Running On Empty: Wishing Adulthood For Elizabeth Wurtzel

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This originally appeared on The Huffington Post. Republished here with author’s permission.

Kerry Cohen responds to former feminist icon Elizabeth Wurtzel’s recent New York magazine piece about never really growing up.

I was 23 throughout most of 1994, and like most 23-year-olds, I was living inside the sense that I would never be OK. I knew I wanted to write. I knew I wanted love. But beyond that, I was so short-sighted in my understanding of myself and the world around me, that I couldn’t envision a world where my pain didn’t come front and center. I was led around by it back then.

That’s why, when Prozac Nation came out that year, I swallowed it up. Elizabeth Wurtzel had captured something important about people like us—we were drowning in our inability to be happy. The world had become meaningless. Our parents—plastic surgeons and CEO’s and wall street mongers—were all about money and bling. They were the parents that headed up the wave of divorce, of midlife crises, of Ferraris, and cocaine. I knew it well—my own father was a caricature of himself. He had the affair, the Ferrari, the cocaine. I had a photo of him that got lost in one of my many moves in which he stood against his Ferrari, tube socks pulled to his knees, the sun shining off his Dr. Phil hairdo. These were our parents. For those of us who grew up in Reagan’s ’80s, the role models for a meaningful life were few. We were bereft—of love, of purpose. We were promised only things, and even that most of us didn’t wind up getting.

Back then, we didn’t have a layman’s word for what we felt. Depression, yes, but afflictions like borderline personality disorder weren’t hot yet. As usual, psychology would soon enough rush in to put a label on our problems. And this is part of why Prozac Nation was so important. Wurtzel named a truth for us that psychology wouldn’t touch. We were a generation of depressives, of borderlines, of personality disorders. We were Generation Empty. I loved Wurtzel for how she made me feel less alone, seen. And I started writing my own memoir about what made me empty. Fifteen years after Prozac Nation came out, Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity was predicated by the words Wurtzel gave me. She helped me get to meaning about my pain.

But 15 years later, America had moved on. My editor for Loose Girl summed it up when she said, “America loves a redemption story.” We wouldn’t settle anymore for emptiness that goes nowhere. People wanted to know how to get better. It was the biggest critique of my memoir. I hadn’t gotten better. The truth was, I wasn’t all the way better. Of course I wasn’t. I had grown up some, sure, but mostly I was still attached to that dark feeling. For 30 years, that feeling of nothingness had given my life some sort of ironic meaning. Who was I without it? I still didn’t know. I had gotten married as a way to force myself to grow up. As much as I was still an adolescent, as Wurtzel notes she still is to some extent, I wanted children. I wanted intimacy. I wanted to care about something other than myself. So, I got married. I had children. When my first child wound up autistic, it was hard to stay self-obsessed. But…that pain. That glorious pain.

My marriage ended not because I cheated or because of really anything about my loose girl days. It ended because it turns out people are human. They too have pain that runs as deep as anyone’s. And we all express it in different ways. I choose now, when the pain comes, to allow it. Sometimes I even revel in it. But I don’t do anything with it to hurt others or keep other people at bay. It’s hard work. I’m not great at it always.

There are times I wish I could call Wurtzel on the phone and tell her how much her work meant to me. I think she’s a good writer. I think she’s smart. But until she has something new to say, something that is still truly relevant about our generation, I wish she would stop.

Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.

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