Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET
Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose 1994 memoir Prozac Nation became a mainstay on bestseller lists and inspired a national conversation about clinical depression, has died at the age of 52. David Lipsky, a friend of Wurtzel, confirmed to NPR that the writer died Tuesday of an aggressive case of breast cancer at a hospital in Manhattan.
The news comes as a blow to Wurtzel's many readers, who were introduced to her brash, unapologetic style with Prozac Nation, published while she was still in her mid-20s. The memoir traced her struggles with depression, growing up in a fractured family and spending a rocky tenure studying at Harvard — and in the process, it earned Wurtzel a raft of fans and critics, almost in equal measure.
But as the unapologetic writer would be the first to tell you, she embraced the book's complicated reception, which can be neatly encapsulated by a New York Times review at the time that described it as "wrenching and comical," "self-indulgent and self-aware" — redolent of Bob Dylan and Joan Didion while still in need of "some strict editing."
That didn't particularly faze Wurtzel, who acknowledged in a 2018 piece announcing her breast cancer diagnosis that "I was early for history."
"I was on Prozac when it was still called fluoxetine. I wrote a twentynothing memoir when there was no such thing. I got addicted to snorting Ritalin before there was Adderall," she wrote in The Guardian. "I was a riot girl, I was a do-me feminist, and I posed topless giving the world the finger on the cover of my second book."
And she's not wrong about that timing. The widespread success in sales of Wurtzel's memoir helped inspire a publishing trend that has seen a spate of popular memoirs from other young writers continuing through the present day.
Wurtzel followed up Prozac Nation with an essay collection in the late 1990s titled Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women — whose cover did indeed feature her topless, flipping off the reader. Then came another memoir, More, Now, Again, this time focusing on her plunge into drug addiction.
She also wrote numerous articles for The Wall Street Journal, Elle, New York magazine and other publications.
"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," Meghan Daum, a prolific author and essayist in her own right, tells NPR.
"She was writing about herself. She was doing so in a way that was really interesting and compelling, but it also got her labeled 'confessional.' And I think for a lot of us, that was something that we wanted to avoid even as we were writing about ourselves," Daum adds. "So she was both a role model and a cautionary tale."
For Wurtzel, at least, that liminal space between exhilarating and alarming was comfortable. So, when it came time to publicly speak about her breast cancer in 2018, her broader point in that piece was a familiar one: You'd better save your sorries — whether you're discussing her books or her medical condition.
"Sorry for what? I'm not sorry about anything. I was never sorry when I said I was. Apologies are a courtesy," she wrote. "I love to argue. I am in it for the headache. I don't need you to be on my side — I'm on my side."
NPR's Rose Friedman contributed to this report.