I Hate Myself and I Want to Die
A Heart-to-Heart With Elizabeth Wurtzel, Author of Prozac Nation
Eight years ago, when Elizabeth Wurtzel began writing her memoir about being depressed at Harvard University, she wasn’t trying to be the poster child for glumness in America. But in the few months since her book has been out, that’s exactly what she’s become. Love it or hate it, people are freaking out over Prozac Nation. Critics say Wurtzel is overly self-involved and whiny, and they don’t get why anyone would want to read 300 pages of a privileged college girl histrionically complaining about how much her life sucks. Fans say it is an extremely detailed and realistic depiction of what it’s like to suffer from depression and that it should be required reading for psychiatric professionals and anyone who has ever battled with the disease or had antidepressants prescribed to them. We just think it’s fun to read about crazy teenagers being crazy.
And now we’re hearing rumors of Prozac Nation being optioned for a movie. Wouldn’t Winona Ryder be perfect for it? Maybe we’ll finally get to see her boobs!
Vice: You were one of the first people to ever go on Prozac, right?
Elizabeth Wurtzel: I was really fortunate that at Harvard Medical School there was a doctor who was experimenting with it. But I wasn’t part of the protocol, I wasn’t part of the experiment. By the time I went on it, it had just been approved by the FDA. People in Cambridge knew about it very early on, and I was put on it right when it became available. Then suddenly everyone was on it a few years later and it became out of control.
The funny thing was I worked at the Dallas Morning News summers during college, and I was working in the style section. I said to my editor, “I’m on this medication that’s going to become a really big thing, because it’s quite a breakthrough. You don’t know what it’s done for me.” And she said, “I just can’t believe that’s a story.” I thought this was going to be the biggest thing, and she just couldn’t take it seriously as a story.
That seems to be what most people have latched onto about the book. The title makes it seems like it’s a sociological study, rather than the personal story it is.
The epilogue is my attempt at trying to capture how people are thinking. But no one ever sets out to do something like be the voice of a generation, except for maybe Douglas Coupland and Generation X. But usually nobody sets out to do that. The original title of my book was I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, so it was totally personal. It still is totally personal. But I had an epilogue that was called “Prozac Nation,” and my editor said, “That’s what we should call the book.” So that made it seem like it was the story of a generation or the story of a group of people instead of just a personal story. That was kind of clever marketing, I guess.
You started writing Prozac Nation almost ten years ago, in 1986. How does it feel now that it’s finally come out?
I was working on it for so long. It was originally a book about Harvard; it wasn’t even about depression. But everything in it was about being depressed, so that changed it. I’m totally surprised at how it finally worked out. It’s weird when you’re in this really bad state of mind. I would be walking around Cambridge and I would ask myself, “Is this ever going to mean something? Is this ever going to be more than my stupid, miserable chemicals making me crazy?” There’s no way of knowing if someday it’s all going to make sense and be useful to you, or it’s just that you’re living through hell. I did wonder if there was going to be some use for all this misery. It turns out there was, but one is not always so lucky.
What have people been saying about it?
The book’s gotten so many mean reviews; people have positively hated it. But it got a really nice review from Michiko Kakutani in the Times, and that counts for a lot. Then it got a miserable review in the Times Book Review. So it’s gotten some wonderfully good press and some wonderfully bad press. But it’s definitely gotten attention.
You yourself have been getting a lot of attention as a Prozac poster child. What has that been like?
Public attention is just weird. What’s actually happening is not all that much—my life hasn’t changed that drastically. I thought it would. I thought something big would happen. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I thought I would feel transformed by the experience. But I still feel like myself. With any success, say if you suddenly win millions of dollars in the lottery, your life will change, but you’re not transformed. Transformative experiences come from within, not from without. It sounds sort of corny, but it’s actually unfortunately true.
Was writing Prozac Nation a cathartic experience?
There was a point where I finally finished it one odd night. I had been awake writing for a couple days and I hadn’t slept because I was just trying to get it finished. I finally wrote “The End” or something and I went to see Clerks at the Angelika and it was really weird—I’d forgotten to put my contacts in and didn’t have my glasses on, but I could still see perfectly. I was like, “Oh my God, something has happened. I was blind and now I see. I finished the book and a miracle has occurred.” I came home and was telling my roommate that my eyesight had improved since I finished the book a few hours before. I was trying to say that this completely transformative thing had occurred. Then I realized that, actually, my contacts had been in for a few days and I stopped noticing them. My eyesight hadn’t improved at all.
When it was finally finished, I felt like, “OK, I can put that to rest. Now it’s on paper and it’s not such a horrible monster anymore.” It is something. It does make a difference. The harder part is that I continue to have an essentially depressive personality and I continue to be medicated, so the end wasn’t the end.
I’d always been told that I should pretend I’m fine. That was how I was brought up—my mother said, “Don’t let anyone know that you’re crazy.” And then you write it down and it comes out and it turns out that there are millions of people who feel the exact same way. That’s kind of a relief. You find out that actually it would have been good to talk about this all along and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I did keep journals that, at some point, when somebody cares, I’ll donate or sell to some library or whatever it is you do. But I have to tell you that I didn’t really refer to them that much because I have a really good memory, and one thing I am really pleased about is that all the people in the book have told me that they can’t believe how accurately I remember things. Nobody’s said to me, “You remember things altogether wrong,” and nobody’s accused me of either making things up or misremembering. I obviously don’t remember exact dialogue but it’s pretty close, I think.
My boyfriend in the book, Rafe, I saw him when I went on tour in the fall; he came to see me in Seattle. And he said, “I don’t know how you got it so exactly the way it was.” But I was really relieved to hear that, because he’s not the hero of the book.
Even though they’ve told you it’s accurate, how do people in the book feel about their portrayals?
For one thing, I tried to protect their identities. I changed their names, although anybody who knew them would know exactly who I was talking about. There are no composites in the book. Everyone is an individual. But I think I make myself sound the worst. I think I’m the least sympathetic. With everybody else, I tried to imagine what was going on in their heads so they would be human. I don’t think the book blames a lot of people or does anything that makes people look bad. So I think most people were fine with it. There’s one character called Noah in the book who was unhappy with how he was portrayed.
He’s the guy you met your freshman year of college and who you drove around England with, right?
Yeah. I guess I made him seem silly, and he was silly. There was something very silly about him, but there was no escaping the silliness. I couldn’t put it in a way that would make it seem like something else. But one trick I learned is that if you describe anyone as good-looking, it almost doesn’t matter what else you say about them. Just say someone is a beauty or handsome, anything like that, they just totally forget that you said that they’re a crazy lunatic who kills babies. They’ll just be like, “But I’m handsome!” It’s really funny. That was a good trick for keeping people from being too annoyed.
How do you feel about being labeled as part of the Generation X phenomenon? Has that also brought attention to your story?
I was so used to the baby boomers getting all the attention. Just taking it up, leaving no oxygen for anybody else. So it’s really high time that somebody noticed that there are other people in the world. Grunge has been kind of this miracle, and seeing Nirvana on Saturday Night Live. I watched it at my mother’s house and I said, “Oh my God, Mom, we won.” There are these t-shirts that Sub Pop made that just say “Loser” on them, and it’s like the losers finally won. Finally, indie rock has become big rock. We could only listen to Poison and Bon Jovi for so much longer. Music in the 80s was just a disaster except for what was going on in the college-rock scene. It was the worst time, it was so oppressive. We had 12 years of Reagan-Bush, and, finally, Clinton got elected. Finally the world has said, “Enough is enough of this.” Young people have started to matter even though there are so few of us. That’s kind of exciting.
Are you worried that people are expecting you to keep writing about your depression?
I don’t worry about it because there are other things I want to do. I don’t know if anybody will care or anybody will read about them, but I have other things on my mind. I figure I’ll always find something to do. I worry about other things, like my love life, or will anything ever be right in so many ways. I’ve always found ways to write and do what I want to do.
What do you think you’ll be doing in, say, 15 years?
I think I’ll be married with kids and living in upstate New York. I think kind-of-normal things will happen. I do want to go to law school and I got applications, and now everybody’s saying, “No, no, you can’t do that now because you have too many other things to do.”
But will you still be writing?
Yes. I will always be writing. If that’s what you do, that’s what you do. It doesn’t go away.