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review by rob gonsalves

Elizabeth Wurtzel

April 1, 1998
434 pages

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Elizabeth Wurtzel's Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women has absorbed more critical venom than any book since, well, Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation. Even allowing for the fact that I am genetically programmed to like what everyone else hates (and vice versa), I've never understood Wurtzelphobia. What is it about this woman that causes reviewers to react as if biting on tin foil? My guess is that it's envy of her youth, her looks, her Harvard background, and her disconcerting way of reminding people that a woman can have all these advantages and still be as miserable as dog shit in the rain. She is also not one to tone down her melodramatic self-absorption, which is why critics slammed Prozac Nation and I admired it. I like Wurtzel for the same reason that I like Caroline Knapp (and her continuing adventures of Alice K. in the Boston Phoenix) -- it takes guts to be this up-front about how fucked-up you are.

While Bitch is dotted with autobiographical anecdotes in support of one thesis or another, it's not nearly as solipsistic as Wurtzel's freshman effort. Rather, it's a breezy and potato-chip-readable survey of pop culture as it relates to demonized women. As a much-maligned woman herself, Wurtzel must feel uniquely qualified to muse on her fellow, well, bitches. Wurtzel doesn't use the word in an empowering way, the way some women claim it for themselves; she abstracts it, burrows around inside it, projects it onto some of the most infamous females in recent (or ancient) history and explains why the label never quite fits.

This isn't a man-bashing book, so male readers can relax. Indeed, Wurtzel can be withering on the stupidity specific to women (which often goes hand in hand with the stupidity specific to men, so that one feeds off the other). Occasionally you'll hear a plaintive refrain on the order of "We're smarter than this! After decades of feminism, we're still fucking ourselves over?" She writes viciously about Mary Jo Buttafuoco (while defending Amy Fisher); she looks askance at Nicole Brown Simpson's family, whose airheaded nonchalance, she suggests, may have helped tip the jury in O.J.'s favor. Wurtzel bashes everyone -- the cultural observer as misanthrope -- but the book is suffused with compassion for most of her subjects, along with a fair amount of envy. Wurtzel wants to be courageous enough to be bad and assaultive, to really earn hatred instead of being the object of hatred simply because of her gender.

Bitch is divided into five sections, of which the best is far and away "There She Goes Again," Wurtzel's meditation on literary psycho-bitches (Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath) and the suicidal mindset in general. Having been there (almost) and done that (or tried to), Wurtzel writes with chilling accuracy about the most impossible women of all -- the ones who seemingly have it all and piss it away, consciously floor it towards their own destruction. Perhaps not coincidentally, such women tend to be brilliant and creative -- the inevitable madness that arises from being a female genius in a man's, man's, man's world?

Then again, male artists don't have such hot psychological track records either -- and Kurt Cobain is dead while Courtney Love hung in there. Wurtzel notes that male insanity tends to be outer-directed (hello, Unabomber), while female mental illness is generally inner-directed (self-mutilation, eating disorders, etc.) -- even the things they do to hurt others also hurt themselves. The section on Plath and Sexton is appropriately the middle section, at the heart of Wurtzel's 434-page odyssey through the public lives of difficult women and their private demons. Everything else in the book seems to proceed from Plath and Sexton, though Wurtzel goes all the way back to Biblical bitches, too.

At its best, Bitch is a highly engaging and well-written pop-culture binge on the level of Stephen King's Danse Macabre (still my all-time favorite bathroom reading) and David Denby's recent, shamefully overlooked Great Books. I've admired Wurtzel's style ever since her pop-music-article days at the New Yorker, and she'll flit from topic to topic, reversing herself, trying to make herself clear ("What I'm trying to get across is..." turns up again and again), and then she'll knock off a beautiful sentence like "Suicide, like death itself, is of necessity not a coherent construct to anyone still living." That one has an elegant heft to it, as does this observation about famous self-destructive women: "These women, rich with interpretive possibility, become mental-health pornography once dead."

Wurtzel's book isn't without flaw. I was surprised to read that Stanley Kubrick directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and her chapter on Nicole Brown Simpson -- with its theories about why women stay in abusive relationships (many women secretly crave pain because they can't feel anything else, blah blah) -- will strike many as stupid the way Camille Paglia's social criticism strikes many as stupid. Still, even in its bumpy and unconvincing moments this is a fascinating read. Among other things, Wurtzel demands the right to fill a whole book with her self-referencing, often questionable breakdowns of female behavior. There she is on the cover, topless, her middle finger raised and forming the "I" in BITCH. Wurtzel, self-absorbed but not self-loving, may ironically define herself as a bitch, but I don't. I hope she honors her demons just enough to remain an interesting writer, but not enough to succumb to them and follow the ghosts of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton into bad-girl hell.

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