A Conversation with Elizabeth Wurtzel (1967–2020)

I need your advice

Elizabeth Wurtzel My parents in no way behaved themselves. They were completely out of control. They in no way tried to shield me from their problems, from how much they hated each other. They were unhinged people and did nothing to keep me from knowing how unhinged they were. But I admire them for being in pain and not pretending they were not in pain. I mean, people who do this in a civilized way now, shame on them. Divorce is not a civilized thing, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a very destructive thing to end a marriage. You make vows in front of people saying, “‘til death do us part, for richer, for poorer,” and it’s very serious. You hear all that, and the point is that you make a commitment to work all this stuff out. You have this problem; you have that problem—it’s nothing that anybody who wants to attempt to examine who they are couldn’t solve. The reason that my husband and I are having problems right now is that my husband is addicted to marijuana and can’t examine who he is. But we don’t have any extraordinary problems that other people don’t have. It’s difficult. I have advanced breast cancer, but that’s nothing that everything you say when you get married doesn’t anticipate.

Natasha Stagg In sickness and in health.

EW Right. All of these things are things that you foresee when you get married. And it’s uncivilized, to get divorced. It’s a sign that you didn’t understand what you were getting yourself into. It’s a sign that you did not understand what it is to get married because when you got married, all this stuff was to be anticipated. A lot of people aren’t serious about getting married. A lot of people, when they get married, are mostly thinking about how much fun it’ll be to be a bride, to be a groom. Most people are not thinking about what a serious thing they’re getting themselves into.

NS Sounds terrifying, when you put it that way.

EW I think it’s terrifying. I didn’t get married until I was 47 years old. I think it’s terrifying. I think very few people should be getting married. . . . I’m watching the entire Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu. I’m on season three and she’s starting to realize she never wants to get married. She’s 30, and it’s unheard of to be 30 and unmarried, but it’s pretty clear that she’s different, and she’s going to have a revelation. I’m freaked out that I’m going to be done with it at some point, because I can’t get enough of it.

NS Now, the people who are married by 30 are the weird ones. At least here. Most of my friends in their thirties in New York are not married, but most of my friends outside of New York are married, probably.

EW I didn’t feel weird, growing up here and not getting married by 30.

NS Being here, it feels like there are too many things I want to do before getting so involved in someone else’s life.

EW Right. You can’t get married and not be really into someone else’s life.

NS That seems to be the idea.

EW That might be what’s wrong with my marriage. I don’t think it’s supposed to be that way, though.

NS It’s not supposed to be any one way, is also the idea.

EW My husband and I, we don’t have joint savings, we don’t even file our taxes together. I go away without my husband all the time, although you might say we have a bad marriage. But living for someone else, that’s really pathetic. You only get this life. I’ll tell you something. Here’s my best piece of advice.

NS I need your advice.

EW I have a friend who was diagnosed with something really pretty wretched. Like the most wretched thing you can be diagnosed with. She was diagnosed with something called cancer of unknown primary site. You’re looking at me like: What the fuck it that? I wouldn’t even know that it exists. It is cancer that just spreads all over so they can’t figure out where it started.

NS My mother was diagnosed with that.

EW Your mother had that? How’d she do?

NS She died.

EW How quickly?

NS Pretty quickly.

EW How did that happen to her?

NS She didn’t go to the doctor.

EW Right, that’s pretty much how it happened to my friend. The way that it happens is that you are living in tons of denial.

NS That’s true, I guess.

EW Now, here we are, and life is difficult and painful. Life is full of people behaving in wretched ways that are unacceptable, and the only way to get through life is to engage in denial. You have to constantly say, “This isn’t happening to me.” If you don’t say, “This isn’t happening to me,” you will not get through the day. If you don’t constantly deny your experience, you will go crazy. So denial is the most human coping mechanism. It’s the best thing we’ve got. The most essential thing is we deny that we’re ever going to die. But to the extent that we stop ourselves from denial and face up to what’s happening to us, that’s the extent to which we don’t die of cancer. To the extent that we face head on and look at and examine and pay attention to and admit to and accept and say, “Yeah, this is my life, yeah, this is what’s happening, yes,” that’s the extent to which we don’t die of cancer. For every degree of denial that we avoid, that’s the extent to which we have a good life. No one can blame anybody for denial. But most people die of cancer of unknown primary site.

NS How do you situate yourself on that scale? Super denial or very aware?

EW Sometimes it’s really hard, because you’ll see the truth and you’ll be in denial anyway. I haven’t filed for divorce. I probably should.

NS A divorce could be romantic.

EW That’s what all these people think. It’s never good to think you made a mistake. And if a person happens to be me, as soon as somebody becomes not that person to me anymore, they become material.

NS If you’re marrying a writer, you have to expect that you might become material one day.

EW I pretty much admit to being a monster in anything I write. I pretty much admit to being myself. Even people who are difficult get breast cancer.

NS Would you consider yourself difficult?

EW Oh, I know I’m difficult.

NS You wrote Bitch, in Praise of Difficult Women about 20 years ago. Do you think that if somebody else were to write that book now, you’d be one of the women in it?

EW No.

NS Why not? You identify with those women.

EW Yeah, but I don’t think you’re allowed to call women difficult anymore. It’s now sexist to call a woman difficult.

NS Isn’t everybody kind of swinging back in a sexist direction now?

EW Has that happened?

NS I don’t know. I’ve met a lot of men who bring up Me Too movement stuff and end up sounding really defensive of bad behavior.

EW I think men are afraid of examining themselves. The problem is that all men are sexist because they have to be, because they don’t want to give up their power. Show me the man who wants to give up his power.

NS Do you find that most of your fans are women?

EW I imagine I reach women more.

NS You mostly get compared to other women writers.

EW But I think men mostly get compared to other men.

NS Now, you get compared to young female memoirists. There are so many young memoirs now. It’s almost come full circle. Maybe most women that get published now write personal essays.

EW It didn’t used to happen. I had to fight for Prozac Nation because everyone wanted it to be a novel. They really thought that I should write a novelized version of my life. The whole thing was: “Who are you? Why would anybody care about your life? If you’re talented, you can write a novel, because you can invent something.” It’s not like I couldn’t do that. It’s not like it couldn’t have been a novel. But I don’t want to write novels. It’s terrible that men make the rules, and that men have decided that novels are somehow more valuable. It’s really, really, really hard to write about yourself. Women who have written about their own lives should be getting the Nobel Prize. Those are the only people who should be getting the Nobel Prize from now on because it’s really hard to do. It’s not that hard to write about politics. Read a book and you can do it. It’s not that hard to write about Donald Trump, or for that matter Afghanistan. It is really hard to figure out the stuff that scares people. I’m not doing this because I need to figure myself out. I have myself figured out. I’m doing it because other people need to figure themselves out. I’m not writing about myself. I’m writing about other people. It’s a really cheap thing to think that all I’m doing is writing about my life, as if that’s some easy thing.

NS Do you mostly read nonfiction or fiction?

EW I probably mostly read nonfiction, although I really did enjoy recently reading Crazy Rich Asians. It’s entertaining. But I mostly read journalism at this point, and that’s just terrible. Actually, before you came here, I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s piece about what’s going to happen to marijuana legalization. I’m wondering about the demise of civilization as a result of that, even though I think it should be legalized because of course it should be. I own every marijuana stock you could possibly own, including the penny stocks. I believe in the whole thing because I just think people can’t stop themselves. I own cigarette stocks. I think people can’t stop themselves with that stuff, too.

NS You don’t smoke, though?

EW No. I just think if it’s bad for you, people will do it. You can definitely bet on people behaving badly. People are vaping. Go for it. Vape your way to death. What’s the logic?

NS It’s supposed to be better for you than smoking.

EW Here’s the thing: I just kind of think if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Pretty much, there’s no such thing as feeling good without paying for it in one way or another. That is just how it goes. Do you smoke?

NS I do. I smoke cigarettes.

EW People your age still smoke? That’s crazy. I quit cigarettes in 2009. I had this bad cough all the time. I decided I was going to start running with my dog, so we went to the track that’s on the river here. I started to run with her and she ran way ahead of me and I couldn’t catch up. So she eventually turned back and she, like, laughed at me. She got this look of total contempt on her face like: oh my god, you’re such a fucking loser. She loved me so much. I had fifteen cigarettes left in my pack and I didn’t finish them. That was it.

NS Do you think that the literary world seems very closed off? Especially now? Not a lot of people know that it exists. There are writers that only hang out with other writers.

EW I don’t know that the literary world exists. Does it exist? The five people who are still talking to each other who write?

NS I’m sure it was, at one point, substantial.

EW No, it probably was five people talking to each other then, too. It’s always been five. There’s probably always been five people talking to each other. We thought they were very important. I learned how to write by listening to music. I think you always have to think that you’re competing with everything. People have better things to do than read. You really have to make people want to read rather than do whatever it is that they should be doing.

NS You’re definitely that kind of writer. My boyfriend doesn’t read a lot of essays, but the other day I told him that I was going to meet you and he said, “I just read her latest thing.”

EW Well, that’s good. I’ve always thought that you had to write as if you were saying to somebody, “You will not believe what just happened to me.” But that could be anything. “You won’t believe what just happened to me at the Duane Reade.”

NS But haven’t you ever felt that there was a literary scene you were a part of?

EW I think there was. There was this wonderful guy name Rob Bingham who had this apartment on White Street. He had a pool table in the middle of his apartment, and he had really great parties. He funded the literary magazine Open City. He died in 1999. They had great parties. I met David Wallace at a party that they had. He lived in Illinois, but I met him here.

NS You were close to him, though. Were you pen pals?

EW Yeah, and we talked on the phone. And he would come here. He was here quite a lot. He had to do a lot to maintain his reputation as a person who was hiding from the crowd. But he’s had a stunning after life. You’d think he would have liked to have seen all this. It’s sad that he didn’t manage to live to see it. It’s sad.

NS Do you think he would have liked it?

EW He would have liked this. People think he’s far more amazing than he in fact was. Which is how it always is.

NS If somebody dies young?

EW Yeah, it’s outsized. It’s so interesting.

NS About people dying young, or about novelists? Or male voices?

EW About people dying young, but it’s also all that. It’s a pointed thing. I’m glad that the Me Too movement happened because sexism is such a shocking thing. Because it’s really easy to imagine male genius. You can bestow it upon people rather easily. Who are the female geniuses? Nobody. Susan Sontag, she’s amazing. And the younger people are referring to her as genius. Young people are complaining about the awards she didn’t get.

NS You also hear people complaining about her being difficult.

EW Right. And no one complains about Norman Mailer being difficult. I don’t know if he was or if he wasn’t, because nobody complains about that. But you know, something is bothering me about this. Right when you feel the Me Too movement has gotten somewhere, it hasn’t gotten very far at all. It hasn’t gotten to hedge funds, where the ratio of men to women is eighty to one. Men are mostly hoping it doesn’t work out. Sexism is so bad. The only reason I can understand my mother’s situation and all the things she did that were so bad to me is I see how bad sexism is now, to me—and it’s hard to be bad to me, because I’m a fighter.

NS You have definitely changed the landscape. And it is appreciated.

EW Really, I don’t think I’ve done very much. I don’t think I’ve done enough. It’s not a one-person job.

NS No, but you’ve definitely done your part.

EW The problem is they’re not a group, they’re a population. They’re half the world. They’re half the world and they have all the power. It’s distressing. But I don’t know. I’m encouraged. I’m trying to think of what I’m encouraged by.

NS What are you encouraged by?

EW I’m encouraged that young women are outraged. Everyone should be.

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