Sitting Shiva for Elizabeth Wurtzel

Elizabeth Wurtzel

The year was 2003. America and Israel were fighting their respective endless wars, and as per the tradition of my Orthodox Jewish community I left home to grow my soul in the holy dirt of an Israeli Yeshiva. The transition trashed my fragile personality. Leaving Brooklyn stripped the meager armor I accumulated and left me confused by violent homosexual thoughts, unprotected from unexplored regions of self-hatred, and sickened by vivid day dreams of suicide. Life was suddenly plague-of-darkness level dark and I had no words but inarticulate howls. I was terrified to tell my parents, scared to let down my rabbi (his counsel would be to find a therapist who would not turn me away from God), and frightened to push away my friends. Each day to cope, I huddled, still clothed, into a spiraled scrawny mass on the dirty bathroom floor, crying into a warm amniotic sac of shower water and my tears. It was bad. 

Suffice to say I wasn’t as adept at self-care as I imagined. I couldn’t contain my emotional outbursts to a locked bathroom. I was leaking in the beis medrash, the house of study, argumentative with my fellow students and condescending in conversation with my rabbis. Still, I could not conjure the necessary four short words, I am in pain. The thought of sharing turned my tongue to stone. Then, somehow, call it a miracle, I found Elizabeth Wurtzel’s almost 10-year-old memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America and I began to learn to name my pain. What a gift! You cannot heal what you cannot name. But how did a religious student in a right wing yeshiva stumble upon Wurtzel’s shocking memoir? (For comparison, one of the older students told me “I must stop listening to The Dave Matthews Band because, though relatively innocuous, it was time to put away childish things.”) I wasn’t one for rebellion. I wanted God to adore me, I wanted to study Talmud all day, but Wurtzel’s book found me.

Eudora Welty, in her foreword to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse described the blissful miracle of discovering Woolf’s seminal work on her own. “Blessed with luck and innocence,” Welty wrote, “I fell upon the novel that once and forever opened the door of imaginative fiction for me, and read it cold, in it all its wonder and magnitude.” Blessed with luck and innocence of my own, I discovered Wurtzel’s memoir while sifting through an estate sale in the Katamon area of Jerusalem. I was away at cousins’ in Jerusalem for the Sabbath and the only modicum of solace I could find was not other people, not praying, not faith, but bookstores. Seeing as how I wasn’t close to fluent in Hebrew, it was the books themselves that offered protection. (To a body besieged by desires and ills not of its choosing, a soul, bodiless, unruled by aches and lust, impervious to decay, is the only real medicine for living. And what is a book but the purest attempt by a body to be infinite? Or so thought an 18-year-old learning God’s ways.) There, in a musty room with an elderly smoking bookkeeper, after five hours sifting through academic tomes about the lives of Grecian era rabbis and the state of Jews and Christian in Early Roman times, I found my jewel. There it was: Prozac Nation, in English. In that strange moment I was still scared of life itself, of people, of waking up, but somehow, I intuited I was now eternally unalone. I thanked the bookkeeper and God in one breath and left to learn the mysteries of my pain.

 Though I didn’t know what was Prozac was, the cover alone, a brash young woman in a tank top daring you to challenge her right to speak her suffering reached out to me. I skimmed the book in two hours sitting under a searing Jerusalem sun. I understood maybe 20% of what she wrote about for what did I really know about sleeping around, about drug parties, about the highs and lows of addictions and love, besides what I learned from Dawson’s Creek? Reading her words was like stumbling upon my personal diary but one written with actual eloquence. I did have a journal. Mine consisted of inanities like, “Fuck God! Why does this hurt so much, fuck, God! God, please, save me!” surrounded by thick charcoal scrawls I scratched through the pages. (Surely there’s nothing more melodramatic than our late teenage pain.)

But her book was contraband in my yeshiva despite the fact that she grew up Orthodox like myself, despite the fact that she quoted the Talmud in her author’s note. I couldn’t simply let it sit on my shelf in full view. No rabbi came around to inspect our rooms. The power of social censure was enough to push me to hide the green-brown paperback under my pillow, like an amulet I couldn’t wear around my neck. Like an amulet, its mere presence worked. When I couldn’t get out of bed to pray, I’d ask myself, what would Wurtzel do. (She’d yell and thrash and curse and tell her depression to go fuck itself.) Weeks later, I was halfway to carving out the inside of a Talmud and keeping her book inside the ancient wisdom. Each day I stole time to read her words and cry Pollack-like drips and drops across the crumpling pages. It served me better than huddling in the shower.

The more I read the more I recognized my symptoms in her: the wild restlessness, the shattering heartache incommensurate to any actual cause, the itchiness of body in rebellion against itself living in blasted landscapes of self-loathing. But it wasn’t until I read about her encounter with the head of her childhood summer camp that I felt safe to reveal my depression to my parents. 

Wurtzel went to Camp Seneca, which I knew as the premier private Jewish summer camp. Seneca, unlike other camps offered air conditioning in their bunks and during the three summer weeks when Jews mourn for the ancient Temple, the campers went to Goo Goo Dolls and Stone Temple Pilots and even Dave Matthews Band concerts. The rumor also went that the camp hired Eastern European Olympic basketball team members to work as the kitchen staff at day so they could play in the Jewish Camp League. The camp was run by Jewish basketball legend (likely an oxymoron) Irv Bader who also headed the basketball program at my high school, Yeshiva of Flatbush. I wasn’t on the basketball team; all my friends were, but I feared him from afar. He was a legend in our time for his Bobby Knight abusiveness. He called the male players names like Mary and Stephanie. He ran the tightest of ships with swift punishment, and yet Wurtzel did not fear this fearsome man. She did not cower at his imposing height, at his relative renown and wealth. She barked back.  

 It’s worth quoting the whole interaction. Keep in mind she was only 12. 

On the first day at Camp Seneca lake, I began a ritual of hanging out in the director’s office and telling him that if he didn’t throw me out of camp, I was going to take a drug overdose… In response, Irv said: You’ll ruin your reputation. People talk. Rumors spread. Everyone at all the other camps will find out and everyone you go to school with will find out. 

Who did he think he was talking to? 

Other days I would tell Irv that rather than hurting myself with pills, perhaps I would just pack up a knapsack with some tapes and books and a change of clothes and a tube of Clearasil and walk off the campgrounds and head for the bus station. He told me the farmers in the most rural and backward area would probably rape me on the road. 

After several weeks of our almost daily talks, Irv and I began to develop a strange rapport that could almost be construed as affectionate. Maybe we even begrudgingly liked each other, kind of the way a cop might find himself with a certain distasteful fondness for a murder suspect he is questioning. 

How could this kid stand up to Irv Bader? But Elizabeth Wurtzel did, with humor, and she wrote about it for the world to read. She even managed to find a modicum of empathy for what she felt was her jailer. If she could do all that, I could survive. I could speak my suffering. I could punch back at the pain. I could tell my parents the truth. 

I told my father. He helped me find my way to doctors, to the proper medicines and when those failed, he helped me find a kabbalist, a faith healer. I used to begrudge him for sending me to a spiritual doctor who believed Hebrew words written on animal skin could cure me. Yet, years later, he told me he’d never experienced a deeper pain than watching his youngest suffer while he remained across the ocean. The faith healer was his last ditch effort. From the Kabbalist I received a new amulet, a scroll he urged me to wrap around my neck. I lost the scroll three weeks later, perhaps because I already had my true amulet. For the two years I spent in yeshiva, I never went anywhere without Wurtzel’s memoir. I hid it in my knapsack between my religious books, and wherever I slept, I slept on her words.

I’m far from the right person to talk about Wurtzel as a human, as a woman, as a political being, as a trailblazer for leading an unapologetic life, but today, as I continue my shiva for her I feel rekindled in my hope that somehow, against all odds, art actually matters. For what does it mean to sit shiva for a person you’ve never met, if not to mourn and celebrate the gifts she gave this world? The gift she gave me was the experience that books can actually save lives, even if they cannot stop bullets, even if they are imperfect as we are.

More and more these days, as I’ve logged thousands of movies, TV shows, books, and paintings, it’s increasingly hard to believe in the prevalent argument of art as anything: healing, reparative, radical, empathic, activist, or revolutionary. In a country in desperate need of a political revolution our obsession with artistic ones ring hollow. Art is a trillion dollar industry that despite what else it supposedly accomplishes deepens the income inequality at the rot of this country. Yet, Wurtzel kept me alive and I can only try to honor that gift in my own work. 

The rabbis in the 3rd century CE text, Ethics of our Fathers, exaggerate that to save one life is to save the whole world. Elizabeth, whatever realm you find yourself in, whatever existence is lucky to have you, you’ve saved enough lives to rest.  As mentioned, in her author’s notes to the Prozac Nation she quoted the Talmud, “We do not see the world as it is, but as we are.” And maybe this is the gift of heaven she will receive, to see herself, as she actually was, a complex hero. 


Image: Lynne Winters via Creative Commons

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.