Elizabeth Wurtzel, 1967-2020

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dan Callister/Shutterstock (4871343h) Elizabeth Wurtzel, New York – 10 Jun 2015

I had one little run in with Elizabeth Wurtzel, some five or so years ago. We were both on a panel on some sort of web talk show, streamed in via Google Hangouts or whatever. There were maybe four of us and a host. I could not tell you the topic of that conversation if my life depended on it, much less the name of the show. But I do remember her. Before the show began, we were all sitting there, waiting, and it was awkward, or it would have been, had she not started talking. She talked quickly and confidently. She asked me about “my deal,” and before I knew it we were talking about my cat. She was forward and endearingly nosy. She seemed completely at home with herself. And then the show started, and I said some stupid pablum when my time to talk came and it was over.

I read Prozac Nation when I was a young man, in my early twenties. I devoured every page, finishing it in a week, and hating her the entire time, which if nothing else proves once again that there is only one hatred: the hatred of recognition. I’m told that “reading,” in the drag world, refers to the act of sizing someone up so completely that you gain power over them. If I have that right, then she read me while I was reading her. For if the past decade of my illness has been defined by mania, my young adulthood was defined by the depression. I think back to my first little studio apartment and I can’t imagine a worse house of horrors, the endless hours spent curled up in the fetal position on the carpet. And I think about her book – it’s been, I think, 17 years since I read it – and I can’t quite grasp why I was so repelled by the familiar. I suppose the only honest answer is that I was not looking for honest answers. Not then. Back then I was running.

What I didn’t know at the time was that she understood things I couldn’t see. What Wurtzel grasped was that there was no percentage in trying to soft pedal a disease that would give no quarter if she did. She understood that behind depression there’s just more depression. And so why not try to do the impossible and put into words that which comes to be the defining facet of your life? Depression is a negotiation, made against someone who has all the leverage. You can, perhaps, improve your negotiating position with drugs and therapy. But the actual experience of depression will remain visceral no matter how hard you try to render it banal. There simply was no value, to her, in trying to make others feel more comfortable about the spiraling instability that was her early adulthood. This might sound selfish but in reality it’s the kind of internal bargaining that could only be made by someone who thoroughly knew herself.

Was her work pretentious and self-absorbed? Sure. But she never claimed to be otherwise. Depression makes you myopic; hurt develops its own kind of gravity, and over time everything falls in, except those people with foresight enough to see that they are approaching the event horizon who step away in time. You will not be saved by trying to maintain the requisite ironic distance from your own life, to act like some 21st century Twitter power user who deadens their experience of life with jokes and memes and cleverness. She chose to do the opposite, and being a writer, she did it with words: she wrote down what it means to be depressed, and what it mean to be a brilliant beautiful Gen X degenerate, and she did it as good as any and better than most.

Besides, I’ve been an advocate for pretension for a long time. What you gain from refusing to be pretentious is, I guess, becoming a harder target to hit when people inevitably come to dress you down. That’s the only upside I can see. And the downside? You become a stranger to yourself. You are so consumed with not being pretentious that you leave beside anything deep, penetrating, and true. You doubt your own reaction to beautiful people and perfect art. You are scared to bare your undershirt, let alone your soul. You know that there is always a built-in limit to the ecstasy of any experience. You become a slave to your own self defenses. You are neutral in all the places where neutrality makes you boring. You are afraid. Me, personally? I’m a cancer orphan who got his first shot of Haldol at 21. How could I have ended up any other way than pretentious? And for those of us in that position, there is Wurtzel to say, fuck them, say it anyway. Say it anyway.

I have only just thumbed through the text again the last few days, but if I remember correctly Wurtzel mentions cancer often in Prozac Nation. This too is a preoccupation of the depressive. I suspect it’s because cancer is the realest illness, the most visceral and the hardest to deny. Surely that has great appeal to those who, like the depressive, have been told in voices both loud and soft that their illness is not real and that their concerns are those of the coddled. Breast or brain, cancer can kill you; I suppose it was only fitting that a person held captive by her own mind would become convinced that it was her mind that would kill her. Now it makes me think of Trumbull Stickney, who wrote

Sir, say no more.
Within me ’t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.

There is a period of time, when you are on-boarding meds, where you are altered and know you are altered. It turns out that this is something of a blessing. Because what comes afterwords is the persistent question inspired by no longer feeling altered: have I acclimated to the meds, and am now back to my old self? Or did I just get so used to being altered, I’ve forgotten how I used to be? And at this point, do I even care about the difference?

I look back now at my earlier self, the one who was so hard on Elizabeth Wurtzel for articulating everything I felt and could not bear to say, and I can only think of one thing: my certainty, at one time, that my resolve mattered, that what drugs and doctors couldn’t do, my will could. If I am being honest, that is the biggest change in my life from those days when I would count the grains of sand in the paint on my ceiling: I have surrendered. I have learned that I am not strong enough, and that even if I could summon the strength, there was not much worth saving. Elizabeth Wurtzel knew intrinsically what took me decades to learn. She knew that depression, like cancer, was no tame animal, that it took who it chose when it felt like taking them. And so she made up her mind to describe it as fully and forcefully as she could, undeterred by the inevitable criticism, determined to try and express feelings that undermine the foundations of the language in which you express them. She did not deny her illness, nor try and sand off the edges that came along with it. She understood that she had no power over her illnesses but the power of description, and so she described. Her descriptions were true, as true to depression as has ever been written, and they will endure. She knew things, like the price of telling that truth. And that for her, and for me, and for you, the bargain with cancer and with depression remains the same: the fates will decide, and you will survive, or be consumed.

another feast for the worms

I have not had Deadspin or the other Gawker Media on my regular media diet for awhile. This isn’t because of any particular problem with them but because I dramatically reduced my media consumption after my public meltdown in 2017, as doing so fit with lessons I was learning from psychiatrists, therapists, and my participation in AA meetings. I have not been a monk, though, and I learned from someone in person that Gawker Media had been sold and sold again. I also have my own weird habits about what I read nowadays and I came upon the recent Deadspin news.

I suppose it should go without saying that quitting a job over a matter of principle is a mark of integrity, and that quitting a job in media for any reason is very brave, but I’ve gone and said it anyway.

I am sure I am joined by most in my ex-profession of opinion making. I am also sure that many will join me in saying that this is part of a much larger decline in the fortunes of media. I will say explicitly – journalists have always talked about a coming crisis. The crisis is here. It has arrived.

The assassination of Gawker was interesting in that it was both totally sui generis and also of a piece with far broader trends. It is rare that a vindictive billionaire teams up with a professional wrestler to exploit a very particular lapse in judgment from years before to eliminate a targeted publication. At the same time, the vulnerability of Gawker was symptomatic of a professional media that was still full of profitable companies but essentially none with the resources of a tech billionaire. Perhaps Gawker, profitable from the jump, would have survived its legal challenges in a world without the ludicrous financial power of tech companies and those who hold equity in them. And perhaps the industry would have rallied around Gawker more consistently, directly, and uniformly were the industry not so utterly dependent on Facebook and Google for the pageviews that had become the dominant source of revenue.

I wrote at the time that, even as much backlash Thiel faced for his actions among professional journalists, the response from the media as an industry was dramatically inadequate. I know it’s easy for me to say that more should have been done, and that other people did as much as I did – rang the alarm bells, told people what a terrible precedent this was. But I firmly believe the industry should have come together in as unified way as possible to say, “this is a crisis, what’s happening is politically dangerous as well as commercially indefensible, and we cannot treat this as business as usual.” Every outlet should have run pieces on Thiel, exposing him in precisely the way he wishes not to be exposed, and every outlet should have published essays explaining the absolute necessity of a free press to a functioning democracy. Would this have accomplished anything? Probably not. But solidarity has value even when it’s powerless, and at least people would not be able to say that no one said anything.

Instead, too many people harboring hurt feelings from Gawker’s lacerating ways were silent or actively cheered its death. The silence was probably worse. Look: I thought there were problems with Gawker, not least of which was the tendency of Gawker people to demand that the site be lauded without qualifications or criticism. Few people would today approve of a Gawker Media site running a sex tape that was distributed without the permission of those appearing in it. But those are small potatoes compared to the fundamental threat that Thiel’s actions represented to the news business. Gawker made fun of me too, guys. You have to be bigger than that.

There is no hope for media as long as media remains chained to fickle tech companies. The way that Facebook and Google have insinuated themselves into the media business, through colonizing a vast portion of the advertising industry, makes it close to impossible for a publication to be primarily advertising funded and truly independent. Corporations are risk averse when it comes to content and aggressive when it comes to methods of outreach, whether we’re talking about Facebook and Google specifically or the particular advertisers who might enter into a relationship with a given site. See the role of Farmer’s Insurance in Deadspin’s death. For a couple generations, a carefully protected ethic of separating editorial from advertising helped to limit the damage that advertising could do, even if we acknowledge that we see that past with rose-colored glasses. Either way, today the only line of defense between advertising and editorial are employees (like those at Deadspin) who are willing to take a stand.

The fundamental structure of the media advertising never made much sense to me. With the industry still remarkably averse to paywalls and subscriptions, the fundamental revenue generator for media is capturing attention. And the problem facing the industry is that attention in the internet era has become both more plentiful and easier to manipulate, meaning that the resource media is selling has become less scarce and thus less valuable. Online advertising space is functionally infinite; every particular impression grows less valuable the more that software engineers find new ways to capture more of them, even given the very generous definition of an “impression.”

I can’t be the only one who has said, at some time or another, that there seems like a truly limitless number of publications these days, more blogs and sites and podcast networks than you can imagine. You’d naturally think that this proliferation speaks to some large demand and thus indicates economic health. And yet every expansion simply degrades the value of eyeballs further; media is an industry constantly being flooded by more of its product. This is particularly true given how many amateurs and would-be professionals are available to undercut the professionals. What’s more, venture capital lets unprofitable publications float along on the promise of future growth, leading to greater unsustainable bloat in the industry and further degrading the value of the resource media is selling.

I have no good news to share. Already, the “influencer” economy has run roughshod over old ethical concerns about separating advertising from “editorial,” if all of those YouTube tech channels giving uniformly positive reviews to every gadget they get sent for free can be said to have editorial. The advertisers are faced with a stark choice: they can pay a compliant Instagram star to hock their wares to hundreds of thousands, not even sticking to the meager advertising rules that platform has; or they can work with a site which, like Deadspin, might be staffed by people who have principles that could get in the way of revenue generation. And the lesson that the actions of Gawker Media demonstrates is this: faced with those pressures, the money men will respond by making their content more like Instagram spon con and less like journalism. By force, if necessary, and even at the cost of lighting your reputation on fire. Zombie Deadspin will be a pathetic shell of its former self. I’m afraid I predict that it will also be profitable.

I have come to think that the media’s constant sense that the sky is falling is, perversely, an impediment to them seeing how bad things really are. When you’ve been seeing doom around the corner as long as journalists have, it’s hard to recognize the real thing when it matters. Well, if Gawker wasn’t it, Deadspin in – not the whole of the problem or even a big part of the problem, but canaries in a coal mine, object lessons in the mortal danger publications are in if they risk offending powerful enemies and maintaining editorial integrity in the face of pressure to become just another “advertorial.” I know the boiling frog analogy is a cliche (and apparently not an accurate description of the behavior of frogs), but here I find it apt. Everyone in media must understand: the crisis is NOW.

The digital media union efforts are energizing and profoundly necessary, but part of the tattered blanket that is American labor and thus not muscular enough to do more than hold the line for awhile. And the demise of another publication means more people trying to fill fewer jobs. After a round of layoffs, you might be tempted to say “most of their people found new jobs.” Well, “most” is the operative word there, and this game of grim musical chairs doesn’t end. I am confident that the staff of Deadspin will land on their feet. But will those same people get seats the next time? And the time after that?

If the industry has some secret plans for the future, it better execute them now. Sponcon is a crisis; layoffs are a crisis; Gawker was a crisis; Deadspin is a crisis. The bad times are not coming in the future. The collapse is now.