In praise of miserable women: a tribute to Elizabeth Wurtzel

A far cry from the escapist and hedonistic tendencies of the 1980s–hair metal, hip-hop, music television, gaudy clothing in gauche dayglo colors–the 1990s made it clear that everyone was miserable and it wasn’t going away anytime soon. Misery in the early ’90s was viable, in part, because it was very, very lucrative. Corporations like Sony and Universal were quick to capitalize on what seemed like an overnight grunge explosion, through labels like Geffen and Epic. This was a period of time in which the entire City of Seattle had all Western eyes on it, for no reason than a large number of rock bands who sang songs about being unhappy happened to be from there. Anyone who’s ever been to Seattle knows that, if people are looking to it as a source of cultural leadership, we must not be very happy.

In the same way that we Millennials have made it very clear that we are all terrified, financially insecure, and trepidatiously navigating our way through a post-9/11 (and apparently pretty nationalistic) political landscape, Generation X had, by 1994, long since introduced itself as the unhappiest generation since the Greatest Generation during the Great Depression. People stopped wearing bright colors and started wearing flannel shirts. America dealt with its first of two very serious opioid epidemics. And, of course, there was plenty of Prozac to go around.

In 1994, two very depressed people were in the spotlight for very similar reasons.

Up until this point, one of those people made a career for himself writing and performing songs internationally, to audiences of thousands of people at a time, about how miserable he was. With lyrics like “What is wrong with me? What do I think, I think?” and “I miss the comfort in being sad”, Kurt Cobain was no stranger to being miserable in public. As the frontman for Nirvana and the grunge subculture at large, he became the MTV-appointed spokesperson for Generation X, a title he was decidedly very uncomfortable with and rejected from the get-go. Both Cobain’s unhappiness and his discomfort with his celebrity were well-documented in Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero, released in 1993, and could be seen in his live acoustic performance on MTV Unplugged that same year.

On April 8th, 1994, the mainstream rock world awoke to the greyscale dawn of a cloudy Seattle morning: Kurt Cobain was found dead in a room above his garage, reportedly of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. Unfortunately, throngs of mourning fans would follow suit. Cobain remains, as though we are all playing a big postmortem joke on him, the voice of Generation X.

Enter: Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Wurtzel, like Cobain, was 27 in 1994. Unlike Cobain, Wurtzel survived 1994; instead, her first novel, Prozac Nation, was published. In a twist of Gen X-marks-the-spot non-irony and as a tribute to Cobain, Wurtzel had originally wanted to name her new memoir after the Nirvana b-side to “Pennyroyal Tea”: I Hate Myself and I Want to Die. Both Wurtzel and Cobain were chronically and clinically depressed, self-medicating with drugs and shakily looking for relationships that could replace the security they lost in childhood; they both came from divorced parents, and they both very publicly drew parallels between these divorces and their difficulties in adulthood. These were two young adults who became overnight celebrities after using writing to document their lifelong struggles with misery.

The difference between these two antiheroes is in how they were received. Both Wurtzel and Cobain eventually found fame and financial security in revealing to the world how unhappy they really were, but Wurtzel had an added layer of scrutiny to deal with: she dared to be unhappy and female all at the same time. Prozac Nation was described as “exhibitionistic” in The Harvard Crimson, the college newspaper where Wurtzel first professionally honed her writing chops. The New York Times characterized Wurtzel as “exasperatingly sympathetic to herself”. Full of “narcissistic pride” and “a coy bid for public attention”, reviewers were writing about Prozac Nation in the same way a fed-up parent might describe their child’s temper tantrums to an extended relative.

In all fairness, Prozac Nation reads like an adult temper tantrum. In it, we read Wurtzel completely unironically going into detail, from the vantage point of her 20s, about being a preteen and cutting herself in her shower while listening to Foreigner tapes. Her only periods of self-effacement can be found in sessions with her therapist, where she acknowledges that other people survive things like war and famine and chronic illness–yet she finds herself, a Harvard-educated Manhattanite, completely struggling to survive her own privilege. She drinks, smokes, pops pills, and fucks her way through Harvard and a little bit in Dallas, too. This is the reality of depression. Depression is one of the most narcissistic things any of us can go through, because we find ourselves craving something to get us out of bed, as though any of us are entitled to the world coaxing us into living our own lives.

Elizabeth Wurtzel very readily acknowledged this fact: Depression is a very narcissistic thing, it’s a self involvement that is so deep and intense that it means the sufferer cannot get out of her own head long enough to see what real good, what genuine loveliness, there is in the world around her. This is something Kurt Cobain was quick to acknowledge about himself as well, most notably in his suicide note, where he described himself as a “moody baby” and wrote “I must be one of those narcissists who only appreciate things when they’re gone”. Both of these people intimately understood the self-absorption that comes with being enmeshed, inextricably, with one’s own dissatisfaction with life. Yet we reflect upon the works of Kurt Cobain with a continued admiration and, at worst, nostalgia. Whereas reviews about Wurtzel’s narcissism eventually became dime-a-dozen, Cobain’s narcissism was identified seemingly only when the collective narcissism of Generation X came under scrutiny.

It would be culturally irresponsible and irresponsible from a literary perspective to deny the reality that, if Prozac Nation had been written by a man, its self-absorbed subject matter would be viewed differently. Consider how Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club, where a man’s unhappiness with his sterile and emasculating lifestyle begets him creating an alter-ego that helps him commit domestic terrorism. Consider basically anything written by Charles Bukowski. Consider, as I’ve been saying this entire post, so many songs written by Kurt Cobain. Consider Audioslave’s “Like A Stone”, where Chris Cornell–another victim of suicide and tragic antihero of the Prozac generation–begs for God to take him away. Consider “Alive” by Pearl Jam where, on the subject of being alive, Eddie Vedder asks, “Do I deserve to be? Is that the question? And if so, if so, who answers? Who answers?”

Women’s happiness is viewed as a selfish impediment to her inherent functions–to be pleasant and coquettish, have children and love to raise them, dote on and support men to ensure their happiness–or perhaps as a manipulative tool used to get her “way”, while men’s unhappiness is simply taken at face value. People of all genders have been complaining about being unhappy for as long as there have been people and, sometimes, people happen to get famous for doing so. There was nothing cutting-edge or particularly innovative about either Wurtzel or Cobain. But women have never been able to complain about anything without being second-guessed, having our lived experiences outright denied, or accused of feigning dissatisfaction due to some ulterior motive. Our needs have been consistently sacrificed in favor of men’s comfort. Wurtzel was no innovator, no matter how hard she kicked off the modern era of confessional literature–but, by writing deeply and honestly about how miserable she was, she made a career out of doing something very inherently subversive: being miserable and a woman too.

Her next book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women explores the lives of various other unhappy women–such as Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Margaux Hemingway, and others–via a series of essays that chronicle how women have historically used (and needed to use, more importantly) their sexuality to try to escape the treacherous loneliness that only men are allowed to unpack. In describing these women as “difficult”, Wurtzel acknowledges that very important perk of male privilege: the privilege to be unhappy and not do a damn thing about it, without being accused of being narcissistic or “difficult”. More accurately should the title of her book have been In Praise of Miserable Women.

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Among the myriad “these rules are designed to make sure you focus on your brain” guidelines my father imposed upon me as a kid, one of my favorites both as a kid as an adult was that, if I wanted to see a movie I saw on commercials or read about in a magazine, and it was based off of a book, I had to read the book first. As a preteen, I devoured A Walk to Remember and Riding in Cars with Boys, simply because I had crushes on Mandy Moore and Drew Barrymore. In a copy of J-14, I saw a short feature for Prozac Nation the movie starring Christina Ricci, tentatively to be released by Miramax in 2003. It never mattered how long, arduous, or full of sex or drug use these books were; if I wanted to see the movie, I had to read the book. In Prozac Nation, I read for the first time about what it was like to be an unhappy woman, and how that so often plays out for the protagonist.

My life ended up turning out somewhat similar to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s: chronically miserable with myself, and miserable with myself for being miserable with myself. I don’t remember the last time I really felt okay with myself. I have spent my entire life oscillating between periods of, at best, not thinking so much about how much I hate myself–to deeply and genuinely hating myself with every single fiber of my tiny being. Prozac Nation gave me language, as a younger person, to describe what that feels like for the first time. Yet, surrounded often by men, those in my life who knew what Prozac Nation was often ridiculed the book and me for reading it.

Instead, I read Fight Club and Notes From the Underground and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which were books about men being unhappy instead, and suddenly I seemed intellectual.

So many women spend most of their lives, seemingly, trying to convince someone that they are unhappy and why–and I think every single woman reading this understands what I mean. Each of us has at least one story from the trenches: spouses who “don’t understand what you’re so upset about”, careers that offer zero incentive to come home to the second shift of housework and childcare, and doctors who let us suffer for years with chronic physical pain. Or perhaps, as was Wurtzel’s case, simply being unhappy for no external reason beyond a serious case of depression, and society looking you in the eye and asking “So what?”

Elizabeth Wurtzel was not a great author. She accomplished little in her life outside of telling the world that she was unhappy. But for those of us who looked at her doing that and thought it was brave, she remains a cherished antihero for every single woman who dares admit that they are miserable… and she will be very missed. Rest in peace.

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