Elizabeth Wurtzel Understood that Mental Health Is a Crucial Part of Women's Rights

Elizabeth Wurtzel Understood that Mental Health Is a Crucial Part of Women's Rights

Illustration: Illustration: Jim Cooke, Photos: Getty

I met Elizabeth Wurtzel in the waiting room of a therapist’s office. The room had the requisite mid-century furniture and inoffensive art. Elizabeth was, from the start, equal parts brilliant and blunt.

“You seem relatively normal,” I remember her saying.

“Not entirely,” I said.

“Why are you here,” she asked.

“I’m home from college,” I admitted. “Taking the semester off.”

What I didn’t say was that I was home from college because I had dropped out. I would ultimately go back to graduate, but not before beginning my career as a writer and producer, inspired in no small part by Elizabeth Wurtzel.

“Oh good,” she said, “then we’ll be friends.”

So began a friendship that would last through most of my early and Elizabeth’s late twenties. She appeared in the first movie I wrote. I produced and wrote the first draft of the movie adaptation of Prozac Nation, the book that was a rallying cry for so many college girls at the time.

Elizabeth’s Carmine street loft was a messy library with a bed, wallpapered with posters of her favorite musicians—Dylan, Springsteen, the Replacements. The apartment was a viable map of her brain, filled with more symbolic artifacts than an Egyptian tomb, as carefully ordered, and as cryptic. Five years later, on 9/11, having to flee her apartment, Elizabeth came to stay at mine. I lived with roommates above Chumley’s, the prohibition-era speakeasy at 86 Bedford where the term “eighty-six it” was coined. Elizabeth stayed there with her cat, Zap for several weeks, unable to go back home. Zap was not named ironically. During his time as a houseguest, Zap roughed up our slightly larger dog.

We ended up living a few blocks apart for the next five years. We spent a lot of time having lunch at Shopsin’s, staring blankly at the encyclopedic menu, its absurd abundance a prophetic map of the blur of options the Internet was about to create in all of our lives.


Elizabeth Wurtzel made it okay to talk about crazy. More than okay, cool. In her bestselling and divisive memoir about depression, Prozac Nation, published in 1994, and her essay collection, Bitch, in which she wrote about “difficult” women, Elizabeth insisted—and ensured—that a conversation about women’s `mental health was also a conversation about women’s rights. Not since Sylvia Plath had a woman written so openly, so surgically, so unapologetically about this specific type of pain. She laid bare every detail of her inner life, moving away from the previously favored domain of women writers, domestic life. But like every good domestic goddess, Elizabeth wrote her own recipe for the memoir: Moods of every pitch and timbre, healthy sprinklings of graphic sex, a pinch of self-mutilation, along with a healthy scoop of controlled and psychotropic drugs that arguably did as much damage as good. But here’s the incredible part—in writing so baldly about her own unusual mind, Elizabeth laid bare the best-kept secret of all, that her mind was not so unusual at all, that behavior ascribed to “crazy” women is universal to all human beings. She spilled the beans on the well-kept secret that men, women, people of every stripe, share the propensity for pain. And that the binary notion of “crazy” and “sane,” “unfit” and “fit” was—surprise, surprise—bullshit.

Like all biases, “crazy” grows from the root, from a biblical notion of Eve, the emotional, manipulative seductress, hellbent on seducing a non-consenting Adam, ruining paradise for everyone and introducing Original Sin. In other words, a total bitch. Biases about women have grown like bacteria for hundreds of years, spreading on the pages of overgrown fairytales, and multiplying in glossy magazines as they do in a little plastic dish. Like all biases, “crazy” is a means of denigrating and devaluing its speaker to the point of rendering her testimony moot. What better word exists for invalidating a person than “crazy,” which Webster defines as “marked by thought or action that lacks reason.” It is, of course, not a far cry from “crazy” to “delusional,” the adjective used to describe a person who cannot discern falsehood from fact. “Delusional” is another word for dead wrong. Which, for a woman who is truthfully—often desperately—reporting wrongdoing, is another word for “left for dead.”


It is not a surprise that crazy was, until recently, the de facto response to female victims. Calling a woman crazy means her testimony can be dismissed. She need not be believed. Further, the false premise that women are crazy translates into another false premise, that women are unreliable witnesses. This fallacy has neutralized the testimony of truthful women since the dawn of time, casting doubt on a victim’s perceptions, memory, veracity, and often her account of an attack. The bias impugns truthful victims, adding insult to injury. This same bias instills an intrinsic reflex of doubt in first responders—in cops, courts, doctors, teachers, and friends. And then, incredibly, this bias is deployed again—deliberately—in the courtroom in defense of the accused. For a defense lawyer, calling a victim crazy has long been a silver bullet. There’s even a charming name for this tactic: “Nuts and Sluts.” Look no further than the Cosby case or the Kavanaugh hearings for echoes of this sentiment.


We shot the movie for Prozac Nation in Vancouver in the late ‘90s. I remember spending a lot of time on location, waiting out the rain, and writing a lot of emails—not just because email had just been invented, but because it was a tough time. I remember taking runs in Stanley Park, struck by the the collision of mountains and water, the coexistence in nature of such violence and calm.

Twenty years later, now a mother, writer, and producer of many more films, I understand better what Elizabeth knew at a young age. I too have been called “crazy,” “difficult,” a “bitch” more times than I can count. I am no longer afraid of these words. At first, I was shocked. Outraged. Incredulous. These words are, of course, attacks. The verdict for whistleblowers stating inconvenient truths, or the sentence for women bearing unwelcome news, whom society would rather shut up. These words often compound the harm of those who have already been harmed. Insult to injury. But I have come to see that these words are not just the result of bias, but more simply, fear—fear of a woman’s power, and of her implicit threat. It’s hard to believe you have any power when you have been harmed, when you are young, when you feel as helpless or as anguished as Elizabeth felt in her own life. But we are called these names, not because we are weak, but rather, indeed because we have power. These words are designed to weaken, mitigate, or nullify that power. It is said that the most common mistake in a negotiation is to under-estimate your own leverage. Women have spent too long doing just that. Elizabeth Wurtzel never under-estimated her power, and she never shied from using it. What made her so brilliant, so brave, and so reviled by so many, including other women, is that she was never afraid to speak her mind, and she did not give a fuck what you thought about that.

Elizabeth Wurtzel moved us miles in a pressing conversation about mental health, away from reductive binary labels like “sane” and “crazy,” “fit” and “unfit,” away from the slippery slope of discrimination that begins when a society polarizes into camps. We are perilously close to such a society right now. By subjecting her own mind to brutal, honest scrutiny and by sharing her findings, unadorned, Elizabeth advanced the case for tolerance. For the understanding that the human mind is a blunt and brilliant instrument. And for a culture that more readily accepts and more handily cares for those who need support—as we all do at one time or another. It makes perfect sense that Elizabeth moved from writing about civil rights to fighting for them as a lawyer, upholding the rights of people as different but equal, a goal that is as central to mental health as it is to women’s rights, and as central to women’s rights as it is to democracy.

Galt Neiderhoffer is a writer and producer. She has written four novels for St Martin’s Press, including A Taxonomy of Barnacles, The Romantics, and Poison, and has produced over twenty indie films, twelve of which were selections and award-winners at the Sundance Film Festival. Her film credits include The Kids Are All Right, Infinitely Polar Bear, Robot and Frank, and the Romantics. Her films have won the Audience Award, Screenwriting Award, Directors Award, and Cinematography Award at Sundance. Niederhoffer has been published in Vogue, New York Magazine, Jezebel, and Harper’s Bazaar. She is Head of Production for Authentic in Brooklyn, where she lives with her kids.

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DISCUSSION

curioussquid
Curious Squid

Something I appreciated about Wurtzel, and she specifically covered in “Bitch”, was she acknowledged that white, and conventionally beautiful, women get more attention and sympathy when it comes to mental illness. The other Wurtzel piece posted here a couple of weeks ago covered this, but people tend to have time for the beautiful waif who’s damaged but in a sexy vulnerable way. Less so the doughy middle aged woman sitting in a squalid apartment picking at sores on her arms and face.