Review of "The Secret of Life"

By Elizabeth Wurtzel
Ballantine Books, 1999
Review by David M. Wolf, M.A. on Mar 30th 2005
The Secret of Life

This is a good and useful little book for young women, especially those who are confused about life and hurting from its disappointments. It comes from an established author, a woman who is, first and foremost, an expressive writer, a talented artist with words and word pictures. She is a writer with a recognized voice, one that younger women can hear as compatible with their own. It is this author's singular voice which is the book's strength and its gift to readers; it is this voice that explains why Random House (who own Ballantine Books) continue to publish this worthwhile, gifted writer.

Elizabeth Wurtzel's voice calls out from the Shadow side of the American experience: her humor, cynicism, hopeless selfishness, despair, longing, and drug-lust were fueled and lubed by the established life of our culture, and "bent out of shape" as Dylan would say, "by society's pliers." Where the culture has taught and demanded of women their obedience and unexamined fealty, the culture's Shadow consequently projects the spectrum of craziness and rebel self-abuse like what Wurtzel lived. She salvaged a career for herself when she wrote about it all in Prozac Nation, the book that won her notoriety worldwide, and in Bitch, more recent and more of the same.

We know her voice best from Prozac Nation: "…Pain or no, I would most likely walk around in a suicidal reverie the rest of my life, never actually doing anything about it. Was there a psychological term for that? Was there a disease that involved an intense desire to die, but no will to go through with it?" (p. 127) It's a voice never far from persistent pain or pointless self-recrimination hidden by intelligence and humor.

†This voice speaks throughout The Secret of Life too but has begun to mature, as in, "…Don't even think of getting married until you are quite certain that you've outgrown your little girl days of being a whiny, needy pain in the ass… And remember…the women's movement…happened because women wanted and needed time to come into their own alone. Even with all the miserable stuff you will have to put up with as a single woman--the heartaches and bad jobs…it is worth the adventure…" (p. 120) Plainly, The Secret of Life is something different. It shows not just that she has survived her drug-laced, depressed past, but that she has learned something along the way and, at least in her longing and aspiration, has matured enough to write answers to the questions young women ask as they mount the roads Wurtzel traveled earlier. Her "commonsense advice," promised in the book's subtitle, surely represents the hard-earned maturation of the beautiful woman shown on the book's cover--Elizabeth herself, still in jeans and tee shirt, braless, blond, and looking readers dead in the eye as if saying, "See, I'm still here."

That cover photo may be a story in itself since this is the same book previously released as Radical Sanity, somewhat stillborn and lacking a photo of the author on the cover--doubtless a major error by her publishers. One need only look back to the waif on the cover of Prozac Nation, to get the idea. Elizabeth's right arm reaches over and cradles her long, dark locks; the subtitle words trace the line of her arm and hair, calling attention to them in white letters lamenting, "young and depressed in America." We see that, behind some graphic barbed-wire, she's incredibly young and rather beautiful in a seductive, even suggestive way; she looks lost, and invites inquiry. The book was a best-seller and may have been a literary tour de force, announcing that voice from America's dark corners where kids are lost in an endless pharmacy run only for profit.

Other books followed that fired some interest, and much disappointment, based on the promise and singular success of Prozac Nation. But the cover, at least, of one of those books, Bitch, did not disappoint; rather, it took the publisher's pitch a step further with Wurtzel showing enticing nudity commingled with an up-yours middle finger, an effective graphic portrayal of her conflicted message. So, there is some resulting controversy as to how much of this writer's career is linked to her ability as a writer, versus how much is sexy (or even sexist) marketing. Certainly these questions circulate with the kind of feminism Wurtzel says she embodies and strives to advance.

The reason that "Don't judge a book by its cover" is such a good adage is that people do. And sex sells books. No question. Wurtzel uses sex to sell her prose too (see the chapter, "The Accidental Blowjob" in Prozac Nation). Sex simmers in The Secret of Life, but it's hushed, in the background, probably because she knows she's talking to her peers. What she says about sex aims to help them survive it and get what they want from it.

Mostly, The Secret…turns out to be a list of positive choices women can make that turn their lives from existential rebellion to the satisfaction that comes when they can "settle down" (pp. 124-136).† This same list from someone's mother would only elicit annoyance; it's Elizabeth's unique voice that rescues it and puts it across.

For example, she writes (p. 48) "Learn to love things other than boys." Well…duh. It's a list; it's pretty long. It could be called banal: have faith, don't trust Newt Gingrich, trust me, get a cleaning lady, curious people are not always happy, eat dessert, only clear the table if men do, wear a little make-up, etc. I'm not making this stuff up. What saves this work is the truth that her readers know: she who learned it paid for it with her pain; her survival is proof enough that these little lessons matter.

Yet, an existential questioning may well haunt some of us. †How did it become necessary in America that such insight--and from one so troubled as Elizabeth--should constitute advice? When did the cultural norm degenerate to such a low point that home-brew had become rare Champagne? When were the doors blown off our lumbering, old-Ford culture by a passing, drug-crazed, depressed guru on a hot Harley?

Are those even fruitful questions? Maybe it doesn't matter when or how the change occurred; what matters is here we are. Dr. Spock is dead and gone, and society's new Physician is Dr. Pharmacopoeia. He rules the Congress, the press, the media, the people. Only the small, sad voices of his most talented patients, like dear self-obsessed and despairing Elizabeth Wurtzel, can with their artistry warn us all before the punishments become universal.


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© 2005 David Wolf


David M. Wolf is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the practice of philosophy. His book page for orders (hardback & paperback) is ; readers can also see the first chapter there.


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