Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Value of Memoir… or Empathy

A friend sent me a link to this 5,500-word piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel in New York Magazine where Wurtzel elaborates on how sad she is, how bad 2012 was, and how she’s reckoning with her choice to always be a special, unique snowflake (“I am a free spirit. I do not know any other way to be. No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.”)
Actually, my friend sent me to this take-down of Wurtzel by Amanda Marcotte (Elizabeth Wurtzel Writes About Herself Again. Memoir Finally Hits Bottom). Marcotte has long been one of my favorite writers. She has a particularly acute understanding of politics, and especially anti-feminist tactics, that she’s always able to communicate with appropriate doses of vitriol and humor. And about Wurtzel, well, she’s not wrong:

Wurtzel, most famously the author of Prozac Nation (subtitled “Young and Depressed in America: A Memoir”), has long existed for seemingly no other reason than to make other writers want to stomp about in impotent rage. (Why must the rest of us endure notes from editors demanding reader-friendly qualities like “a thesis,” “evidence,” and “cohesion”?) Her latest word dump swirls around the fact that she is very sorry to find out that she, like all other human beings on the planet, is getting older. (Though she repeatedly makes note of the fact that she can still wear her college age jeans, in case any male readers are curious about what it would be like to be the next man to lay about with her wondering if the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world are simply going through a phase.) The realization that she will not be afforded special dispensation from having to join the sagging and wrinkling masses in our journeys to the grave sends Wurtzel into a tailspin of anger at the world for failing her. “I am a free spirit. I do not know any other way to be,” she bemoans. “No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.”

You’ll notice that Marcotte and I both quote the end of Wurtzel’s piece. On first glance, this sentence jumps out at me for its absolutely precious sense of self, and the isolation of the self from all others (“No one seems to live as I do.”). Further, in the piece, Wurtzel prides herself on her ability to still express her inner passion with all the emotional grandstanding of a high schooler:

I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal. I believe in true love and artistic integrity—the kinds of things that should be mentioned between quotation marks—as absolutely now as I did in ninth grade. But even I know that functional love includes a fair amount of falsity, or no one would get through morning coffee, and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table. But I can’t let go. I live in the chaos of adolescence, even wearing the same pair of 501s. As time goes by.

Late last night, after reading both pieces, I told my friend this:

I think the Wurtzel piece illustrates the problem with thinking of yourself as a writer/personality. She needs an editor. I thought her DFW reference was interesting because it put me in the mind of his A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Maybe NY Mag asked for 1,200 words on the NYC housing market.

I always defend good writing and an interesting consciousness, regardless of subgenre, but her piece doesn’t move me. It doesn’t dazzle with structure and formal play, like Heti’s How Should A Person Be? or Strayed’s Dear Sugar letters. She’s only working through her own shit. That’s boring, fundamentally, regardless of genre.

I’m a writer, and I write squarely from my own point of view. I’ve been called excruciatingly honest and many other things. I’m used to defending memoir — or, first-person personal essays that deal with the narrator’s experiences and ideas. And I have to defend some of Wurtzel’s effort. When I was commenting on Wurtzel to my friend, I almost called it “poor writing,” but I had to stop myself. If not poor writing, was it poor thinking? Poor editing? Poor structure? I may have had issues with those components, but it’s not the real error I see.

Wurtzel’s piece shows a terrifying lack of empathy. That’s why she’s demonstrating this perfect example of the potential problems of confessional first-person writing. Writers, editors, teachers–people who know what they’re talking about–deride memoir as looking in when the writer should be looking out. But no one can argue that well-crafted memoir has a doubling mechanism. Almost anything can be accomplished by a master of their words.

But a lack of empathy destroys the writer/speaker’s authority. In Wurtzel’s piece, this lack of empathy is especially jarring and galling because the base reason for Wurtzel’s decrepit unhappiness is this:

[T] previous tenant, from whom I was subletting . . . turned into a stalker. From time to time, and I never knew when, she would buzz and bang on the door and finally barge in, using a spare key she kept, and yell epithets at me for twenty minutes at a time, for no apparent reason. I have boyfriends who have caught me in very compromised situations, and none has ever called me “a disgusting little whore,” which is the kind of thing this woman would scream in a variety of less appetizing ways, on and on.

. . .

I used to be a happy person who had a lot of fun—even depression did not keep me from being a happy person who had a lot of fun. But having someone you have asked to stay away show up unannounced and yell hateful words is profoundly damaging. I feel sick. There is a gap between me and everyone, like a perforated box of polluted air is separating me from people: The space from me to anyone who might understand how lousy I feel seems vast. I am harsh and defeated, and I never thought I would describe myself in either way.

This is where, as a reader, I’m no longer willing to give Wurtzel the benefit of the doubt for her short-sightedness. I understand that she feels traumatized, but an important part of writing is checking yourself. In the piece, she says:

I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.

Her ability to separate herself from ALL PEOPLE as inherently special, damaged, intelligent and honest really puts me off. One reason  I defend memoir and first-person writing is because of its ability to enhance empathy. It’s a way for people to tell stories that reclaim humanity. I would not be the person I am if I had not spent a great deal of time reading women’s words, and especially, women on the internet. I have read more about rape and sexualized violence than even fits into one schema. There is Lara Logan and there are the two-finger virginity tests and that horrible NYT victim-blaming about the 11-year-old rape victim in Texas and the disproportionate murders of black mothers.

She disrespects stay-at-home moms and prostitutes and women who have occasionally made compromises in their careers or romantic relationships while going on about how everyone should be sorry for her because she was yelled at, repeatedly, by another woman. And she can’t help it — she’s just not like anyone else.

Susan Orlean was interviewed by Creative Nonfiction in 2011, and she exhorted young, would-be memoir writers to make themselves useful by working at newspapers and writing other people’s stories. I agree that writers need to make themselves useful, but I do believe it is also possible another way.

Wurtzel says in the piece:

I am fortunate to have been well paid for an almost pathological honesty, and the only way I am able to write that way is by being that way. It has been worth it—of course it has been—because there is a higher price attached to rare attributes than common ones. But there is a lot of good, workmanlike journalism that I could have, should have, and would have done if anyone ever thought of me. I established myself as someone much too precious.

Honestly is just an entree to empathy. Empathy–the ability to see ourselves in someone else’s words–is useful. Readers’ empathy might allow them to reconcile some feelings about their late mother when they read Cheryl Strayed, or feel better about an old crush when they read Captain Awkward. Sharing stories with readers can be useful, and I mean that in the Susan Orlean way, if it honestly serves the reader. But to be self-serving in first-person writing destroys that empathy. And it makes honesty, a cornerstone of personal writing, into nothing more than a bit of flash, like verbal calisthenics or stylistic preciousness.

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4 thoughts on “Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Value of Memoir… or Empathy

  1. Thank you! I meant to add another layer to the post about how Wurtzel is also comparing herself to these late, great (male) authors, and she’s positioning herself as taking the same self-serving liberties that they presumably would merit. It’s an interesting thought, but I still find it half-baked, and would prefer a strong edit to get closer to that point.

  2. I agree. Honesty, in my opinion, includes, as you say, “checking yourself.” She seems to have a pretty good handle on how she, herself operates, but why is she so sure she’s got everyone else figured out (implying that people who get married and have kids are unhappy and that all happy people are delusional)? She could use some kind of experience that takes her out of her own worldview and shows her some perspective.

    (this is Bridget by the way…apparently I set up some sort of commenting account at one point…)

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