More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction

by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Published by Simon & Schuster

333 pages, 2002

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Unmeasured Words

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Those who have been eagerly awaiting the release of the Christina Ricci film Prozac Nation were recently in for a big disappointment. The movie has been delayed, not just for a few weeks but until early next year. Though various reasons have been cited, the most likely one is damage control.

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, published in 1994, was Elizabeth Wurtzel's first memoir, a bestseller that focused a huge amount of attention on its author. When Wurtzel was interviewed a few months ago by Jan Wong of the Canadian national newspaper The Globe and Mail, she made some very unfortunate and ill-timed remarks about a certain event that happened right in her own neighborhood on September 11, 2001.

"I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought: This is a really strange art project," she claimed. About the collapse of the second tower, she remarked, "It was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone's head. ... It was just beautiful."

Furthermore, she couldn't see why everyone was making such a fuss about the Trade Center collapse with its 3000-plus fatalities: "I just felt, like, everyone was overreacting. People were going on about it. That part really annoyed me."

Obviously, Elizabeth Wurtzel is not a woman who measures her words carefully. She's headlong, unpremeditated, provocative, often irritating, and -- to top it all off -- incredibly intelligent and perceptive. Her most recent memoir More, Now, Again reflects all that she is, and then some, as she careens through one sickening misadventure after another.

Fueling all this chaos is a veritable mountain of white powder -- first Ritalin, prescribed to boost the effectiveness of her antidepressant; then cocaine, an avalanche of it, enough to perforate her nose and demolish her relationships, career, moral sense and physical and mental health.

Why anyone would crush up their Ritalin tablets and snort them is one of a million questions that pop up as her dizzying narrative gallops along. And why go from a couple of tablets a day to 40? Why risk a promising writing career by frying your essentially good mind on cocaine? Why alienate and betray a host of loving, supportive and heartbreakingly loyal family members and friends?

But addiction, the ravenous monster that swallowed Wurtzel alive, completely dismantles the concept of "why." It has its own evil reasons, and is totally ruthless and insatiable, not to mention virtually unstoppable -- unless the sufferer makes a hard and unwavering decision never to pick up and use again.

When the memoir opens, Wurtzel, a Harvard graduate and writer for the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, is already high on the success of Prozac Nation and much in demand on talk shows like Politically Incorrect. In other words, she's so hot, she's cool. But writing her next book, a collection of essays called Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, is proving to be an onerous chore.

The Ritalin really seems to help her concentration at first and, after all, it has been prescribed by her psychiatrist: "If a kid in first grade can handle it," she reasons, "why shouldn't I be able to?" But this is no first-grader taking a pill to calm down a case of hyperactivity. Wurtzel has already done more than dabble in cocaine, ecstasy and even heroin, in spite of her repeated insistence she was never hooked ("I was careful with heroin. ... I was frightened of being a junkie. I did it only every few days. I kept it under control..."). So by this time inhaling her meds seems like second nature:

"I crush up my pills and snort them like dust. They are my sugar. They are the sweetness in the days that have none. They drip through me like tupelo honey. Then they are gone. Then I need more. I always need more."

Holed up in a ghastly apartment in Florida, Wurtzel snorts and writes, snorts and writes: "I am suddenly happy and upbeat all the time," she notices. Though she continually insists that none of her friends use, she has no trouble at all scoring cocaine from a scummy contact when the Ritalin runs out. Absorbed in her tiny, isolated, drug-addled universe, people become less important to her all the time: "Human beings are objects to me, ways of getting what I need."

It's excruciating to bear witness to this painful unraveling of a promising talent, and Wurtzel goes into agonizing detail about her powerless decline. The story has the raw, unprocessed quality of journal spillings and likely would have benefited from rigorous editing. But someone at Simon & Schuster must have decided it would be more effective to just let her have her head.

What makes the stomach-churning ordeal bearable and even compelling are the keen observations that cut right to the heart of her dilemma: "This is how you become an addict. You have no inner resources. You drive people crazy with all your neediness, years go by, you don't grow up, people lose patience, and all that's left is whatever gets you through."

Rarely have I seen the nature of the beast of addiction summed up so succinctly. She has experienced that terrible black hole, the big empty vacuum in the self that sucks in whatever substance will provide comfort in the moment, and has the writing skills to articulate it better than most.

I often did not know whether to laugh, cry, groan in disgust or slap my forehead in chagrin as Wurtzel's wild ride just kept escalating. She is busted for shoplifting in Saks (and threatens to sue the cops for taking away her pills), but insists, "I will never take anything from a privately owned store -- I have scruples, I really do." (And she means it.)

She develops a sick compulsion to pluck her leg hair, digging so deeply under the flesh that she creates huge festering infections. She has sex with married men and endlessly watches videos of hard-core porn. Finally, in acute cocaine psychosis, she walks barefoot in December into Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut, "a country-clubbish sprawl that famously treats deranged dowagers and literary drunks."

But alas, the facility is just not rigorous enough to bring her around: "This is not exactly rehab-as-boot-camp. It's more like rehab-as-sleepaway-camp." Small wonder that even after four months of treatment for a total cost of $60,000, she relapses on her first day out: "I thought that somehow I could do drugs and still maintain the principles of sobriety," she earnestly states.

Then she makes a mess of her Bitch book tour, gets involved with a sick, violent, unrecovered alcoholic, gets pregnant, has an abortion. ...But something kept me reading this insane sprawl of words, perhaps the wildfire intelligence that insists on shining through the smoking rubble of her narrative. This perception yields some right-on insight, as when she notices how obsessed her recovery buddies are: "If one's existence is defined by using drugs, is it better to then have one's existence defined by not doing drugs?"

Incredibly, in the last 30 pages, Wurtzel does seem to break through to real recovery upon entering a far more rigorous facility called Smithers. But the memoir's conclusion feels tentative, as if Wurtzel is trying on 12-step principles for size but not yet really applying them. In recovery circles, this is called "talking the talk" (as opposed to "walking the walk").

More, Now, Again has been savagely panned by most of the critics, though a few loved it without reservation. Wurtzel does stir up a lot of anger in people, and after reading her memoir I am curious as to what this is all about. In her wild drug-fueled sexual adventures, does she act out what the rest of us must repress? Do we resent the fact that she somehow got away with all this, and lived not just to tell the tale but to profit from it?

There are many more questions in my mind. Are her final words of redemption too grafted-on and transparent to be believed? Isn't addiction characterized by relapse (not to mention lying)? I'm reminded of the old joke: "How can you tell when an alcoholic is lying?" "His lips are moving."

Was she clean when she made all those strange remarks to Jan Wong? Is she now? Wouldn't the pressure to stay clean under all this public scrutiny be too much for most people, let alone someone like Wurtzel who suffers from an obvious personality disorder?

With all the exasperation I felt as I watched the train wreck of her life, I did find myself truly hoping Wurtzel would be able to hang on to the fragile daily gift of recovery. Without it, this strange soul, so bright and so obtuse at the same time, has little chance of survival. Say what you will about her self-absorbed personality, Elizabeth Wurtzel has done a public service by laying bare the hideous effects of addiction, revealing it for what it really is: one of the most destructive and soul-destroying maladies in the entire human repertoire. | May 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.