Poor Wonderful Me (or Something Like That)

At first brush with this post by a formerly-famous writer (who also happens to be a lawyer now), I was strongly tempted to . . . well, certainly not to blog it.  But what the hell, it’s pulling massive traffic over at its site, and she’s a lawyer and according to her, a native New Yorker, and one can’t spend all one’s time exploding the myths of the gun-grabbers, the Fabergé lefties, and corrupt politicians.

The author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, wrote a book a number of years ago, Prozac Nation, which I never read and have no intention of reading, but the cover of which I vaguely recall.  Had something to do with growing up a depressive, and struggle against same.  I’m going to assume that she counts herself a survivor, for which she does deserve a large attaboy.  Who knows how I’d have dealt with that sort of thing.  Would I have swallowed a pistol? 

She was 26 when Her Big Book was published, and it did her phenomenally proud.  Made her a pile of cash and very highly sought after. I won’t say her success ruined her, because there may not have been much there to ruin, but she does seem not to have seized on the rungs of whatever personal ladders up which that book placed before her.  To the extent that her post is about anything, that seems to be as close to it as can be stated.  She’s gone from keeping away from rats on Manhattan playgrounds to the rarefied atmosphere of world-class lawyering, yet inside whoever is Elizabeth she’s still hunkered down on the fire step, afraid to go over the top and actually conquer some territory of inner adulthood. 

Mlle Wurtzel (can’t help it: her name appears to be a variation on Wurzel, the German for “root”; I could never think of Gen’l Schwarzkopf as anything other than that feller Blackhead) laments – or is it celebrates? – that she’s fetched up at age 44 unmarried, no children, no stable relationships, no assets, and no moorings.  Honestly, it’s hard to tell whether she’s bragging (O! the sacrifices of nobility: “In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.”) or whining (“Women who have it all should try having nothing,” after which she recites a litany of what she doesn’t have).  Her tone alters between daytime television-style confession porn (can’t keep her legs crossed; the very title of her piece describes her life as a one-night stand) and passive-aggressive demands that we pity her in her triumph (she recites all the eminent Harvard alumni in whose company she’s mentioned).  Both off-putting in their very own special ways. 

La Wurtzel works for David Boies, out of whose ass, if anyone’s, the sun of high-end litigation shines.  As Wurtzel notes, Boies was the guy who took down Bill Gates (probably did Gates a world of personal good, too, although Bill might not understand it yet).  He’s still able to come up with gems of advice to a woman, alone and unarmed, and who’s come up dry in trying to get the police to protect her from a violent lunatic: leave tonight.  Whew! that was a tough call; you’d have to go to David Boies – or to any hack refugee from the love docket with fraying cuffs and a gammy client trust account – for that kind of insight.  No; I do David an injustice.  He did precisely what any good and loyal boss would do for an employee.  From Wurtzel’s narration it sounds like he got on the horn, called in some favors, and got her out of a potentially dangerous situation.

[Aside:  The redneck in me can’t help but observe that having David Boies in one’s corner in such a situation is great.  Having David Boies and a .45 cal. Model 1911A1 on your nightstand is better by a quantum order of magnitude, and in fact with the latter you needn’t the former at all.  Wait. Oh, that’s right.  In New York City there are about nine people who have the former, and damned near none who are permitted to have the latter. Maybe . . . uh . . . maybe Liza might consider . . . not living in New York City?  Naaahhhhh.  By the way, the URL of the link says something along the lines of “wurtzel on self-help”; I’d have thought arming oneself for self-defense was Step A in any intelligent plan for self-help.] 

Whatever other hiring and retention practices Boies may indulge, I’m just going to go out on a limb here and suppose that they don’t include hiring or keeping around the actively daffy, the frivolous, the lazy, the poor planners, the unfocussed.  Which makes intriguing Wurtzel’s characterizing herself as enjoying – defiantly so, in fact – those attributes and others even less reassuring from an employer’s perspective.  I’ve had more experience than I care to in dealing with employees.  People with skeletons in their closets do not, after a certain age, make good employees.  They just don’t (in fact years ago I saw, in some advice-to-the-career-minded column by someone who certainly seemed to know what he was talking about, the injunction to get over whatever inner turmoil you have by age 35).  I’m not so sure, in other words, that Lizzie’s not drawing the long bow, as the English say, either with us or with her boss.  Given that her boss has made himself very wealthy indeed by rapidly divining the true natures of others and has kept her around four years now, I’m going to guess that it’s the Gentle Reader who’s the mark in this game.  What’s her game, then? 

Judging purely from her text, which is of course all I have to go on, she gives a very strong impression of someone who wants to be told how wonderful she really is.  But here’s the catch, sweety-pie: You’re trying to prove how wonderful you are, through all the wonderfully shallow and eventually irrelevant things we Americans are supposed to worship these days.  That, and by “confessing” to how superior her priorities and principles are than the sadly empty “untruths” told by the rest of us to ourselves.  The English would understand the nature of your error.  You’re trying too hard; you’re like Wilhelmine Germany – just not good form (around here we have another expression for it: “tacky”).  The essence of being wonderful is that others perceive it on their own.  Even if you in fact are (I’m also willing to assume that somewhere down there is an Elizabeth who is in fact as wonderful as she believes herself to be), when you call attention to it the shiny rainbow bubble bursts. 

(a) Libby is beautiful.  I’ll grant her that.  The picture she’s got pasted up on the post pretty well settles the point.  Assuming that picture was taken in the recent past, that still puts her at 40+ and damned hot.  She’s still in the same shape she’s always been; even fits into her old 501s.  But it’s not enough for her to be beautiful.  No: She must also be wanton, in a very controlled, purposeful, principled way . . . and of course only with the right sorts of people.  Understand, though, that she’s not balling her way to self-esteem, like the high school girl who’s on the cheerleading squad but isn’t the captain.  No, she’s going through life with a “pure heart,” “refusing to compromise.”  She lays up with whom she pleases and doesn’t even bother sufficiently with them to keep track of where they are.  Does she even remember them?  At least her competing queen of confession porn, Chelsea Handler, can be funny about it (for a few paragraphs, in any event).  Our Lizzie believes “in true love and artistic integrity . . . as absolutely” as she did in ninth grade.  Isn’t that just noble of her?  But she’s Big Enough to realize that “functional love includes a fair amount of falsity . . . and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table.” 

(b) Libby is successful.  See?  I wrote a Really Successful Book.  I get talked about on the same page as Eliot, Thoreau, and Emerson.  I could pop for a daily heroin habit.  I made a lot of money as a writer, doing what I loved, exactly as I pleased.  And I chose to shoot it up a wild hog’s ass.  I work for David Boies, and he thinks enough of me that I feel I can call him up and he’ll tell me to get the hell out of a place where I might be found strangled. 

(c) Libby is brilliant.  She decided at age 6 that she was going to Harvard and dammit, she went out and did it.  Again, props to her for that kind of detemination.  Her high school history teacher didn’t understand what he didn’t understand about Wurtzel (O! the poor rube; she must have been a peach to have in class).  She writes and had been writing professionally by the time she went to college.  In her late 30s she went – out of “curiosity,” no less – to law skool, just ‘cause, you know.  But not just any ol’ law skool was sufficient to set the right object for our Eliza’s quest; she’s for Yale, from which she graduates at age 40.  That’s important, you see, because at an age where all those distressingly conventional women are starting to fret about sags, spreads, and wrinkles, she’s launching her second, simultaneous, career with an e-mail.  No shooting out reams of résumés and sitting beneath a receptionist’s sneer and making propitiatory grimaces for her.  She just pops off an e-mail to David Boies and then magisterially so far forgets about it that she’s taken entirely by surprise when he – personally, no less – asks her if she’s still interested. 

(d) Libby can make her own way in the world.  True, she’s managed to squander almost everything she’s made, jumping at all manner of bright, shiny objects (including her friends and bedmates, from the sound of it). But she’s standing on her own, unlike the “prostitutes,” which includes every woman who is married and who doesn’t . . . well, I’m not sure what a married woman is supposed to do, or be, and not be a whore.  Seriously, growing up in New York City, a supposedly cosmopolitan, sophisticated place, she’s not able or willing to accept that every person’s life is his or hers to live, with its own stressors, opportunities, commitments, and compromises, and that for some women and their husbands, it’s very much a mutual choice.  And a sacrifice for each of them individually and both together, for that matter.  But the Noble Elizabeth is above compromises (she tells us so, so we can take that on faith).  Of course, she’s so brilliant that she can’t see that in fact she has compromised. She’s living illegally in someone’s cellar, terrified that some lunatic is after her.  That is apparently not a compromise; she must really want it.   As mentioned above, I have difficulty accepting that David Boies is going to keep someone on the payroll who can’t see any clearer than that. 

(e) Libby’s so famous that strangers – peons putting together public relations flyers and such riff-raff – still gossip about her.  In fact, she finds “so much I never knew about myself!” (isn’t that exclamation point just precious?) online, in what Other People write about Her. 

(f) Libby’s so sophisticated that she’s positively jaded.  “Happiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves . . . .”  Well.  The Awful Weight of the World an’ all that shit, I suppose.  “I am harsh and defeated, and I never thought I would describe myself in either way. The list of things I can’t be bothered with goes on forever. The list of things that bother me goes on forever.” 

[Aside: Just like Beach the butler Suffered From His Feet, and just as the Lining of His Stomach Was Not All that He Might Wish the Lining of His Stomach to Be, so Elizabeth’s pearls-before-swine prose seems to cry out of a thorough treatment of Wodehouse.] 

(g) Libby is concerned.  Used to be that cities were where “the professional class” could congregate and enjoy each other’s sophistication.  Now there’s all this awful money running the joint and no one respects the creativity of folks like Elizabeth because anyone sitting around in his pajamas can write Stuff just like she can without all this “infrastructure” to support “great talent.”  [N.b.  She omits an examination of to what extent the conscious policies pursued by NYC government might have contributed to the bipolarity of the city’s economic strata.]  By “infrastructure” she appears to mean doormen and folks to carry things from the taxi to the elevator.  Piracy and technology have sounded some sort of death knell for creativity (that must be news to the engineering guys working with design teams on four separate continents on the same systems and components, at the same time, and all without ever laying eyes on each other).  By “creative” she doesn’t seem to include the guy who figures out how to keep a small company afloat through a business downturn so fifteen families get to have Christmas that year after all.  But let that pass.  Most people who “think they are practicing law are actually making binders,” which go into storage, unread, produced purely as a device to bill the snot out of the client.  I don’t have the drive space fully to unpack and trash that statement, so I’ll just observe that this is yet one more example of someone who lives in Manhattan having a vision so narrow it can fit a stereoscopic view through a keyhole. 

(h) Libby is honest.  Pathologically so.  Nearly as much so as Kim Kardashian, one suspects.  And what a sacrifice it’s been for Her.  “Maybe I should have been wiser.  But the only way I could have was to have been a completely different person, along the way probably becoming a different writer, most likely a lousy one.  I am fortunate to have been well paid for an almost pathological honesty, and the only way I am able to write that way is by being that way.  It has been worth it—of course it has been—because there is a higher price attached to rare attributes than common ones.  But there is a lot of good, workmanlike journalism that I could have, should have, and would have done if anyone ever thought of me.  I established myself as someone much too precious. And, honest, I don’t pretend to like people I don’t and I can’t pretend to respect people who don’t deserve it. Still, my financial life might look about the same no matter what, because I chose to write about an uncompromised life in New York City in these times, and the only way to be that person is to never have it all work out.”
Libby doesn’t seem to understand that she is, notwithstanding whatever talent and drive she might bring to the table, at bottom just another schmoe stumbling through life, uncomprehending.  For all of her learning she has yet to learn some really simple stuff.

Just by way of sample: No one has this thing figured out.  Not David Boies, not any or all the luminaries whose company in the brochure she finds to gratifyingly flattering.  When St. Paul allowed that we see though a glass darkly, he wasn’t correct in only a theological sense.  The rarity of human connectedness is so precious that you rejoice that it has been vouchsafed you, at all, even a little bit, with this other person, and you make a conscious decision that you are not going to allow the imperfections to rob you of even a little of your tiny bit of magic.  You will do this even if the vagaries of trying to keep a roof up and food on the table mean you can’t practice that intimacy other than with a text message in the middle of the night that I was out trying to find some place that sells Teflon tape at that hour and saw something that I knew would make you laugh.  The fact that there might not be a “correct” answer to any given life conundrum does not mean that there are not demonstrably wrong answers to those same dilemmas.  Not every one gets to be happy in life.  Even for the seriously wounded the experience of others’ beauty, innocence, and wonderment offers a glimpse of what might exist, what can exist, on the other side of the glass which shuts us off.  If you quit being so goddam full of yourself you might notice poetry, beauty, and philosophy all about you, and you can enjoy the little sparkles, glimmers, and flashes of it without losing your sense of the farcical, without “compromising” on your skepticism. Sometimes things and people really are as they seem.  There really do exist folks who’ll coach a bunch of tiny kids basketball for years in succession, and will buy a uniform and warm-ups for the kid who’s so excited that his daddy “just got out” and he’s going to come to the game today; and who’ll model how a grown-up man behaves when daddy blows it off after all.  Even if you are doomed to an existence shut in your own world, a world of your own making and the awfulness of which consists chiefly of the necessary consequences of your own stoopid decisions, others, even others closely around you, are not so doomed, are not obliged to be so doomed, are not lesser mortals for not being so doomed, and you are not entitled to resent them for it.  Making lemonade from lemons is one thing; pretending that having buggered up your existence through improvidence and flightiness is something to be proud of – in print, no less – is trying to polish a turd.  The former draws respect for never giving in; the latter gets you the kind of comments that Wurtzel’s post in fact has been getting.

Perhaps there is another Elizabeth Wurtzel out there, one who is not so tiresomely self-absorbed and so unobservant of the world around her.  I rather think there is, because I question whether anyone as inwardly non-functional as she portrays herself could have done what she has. The other day I was in a store, and I saw a cartoon posted behind the counter. It was one of those e-card thingies, with a picture of a mother comforting a distraught child.  “I’m so sorry you’ve discovered the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Here; have a nice tall glass of Get Over It.”  Whoever runs into Lizzie in some bar next week might stand her a couple of shots.  Do the ol’ gal some good.


Leave a Reply