Author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who chronicled her struggle with depression and drug addiction in several best-selling memoirs, died on Tuesday at a Manhattan hospital at the age of 52.
Wurtzel, who announced in 2015 that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, was best known for her 1994 memoir Prozac Nation, which turned her into a celebrity at 26 and helped jumpstart the genre of confessional writing.
The author underwent a double mastectomy in 2015, but the breast cancer had already spread to her brain. According to her husband, Jim Freed, Wurtzel died due to complications from leptomeningeal disease, which occurs when cancer spreads to the cerebrospinal fluid.
Wurtzel described her battle against breast cancer as “nothing” compared to giving up drugs. Right before she underwent surgery for the disease, she posted a picture of herself in the hospital with the caption, “Of the bad things that have happened to me, breast cancer does not make the top ten.”
Wurtzel began her writing career in the '90s, pushing her way into the public scene with her extreme candor and use of the personal memoir after being previously unknown outside New York literary circles. She was also a one-time writer for The Daily Beast.
Her 1994 literary debut, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, openly spoke about her difficult childhood, time at Harvard, and ongoing depression. The book’s title was inspired by the antidepressant she was prescribed.
In her memoir, Wurtzel chronicles her tormented adolescence and the challenges of growing up with divorced parents, who separated when she was a baby.
By age 11, Wurtzel wrote about her first overdose at a summer camp on the allergy medicine Atarax. She explicitly described cutting herself on her legs with razor blades when she was 12-years-old. A year later, she was spiraling into depression.
Towards the end of her book, she describes a “black wave” of depression that led to a suicide attempt and how she recovered with the help of the drug Prozac.
Four years later, Wurtzel wrote Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women—a series of five extended essays in which she links the lives of four very different women.
The New York Times noted that while the book is “full of enormous contradictions, bizarre digressions and illogical outbursts,” it’s also “one of the more honest, insightful and witty books on the subject of women to have come along in a while.”
Wurtzel is also known for More, Now Again, a 2001 series of essays in which she talks about her Ritalin addiction, shoplifting habit, and smuggling cocaine into Stockholm inside her diaphragm.
After testing positive for the BRCA genetic mutation and receiving her cancer diagnosis, Wurtzel became a vocal advocate for BRCA testing—all the while maintaining her well-known candor.
In 2018, Wurtzel wrote an opinion piece about her cancer battle in The Guardian, titled, “I have cancer. Don’t tell me you’re sorry.” She wrote, “Everyone else can hate cancer. I don’t. Everyone else can be afraid of cancer. I am not. It is part of me. It is my companion. I live with it. It’s inside of me.”
She described herself as “the most impossible person ever,” “worse than cancer,” and said that the disease “must be a blessing,” and she was “excited to be alive.”
Writers and journalists alike showed an outpouring of support for Wurtzel on Twitter after the news of her death. Journalist Ronan Farrow wrote that he and Wurtzel met in law school as “misfits.”
“She was kind and generous and filled spaces that might have otherwise been lonely with her warmth and humor and idiosyncratic voice,” he added. “She gave a lot to a lot of us.”