."
Her spirits are high, she says, as long as the sun is shining. When lows set in, as they still do from time to time, she boosts herself up with heroin and cocaine. And when I ask her whether depression is the recognisable problem she always craved as a child, she says maybe. "But I don't want to be a professional depressive."
Does she at least wish she had discovered Prozac sooner than she did? She pauses for the first time and then she answers no. "It is sad and it bothers me that this is true, but I was very fuelled by depression. I don't know what I would have been like without it."
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