JANUARY 7, 2013
Elizabeth Wurtzel has made a living—a pretty good one—out of writing about the disastrous way she has lived. She became famous with Prozac Nation, her splashy and revelatory 1990s memoir of depression, and eventually followed it up with a memoir of addiction. She’s also been happy to write just as openly about her love life (this included implying an affair with David Foster Wallace upon the occasion of his death, to the irritation of many of his fans).
In other words, there wasn’t a whole lot left for Wurtzel to reveal to readers, and yet this week brings a long personal piece from her in New York magazine’s “Self-Help” package, all about her terrible 2012 and how her previous decades of living impulsively (retreaded briefly here, including an allusion to her intimacy with DFW) had brought her to the point where she was forced to trade a West Village floor-through for a garden apartment in a less-than-desirable Chelsea. Wurtzel has long occupied the shock-jock turf of the ever-expanding genre of female personal-disaster confessionals, and so I was interested but not entirely surprised to see that she’d made a feint at writing openly about her personal finances, which in 2013, feels a whole lot more intimate than reading about whom one has seen naked and what she has put up her nose.
As in her other work, Wurtzel wants us to know that she’s a mess, and kindly invites us to rubberneck:
Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family.
It’s striking that Wurtzel, who graduated from Yale Law School at age 40, mixes up her lack of marital commitment with her fiscal choices. Elsewhere in the essay, she provocatively says that “I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain.” The point isn’t entirely that the wild abandon and ecastatic living she did in her twenties and thirties landed her here, though that’s some of it, but also that her lack of fiscal prudence is the middle-aged version of the same: dark but glamorous and somehow inexorably tied up with her identity as a free woman.
As for where the money went (other than up the aforementioned nose and into the coffers of the aforementioned Ivy), she informs us in an anti-mea-culpa, “When I got a huge advance for Bitch, my second book, I bought a Birkin bag, which Maria has since stolen. If I had spent the money on a mutual fund from T. Rowe Price, I might well have panicked and lost it during the financial crisis of 2008, and I would never have had the pleasure of schlepping my stuff on the IRT in Hermès. Maybe I should have been wiser. But the only way I could have was to have been a completely different person, along the way probably becoming a different writer, most likely a lousy one. I am fortunate to have been well paid for an almost pathological honesty.”
Except that there’s actually very little honesty here on what is supposedly her subject: her checkbook. I’d have been riveted to read a smattering of her receipts from the past few years, as the memoirist Meghan Daum did in her beautiful essay on finding herself overwhelmed by money problems brought on by conducting herself as the adult woman she wanted to be (“I have a compulsive need to have fresh-cut flowers in my apartment at all times, and I'll spend eight or ten dollars once or twice a week at the Korean market to keep that routine going”) or as the blogger Logan Sachon has been doing in painful, public detail on The Billfold by tracking her attempts to pay down her credit .
Nor does Wurtzel mention the perhaps relevant fact that she apparently lost her fulltime Big Law job this summer, or that her publisher announced it would be suing her for the return of a $33,000 book advance she’d never made good on. It feels rude to mention these things. And it is! But that’s precisely what would make an actual accounting of her financial woes--and the psychic wounds that might come with or have caused them, and the ways being a woman played in or didn’t to her financial decisions--feel truly transgressive. Now that’s a book I’d buy, in case she’s still looking to keep that $33,000.