4 July 2019

Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel

It's been a few years since I read Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America but I wanted to review it because this year marks the 25th anniversary of its publication. So much has changed in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health since the publication of Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir, but after all this time her writing still resonates and I wanted to revisit it.

People were very critical of Prozac Nation. Obviously I didn't read it when it first came out in 1994 but the edition I have has an author's note and in it Wurtzel describes the fire she came under. People thought she was self-indulgent, entitled, and a giant brat. A lot of this stems from the fact that Wurtzel went to Harvard and it is often pretty hard to sympathize with someone who grew up comfortably in New York and ends up attending an Ivy League school.

BUT my own opinion is that you can't read this book without so clearly seeing that Wurtzel's issues are embedded within her brain chemistry. Wurtzel's descriptions of this time in her life makes it so obvious how out-of-control she was, that depression was ruining her life. She was simply documenting it through an author's lens. I also hate when critics call a memoir self-indulgent.... like yeah, its a fucking MEMOIR.

Someone could walk into this room and say your life is on fire, I hear Paul Simon singing in some song somewhere in a life that seems so far away."

Wurtzel grew up in New York with her mom in the 70's. She was a pretty talented/creative child but describes her depression as starting early. I think her earliest memory of a depressive episode is when she is at sleep away camp. From there she grows up and attends Harvard (her childhood dream) which is where one of her biggest breakdowns occurs. She is eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts. I remembered this fact a little later when I was reading David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace (full review here) and Wallace talks about his similarly timed breakdown, saying "we were probably on the same bus."

Elizabeth Wurtzel
The book is really interesting because it details the rise of Prozac across America and how this "wonder drug" was in the hands of millions seemingly overnight. Wurtzel indicates she was one of the first to be prescribed Prozac and details her relationship with the drug.

I also liked that she opened each chapter with a quotation or line from a poem/song. This book is 384 pages and I flew through it. I enjoyed Wurtzel's introspection and how she described her life through her depression. I was also really drawn to some of the descriptions of other forms of treatment she underwent. Wurtzel briefly discussed shock therapy and I think it was easily an example of her best writing and a standout from the book for me:

Don't think of the striking on-screen picture, the mental movie you create of the pretty young woman being wheeled on the gurney to get her shock treatments, and don't think of the psychedelic, photonegative image of this same woman at the moment she receives that bolt of electricity. Think, instead, of the girl herself, of the way she must have felt right then, of the way no amount of great poetry and fascination and fame could make the pain she felt at that moment worth suffering."

I love this passage because I think it is beautifully written and certainly true. But I also love it because it's a great example of how Wurtzel NEVER romanticizes her condition. If anything she points out how many times it acted as a foil - both for her career and her love life.

I feel like I've mentioned this in an earlier review but whenever I think about the intersection of depression and creative output I always think of the movie Frank (2014) and this review: 

The film finally demolishes the old rock n' roll stereotype that mental illness can bear the fruit of creative genius. I suspect the truth is closer to what one character says: 'It slowed him down.'"

Christina Ricci as Elizabeth Wurtzel in the film adaptation of Prozac Nation
And this is what I really enjoyed about Wurtzel's review. She never sugar coats her feelings and she never tries to hide how horrible/unbearable she could act, and it's clear how badly she needed help.

I don't have a ton else to say about this book other than that I enjoyed it and feel that the criticism is unfair and unnecessary. At the time that I read this I was reading a lot of memoirs by clinically depressed individuals. If I was going to pair this reading with anything it would probably be Emma Frost's Your Voice In My Head which describes her bipolar disorder and how her psychiatrist essentially saved her life. Both are great reads and I'd recommend either.

1 comment:

  1. This too, ranks among my favorite books. I first read it in 2016, months after I began on Prozac myself. Reading Prozac Nation then made me want to write my own memoir, which at first, I felt would be too similar to what Wurtzel had written. But everyone I know convinced me my story is different. I have since finished my memoir and I'm trying to find out how to get it "out there."
    I referenced Prozac Nations' 35th anniversary on my blog in this post:

    You can also read about my memoir and other writings on my blog.