Despite Prozac Nation’s popularity when it was released almost 20 years ago, the book and its author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, have always been divisive figures. Consider the intense, mixed reaction to the piece Wurtzel wrote recently for New York Magazine about her current, still-depressive state of mind, and now imagine the number of blog entries, tumblrs, and parody Twitter accounts Prozac Nation would inspire if it were released today (@ElizWurtzelMood: Still sad). I don’t know if it would be a success, but then again, I’m one of the people who didn’t think it was that great in the first place.
My problem with Prozac Nation back then is still my problem now: depression like hers is simply not interesting to read about. Most depressives are aware of how unpleasant their disease is—how boring it is to describe it, and how unpleasant it is to hear about it—which is why the usual reaction is to lay low and stop talking to people until it passes, not sit down and write hundreds of pages describing your misery in detail.
The book’s hook to make it seem like more than just the author’s personal misery inventory is an exploration of the broader popularity of psychotropic medication. Prozac was revolutionary back then, not the generic prescribed to anxious dogs that it is now. That angle still seems like a reach to me, because A) Wurtzel is clearly mentally ill and medication is a necessity for her, not an unnecessary luxury pushed upon her by big pharma, and B) even if there were and are too many privileged kids taking pills at the slightest inkling of sad, she’s not the authority to speak on that. If the book was popular, I think it’s more because nobody could understand how such a pretty, blonde Harvard grad could be so damned miserable.
I’m guessing that’s why Cat Marnell just sold her book for many bunches of money, because inquiring minds want to understand why such a cute, skinny downtown girl could be so hopelessly addicted to drugs. It’s also why A&E and its basic cable brethren have so many shows dedicated to exploring addiction, compulsion, and every other mental mishap. The problem is that there’s never really a “good” reason why people get sick with mental illness or addiction, and no matter how thorough the description of the illness and the life its affected, there won’t be any easy answers found within.
Of course, everybody tries--A&E always attempts to connect every problem to a past trauma, Wurtzel’s parents’ divorce is just the tip of a very troubled iceberg, and Marnell seems to be figuring out whether her addiction is actually a problem she wants to deal with in the first place--but the human instinct to find the cause of the problem in order to find the solution does not apply to mental illness. I read a lot about good books about mental illness, but they succeed by telling a story in such an intimate way, it becomes universal, not by proclaiming, I'm the every-crazy, it's all in me, so to speak.
Wurtzel was a pioneer in self-exploitation and perhaps, the inventor of the hate-read. Because her book wasn’t actually a commentary on the times but a deep dark navel gaze, it hasn’t aged too poorly. The cheap Soho apartments and, given how specialized psychotropic drugs are now, even Prozac are fairly dated, but the tortuous nature of her personal history as is tiresome as it was back then. I don’t hate Wurtzel—I actually liked her New York piece, even if it was a little long—but where that article had a clear thesis of sorts, this book still does not. Prozac Nation’s position in our culture remains unchanged after all these years, for better or worse.