In August 1953 a young Sylvia Plath left a note informing her mother that she was “Taking a long hike.” Everyone who spent their adolescence reading and rereading The Bell Jar knows what happened next—two days later, she was found in a crawlspace beneath her family’s home with a jug of water and eight sleeping pills remaining out of a bottle that had once contained 48.
When Plath’s mother reported her missing, The Boston Globe ran a brief mention of the disappearance; the headline read “Beautiful Smith Girl Missing at Wellesley.” It’s impossible to know whether or not anyone would have cared about the “missing” without the “beautiful.”
Sylvia Plath’s celebrity has outlived that of so many of her contemporaries. Her husband, Ted Hughes, the more famous of the two while they were married and the root of so much of her misery, has largely become a footnote in the Sylvia Plath story. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Lowell is mostly known outside academia as being a teacher and mentor to doomed poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, also remembered as being a friend to Plath. When I was getting my various English degrees, in “serious” poetry seminars, we studied Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and Sexton’s “Ringing the Bells.” We hardly ever addressed Plath and when we did it was mostly to mock her as a poet for teenage girls. Plath’s fame is a double-edged sword, on one hand, she’s one of the most-read poets of the 20th century. On the other, her readers are often dismissed as a certain type of girl: young, lonely, and looking for inclusion in an elite sorority of beautiful, crazy, brilliant girls like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and a handful of others whose names call to mind posh, stylish instability.
And while I would never mention it in a graduate poetry class, I was one of those lonely teens mooning over Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America made her a late 20th-century successor to Plath’s legacies of both prettiness and craziness. Starting at around age 11—the same age that Wurtzel says she first began cutting her legs to the Velvet Underground in Prozac Nation—I memorized “Mad Girl’s Love Song” and “Daddy” while Fiona Apple’s Tidal played in the background. By the time I got to Wurtzel, I had a pretty good sense of the kind of girl I wanted to be: beautiful as I was crazy.
Prozac Nation, published in 1994, built on what Sylvia Plath had started decades before. Wurtzel was candid about the desperation and self-absorption of chronic depression in a way that the New York Times labeled the as the same “irritating emotional exhibitionism of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar.” But it wasn’t irritating to the girls who loved The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood—a thinly veiled stand-in for Plath herself—like an older sister. Those raw confessions didn’t so much put me in a position of empathizing with young, angry, and desperately sad protagonists as they inspired a feeling that the protagonists were empathizing with me.
Part of what was initially appealing about these books were definitely their covers. Prozac Nation’s cover featured Wurtzel in a crop top, Levi’s resting casually around her waist just below the loose curls of her mermaid hair. One arm curls around her tilted head in a loose, nonchalant pose as she looks at the camera big-eyed and pouty. The Bell Jar features a photo of Plath in a scoop neck top with a perfectly styled bob, banging away at a typewriter. The poet’s collected letters are covered by a photo of Plath at the beach in a two-piece, blonde hair gleaming as she smiles in the sun. The girls in the pictures were cool, aspirational even. Wurtzel’s and Plath’s book covers show without telling that they are the epitome of a beautiful wildness that, backgrounded by Ivy-league schools and fashion magazine internships, make their beautiful outsides just as much a part of the story as their inner turmoil.
And maybe that outer beauty was especially appealing because in my personal experience mental illness was unequivocally ugly. The adults who took care of me were always battling demons—chronic despair and addiction we couldn’t afford to treat, constantly screaming and sobbing at their problems and each other. As I grew old enough to understand that most of my friends didn’t live in squalid rental houses owned by their abusive grandfathers, I was drawn to Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted just as much for the scaffolding of those beautiful facades as for uglier stories with which I was already familiar. The settings of their stories, which were the Upper West Side, the Harvard quad, cocktail parties thrown by fashion magazines, even the mental institution featured in the film version of Girl, Interrupted seemed no more dark or depressing than a boarding school in a Muriel Spark novel. These were objectively beautiful girls being crazy in beautiful places, and to a wide range of girls feeling crazy in ugly places, the beauty served as a sweet fantasy to offset the bitter.
Hollywood latched on to the popularity of these stories, and the ‘90s were a booming time for the beautiful crazy girl narrative. Kaysen’s memoir was published just one year before Wurtzel’s and film adaptations of both books starred quirky girls with indie movie credentials, like Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in the case of Girl, Interrupted along with Cristina Ricci and Michelle Williams in the film version of Prozac Nation.
In Prozac Nation, Wurtzel insists that she doesn’t find herself particularly attractive, at least not in a conventional way, but the marketing team behind the book certainly must have some sense of how effective her face, like Plath’s, would be at selling her narrative. And as the book became a runaway bestseller, film producers began to look to child stars, like Ricci and Williams, who’d grown up to be particularly attractive to establish themselves as more serious actors by casting them as crazy girls.
The poster for the film version of Prozac Nation takes Wurtzel’s book cover one step further. In it, Ricci lies on a sterile white bed, naked to the waist where she’s covered by a sheet, but the expressions are the same: dark mermaid hair framing big eyes and cool girl pout. In a scene from Girl, Interrupted, a doctor recounts Kaysen’s recent suicide attempt, reminding her that she “chased a bottle of Asprin with a bottle of vodka.” Ryder, New England chic in a boatneck sweater and perfectly razored pixie cut, responds “I had a headache,” acerbic and clever even as she’s prettily fragile. These movies were a tonic to girls used seeing themselves represented as either perfect cheerleader types or didactic lost causes. The pretty crazy girl didn’t give a shit: she was brilliantly flawed, her imperfections providing fuel for her genius.
At the tail end of the trend came 2001's succinctly named crazy/beautiful, a film in which a working-class guy, played by Jay Hernandez, falls for the rich, unstable daughter of a congressman, played by Kirsten Dunst. She deals with her tumultuous home life and inner turmoil by drinking and drugging, while her lovesick boyfriend cares enough to carefully shepherd her from danger. There’s a reason the roles aren’t reversed. If the movie were called crazy/poor person, the plot would fall apart and the happy ending would most likely feel too far-fetched even for Hollywood.
Eventually, the crazy beautiful girl role would be softened to fit more easily into stories with a male lead and rebranded as the “manic pixie dream girl,” no longer so unstable that her instability would overpower the male protagonist’s story.
But Wurtzel’s memoir forever changed the ways that women were allowed to write about all manner of pain, mental illness, physical illness, or otherwise. The Plath/Wurtzel girls, myself included, would grow up to publish scores of personal essays on websites from XO Jane to Jezebel, but the celebrity and the myth of the pretty crazy girl seems to have subsided, at least for now.
By the end of her life Wurtzel, who died last week at 52 of complications from cancer, was still famous, but that fame didn’t go as far as it once did according to close friend Ginia Bellafante’s tribute in the New York Times. Wurtzel’s New York life, at the end, wasn’t as glamorous as Prozac Nation seemed to promise:
“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.”
And while the disappearing market coupled with a flood of content could be a contributing factor in the downfall of the crazy beautiful protagonist, the conversation has also moved away from breaking taboos around frank discussion of mental health to discussions about how few of us can afford to treat our mental maladies. While many Americans remain uninsured, even those who are insured are much more likely pay out-of-network costs for mental health treatment than they are for doctor’s visits concerning physical health. And the psychiatric facilities like those that so frequently appeared in 20th-century narratives centered on mental health have all but disappeared. A two-year stay at Claymore, like that described by Kaysen, is now pretty much out of reach for anyone but the richest among us, and an alarming number of people currently depend on emergency rooms to provide short-term solutions to mental health crises. While it’s more acceptable to talk about mental health than ever before, it’s also still incredibly difficult to do anything about it.
But the image of the lovely, crazy girl is immortalized in works like Prozac Nation and The Bell Jar, which at this point, have basically become classified as YA literature. Perhaps because sadness couched in admiration over these archetypes is a bit more aesthetically pleasing than despair at the medicine that goes unprescribed by doctors none of us can afford. In Hamlet, upon Ophelia’s death following a fit of madness, Gertrude laments that she was “incapable of her own distress,” an elegy that neatly absolves everyone around her for their parts in her misery. Paintings of Ophelia depict her as beautiful and fragile, submerged in a river with a body covered in flowers, the setting meant to convey a sense of beauty born from madness. It’s a beautiful image, but it’s also a fantasy easily shattered by much uglier truths.