I loved Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker essay in which he alerted readers to his battle with terminal lung cancer. But I took umbrage when an acquaintance on social media praised Schjeldahl for adhering to the long-reigning maxim that a writer must never say “ouch” — never let the reader see that the painful experience you’re writing about actually hurt you.
It occurred to me that this is another of several “rules” about writing — established by affluent, straight, white men — that need to be re-written. I mean, could there be a more stereotypically male directive, or one more informed by white gentility? As far as I’m concerned, false bravado has no place in memoir.
When I learned this week of memoirist and Gen X icon Elizabeth Wurtzel’s death, at 52, from metastatic breast cancer, I realized: she re-wrote that rule.
Wurtzel’s raw, absorbing memoirs, Prozac Nation, and More, Now, Again, were ground-breaking in this way. They made it okay — even fashionable — to write “ouch,” something many of us in the trenches of publishing memoir and personal essays now see as valid and valuable. This is how readers with similar experiences have their pain validated; this is how readers with different experiences develop empathy toward others. This is how we change the world.
Wurtzel died as she lived, baring her deep, existential pain and vulnerability until the very end. She was working on her final personal essay for Medium’s GEN vertical when she passed away on January 7th.
In the piece she reveals that as her health was declining, her marriage was unraveling, and she was also still wrestling with new information her mother finally uncovered a couple of years ago: that her biological father was not the same man as the father she grew up with. Of her waning marriage, she writes:
I am estranged and strange, strangled up in blue.
I do not want to feel this way. I am going through the five stages of grief all at once, which Reddit strings have no doubt turned into 523. They are a collision course, a Robert Moses plan, a metropolitan traffic system of figuring it out.
I feel bad and mad and sad.
Is this a festival of insight or a clusterfuck of stupid? I change my mind all the time about this and about everything else.
I got married because I was done with crazy. But here it is, back again, the revenant I cannot shake. I feel like it’s 1993, when my heart had a black eye all the time.
26 is a boxing match of the soul.
I did not expect bruises at 52.
Wurtzel was often derided for her candid “oversharing,” and that rankled me. I’ve been defending her and other brave writers like her forever. Although I didn’t know her very well, we were acquainted, first meeting in the 90s when I dated her cousin. She was the sort of bold, outspoken woman I both admired and feared — the kind who inspired me to start an unapologetic women tag at Longreads. (And I had been meaning to ask her to write a piece for the Fine Lines series I launched a couple of years ago. I am kicking myself for missing the opportunity to add her voice to that series.)
I’m sad she’s gone. I’ve been finding comfort in wonderful remembrances of her by Deborah Copaken at The Atlantic, Emily Gould at Vanity Fair, and Molly Oswaks at the New York Times. Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker, Kera Bolonik at NBC News, Mandy Stadtmiller at Medium, and Nancy Jo Sales at The Cut.