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Elizabeth Wurtzel, Bestselling Author Of 'Prozac Nation,' Dies At 52

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Bestselling author Elizabeth Wurtzel died today at the age of 52. The cause was cancer "Prozac Nation," her memoir published in 1994, launched her career when she was 27. It caused a sensation for its no-holds-barred depiction of her struggle with depression and drug abuse. NPR's Rose Friedman has more.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: Here are some words you might encounter about Elizabeth Wurtzel if you read her obituaries today - funny, narcissistic, glamorous, messy, sad.

MEGHAN DAUM: For a certain kind of young writer, particularly young female writer in the 1990s, Elizabeth Wurtzel was exactly who you wanted to be and exactly who you were afraid to be.

FRIEDMAN: Meghan Daum is a writer who came up a few years after Wurtzel. She says that the publication of "Prozac Nation" was a huge event. One critic called it exasperating, but another said its author seemed, quote, "charming and gifted with a delicious sense of the absurd."

DAUM: "Prozac Nation" was all about being depressed and dealing with mental health issues and being a high achiever doing those things.

FRIEDMAN: Daum says Wurtzel was writing about herself in a new way.

DAUM: She was doing so in a way that was really interesting and compelling but that also got her labeled confessional. And I think for a lot of us, that was something that we wanted to avoid.

FRIEDMAN: We being a lot of women. But, of course...

DAUM: Everybody was talking about it.

FRIEDMAN: By the time "Prozac Nation" was published in 1994, Wurtzel had already lived what seemed like a long 27 years. Born in New York to parents who quickly got divorced, she struggled with depression, described cutting herself with razor blades, drank, took drugs and visited various hospitals and therapists. She wrote a commentary for NPR in 2006 about going to rehab.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH WURTZEL: You check in. They give you a backless hospital gown. The orderlies bring you cranberry juice. And no matter what you say, everyone says, I understand. This is quite a change from a life in which, if you've been drinking and drugging to excess, everybody has been telling you, I don't understand.

FRIEDMAN: But Wurtzel did those things while earning a degree from Harvard, landing plum writing jobs and then putting out a best-selling memoir. She was, to say the least, a complex person. Her close friend, writer David Lipsky, noted that her success rubbed some people the wrong way.

DAVID LIPSKY: People are envious in the way they always are envious when a young person publishes a book that's very successful. And she wrote one of the first big memoirs. Like, she is one of the people that we have to thank for the memoir boom of the last 25 years or so.

FRIEDMAN: He says her writing opened up a space for female writers to be themselves on the page.

LIPSKY: If you feel like you want to be very emotional, that should be a right that you have. And she felt that when people were telling her that she was being too emotional about something, that there was a way in which that was saying the way they didn't want women to be.

ANNE THERIAULT: It really resonated with me.

FRIEDMAN: Anne Theriault is a freelance writer in Canada. She read the book when she was in her 20s and wrote an essay about it on "Prozac Nation's" 25th anniversary. She describes Wurtzel's behavior as messy.

THERIAULT: Drinking too much, missing appointments or meetings with her family - she would stay in bed all day. She didn't attend classes or do her work. She would cry. She would cry very inappropriately.

FRIEDMAN: But for someone who, at the same age, experienced some of the same feelings, it was a revelation.

THERIAULT: You know, I had felt so much shame that I was this person who had such big emotions, and I didn't seem to be able to control them. And I felt so embarrassed and alone, and she made me feel less alone.

FRIEDMAN: Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote four other books, numerous articles and, at the age of 40, got a law degree from Yale in spite of or, perhaps, because of what she overcame.

Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.