The Wistfulness of Elizabeth Wurtzel

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by Novaseeker on March 16, 2010

I’ve long considered Elizabeth Wurtzel a kind of image girl for the generation of women I grew up with.  Wurtzel was in the same college graduation year as I was, and although her school was ~3,000 miles away from mine, she is not dissimilar to many of the women I knew at my school:  smart, pushy, in-your-face with their sexuality, bitchy (and proud of it), intemperate, and shockingly entitled.
The world knows Wurtzel for her mostly confessional autobiographical books:  Prozac Nation, detailing her early struggles with depression and anti-depressants; More, Now, Again, detailing her later addiction to Ritalin which almost killed her; and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (and its follow-on, The Bitch Rules).
Well, Wurtzel – who could easily turn heads in her twenties when she wasn’t strung out on some or other drug –  is now aging into her middle forties and she’s not at all happy about it.  In a confessional piece in Elle Magazine (confessional seems to have always been Wurtzel’s writing niche – she seems to be at her best when giving readers a voyeuristic glance into just how royally screwed up a person she is) published last year, she waxes poetically about her regrets about her life in her twenties, and her anger about how her looks are inevitably fading now that she is in her forties.
It appears, as we men often note when discussing such things, that Wurtzel, like many women, actually had a relationship with a viable marriage partner in her twenties – a young man she refers to as “Gregg”:
When I was still in my twenties, for several years I had this wonderful boyfriend; I’ll call him Gregg—he’s the one we’re all waiting for: tall, blue-eyed, with this thick black hair, all smart and sensitive, an inveterate graduate student who used to rub my feet at the end of the day with a lovely pink peppermint lotion from the Body Shop. It was young and romantic. You’d have thought we were happy. I think really we were happy. He was good for me: People met him and liked me better because I was going out with him; his sweetness redounded to me like a sunny day on a dark sidewalk. I could have and probably should have spent the rest of my life with him, might have avoided scenes like the time some guy I was seeing later on chased me down Topanga Canyon with a hot frying pan, screaming at me something about learning to make my own goddamn omelets. In other words, had I just stuck with the good boyfriend, I could have prevented a good deal of extraneous craziness.
But, of course, most of the readers of the The Spearhead magazine already know what happens next without even having to read her text, given many of our own experiences with women in their twenties these days:
But something went wrong—terribly wrong.
The idea of forever with any single person, even someone great whom I loved so much like Gregg, really did seem like what death actually is: a permanent stop. Love did not open up the world like a generous door, as it should to anyone getting married; instead it was the steel clamp of the iron maiden, shutting me behind its front metal hinge to asphyxiate slowly, and then suddenly. Every day would be the same, forever: The body, the conversation, it would never change—isn’t that the rhythm of prison?
I was temporarily credentialed with this delicate, yummy thing—youth, beauty, whatever—and my window of opportunity for making the most of it was so small, so brief. I wanted to smash through that glass pane and enjoy it, make it last, feel released.
And so, I cheated on him. With everyone I could. Bass players, editors, actors, waiters who wished they were actors, photographers. And everywhere I could, like that Sarah Silverman and Matt Damon video: on the floor, by the door, up against the minibar. I couldn’t sit still or stand still or lie still. And I didn’t want to lose Gregg either.
Months later, when Gregg found out for sure what I was doing, when he went through files on my Mac and found letters never sent to this lover or that one, he didn’t want to make me feel better anymore. He threw a two-thirds-empty bottle of Stolichnaya at my head when I finally found him at a friend’s house. He told me, I was your only chance at happiness—now it’s over for you.
As it turns out, our man Gregg was no wuss.  But apart from that, and despite the fact that what Wurtzel did goes well beyond the average behavior of women of her generation (Wurtzel has always had something of a flair for not just behaving badly, but behaving spectacularly, extravagantly badly), the basic theme is common to many women of her generation:  why should I stay with the guy I love now in my early to mid 20s who is good for me when this is the prime time of my attraction and I can enjoy that by spreading myself around numerous interesting, yummy men? And so that’s what she did, throwing away what was probably her best shot at lifetime happiness in the process.
Wurtzel’s reflections on this reality are, however, disappointingly, if somewhat characteristically for her writing, confused and contradictory.  On the one hand, she seems to realize the power of her lost opportunity, but on the other she seems desperate to fight what her mind tells her is unshakable reality:
Age is a terrible avenger. The lessons of life give you so much to work with, but by the time you’ve got all this great wisdom, you don’t get to be young anymore. And in this world, that’s just about the worst thing that can happen—especially to a woman. Whoever said youth is wasted on the young actually got it wrong; it’s more that maturity is wasted on the old. I was both emotionally unkempt and mentally unhinged—deeply depressed, drugged, sensitive, and nasty all at once—during the years I was supposed to be spousing up.
Now that I am a woman whom some man might actually like to be with, might actually not want to punch in the face—or, at least, now that I don’t like guys who want to do that to me—I am sadly 41. I am past my perfect years.
Even there, we can see the anger at how life works juxtaposed with an almost resigned acceptance of reality.  And that reality hits hard, when she realizes the depths of it in fullness:
So here’s the funny thing: There seem to be more men coming around these days, and they keep getting younger as I get older—I’m an interesting, mature woman to a man in his twenties, while to a guy my age, I’m just jaded—but I think they are falling in love with a person I used to be, with a girl in a picture, with an idea or an image, not with who or what I am now. Because with every passing second, I feel I am less physically desirable, even though I’m finally, in fact, a desirable person. It makes no sense, it’s not fair, and it sucks.
Characteristic of Wurtzel and her writings, however, after making this rather good and solid insight, she then proceeds to more or less completely blow it:
But eventually, at some somber and sobering calendar date, most of us lose our looks and likewise one of our charms—and I will lose mine. At which time, for me at least, there won’t be much point to life anymore at all.
I don’t want to look back at what was, tell stories of once upon a long time ago, of what I used to do, of the men I once knew way back when, of 1,001 rapturous nights that were and are no more—I don’t want my life to be the trashy and tragic remains of a really great party, lipstick traces on a burned-out cigarette at the bottom of a near-empty champagne goblet. Sex and sexuality, at least for me, are not some segment of life; they are the force majeure, the flood and storm and act of God that overtakes the rest. Without that part of me, I’d rather be dead. And I know all I can do right now is hold on tight to the little bit of life that’s left, cling to the edge of the skyscraper I’m slipping off of, feel my fingers slowly giving way, knowing I’m going to free-fall to a sorrowful demise.
Maybe I would not have to hold on with such tough white knuckles if I’d done things right when I was still young.
Oh, to be 25 again and get it right. People who say they have no regrets, that they don’t look back in anger, are either lying or boring, not sure which is worse. Because if you’ve lived a full life and don’t feel bad about some of what you did, pieces are missing. Still, there are some mistakes that one is eventually too old—either literally or spiritually—to correct. I can’t go back.
It bears remembering that Wurtzel is a woman who has suffered from serious bouts of clinical depression and chemical addiction.  Perhaps that frames and explains her extreme case of “not getting it”.
Not getting what?  Not getting this rather obvious fact:  for a woman (or a man, for that matter, but particularly for a woman, given the time frames involved) to base her life and identity and value and enjoyment and so on around her sex appeal and hot sex with numerous men and so on is to live a self-defeating life.  Wurtzel rightly realizes, perhaps finally, that beauty and sex appeal have a shelf life that, for women, is somewhat shorter than it is for men.  Yet she draws the completely wrong lesson from this.  The lesson is not that life is unfair (although it can seem so, to everyone at some stage, for different reasons), or that life has no more point after sex appeal fades!  It rather obviously means that sex appeal is but one part of a fully lived life, and surely not the central part, given that it is a rather fleeting thing.  The obviousness of this truth remains apparently  elusive even for the more introspective than average Wurtzel — something which makes me think it is a truth being rather deliberately avoided.
By my estimation, Wurtzel appears to have become addicted to her own sexiness.  Perhaps her predisposition to addiction led to this.  Perhaps her intrinsically narcissistic approach to life for most of it, as far as one can tell from her various writings, was another factor.  But for a woman of 41 years of age (she’ll be 43 this year) to believe that life has no point if she isn’t sexy any more is quite sad – almost shockingly so.  There is no sense of Wurtzel’s troubles having given her a useful perspective, or having woken her up to the truly transcendent and important things in life, or to learn to place her sex appeal in its proper perspective.  None of that.  Instead we get wailing and gnashing of teeth at how the focus on youthful beauty “sucks” (even as she exploited that focus to the hilt in her younger years), about how life has no point if your sex appeal is diminishing and so on.
I can’t help but wonder how many women of my generation, of my age, share Wurtzel’s perspectives, even if her own life trajectory has been more spectacularly exaggerated, as is her style.  I wonder whether Wurtzel is really giving us a look into the inner psyche of “generation lost”, of the “hollow women” of my college class, women in their forties who now look exhausted after having spent the last twenty years chasing their collective six in so many creatively self-defeating ways.  And I wonder if Wurtzel is giving all of us, ultimately, a mental roadmap as to why so many women in her age group stray, or long to become cougars, or become seemingly dependent on psychotropic meds.
Ultimately, as with most of Wurtzel’s work, this piece is very saddening, even if it is revealing of a broader mindset – or, rather a lack thereof, – among so many women of my generation.
What a ridiculous waste of a life, Elizabeth.

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