Writer and journalist, author of Prozac Nation

Born, July 31, 1967;

Died, January 7, 2020.

ELIZABETH Wurtzel, who has died at the age of 52, was the author of the controversial 1994 memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, an early example of the warts-and-all style of memoir. It was credited with shining a light on clinical depression and the beginnings of the rise of the use of anti-depressants, and with opening the subject up for discussion.

Wurtzel died of metastatic breast cancer which had resulted from the BRCA genetic mutation. Diagnosed with cancer in 2015, she underwent a double mastectomy and became an advocate for BRCA testing, which might have saved her had she undergone it.

Writing about her experience in The New York Times, she said: “I could have had a mastectomy with reconstruction and skipped the part where I got cancer. I feel like the biggest idiot for not doing so.”

Wurtzel, who was born in New York City in 1967, discovered just over three years ago that Donald Wurtzel, the man to whom her mother was married when she was born, and with whom she had a troubled relationship which had been a recurring theme in her writing, was in fact not her father – and that she was the product of an affair between her mother and the photographer Bob Adelman, who died in 2016.

She later confessed that she had written “thousands of words on the wrong problem”.

Her mother, Lynn, and Wurtzel, an IBM middle manager, went through a messy divorce when Elizabeth was two years old and continued to wage a long-distance fight for years afterwards during which time “father” and “daughter” had intermittent contact, culminating in his doing a vanishing act from her life when she was 14.

By then, Wurtzel was already a keen writer – she wrote a book about pets when she was six years old. She was also already suffering from mental illness and had begun experiencing episodes of depression, self-harm and drug use, for which her parents sought treatment.

While an undergraduate at Harvard, she won the Rolling Stone college journalism award for an article she wrote about the singer Lou Reed for the student newspaper. An internship at the Dallas Morning News followed but ended abruptly when she was accused of plagiarism. She went on to find work as a music critic for the New Yorker and New York magazine.

She began writing Prozac Nation in 1986, while she was still at Harvard. It chronicled her experiences of clinical depression through her teens and twenties, when she sought escape through cocaine abuse and casual sex as well as therapy. Its frank tone, and Wurtzel’s willingness to show herself at her worst, divided critics, but Prozac Nation – with its semi-clad 27-year-old author, the poster girl for Generation X, on the cover – zoomed up the bestseller lists, was made into a Hollywood movie (in 2001, starring Christina Ricci) and inspired a tidal wave of confessional writing. It has also turned out to be a book with which many people identified and have credited with reflecting, to some extent, their own experiences of depression and anti-depressants.

Critics were divided about Prozac Nation; one of the frequent criticisms was that Wurtzel came over as completely self-absorbed. She refuted this, saying: “The way I am is that I put everything I have into whatever I’m doing or thinking about at the moment. So it’s not right when people say I’m self-absorbed. I think I’m just absorbed.”

Wurtzel’s friend, the writer David Samuels, told The New York Times last week: “Lizzie’s literary genius rests not just in her acres of quotable one-liners but in her invention of what was really a new form, which has more or less replaced literary fiction – the memoir by a young person no-one has ever heard of before. It was a form that Lizzie fashioned in her own image, because she always needed to be both the character and the author.”

She continued to mine her personal life for her third book, More, Now, Again, which documented her struggle to write her second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, as well as her drug addictions. She wrote: “Any pill will do. I don’t care about the effect anymore, up or down, so long as I’m never just straight. I steal pills from people’s medicine chests. Everyone has had a root canal or a wisdom tooth extraction.” Neither publication brought the success or acclaim of Prozac Nation.

In 2004, Wurtzel resumed her studies, this time at Yale Law School, fulfilling a lifetime ambition to attend law school. One of her fellow students was Ronan Farrow, the son of Mia Farrow. Writing on Twitter after Wurtzel’s death, the investigative reporter said: “We were both misfits and she was kind and generous and filled spaces that might otherwise have been lonely with her warmth and humour and idiosyncratic voice.”

Passing the New York bar exam in 2010, she landed a job with a law firm but quit in 2012 to concentrate on her writing. Three years later she married the photographer and writer James Freed – a move which she confessed surprised even her. The marriage ended last year. She is survived by Freed and by her mother.