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by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Touchstone, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 22nd 2002

More, Now, Again

At the start of Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s first book, she describes a scene near the end of her battle with depression, when she was 25.  She is in her own apartment in New York City, where a party is going on, but she is curled up on the floor of the bathroom, feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and despair.  A friend offers her some cocaine, and she soon feels better, and then, of course, worse.  Two years later Wurtzel’s book was published, and readers assumed that she had won her battle and was now depression-free.  But that opening scene of Prozac Nation could be read as a foreboding of what was to follow, since not long after its publication, she was regularly snorting Ritalin and cocaine.

Wurtzel’s first memoir was something of a classic, released just at the right time, soon after Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac.  It was a bestseller, and the film of the book will be released next month.  Wurtzel’s record of her depression was nevertheless a puzzling book to read, because even while she describes the terrible anguish that wracked her whole existence, she also spells out her success as an undergraduate at Harvard and her spectacular career progress.  It was hard to escape the conclusion that Wurtzel was not only extremely talented, but also highly ambitious.  Now, she has written two memoirs before the age of 35, it’s now reasonable to also come away with the suspicion that she has a narcissistic side to her personality. 

Now, More, Again is a book to try anyone’s patience.  This is partly because addicts are infuriating; they lie to everyone close to them, they let people down, they scheme and cheat, and they keep on doing it, and Wurtzel lays it all out, apparently sparing no details.  While coping with the depression of other people is hard – most people who have tried to convince a depressed person that there is some reason to not be depressed will easily recall the frustration they experience as each of their arguments is turned to dust by a person who is incapable of recognizing anything positive – it is easy to understand depression as an affliction, and to feel great sympathy for people suffering from it.  But addicts play such an active role in their self-destruction, and seem so willing to sacrifice the peace of mind of people they say they love, that they inevitably arouse powerful feelings of anger and frustration. 

This is certainly true of Wurtzel, who lets people down time and again as she enters ever more deeply into her addiction to Ritalin and cocaine, with the occasional bouts of heroin use thrown in.  Amazingly enough, during this time she manages to write a whole book, the aptly titled Bitch, which, at least according to her publishers, was a best-seller.  Even though she does not make herself a likable character, she nevertheless writes well, and it’s pretty easy to keep on reading from page to page even when one is wondering how many pages it will be before she gets into recovery.  While I remember Prozac Nation being a funnier, sharper book, Now, More, Again is still thoughtful and clever, full of references to movies, books, TV shows, and rock music, and it is hard not to be impressed by Wurtzel’s intelligence.

Yet, curiously, she never discusses why she wrote this book.  Maybe it’s just for the money, although she probably doesn’t need the money now that the movie Prozac Nation has been made.  It’s tempting to simply attribute her self-obsession to narcissism and leave it at that, but it’s hard to explain her readiness to lay all her lies and deception for all to see if she was merely intending to impress the world with her talents.  Furthermore, she does make clear that she often hates herself, and even though she is now (we hope) in recovery, it seems probable that her self-hatred was at the heart of her depression and her addiction, so it’s very unlikely to have just vanished. 

It may be that Wurtzel wrote this book at least partly as a way of working through her 12-step plan.  By the end of the book, she is deeply immersed in the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, going to at least one meeting every day.  Furthermore, she does not distance herself from the process with intellectual irony; rather she buys into it wholesale, and increasingly discusses her relation not only to her own tradition of Judaism, but even her relation to Jesus.  She ends by saying she has at last regained a sense of joy. 

Of course, given her history, readers have some reason to wonder whether Wurtzel’s recovery is final and irrevocable.  Often peace of mind is a fragile accomplishment, and it’s well known that personal difficulties and even political events can cause people who have struggled with depression or addiction to slip into their old, dysfunctional coping mechanisms and misery.  The central question for readers coming to the end of this memoir is, I suspect, whether they care how Wurtzel is doing.

The relationship between author and reader is one that has been discussed a great deal by literary theorists, but the specific bond between the reader and author of a memoir is one that may deserve more scrutiny.  Presumably people are driven by a variety of motives to tell their stories of difficulties and triumphs, and many memoirs of mental illness often seem like detective novels, with the writer telling of her search to find the real reason why she is so unhappy, and also to find an effective treatment for her illness.  There’s an air of mystery and adventure in the journey that the author describes for the reader.  But addiction memoirs generally don’t have this romance; the structure of the story is all too predictable.  (One might compare More, Now, Again with two other memoirs of addiction, Drinking: A Love Story and how to stop time, to confirm this observation.)  Rather, with addiction memoirs, the question that remains open at the start of the book is not to do with etiology or cure, but whether the reader will lose all sympathy for the addict before the end of the story.  This question is addressed to some extent by the philosopher Norman Care in his book Living With One’s Past, which focuses on the issue of when people who have seriously hurt others have done enough to make amends, and can legitimately move on with their lives. 

Of course, Wurtzel does not address the question herself.  But when readers ask themselves why they are reading her memoir, they will surely agree that it is not for information about addiction, or just for entertainment, or even for their literary edification.  Some reviews of this new book by Wurtzel have been quite critical, and it is easy to see why.  (See for example, Salon.com, the readers’ reviews at Amazon.com, or The New York Times.)  She does, after all, go on and on, at length, about herself and her folly.  Prozac Nation had much more food for thought as a discussion of the role of depression in modern society and the rise in the use of antidepressants, and Wurtzel has precious little to say in the way of witty reflections of the culture of today in her new book that she didn’t already say in her first memoir.  So, in reflecting on why they are reading about the intimate details of her life, readers have to reflect on their roles as judges.  Wurtzel has written a confession, and her readers are in the position of coming to a verdict on her life – whether to forgive her.  In coming to a decision, readers are also implicitly making more general judgments about the moral psychology of addiction. 

Even though Wurtzel’s never explains why she wrote this book, More, Now, Again crystallizes the issues of morality and forgiveness, and so Wurtzel seems to want to address ethical quandaries.  That’s why I liked the book as much as I did.

© 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 general public.