RIP Elizabeth Wurtzel
It was freshman English. Ms. Canzano had assigned a project on a book of our choice to be presented in the medium of our choice. It was so long ago I can't remember what I did my own project on. The one that sticks out was hers. We don't talk anymore. My younger self burned that bridge when I couldn't understand why Eminem's lyrics were so offensive. I'm sure there were more reasons. Back then I struggled with so many identity, and undiagnosed mental health issues, and a pretty unhealthy self-esteem, that maintaining close friendships was not a skill I'd possessed just yet. My impulsivity set a lot of fires back then. This project was assigned years before the fire, in the infancy of our friendship.
Prozac Nation struck such a chord with her that she chose to attempt to render the book into a dramatic monologue as her English project. She wanted me to play Lizzie. A budding actress, I was thrilled to have been chosen for any kind of role. I devoured the copy she let me borrow, immediately drawn into the tale by Wurtzel's description of Matawan, where she had been relocated to live with her aunt, and where I was growing up and attending high school, "a slowly-decaying industrial town". She went on to describe the very experience I'd been having my entire childhood in that town. I found myself in that same inability to find my people, or any people I could connect with on a less than superficial level. I doubt this was the message Wurtzel was intending me to receive, in a book about the pharmaceutical drug crisis, and the torture of being on the medication roller coaster. I consider mine a collateral inspiration. I felt seen. I felt validated. I felt liberated by an idea I hadn't even considered until they floated off the page like threads of letters unspooling into my mind. It wasn't that there was something wrong with me. It wasn't even that there was something wrong with the town. There's a quaint smallish-town charm, one of the best school districts in the state, copious wells of covert racism with a sidecar of gaslighting. Their cops were among the first to have a white supremacy hand sign scandal, after which the townspeople told the offended to "grow up", "get over it", and made jokes about people needing safe spaces. In elementary school I got in trouble when a girl called me a spic'. After 9/11 I witnessed friends arrested for loitering, and held for being "suspected terrorists" just because they were Black. That's not to say I didn't find some connections, or even my best friends in that town. It just means that on the whole they just weren't my people. To find a sense of community, I would have to leave. I learned this from Lizzie.
I'm pretty sure my performance was awful. Ms. Canzano had arranged for us to use the school's stage, where I sat alone in a folding chair, reading from a script. Although it was much less script, than a stapled chunk of photocopied pages with large highlighted chunks of text photocopied from the book. I still cringe at the thought that my classmates probably could see up my skirt from where they were sitting in the audience. The truth is, it didn't matter. For a moment I got to be Lizzie Wurtzel, and the words on the page got to be mine. It's a small thing I share with Christina Ricci, and my lost friend, that I can hold onto forever.
Over the years I tried to leave that town, getting as far south as Delran, and as far north as Montclair. Matawan is a strange little magnet holding a cocktail of memories, and more family than is easy to leave behind. I've only been gone a few months, but I can already feel my connection to Baltimore deepening. My people are here.
This week, Elizabeth Wurtzel died from Breast Cancer at only 52 years old. It's too soon to lose such a brave, talented writer. I'll never get to tell her how she helped me feel less alone, or that I finally left my decaying old town, or that her story stood with me for 20 years. The only solace is that writing is the surest path to immortality, and should I need her again, I will know where to find her.
Rest in Peace Elizabeth Wurtzel.