Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of trailblazing memoir ‘Prozac Nation,’ dies at 52

Author Elizabeth Wurtzel, photographed in 2000, died Tuesday.
(Neville Elder / Getty Images)

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the groundbreaking memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America,” which sparked unprecedented dialogue about clinical depression and addiction, died in Manhattan on Tuesday at age 52.

The official cause of death was leptomeningeal disease resulting from a breast cancer metastasis, her husband, Jim Freed, told The Times.

Wurtzel was 27 when “Prozac Nation” was published and she went on to inspire others with her candid accounts of depression and drug addiction as documented in her influential memoirs. Similar stories from other writers liberated by her work soon followed.


The Times compared 1994’s “Prozac Nation” to Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted,” in that it “chronicles a beautiful, intelligent young woman’s breakdown, suicide attempt and subsequent treatment for depression.” Her book was eventually adapted into a 2001 film of the same name starring Christina Ricci.

“Prozac Nation” focuses on Wurtzel’s years as an undergraduate student at Harvard College, where she began taking Prozac while suffering from depression. Throughout the book, she recounts instances of casual sex and substance abuse. At the time, the antidepressant had only recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Despite, or because of, her fierce battles with depression, which were accompanied by frequent threats and promises of suicide, there was no one better to share something fun with than Lizzie — to see a movie with, to read the newspaper on Sunday morning, eat a tuna melt in a diner with, or listen to an old Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan record with at 3 a.m. in the morning,” David Samuels, a longtime friend and fellow writer, wrote in a statement to The Times. “She knew how precious it was to be able to feel anything at all, and she shared her pain and amazement at the world in ways that continue to resonate with people the same way that great music does.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel
Elizabeth Wurtzel on the cover of her debut memoir, 1994’s “Prozac Nation.”
(Riverhead / Penguin Random House via AP)

Wurtzel followed up “Prozac Nation” with more bestselling works, including “More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction,” which chronicled her experiences with drug abuse and rehab, and “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women,” a feminist essay collection saluting the contributions of prominent female figures such as Hillary Clinton, Margaux Hemingway and Nicole Brown Simpson.

While Wurtzel garnered acclaim for her fearless and self-aware approach to writing — especially in response to her debut — she also attracted harsh critics, who dismissed her testimonials as whiny and narcissistic.


“While she can go line for line with any writer in any business, what marks her as a lasting creative force is that she invented her own genre — the memoir of the 27-year-old girl who captivates and annoys everyone,” Samuels wrote in his statement. “She was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s bastard daughter by way of Rickie Lee Jones.”

Heralded by many as a flag-bearer of her generation, Wurtzel also lent her talents, stories and unapologetic opinions to a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker and New York magazine. In her 2008 op-ed for The Times, titled “Bitter ashes of burned bras,” Wurtzel offered scathing commentary on sexism in America and reflected on pop-cultural events ranging from Hillary Clinton’s presidential run to the 2004 TV drama “Entourage.”

“Walk onto the trading floor of any of the hedge funds that crowd the Lever House building in Manhattan and hardly a female face will be seen who is not a secretary or an assistant. Enter the software shops of Silicon Valley, go to the rows of terminals where geeky computer programmers design cleverly crafted new media,” she wrote.

“They are mostly smart boys, playing with their toys. Everything that keeps our economy running is run by men. Yes, of course there are women around — no one needs to remind me that Meg Whitman was the powerhouse behind EBay — but these are still treehouse atmospheres, boys’ clubs.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel in 1991 in New York City.
(Catherine McGann / Getty Images)

As with all demons in her life, Wurtzel was unflinchingly open about her fight with breast cancer, discussing her fears and regrets in a raw 2015 essay for the New York Times, which detailed her treatment process, as well as her discovery that she carried the BRCA mutation. The BRCA mutation increases the risk of breast cancer in young women.


Wurtzel met her husband, author of “The Illiterate,” at a reading in Chelsea in 2013 and married him in 2015.

“She’s a mesmerizing person,” Freed told The Times Tuesday. “There was her extreme extrovert personality, her combative conversation style. She was a rock star.”

The two amicably separated a year ago but still frequently communicated. Freed helped take care of Alistair, Wurtzel’s beloved service dog who accompanied her to oncology appointments in Philadelphia.

“That was typical of her,” Freed said of her long-distance oncologist. “She didn’t find the best doctor in New York, according to her, so she went to Philadelphia. When she had her eye on something, there was no stopping her. She was relentless.”

Her latest writing, according to Freed, was a continuation of the 2018 essay she wrote for the Cut, on discovering that her real father was allegedly Bob Adelman, the renowned civil-rights photographer. Her mother had kept the affair secret from her daughter and only confirmed it to her after Adelman’s death. The two met at Random House in the 1960s while working on a teen weekly.

About Donald Wurtzel, the father she was raised with and estranged from for several years before his death in 2014, Wurtzel wrote in the Cut, “I have been working out that relationship all of my life, in writing and therapy and conversation, with cocaine and heroin, with recovery and perseverance, and with my thoughts. I think so much. I can’t stop thinking. It’s all exposed. I don’t have a subconscious. You can’t surprise me. But this surprised me. I have been working out the wrong problem.”


Upon news of her death, several of Wurtzel’s friends and admirers took to social media to pen tributes, including journalist and “Catch and Kill” author Ronan Farrow, who met Wurtzel while studying law with her at Yale.

“She started mid-career as I was starting young,” he wrote on Twitter. “We were both misfits and she was kind and generous and filled spaces that might have otherwise been lonely with her warmth and humor and idiosyncratic voice. She gave a lot to a lot of us. I miss her.”

Another of Wurtzel’s contemporaries, Amy Friedman, saluted her as well, recalling some of the last words her friend spoke to her.

“⁦[Wurtzel]⁩ was one of my closest and dearest friends,” Friedman tweeted. “She fought this disease until the very end. Just 10 days ago she told me, ‘all there is to do is to move forward.’ A beautiful soul. May her memory be a blessing.”

Wurtzel received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College before studying law at Yale. She was born July 31, 1967, in New York City and is survived by Freed and her mother, Lynne Ellen Winters. A private funeral for friends and family is being held Wednesday. Her family is sitting shiva.


Freed said a public memorial for Wurtzel is in the works so that anyone who wants to can speak about her. “That’s how Elizabeth lived her life — in the spotlight,” he said.

He also added that Wurtzel was inspired by the #MeToo movement — in which her friend Farrow has been a key figure — and “was elated that the time of reckoning had come.” According to Freed, she met a few weeks ago with journalist E. Jean Carroll, who recently added her voice to the movement by accusing President Trump of rape.

“It cannot be the case that we went through all that bra-burning and consciousness-raising to be left choosing between, yet again, the madonna or the whore,” Wurtzel wrote on feminism in 2008. “Balance is difficult. But we can do it; we’re women. Like Ginger Rogers, we’ve been doing everything that men do, only backward and in high heels, for a very long time.”