Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Elizabeth Wurtzel: Poster Patient for Prozac

The poster patient for Prozac has grown up. She has also aged.

She may or may not be clinically depressed, but Elizabeth Wurtzel is seriously unhappy.

The promise of Prozac, touted so fulsomely in her first book, has now turned to gall.

Wurtzel has morphed from depressed child to celebrity writer to law student to unemployed lawyer and back again to memoirist. In so doing, she has squandered the fame and fortune that the American celebrity culture bestowed on her.

She does not, of course, hold herself or anyone else accountable for her problems. Prozac does not activate anyone's moral sense.

Many have envied and resented Wurtzel for living the life that they, had they not been so tied to conventional values, would have wanted to live.

Many more envied and resented her because her writing is so much better than theirs.

It would be better still if it had more substance, but Wurtzel is still an excellent writer.

Yesterday, in New York Magazine Wurtzel exposed more about her currently dismal circumstances.  She was saying, not quite in these terms: don’t envy Elizabeth Wurtzel anymore.

If this self-portrait does not binder the evil eyes that have been cast on her for nary onto twenty years, nothing will.

By now, Wurtzel's plight elicits sympathy. Many of her detractors, however, seem to have lost their capacity for human feeling. They have been piling on. Why, they ask, did she not tell about her bankruptcy, about being sued by a publisher for not handing in a manuscript on time and about losing her job as a lawyer?

They are puzzled that Wurtzel frames her narrative around a severe emotional trauma: after subletting an apartment from a woman named Maria she was stalked and harrassed, invaded and robbed by said Maria.

Eventually, the situation became so threatening that Wurtzel called for help.

She told her boss, famed litigator David Boies what was happening, and how she had tried to deal with it as an independent person. Boies listened intently and told her to get out of her apartment immediately.

Wurtzel as damsel in distress was rescued by an eminently paternal prince charming… that’s her story.

It’s a literary trope like another. It seems to state a truth that many would prefer to ignore.

How did Wurtzel find herself in a state of distress and anguish? She had chosen not to conform to society’s conventions. Refusing to conform, she has learned, exacts a price:

It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up—one of the city’s Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. I had loved everything about Yale Law School—especially the part where I graduated at 40—but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity. By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security—kids you do or don’t want, Tiffany silver you never use—that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years. 

I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic, women still can’t have it all. Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family

As I said, this should end the envy and resentment, shut down the evil eyes that women, in particular have been casting at Wurtzel.

Unfortunately, it has not.

Amanda Marcotte could not refrain from kicking Wurtzel while she was down. With typical indecency she wrote:

Wurtzel … has long existed for seemingly no other reason than to make other writers want to stomp about in impotent rage. … Her latest word dump swirls around the fact that she is very sorry to find out that she, like all other human beings on the planet, is getting older.

One might  have understood if a tower of feminist resentment like Marcotte had been offended by Wurtzel's not being a feminist. Yet, Wurtzel is a radical feminist. More than many, she has lived the feminist nightmare.

Her most recent article illustrates nothing more or less than what happens when you live your life psycho-pharmacologically while following leftist principles.

Marcotte was chagrined to imagine that Wurtzel’s life choices would show up on feminism’s account.

One feels Marcotte’s pain. Wurtzel’s version of feminism sounds like perfect idiocy. She is contemptuous and disrespectful of women who live more conventional lives:

I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain. But I also don’t get it: Even sitting through a carafe of Italian wine with a guy who worked in private equity felt like being handcuffed in the back seat of an unmarked squad car: The next stop is jail. And a lot feels potentially imprisoning to me: To get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes, through humoring a husband who has not sold a screenplay in six years and is writing a new one still, through telling everybody your three basic children are talented and gifted—I know that people who do these things are happy because happiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves or it would be unbearable. But I would rather not. I would rather be sad, and sometimes lonely, but at least not suffering the silly. 

Wurtzel’s opinions are not coming from the moon. Didn’t the sainted Betty Friedan famously say that being a suburban housewife was akin to being imprisoned in a concentration camp?

Yet, one likes to think that Wurtzel understood, as she wrote that dreadful paragraph, that she ought to feel some shame for her bad attitude.

Of course, to feel shame you have to believe that you might have done otherwise. And Wurtzel has drunk too much of the cultural KoolAid to grant herself even a semblance of free will.

At the least, she seems to be saying, she is paying the price.

Inadvertently, Marcotte lights on an important point. Nothing about pills tells you how to make good life decisions or to hold yourself accountable for your decisions.

If your life is a testimony to the effectiveness of pills, you are likely to seek a biochemical solution to problems. Wurtzel became famous for having glorified Prozac, but she has also abused heroin and cocaine in massive quantities, and once wrote a book about her addiction to Ritalin.

A recent New York Times article showed how Wurtzel had marketed Prozac:

In her 1994 book “Prozac Nation,” Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote of a nearly transcendental experience on the drug. Before she began treatment with antidepressants, she was living in “a computer program of total negativity . . . an absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest.” She floated from one “suicidal reverie” to the next. Yet, just a few weeks after starting Prozac, her life was transformed. “One morning I woke up and really did want to live. . . . It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on. Was it the Prozac? No doubt.”

Pills are one thing; principles another. Wurtzel has followed the nostrums prescribed by the therapy culture: to live your dreams and to follow your bliss.

Thus, Liz Wurtzel chose, in her late 30s to go to law school. On a lark.

She did not want to practice law. She was not really suited for the daily grind of legal work. And yet, she had always wanted to go to law school, so why not.

After all, she could afford it.

She graduated from Yale Law School, and managed eventually to pass the bar. But, she spent all of her savings on this lark, only to discover that the profession did not suit her.

Wurtzel is also the poster child for those who claim that we should be open and honest, that we should overcome our sense of shame and that we should live our private lives in public.

Recently, journalism teacher Susan Shapiro bragged that she requires all of her students to write an essay on their most humiliating experience. Hamilton Nolan attacked the idea for inducing future journalists to look away from reality and into their souls.

Wurtzel's life offers more cautions against Shapiro's dreadful idea. She has demonstrated that if you make a career out of memoir writing, your will have to fill your life with experiences that will excite and entertain your audience. It's a special form of martyrdom; sacrificing your life for your memoirs.

Beyond that, memoir writing will dampen every potential relationship.

When you exhibit it all to the world, everyone you meet will know more about you than you can ever know about them. Thus, the give-and-take of sharing personal information will have been undermined before the fact. 


JPL17 said...

Great post, so full of insights I'll have to read it again at a less hurried time of day. Although I have never liked Wurtzel, and loathe her brand of feminism even more than I loathe nearly all the other brands, this story actually causes me to feel sympathy for her. Anyone who sincerely writes,
"[H]appiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves or it would be unbearable," deserves pity. Wurtzel may deserve it even more so, since her sad philosophy seems to be just a prop for the ideology that's making her miserable. That is, she seems to be telling herself, "Since no one's 'happiness' is true, my true UNhappiness leaves me no sadder than anyone else, and makes me more worthy than others, because my ideology is pure."

Unfortunately, I recognize this same constellation of attitudes and behaviors -- right down to the memoir-writing impulse -- in several unattached, unhappy female friends / acquaintances of mine. Perhaps Wurtzel Syndrome is, well, a syndrome.

If so, perhaps it should be called the "Van Beuren Syndrome," after a classic Van Beuren Studios children’s cartoon from the early 1930s. In it, a group of unhappy elves do battle with a group of happy elves, and the unhappy elves keep repeating, “I don’t want to be happy, I want to be sad….” I've long felt this cartoon captures an essential truth about human nature...(see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Clx-aAxKiQM)

JP said...

"She graduated from Yale Law School, and managed eventually to pass the bar. But, she spent all of her savings on this lark, only to discover that the profession did not suit her."

Spending all your *savings* on law school is actually a relatively positive outcome in Law World these days.

And I'm not being sarcastic.

What is occurring right now is that law students are coming out with six figures of debt into a legal market than can only support half of them.

So, she managed to avoid the six figures of debt.

JPL17 said...

On the other hand, she now has no money, and apparently no new marketable skill...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I don't know the story about her bankruptcy filing, but I would be curious to know whether it had an effect on her debt situation.

rogue wolf said...

I miss the days when you could openly laugh at losers instead of sitting through them trying to sell you their misery for profit.

Recruiting Animal said...

While it is absurd to call a wife who doesn't work a prostitute, based on the selections you posted Wurtzel seems to be a very good writer. I'd heard of Prozac Nation but I've never read her before.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Exactly... some of what she say is completely absurd, and yet, credit where credit is due-- she writes very well.

I have been surprised to see that many of those who might otherwise agree with her are attacking her writing.