Prozac Nation tells the story of Elizabeth Wurtzels
childhood, her troubled relationship with her father who left her and her
mother and refused to accept his responsibilities to his family, her move to Harvard,
and her mental decline leading to several stays in hospital and a suicide
attempt. Finally, after trying many
different psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and medications, she tries Prozac
and it helps her rise above her despair.
In the Afterword to Prozac
Nation, written for the paperback edition in 1995, Wurtzel asks the
question that will have occurred to many of her readers.
What on earth makes a woman in
her mid-twenties, thus far of no particular outstanding accomplishment, have
the audacity to write a three-hundred page volume about her own life and
nothing more, as if anyone else would actually give a shit? (p. 354)
She gives a long answer, the crux of which is:
I wanted this book to dare to be
completely self-indulgent, unhesitant, and forthright in its telling of what
clinical depression feels like: I wanted so very badly to write a book that
felt as bad as it feels to feel this bad, to feel depressed. I wanted to be completely true to the
experience of depressionto the thing itself, and not to the mitigations of
translating it. I wanted to portray
myself in the midst of this mental crisis precisely as I was: difficult,
demanding, impossible, unsatisfiable, self-centered, self-involved, and above
all, self-indulgent. (p. 356)
Wurtzel certainly succeeds in her aim to portray herself as
capricious and self-preoccupied.
Indeed, according to her own description, she seems so impulsive,
self-preoccupied, needy in relationships, and manipulative that readers will
probably wonder whether depression is indeed Wurtzels most basic problem. Its very tempting to speculate that Wurtzel
has just as much claim to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder as she
does to depression. Wurtzel says that
her psychiatrists gave her a diagnosis of atypical depression, and DSM-IV-TR
tells us that personality disorders may be more common in those with atypical
even if I were a psychiatrist, which Im not, would be ridiculous to offer a
diagnosis based on an autobiography.
What is clear, however, is that Wurzels goal of telling some general
truth about clinical depression is not accomplished. Reading Prozac Nation is a very different experience from
reading other memoirs of depression such as Tracy Thompsons The Beast
and Martha Mannings Undercurrents
because Wurtzel manages to provoke such a mixture of conflicting feelings
in her reader, while other authors of depression memoirs provoke far more
consistent sympathy. By the end of the book, one feels far more sympathy for
Wurtzels mother and her friends than one does for her. Normally, I count myself as able to identify
and empathize with people who suffer from serious mental illnesses, but I have
to confess that, given the way she describes herself, unless she has changed
dramatically, Id recommend her friends to run a mile rather than put up with
one gets a similar impression from Wurtzels second memoir, More, Now, Again,
(reviewed in Metapsychology
April 2002) in which she becomes addicted to Ritalin and cocaine, and
spends most of her time lying and hiding her addiction from her friends, mother
and publisher. In Prozac Nation,
Wurtzel several times suggests that she was addicted to depression and makes
clear that her self-defeating behavior was often willful. What makes it so hard to sympathize with her
is that that her problem seems to be her personality, rather than some
affliction she has to overcome.
To be more
precise, Wutzel describes herself sometimes as the agent of her predicament,
and other times as the victim of it, and its unclear for the reader what
reasons there are for these switches.
She manipulates people close to her: for instance, she tells calls her
therapist at all times of the day and night, and then tells her therapist that
if she does not listen to her problems, her (Wurtzels) blood will be on her
(the therapists) hands. Sometimes even
her crying seems like a deliberate action.
But at other times she feels
immobile, and cant get out of bed.
Consider, for example, how she feels after her brief romance with a man
called Rafe, during which she was miserable, clingy, and insecure, and she
explicitly ignored his request that he spend time away from her, since he
needed to be with his family, who had their own needs.
I couldnt move after Rafe left me. Really.
I was stuck to my bed like a piece of chewing gum at the bottom of
somebodys shoe, branded with the underside, adhering to someone who didnt
want me, who kept stamping on me but still I wouldnt move away. (250)
Wurtzels alternating acceptance and denial of her agency
bemuses the reader, and ultimately makes Wurtzel a less credible witness to her
own mental states. Far from knowing
exactly how it was for Wurtzel, even though it is clear that she was desperately
unhappy for most of the time, readers will be confused and exhausted by her
undermining the work, these features are what make Prozac Nation so
distinctive, standing out among other memoirs.
It is a tour de force, and a powerful evocation of Wurtzels experience,
although its not so clear whether that experience is depression, borderline
personality disorder, or some other mental disorder.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor
of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical
issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers
can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the