Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Elizabeth Wurtzel died today. I met her once, in 2002. I liked her, but had the impression that I was mean to her when I wrote up the interview. I see now that she was harder on herself.

Elizabeth Wurtzel has ordered coffee.
Before it comes, a detour. A few years ago, I was interviewing Spalding Gray, a writer who makes art out of autobiography. He had written a book called Impossible Vacation. He called it a memoir, his publishers called it a novel.
Truth became fiction. Spalding was in a bad way. He told me he had been up all night, contemplating suicide. He was ill, and he didn’t want to be in a crappy London hotel flogging his book, when he could have been in Mexico sampling psychotropic drugs. It felt awkward in that room, him on the verge of jacking it in, me feeling worried, but pleased. It was terrible, this talk of death, but it was great material.
Flash forward. I am in a crappy five star hotel in Edinburgh with Elizabeth Wurtzel, telling her about Spalding Gray. It turns out she loves Gray, and may even be flattered to be compared with him. I am telling her that Gray really did seem to be on the verge of oblivion when I met him, and there was something attractive about someone who could share their intimacies with a stranger. Then, a year or two later, Gray published a monologue about his suicidal urges. Was he merely practising his art when I met him - trying out his story? Where, in this process, was the truth?
Wurtzel has ordered iced water, fresh grapefruit juice, and coffee, with cream, all to be served before her lunch, which will be macaroni cheese with parma ham. We discuss the Scottish approach to service, and she looks almost happy when I tell her that good service is anathema to the Scottish character, and that her order will be brought reluctantly, if at all.
“You know,” she says, “tip stands for ‘to improve performance’.”
Still, she is disappointed when the water arrives without ice, the juice isn’t fresh (“well, fresh from the bar”) and the macaroni is rigatoni. The coffee doesn’t come.
“Do you think that when I asked for coffee they understood that I wanted it now?” Wurtzel asks. Well, I say, the waitress was Australian.
“I mean, is there something we could do to get over the fact that I want it now? That’s why I ordered it now.”
A French waitress is hailed. The coffee is re-ordered, with cream.
Wurtzel swallows a pill, glugs some grapefruit juice. What she says about Gray, and the strange relationship between memoir and fiction, is that, often, the only thing that gets you through the day is the knowledge that you can shoot yourself in the head. “So, I’m not sure that isn’t just a coping method. That you can always get out of this if you want.”
But, I say, how can you believe in something if you are told it by a great storyteller?
“Well, I believe him because I know that I say things like that, and it seems really weird because I could say that to you, and I could be sitting here in front of you, seemingly functioning, and that would sound rather crazy …”
 The coffee arrives. It has a thick crema on top.
“Uh, wait. I wanted just coffee.”
The French waitress explains that the froth is because it has been through the filter. “Oh,” Wurtzel says, dismayed. “Anyway, people think it’s somehow unbelievable or manipulative, the idea that you can be saying these things and sitting having lunch, and feeling this desperate, and that if you were this desperate you wouldn’t be sitting here. But, everyone’s different. I just think, never doubt somebody that tells you they’re having that hard a time. You may well be the person that, for whatever reason, they’re crying for help to.”
She sips her coffee.
“Excuse me,” she says. “This isn’t coffee, and this isn’t cream.” She stops the waitress. “Excuse me. I asked for cream.”
It’s coffee that comes through an espresso machine, I tell her. It has a creamy head.
“Why would you do that?”
It tastes better.
“But I don’t want strong coffee or espresso. I want a cup of coffee. This has been driving me crazy for the last week. It’s like, just use a fuckin’ French press. Use a filter thing. It’s like, how hard is this?”
She sighs, despairingly. I tell her I blame Starbucks.
“How do you blame Starbucks?”
Well, Starbucks has made everyone try to make Italian coffee.
“Why?” Because it’s made with espresso machines.
“No, no, no. Let me explain something. At Starbucks you don’t get this. Coffee looks normal and black there.”
If you have an Americano.
“No. Then there’s something wrong. I know how they make it there. They don’t make it in an espresso machine. This is not coffee. It’s espresso. It’s possibly made with regular coffee beans. And that’s fine. I’m too happy to have it at all.”
We go on this way for a long time, happily talking rubbish. “This conversation has been that of two very stoned people,” she announces. “Do you realise that, and neither of us even drinks? You realise that’s how it’s been. I mean, are you interviewing me, or are we just chatting?”
To relieve the tension, we get back to depression. I suggest to her that her books, which are in the form of confessional diaries, become something else when they are sold. Her mental health becomes a business. There are people who make money from her depression.
“I have to say, nobody’s getting terrifically rich off of any of this,” she says. “It does, though, start to get weird. I saw Prozac Nation, the movie, and there, somebody else is making their truth out of my truth. And many people are making money off of that. And that’s weird. I’d have to say that that might be somewhat ill-advised, if I had it all to do all over again. But, I was broke, so that’s what happened.
“I mean,” she says, “the only person who’s in any danger of suffering any consequences from it is me.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel is sold on her own book jackets as the “Generation X poster girl for depression”. In her memoirs, Prozac Nation and More, Now, Again, she joins the dots between mundane reality and depression. The first is about Prozac, the second is about Ritalin. The drugs change, the depression persists. The underlying theme is loneliness.
“Nothing in this world would ever happen if people weren’t lonely,” she says. By that definition, I say, loneliness is a natural state which everybody suffers from.
“I guess most people attend to it before it becomes a problem, and then therefore they don’t need to do drugs. Some people when they feel lonely attend to it in some reasonable way, and then there are people who wait till they are far too out of control to have anything normal satisfy it and those people need drugs.”
You say the drugs are the thing that made it OK to be you.
“Yeah, well.” She chews upon her not-macaroni. “I think it’s Nietzsche who said that Man’s great problem is his inability to stay alone in his room and mind his own business. That’s really it. From that, all problems come, but from that everything good ensues also.”
Recently, Wurtzel’s attempts to understand her own confusions have led to a degree of indignation. In a recent interview, she mused aloud about the Middle East, and 11 September. She lost her apartment when the Twin Towers fell, and her attempts to describe the numbness she felt as she watched the buildings collapse were greeted with sneers in gossip columns, which accused her of being self-obsessed.
“The thing is,” she says, “I’m essentially quite human. I don’t spend a lot of my time talking in interviews about my views on the Palestinians. I’m not conversant enough about it, anyway. So that’s why I’m particularly angry. My point is that, the only one who gets hurt is me. And usually it’s OK.”
About 11 September, she suggests “it might be about time that a counter-narrative were offered”.
She eyes me warily. “I would never want to be held accountable for anything that I said about 9-11 in the last several months, because my feelings about what happened, and what happened to me on that day, have changed over and over again. I’ve certainly been traumatised by this. I was talking about how interesting it is that, for all that there’s a straightforward line that people who were not there seem to have had, my responses to it are all over the place - including extreme alienation.
“It’s very weird because the one thing that’s been very consistent has been how incredibly patriotic I have felt, but that patriotism doesn’t seem to connect with the idea that we all should have felt collectively violated. I just feel patriotic anyway. I feel that there’s no more incredible country on earth, and the tendency to blame the United States for any number of ills is just foolish and misguided. This weird Noam Chomsky response is crazy. And I feel so certain of that that I wonder why everybody has felt so vulnerable in response to this.”
There is a pause. “I didn’t have a straightforward response, the way a lot of people who were a lot less affected than I was, seemed to have.”
Another pause. “There’s nothing I say ever that I’m ashamed of. If I was afraid of it I wouldn’t say it. I remember saying once about the Palestinians that their intentional cause was terrorism, by which I meant that the first thing they did as a Palestinian nation was the Munich Olympics. I know exactly what I said, and I know exactly what I meant, but you take it in one sentence, and you know what it sounds like.”
More, Now, Again, is a strange book. Its strength, the warts-callouses-and-all depiction of depression and drug addiction, is also its weakness. The life described by Wurtzel, her own, has a frustrating artlessness to it. This may make it more true - reality sprawls - but it is a gruelling read, and less endearing than Wurtzel is in person. It ends hopefully, with the phrase, “Here’s how this story begins.”
I ask her about her recurring dreams. She answers a slightly different question.
“I have a recurring anxiety dream that has to do with the fact that in high school I have to apply to college for some reason, and I can’t get into the college of my choice, and the thing is that I have already graduated from college. Or I’m in high school and I have to take a test again. And then I realise I don’t have to be doing this.
“I haven’t had this so much recently, but there was one also where I was having to get married and frequently I would be in a jewellery store, and there would be all this jewellery that I wanted to buy, but I would have to buy wedding bands. And I would feel like, ‘I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to get married,’ and finally the guy that I was getting married to would explain to me that I didn’t have to get married, I didn’t have to marry him, and it would be such a relief. But I didn’t know that until he told me.”
To lighten the mood, we talk about nightmares. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s such a relief when you wake up and realise that you don’t have to do this thing. It’s such an amazing relief when you realise ‘wow, this isn’t my problem at all’.”