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08 January 2020 14:38

Elizabeth Wurtzel Christopher Beeny Upstairs, Downstairs

Sometimes when a woman says "I am impossible", it's just classic, sappy, feminine self-deprecation. It's like saying, "Oh, this old thing?" when someone compliments you on a frock you have spent a long time thinking about and even more time saving for. Sometimes, though, when a woman says "I am impossible," you should believe her. Elizabeth Wurtzel was impossible. She came to London to promote Prozac Nation, the memoir that would make her famous, the best book she wrote, which was about the "United States of Depression".

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A lot of things were not good enough for her. We ended up in the Groucho Club, where she draped herself over various men, magazine editors. She was both irresistible and very annoying and she knew both these things about herself. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Refusing to hide pain or make it digestible for others … Wurtzel holds up a locket with the word 'Prozac' in front of a window display in New York City in 1991, three years before Prozac Nation was published. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images I guess she wanted to be like the rock stars she had idolised and written about and slept with. Indeed, the bits in Prozac Nation where she bangs on and on about Bruce Springsteen are rather dull. Kurt Cobain may have shot himself in the 1990s, but we still didn't talk much about depression and self-harm back then, and if we did, it was as a vague social issue. When she turned up in her freshman year at Harvard, as the US author Deborah Copaken wrote in The Atlantic: "Suddenly there she was, fresh off the train from her yeshiva in New York, suitcase in hand. She didn't look like a yeshiva girl. Or even really like a New Yorker. She looked like a Malibu-born-and-bred hippie even back then, with her straight blond hair, her perfectly worn-in Levi's, her giant eyes that drew you in and threatened to drown you." Soon, everyone knew who Lizzie or Liz was. How can one be clinically depressed and yet self-assured enough to write a memoir that would open up a whole conversation about mental health? "Some things are beyond repair," she wrote "And that was me." Clever and beautiful, why was she the way she was? Why was she so shameless about her self-harm, her drug-taking, her promiscuity? Why did she not hide as women are meant to? She fell in love, she said, with her own depression, as she thought so little of the rest of her. A world where she would grab things. It looked like someone bleeding out. On Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, in which the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, decides not to wash her hair any more, she wrote: "You know you have completely descended into madness when the matter of shampoo has ascended into philosophical heights." Prozac Nation made her an It girl in New York, and this was warranted. It's inside of me' … Wurtzel in New York in 2015. Photograph: Dan Callister/Rex/Shutterstock There she was, semi-naked in GQ, as though depression was sexy and made women available. I was both puritanical and appalled by this, but now I see that this was her choice, pre-internet, a branding of the fantasy dream girl: intense, neurotic, beautiful. Wurtzel was not one of them, for sure. Wurtzel refused to get out of bed. After Prozac Nation, she published Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, for which she posed topless again on the cover, middle finger raised aloft; and, in 2001, the memoir More, Now, Again, which is largely about her addiction to snorting Ritalin. Elizabeth Wurtzel, journalist and author of Prozac Nation, dies aged 52 Read more The fact that her stories became somehow less resonant was surely because she had helped to open the door to a series of confessionals about bad and difficult women doing bad and difficult things. Magazines and newspapers were and still are stuffed full of young women confessing to bad sex, eating disorders and mental health issues of every variety. Mental illness must always be individualised, which is why the title of Wurtzel's book, Prozac Nation, is still so powerful. Wurtzel got this. She got it absolutely, and so have a string of other writers since, from Lena Dunham to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who would tell us that being a young, clever woman, however privileged you are, is a world of pain. You can call that pain self-indulgent if you like, but it can't be fucked away as Peaches has suggested. Cancer just suits me Elizabeth Wurtzel Ultimately, when Wurtzel was diagnosed with breast cancer – which many would see as a real illness, while some still see clinical depression as imaginary – she was remarkably without self-pity. "Where were you when I cried my eyes out for 10 years?" she asked her friends. She advised everyone to get tested for the BRCA gene mutation that many Ashkenazi women carry, but she wrote: "Everyone else can be afraid of cancer. I live with it. Another woman who felt unlovable, but was loved and feared for her refusal to grow up and conform, for her searing honesty, no matter how unpalatable that was. America, land of the free to be stupid | Elizabeth Wurtzel Read more But impossible women can be like that: unlikable, difficult and then immensely and suddenly loyal and kind. She refused to hide her pain or make it digestible for others. That is not an easy life to live, but my God, I am glad she told us exactly how it was to be who she was.