Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of the memoir “Prozac Nation” who became known for her raw reflections on depression and addiction, died at a hospital in Manhattan on Tuesday, years after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Wurtzel had undergone a double mastectomy, but her cancer had metastasized to her brain, her husband Jim Freed told The Washington Post. She was 52 years old.
Wurtzel wrote her best-selling memoir, “Prozac Nation,” when she was 27 years old in 1993, a time when mental illness, especially clinical depression, was still too taboo to talk about candidly.
Relatively unknown at the time, Wurtzel’s deeply personal and explicit style of writing started a larger discussion about her generation’s struggles with depression and mental health.
The memoir attracted both criticism and praise. In 2001, it was adapted into a film starring actress Christina Ricci.
“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,” The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review of the book.
While the book could have benefited from “strict editing,” Kakutani said, Wurtzel’s “willingness to expose herself ― narcissism and all ― ultimately wins the reader over.”
Wurtzel continued her writing career just as unapologetically. In 1998, she published a collection of essays titled “Bitch” featuring a topless photo of herself with a raised middle finger on the cover. In 2002, she published her second memoir, “More, Now Again,” which dives deeper into her addiction to snorting Ritalin as a coping mechanism for depression and life in New York City.
Writer David Samuels, Wurtzel’s friend, told The New York Times that her writing changed the world of literature.
“Lizzie’s literary genius rests not just in her acres of quotable one-liners but in her invention of what was really a new form, which has more or less replaced literary fiction — the memoir by a young person no one has ever heard of before,” Samuels told the paper in an email. “It was a form that Lizzie fashioned in her own image, because she always needed to be both the character and the author.”
In a tribute on Twitter, journalist Ronan Farrow described Wurtzel as “kind and generous.”
She “filled spaces that might have otherwise been lonely with her warmth and humor and idiosyncratic voice,” he wrote.
Wurtzel eventually discovered that she had the BRCA genetic mutation, which greatly increases a person’s lifetime risk of breast cancer. She advocated for more people to get tested for the mutation, writing for The New York Times in 2015 that she could have “avoided all this if I had been tested.”
In 2018, Wurtzel demanded that people not feel sorry for her, declaring she was unafraid and that she was “excited to be alive.”
“Everyone else can hate cancer,” she wrote. “I don’t. Everyone else can be afraid of cancer. I am not. It is part of me. It is my companion. I live with it. It’s inside of me. I have an intimacy with cancer that runs deep.”
She later declared: “Do you know what I’m scared of? Nothing.”
“Cancer just suits me.”