Elizabeth Wurtzel was 27 when she published Prozac Nation, the genre-defining memoir that she now describes as “a joke that started the whole world crying.” In her unflinching account of her life up to that point—her difficult childhood, her turbulent time at Harvard, the “black wave” of depression that hung over her throughout it all—Wurtzel’s confessional prose was so sensational, so self-assured, especially from someone so young, that it was both celebrated and condemned when it came out in 1994. There was widespread outrage and incredulity, but most of all fascination—for the book, and also the woman who dared write it. Prozac Nation became a best seller, swinging open the door for the memoirists—Lena Dunham and Cat Marnell among them—who followed.
Four years later, Wurtzel came out with Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, which, as the title suggests, examined and championed the history of “difficult” women, from Hillary Clinton to Courtney Love. Wurtzel was still the toast of downtown, but had been bogged down by drugs, bad boyfriends, and erratic moods (though antidepressants helped). She would go on to get clean and write three more books: Radical Sanity: Commonsense Advice for Uncommon Women; More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction; and Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood, an adaption of her thesis at Yale Law School, from which she graduated at 40. Now 49, Wurtzel works at the firm Boies Schiller Flexner. And not too long ago, the woman who once wrote, “No one will ever love me,” married photo editor Jim Freed—a move that surprised no one more than her.
More than two decades following its initial release, Prozac Nation is being reissued by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A lot has changed in that time: depression is less stigmatized, prescription pills are less stigmatized, and confessional writing is whatever the opposite of stigmatized is. Ahead of the book’s new edition, Wurtzel spoke with a similarly transgressive woman: the musician Liz Phair, no stranger to riding the waves of public adoration and scorn. As it turns out, the two outspoken ’90s icons share much more than a first name.
LIZ PHAIR: Two Elizabeths. I like it.
ELIZABETH WURTZEL: I’ve also been a Liz at times, and a Lizzie. But those sound kind of sweet, and although I have a sweet side, I try not to show it too much.
PHAIR: I started using Liz a bit in junior high because there were these timed math tests that we always seemed to take, and Elizabeth was too long to write. When my career took off as Liz, it somehow separated me from my childhood and the people I grew up with. You seem like somebody who remembers the past very clearly.
WURTZEL: I think so. It always surprises me when people who are in my books tell me that I got it right, although the interesting thing is that even a memoir is a construct. Memory is a construct.
PHAIR: Whoever’s telling the story gets to tell the story.
WURTZEL: The idea that somehow there’s something different about writing a memoir than writing fiction is crazy—it’s the same thing. You’re constructing a narrative. It’s not like I couldn’t write a novel if that’s what I was inclined to do. Maybe the reason people think I got it right is because I presented everything so vividly. It might be that.
PHAIR: I remember certain moments in a lot of detail, but you seem to have the command to go back and see it all, which amazes me. It’s a lot of information to carry forward. I wondered if writing was a way to clear the random-access memories in your mind.
WURTZEL: The truth is, if I had any talent to be a rock star, that’s what I would have pursued. I’d have definitely preferred that. But I don’t, so instead I wrote my first book, kind of about pet care, when I was around 5.
PHAIR: It seems like throughout all of the stuff you went through—and you went through a considerable amount of stuff—writing was never the problem. You were always able to write.
WURTZEL: There were times where I was too depressed to do much of anything, but I was always able to get my work done. To some extent, there were all these things that I had to work out, and then when I was clear-headed, I was able to write them down.
PHAIR: Do you ever go back and read what you wrote to find clues about yourself?
WURTZEL: I have tons of notebooks that I’ve kept, but I never look at that stuff. I would imagine lots of people could benefit from writing down how they feel. They recommend it—whoever “they” is, the big “they” out there. But by the time I sit down to write something that an audience will read, I hope it’s not therapeutic anymore. It’s polished. What about you?
PHAIR: I definitely have those two sides, but I’m much more in love with the generator than I am the editor. I spend a lot of time trying to balance what feels immediate and emotionally impactful with what is, as you said, polished. I have a love/hate relationship with the editor in my brain.
WURTZEL: Do you feel like you have as much emotional immediacy now as you did when you were 25?
PHAIR: I do, but I’ve shifted my circumstances to protect myself. I’ve controlled the amount of things that can give me a body blow. Like, when I was younger, I’d put myself in situations where I could easily be hurt or find myself in danger. I’ve since developed an atmosphere around myself to handle a lot of the incoming meteors, the way a planet would. That’s the only real difference—when I was younger, I didn’t have an atmosphere.
WURTZEL: When I was in my 20s, I did one idiotic thing after another. And I no longer do one idiotic thing after another.
PHAIR: Ah, those were the days.
WURTZEL: But the other side of that phase, as you said, was being touchable, so to speak. I keep thinking I’m about to re-enter that phase, or some other version of it.
PHAIR: Is this because of re-releasing Prozac Nation?
WURTZEL: No, I just assume we’re always heading in that direction.
PHAIR: You do?
WURTZEL: I hope so.
PHAIR: I think what we’re seeing politically is the result of people having developed atmospheres around them that make them untouchable, to the point where they don’t feel empathy for people who are in a more vulnerable state.
WURTZEL: I see sexism everywhere, and I think it has to do with that. I’ve begun to blame sexism for everything. I’ve become so overwhelmed by it that, even though I love Bob Dylan, I don’t want to listen to Bob Dylan, because I don’t want to listen to men anymore. I don’t care what men have to say about anything. I only want to pay attention to what women do. I only want to read women. I’ll tell you how intense my feelings about this are: You know The Handmaid’s Tale, the show, which is feminist in its nature? Because men are behind it, I don’t want to watch it. That is the extent to which I am so truly horrified by what is going on.
PHAIR: I have felt that same wave coming through. I’ll try to rent a movie, and every single title is for men, by men, about men, and I’m just like, “Where’s my world? Where’s my zone? Where has it gone?”
WURTZEL: Amazingly—I mean, I wrote a book called Bitch—I didn’t used to spend as much time thinking about it, because things seemed to be heading in the right direction. But now I pour myself a glass of seltzer and the seltzer looks sexist.
PHAIR: [laughs] When you think about Prozac Nation, what parts of it still seem close to you and what parts seem distant and faraway? [Wurtzel pauses] Is that a bad question?
WURTZEL: No, it’s a good question because I’m having to think about it. I still write very much the same way. The voice that’s in that, I’ve always had that voice—it doesn’t change. I always sound like me, which I think is the trick. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing about depression or Hillary Clinton or breast cancer. It’s unimaginable now, but when I had this idea of writing a memoir—it wasn’t really about being depressed, it was about growing up, but I suppose the undercurrent was being depressed—so many people were like, “You should make it into a novel.” Which was what most people did. The idea that you would describe your own life, and that somebody would be interested in that, people thought was crazy.
PHAIR: And now it’s like, “Fiction? Why would you go through the trouble to do that?”
WURTZEL: I think people have this idea that it’s easier to write a memoir than it is a novel, but it’s not easier to do anything. Either you know how to write or you don’t. Lots of people try to write memoirs because they think, “I rode my motorcycle cross-country—I have a memoir.” But it’s not like that. It’s not about whether you have an interesting story; it’s about whether you know how to tell it.
PHAIR: It’s interesting that you stuck to your guns in the face of a lot of resistance to telling your story, which ultimately turned out to be cutting edge.
WURTZEL: Oh, but I’m a radical. I’d had this experience; I gone through the whole thing where I’d been really depressed, and I had been told that the solution to my problems was 30 years of therapy, and finally I found somebody who realized that I needed medication. So I felt like somebody was going to understand that I needed to write a memoir.
PHAIR: You were saying to yourself, “This is valid.”
WURTZEL: I’ve often felt like I don’t need anybody else to be on my side because I’m on my side. I do think that’s unusual in people, but I think it’s especially unusual in women.
PHAIR: The innovator mentality. My mom says that if there’s something I’m not qualified to do, you can be sure that I’ll find my way into doing it. Sometimes I look back and go, “Where did I find the confidence to do those things?” In the moment I feel like a warrior, but looking back, once the vision has passed, or once I’ve achieved something—or failed to achieve something—it’s mystifying. There are so many references to music in Prozac Nation. In your deepest, darkest moments, it seems like that was the last thing you’d let go of—you’d sit there curled around your cassette player and listen to music.
WURTZEL: I learned how to write from listening to music. Not that I didn’t like to read, because I did, but what got me through the hard times was listening to music. And it was really important to me that my writing be to others what music was to me—that it had that kind of intensity and power. Forget about the first page, it’s the first word. For me, every word has to be something that people are like, “Oh, my god, I can’t stop. I’m sucked in.” I got that idea because that’s how I felt about listening—it took me away. And I feel like you have to write books that take people away.
PHAIR: I see that in your writing. It’s more physical, or musical, than most.
WURTZEL: I was really, really, really hoping there’d be that element to it. It’s so frustrating to me that I’m not a rock star. I’m opposed to not being a rock star.
PHAIR: Were you just tone-deaf?
WURTZEL: I have the worst voice ever. My voice is offensive.
PHAIR: That hasn’t stopped certain people. [both laugh]
WURTZEL: But it did stop me. What about you, what are you working on now?
PHAIR: I’m writing two things: there’s a novel that I’ve been working on forever, and then I’m doing this collection of what I call horror stories, which are actually some thematically linked essays about my life and experiences. And I’m working on an album. I’m having a renaissance because my son is now in college. I don’t know what it was about mothering, but it ate up—as it probably should—a great chunk of my brain. And even when I tried to be an artist, my priorities were so strongly geared toward being a mother. I just couldn’t see outside of it.
WURTZEL: I feel like motherhood is this thing that feminism cannot get around. How can you ignore what it does and how it overtakes you?
PHAIR: Yeah, because the impulse is, “Let us into the man’s world, let us into the power structure. Let us work.” So there was a necessary moment of saying, “We’re not just mothers.” But the “just” became used against motherhood in a weird way. I mean, god, how long has feminism even been around in an organized sense—100, 150 years? Not long.
WURTZEL: It’s been around in a disorganized way. I would say it’s still around in a disorganized way. This is organized feminism, you and I talking on the phone. We are having organized feminism. Now every time a woman speaks her mind, it’s political. How did that happen?
PHAIR: It’s not fun.
WURTZEL: I’m determined to have a good time anyway.
LIZ PHAIR IS A LOS ANGELES-BASED SINGER- SONGWRITER. HER 1993 ALBUM, EXILE IN GUYVILLE, WAS RANKED BY ROLLING STONE AS ONE OF THE 500 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME. SHE IS AT WORK ON A NEW ALBUM AND TWO BOOKS.