“I made a career out of my emotions.”
So wrote the late Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died nearly two weeks ago, at the age of 52 from breast cancer. Once described as "Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna", numerous obituaries and think pieces have talked about her life and how she became a symbol of a bygone era where people with little money could go to New York and make something of themselves in art, literature and music.
Nowadays, as Ginia Bellafante has written, the world of 2020 is an unforgiving one:
Technology changed everything, of course. Magazines disappeared; editorial contracts shrunk; streaming meant that writing for film or television was no longer likely to make you rich. Writing books was just going to make you poor. Fashion, once the purview of art, became the property of Instagram. All of these profound reversals crashed up against the hard metrics of the city’s soaring housing market.
The irony of seeing someone who, inadvertently, predated internet culture with her willingness to be so open being consigned to the skip marked "Gen X - pre dial up" is hard to miss. No matter how ground breaking you are, subsequent generations only see you as an old bastard.
First published in 1994, not long after Kurt Cobain's suicide, Prozac Nation helped reflect the mood of the Western world as much as Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral' (which had hit the top 10 in Britain and America earlier in the year) and the Manic Street Preachers exploration of anorexia, depression, the Holocaust and murder in their masterpiece 'The Holy Bible' (top 10 UK).
Simply put, Prozac Nation is a memoir of Wurtzel's childhood and adolescence, ending with a suicide attempt and a lifelong prescription of Prozac. However, it's really a cry of help from a generation of kids who were bummed out by their broken families and contemporary American life (which at that time offered AIDS, high divorces, US involvement in Central America and the four minute warning) as well as struggling to make their mark on the world.
I'm the girl who is lost in space, the girl who is disappearing always, forever fading away and receding farther and farther into the background. Just like the Cheshire cat, someday I will suddenly leave, but the artificial warmth of my smile, that phony, clownish curve, the kind you see on miserably sad people and villains in Disney movies, will remain behind as an ironic remnant.
Moments like this can make the reader stop and seriously think of how the throes of depression can be much deeper and entrenched in the mindset than you think. Hence why both sides get frustrated when someone cannot simply 'snap out of it.' And this is where the quandary at the heart of Prozac Nation is perfectly illustrated: depression and mental illness plays on the more maudlin, narcissistic elements of the human psyche so while reading accounts like this can be infuriating, ultimately it is the truth and if we want to help, sometimes we have to go along for the ride.
And Wurtzel acknowledges this: "I know how taxing it is to do something even as small and brief as having a meal with a depressive. We are such irritating people, can see the dark side of everything..." Even when she tries to overdose, and her doctor rushes her to hospital while telling her that she's never lost a patient, all Wurtzel can say is "...I hope you're not doing this for the sake of your statistics."
Ultimately, it's Wurtzel who makes the reader continue. Her personality is suitably snarky, yet sensitive as well as defiant, yet defeated. Through these contradictions, we stay with her throughout the inevitable.
Closing with a look at the suicide of Cobain, and the general mood of darkness over that particular period (which would be replaced by the cheeriness of Britpop in the UK and pop-punk in the US), she ends with noting that she is glad that she lived through her depression and can tell her tale.
And I, for one, am glad that she did.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, 1994, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America. Quartet Books ISBN-13: 978-0704380080
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.