Sunday, February 17, 2013

Elizabeth Wurtzel Has A Sad ... Or Something

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s New York magazine essay My One Night Stand Of A Life, is a deeply narcissistic, highly vulnerable and excruciatingly honest piece of long form writing that shows what happens when talent fades. If Ms. Wurtzel’s name sounds familiar to you in an “I Love the 90s” kind of way, you’re not alone. She rocketed to fame in 1994 when her autobiography, Prozac Nation, became the touchstone for a generation of raw testimonials about childhood struggle, depression, uninhibited sexuality and mania. And now, in what is the literary equivalent to a C-list celebrity’s finding a second life in the now mainstreamed genre of reality TV, Wurtzel has unloaded a more than 5,500 word stream of consciousness rant about her life at 45, a sad and lonely place that feels like the logical bookend to this particular form of Generation X writing.

My One Night Stand reads as if a stereotype of the young woman as artist was frozen in amber and brought back to life in middle age. While the rest of the world grew up, got married, had kids and moved to the suburbs, Wurtzel lived a dizzying life of casual hookups, drug use and apartment hopping that she wants you to know makes her better than you because she can still fit into the same pair of 501s from high school, rubs elbows with Bret Easton Ellis and decided to go to Yale Law School "on a lark" in her late 30s. But much of My One Night Stand reads like a defensive explanation for why a once shining literary light has produced such a paucity of work while "stubbornly and proudly, empathetically and pathetically" refusing to grow up. There is no question Wurtzel is fully aware of her own self-absorption. Few writers, let alone psychologists, could better diagnose her malaise. When she speaks of herself as one of New York's "Lost Boys" or spins a plum such as this, straight out of a 2 AM dorm room discussion: "I live specifically, with intent. The intent is, I know now, not at all specific, except that I have no ability to compromise," she is zeroing in on precisely what makes her piece either the greatest mockumentary since Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop or the well paid navel gazing of a woman so wrapped up in her own world that anyone making it to the end of her article will not laugh at her bravado ("no one else seems to live as I do") but rather, feel great pity for her cluelessness and need to justify her existence to others (it is unclear) who question it. 

While Monday morning quarterbacking one's life in middle age is not uncommon, Wurtzel's almost pathological desire to relitigate hers, from hardscrabble roots as a middle class child of a single parent in Manhattan to Harvard, the self-assuredness that (according to her) has allowed her to write what she wants and have that be sufficiently remunerative to never have to compromise her ideals and to justify blowing her money on drugs, men and partying, is to erect a series of straw men only to discover there is nothing to knock down. Wurtzel has not learned a critical lesson that others her age (and I count myself in that category, though she has 3 years on me) who have moved on from these battles have internalized - "who cares." Here, the arrested development Wurtzel clearly suffers from is in full bloom. She must pacify herself by humblebragging her achievements, from being published in Seventeen magazine before she went to college to matriculating at Yale Law School in her late 30s. While she lolls away a Friday "working from home" only to, gee whiz, discover her name, and the only female one at that, in the "Literature" category of famous Harvard alumni in a publication released by that university, this incessant CV-checking and the attendant name dropping she sprinkles throughout My One Night Stand screams "insecurity," not "accomplishment." 

Wurtzel is constantly reminding us of her genius, but having attended Yale Law, her world view is shockingly black and white. In law, as in life, wide shades of grey exist, yet in Lizzie's world you are either a soul-sapped parental unit who may or may not be divorced or a struggling artist whose life is a swirl of drama befitting a character on Girls even though you are closer to an AARP card than being kicked off her parents' health insurance plan. And if it is true that lawyers are binder producing drones whose work product lands in warehouses off the New Jersey Turnpike, why exactly did Wurtzel go to law school (and why does she mention this fact over and over again)? Oh right, a "lark," which, according to her, is part of what makes her unique. Perhaps at Yale every student is earnest and prepared to enter the legal profession, but I know many people who have attended law school on a lark, some dropped out, some were there solely to satisfy their parents or their own intellectual curiosity, but larks they were. 

Perhaps Wurtzel anticipates these critiques, explaining that her fierce independence simply did not allow her to take the easy or predicable path and that objectivity about her decision making simply does not exist; however, as she speculates about the version of her life that does not include working for nationally-renowned trial attorney David Boies (which appears to be the version in REAL life, as she is not listed as an attorney with his firm, a point she neglects to mention), she also fails to consider that had she not been so frivolous in her choices, she wouldn't be sharing with the world the story of getting kicked out of her sub-let apartment by a 50-year old woman she calls "Hooker Maria." Indeed, the thread woven throughout this piece is Wurtzel's odd belief in her uniqueness, as if she is the only person who can "love with a pure heart and hope for the best" or that everyone else is willing to do things that make them "adjustable" but she cannot, and you can never hope to live the "overwhelming emotional life" that only Elizabeth Wurtzel experiences like "flat sheets of hard rain." 

Here, Wurtzel's decision to never establish roots explains how she thought nothing of contacting a famous lawyer (the aforementioned Mr. Boies) to solve a simple tenant dispute; something akin to asking Stephen Hawking to solve your 7th grade algebra problem. Indeed, playing the helpless naïf, who, at 45, cannot get her shit together enough to resolve a conflict by either taking some of that “royalty account” she proudly boasts of to buy a home or deploying some of the skills any student learns in law school – of mediation and negotiation – to reach an acceptable outcome appears to be a cross she happily bears. That the "Hooker Maria" incident drove Wurtzel into a spiraling depression for months on end that made her cringe at close contact or the delivery man's ringing of her doorbell says far more about the importance of learning adult problem solving instead of being used as an excuse to barricade yourself in your apartment ducking behind couches at the slightest curious sound. 

It is far easier to call a father-surrogate, but really, requiring someone to swoop in and solve your drama swirl at age 45 makes you lame, not tortured. Blowing advances on Birkin bags so you can brag about toting Hermes on the IRT and adopting the philosophy that "if you take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves" is a great philosophy if you want to be a 45-year old with little to show for your life's pursuits other than your Gyrotonic-toned body and the belief that people still care about what you say for anything other than the can't-look-away-from-the-car-crash value. 

You see, the Peter Pans of the world who refuse to grow up assume the trade offs of giving up their freedoms are too painful, too binary, too zero sum. The Wurtzel manifesto of "true love and artistic integrity," of justifying all the poor decision making by clinging to principles that amount to a middle finger lofted high and in no particular direction is wonderful when you are 21 and have learned little about life, but surely Wurtzel's neck is sore from tilting at these particular windmills. Lizzie Wurtzel won't buy a home or invest money in the stock market because she would rather be a sad girl bemoaning the friends she no longer has or the life she thinks she has lost (but fiercely defends). But the dirty little secret is that the trade offs are not as dire, the loss of cool points not as dramatic, as they might appear. Rather, it is the obligations that come with mortgages or retirement accounts or <gasp> marriage, that the Elizabeth Wurtzels of the world truly fear. Far easier to keep ironic distance, having cinematic episodes where you are slumped in a heap on a park bench with the late afternoon rays of sunshine casting "brilliant shadows" as you collapse sobbing before calling someone to fix your problems. 

Sadly, Wurtzel's zealous clinging to her particular worldview limits what might be an interesting second act. Instead of spraying her "pathological honesty" all over magazine pages for all to read (and pick apart), she could take that Yale Law JD and turn it to some public good, because the haze of David Boies's legal brilliance notwithstanding, Ms. Wurtzel could visit many a Legal Aid office, public defender or law school clinic and find equally intelligent (and more socially conscious) lawyers not motivated by a $1,000 per hour quote. As a writer who still commands an audience, she could take on causes that extend beyond her own self-interest or simply grow up and embrace the totems of adulthood she has so deftly avoided. 

Having popularized the confessional as memoir, Wurtzel's influence is unquestioned and her place in modern literature secure. Click over to Jezebel, xoJane, any of hundreds of blogs or read quarter-life memoirs on any given day and you can see pieces written about eating disorders, prescription pill addiction and more, all of which owe a debt to her style and technique. And therein may lie the truth at the bottom of My One Night Stand - having once been extraordinary and yes, unique, the author is now pedestrian and ordinary. Instead of burning out, she is simply fading away. 

You can read her article here and make your own judgment:

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