‘I Believe in Love’: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Final Year, In Her Own Words

The difficult final year of a much-loved and legendarily difficult woman

Photo illustration, Source: Neville Elder/Getty Images

Introduction by Garance Franke-Ruta. Jump to the start of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay here.

TThe late Elizabeth Wurtzel was best known for her memoirs and essays, especially Prozac Nation and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, but after attending Yale Law School in her late 30s she also enjoyed having a voice in the political arena. She was as much an original there as everywhere else, and between 2010 and 2012 she wrote a series of pieces for me at The Atlantic.

A feminist and a New Yorker who had really lived, she looked at the world in a different way from all the boys on the bus in Washington. And she was funny. She would send long text messages written on her smartphone while she was walking through Washington Square Park, an emissary from a more vivid and creative world than the boxy K Street buildings I would pass en route to my office in the Watergate. Sometimes her stories would come in like that too, texted in graf by graf, and I’d knit the passages together in what seemed like the right order and ask for some connective language. The thoughts were always razor-sharp; the understanding of human nature acute.

Over time our editing relationship moved into a long-distance friendship. We met for dinner at a restaurant in Chelsea, outside of course so her dog could be nestled at her feet. She had somehow managed to find a lipstick with my name on it — Guerlain’s Garance — and purchased us two tubes encased in elegant silver that sat heavy in the hand. She wore hers to dinner, and when I went to the restroom, I changed my color too, making us lipstick twins. It was how she was and in many ways the secret to her success: In addition to being wildly talented, she overcompensated for being so difficult and never totally in control by being astonishingly thoughtful, and kind, and, well, seductive. She was a seductive personality; hard not to love even as she could be hard to be close to.

When I started working at GEN this fall and living in New York full time, I reached out to her. “I’m in remission!” she’d said brightly when we first reconnected, three years after last seeing each other and nearly five years after she first learned she had the BRCA gene and breast cancer. We drank red wine on her balcony overlooking a giant earthen pit in the ground: The future NY offices of Netflix. We went to dinner at Il Buco on Bond Street (her suggestion); I could feel she was lonely. She and her husband Jim Freed had separated and were in the process of divorcing, a not so happy ending to the happily ever after story she had been astonished to stumble into in 2015, and something she was still figuring out how to write about. She started sending me things she had written as we talked about her writing a piece about Gen X politics and the 2020 race.

“I am intimate with the dirt,” she wrote of the Netflix pit. “It has infiltrated everything. It is all over me and under me. It is Love Canal, sewage from the Mississippi, cigarette butts, marijuana ash, slave remains, rats, mice, Three Mile Island, Mount Etna, Mount Saint Helen, Dust Bowl, Adam, Eve, serpent, Satan, Chernobyl, Berlin Wall, acid rain, asbestos, uranium, geraniums, 9/11, 7/11, Donner Party, bird beaks, pigeon claws, squirrel tails, gerbil puke, hamster wheels, insulation, Saran Wrap, Mason Pearson bristles, dental floss, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Mafia hits washed up from the East River, syringes, works, the residue at the bottom of the empty bag of dope, coal waste, cookie crumbs, broken bottles, rusty nails, Bataan Death March, Manila massacre, Boston Tea Party, frog legs, goldfish, mutant ninja turtles, alligators from Florida, red algae, yellow fever, Agent Orange, bubonic plague, gold teeth, silver spoons, copper wires, iron ore, Crest with fluoride, whitening strips, stripper tips, dollar bills, twenties laced with cocaine, subway tokens, expired MetroCards with unused fare, tickets to see Star Wars in 1976, bicentennial souvenirs, gutta-percha, cat guts, doll parts, golf balls, tennis racket strings, cashmere socks, polyester, rayon, pylon, nylon, Mylar, warped vinyl, scratched CDs, crispy leaves, shredded lettuce, tarnished keys, queen bees, xerox paper, pepper spray, Prozac pills, poppers, pooper scoopers, hula hoops, leis, fecal matter, aborted fetuses, snot, rot, cots, bots, shot glass shards, broken windows, chimney smoke, dice, playing cards, poker chips, lollipop sticks, toothpicks, used tissues, dirty handkerchiefs, bandanna threads, kite pine needles, kite strings, toilet water, wolf fangs, sunburn peel, hangnails, cavities, skin, scabs, split ends, fur balls, chicken bones, dissected cadavers, wisdom teeth, crash test dummies, Big Bang, Little Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty, Rip Van Winkle, bog wood, petrified forest, oyster shells, freshwater pearls, blood diamonds, Star rubies, asteroids, primordial ooze, love letters, promises kept and broken.”

Very soon the piece she’d wanted to write about Gen X politics started to slip. The cancer was back. There were so many tests and scans to undergo. I told her not to worry about writing it and was surprised when she filed. She said it was a good distraction from having cancer. She badly wanted to interview Beto O’Rourke, but by the time he arrived in New York City where they might have had a face-to-face — the Gen X skate-punk candidate and the Gen X icon — he was already getting ready to drop out of the race.

She sent me a long piece about her past year, about her impending divorce and her marriage and her mother and Donald Trump. It was from something longer she was working on, she said.

We talked about her writing an additional passage when she recovered from brain surgery and running the piece on Medium. “I suppose I have to add something about this, since so much of the piece is about cancer,” she texted. “You know, of all my failures of imagination, I never wondered what a brain tumor is like. So I could not have guessed it was this atrocious, the dizziness and the pain.”

Her recoveries from the relentless march of the disease during her final, dreadful month would prove to be brief.

After her first brain surgery — she had two to cope with her metastatic breast cancer and subsequent complications — which she described as a “brain resection,” she was astonishingly herself. She was funny and poetic and articulate and in good spirits. Still dizzy and unstable — the tumor had impacted her balance center and left her clutching the furniture as she walked during her last night in her own home — but also still herself. She laughed with her mother, who took video and pictures of her in the hospital and helped coordinate, along with Jim and some of her oldest friends from college, a parade of sun-up to way past winter sundown visitors so that she would never feel alone.

And the night before the surgery, Jim was the one she stayed with. He was the one who took care of Alistair, her dog, and her black cat, Arabella. When I saw him in the hospital, he was entirely attuned to her and what she might need so that she could recover and have, in the unspoken best-case scenario, another year.

“I can’t get over how great my husband has been with this. He has made it possible for me to get better and not worry about anything,” she wrote in mid-December, after the surgery. “He loves you so much it’s clear,” I texted back, thinking of how attentive he had been, how he was arranging visits with so many people, that look on his face that you cannot fake. “I think so,” she texted back. “It’s good you see. I love him so much.”

But the past year had been a hard one. This is what she had written about it. She had shown it to Jim too, and he agreed, as did a number of her oldest friends, that she’d want it published. She loved to be published.

I Believe in Love

By Elizabeth Wurtzel

Greetings from the chaotic land of marriage come undone.

The caravansary is dismantling, toothpicks flying everywhere, the bubblegum that held it together is unstuck.

Everything is falling.

My husband moved out at the end of December [2018], as the calendar flipped from last year to this [2019], while I was in Miami Beach, strolling the walkways in the shocking morning sun and under the nighttime Van Gogh sky, away from it all.

I knew he was moving out, but still: I was surprised.

I did not see that the game was over. I did not know the clock was running. I never lose, but I do run out of time. It turns out this was basketball and not baseball.

While I looked away, my marriage fell apart.

I fell off my keel. I lost my kilter. I was a kite without a string.

Maybe it’s better.

It is a peaceful purple without him here. But psychedelic with disarray.

Marriage is an organizing principle. It is flow. It is coffee in the morning. It is who walks the dog. It is HBO at night.

And love. Don’t forget that.

Now I am an ombré mess of a person. I am missed appointments and canceled meetings. I am the thing I forgot to do. I am hanging on by a strand of Drybar dry-shampooed hair.

All day long I have to ask people to forgive me, I am flailing and failing at it all. Forgive me, I beg, as I hope my untweezed eyebrows will. Maybe soon, I will even tug at a few strays.

Or maybe wild is the way.

🖤🖤🖤

I still think of Jim as this sweet person I married. He is my trust fall. He is my emergency contact. He is my next of kin. He is my valentine. He is my birthday dinner. He is my secret sharer. He is my husband.

I do not know him anymore so I do not know myself. Who are my friends? Where is my family? I have fallen into a crevasse of nobody nowhere.

I am estranged and strange, strangled up in blue.

I do not want to feel this way. I am going through the five stages of grief all at once, which Reddit strings have no doubt turned into 523. They are a collision course, a Robert Moses plan, a metropolitan traffic system of figuring it out.

I feel bad and mad and sad.

Is this a festival of insight or a clusterfuck of stupid? I change my mind all the time about this and about everything else.

I got married because I was done with crazy. But here it is, back again, the revenant I cannot shake. I feel like it’s 1993, when my heart had a black eye all the time.

26 is a boxing match of the soul.

I did not expect bruises at 52.

🖤🖤🖤

I have blamed myself. I have blamed my husband. I have blamed cancer. I have blamed marijuana. I have blamed sexism. I have blamed Charlottesville. I have blamed my in-laws. I have blamed several men named David. I have blamed my mother who lied to me my whole life about who my father is.

Who would I be if I did not blame Donald Trump?

I am angry all the time since the election of 2016, like it happened to me, like I was gang-raped by Michigan. I don’t want to be angry, but so there, I am.

Who don’t I hate?

Who won’t I blame?

If you are standing there, I blame you.

It is not conservative against liberal.

It is everybody against everyone. Here we are, in it together, alone.

The problem is not arguments I have with people who voted for Trump, who I don’t know anyway. The trouble is the way all of us who agree about everything are bickering. Oh, the narcissism of small differences.

I remember not that long ago when the world was not political. I was part of landmark litigation that was all about a team of Republicans and Democrats working together. I loved everybody. We were all on the same side.

What Alamo did I not forgive? What Masada did I not get over?

Now there is no microaggression too small for me to scream about so the next four neighborhoods can hear.

My husband does something and I am affronted like it matters.

I am sure he does not know how I feel.

And maybe he doesn’t.

But what does any of this have to do with why we got married? We got married to be in it together. Polarization has even invaded love.

I have anger fatigue. I am sick of sick. Like everyone.

The emotional toll of the world we live in is going to do all of us in.

But politics is not about conflict.

Politics is about making the world a better place.

🖤🖤🖤

How could my mother keep a secret for 50 years? What makes someone do that?

She buried herself in it. She grew a wild Victorian garden with thorny bushes of rose and purple larkspur and red snapdragon. There was a lush meadow of lavender that gave a whiff of Aix-en-Provence en été. The dandelions ran rampant and the daffodils glowed yellow like Big Bird.

But underneath it all, beneath the lilies of the valley and the rows of geranium, there is dirt.

There is a secret.

I am a bastard. I am her bastard daughter.

There are things that come along that are a shock.

I believed something for nearly half a century. It was a lie.

I was conned.

I was wrong about myself.

I did not know who I am.

My mother told no one.

It was a lie she told for so long it became true and the secret faded to no-memory. She misremembered who my father was. She did not think it mattered.

When it all came out in 2016, not long after I got married, just after my real father died, my mother could not see what my hysteria was about. She did not understand why I was stunned.

All the while I was trying not to feel the worst way ever, trying not to be overwhelmed by the explosion, my mother could not figure out what was bothering me.

After all, she is the nuclear physicist.

My mother is like everyone else. She thinks she is normal. She is sure her behavior makes sense. She believes she does the right thing. Since she cannot imagine that this is not the case, she is surprised to find out that, yes, she makes bombs.

I scream at my mother, “What’s wrong with you?!”

I do that and she does not know what I mean.

She says, “Oh get over it.”

Her eyes widen until they look like goggles on an herbivore. She is put upon. She cannot believe we have to discuss this yet again.

“Omigod yet again!”

When will I quit badgering her?

I say, “You lied to me.”

She says, “It wasn’t a lie.”

“Then what?”

“It was a decision!”

Any relationship founded on a lie is doomed. Or not a lie, according to her, which is another lie, a lie about a lie.

That is how it is between us. We are living in the doom.

And yet, we are still at it. My mother and I refuse to give up. She is my only parent. She is all I have.

She made sure of that.

This is the most painful thing ever.

She has made so many inexplicable decisions over the years that I know about, and now I see the ones I did not know.

And yet I love her more than anyone else in the world.

She is it for me. She is in the way of everything. I should be interested in my husband, but how can he compete with how much I want to figure out the Once that started all that is upon a time?

🖤🖤🖤

I was a welter of emotions.

I was so emotional.

When I found out that my father is not my father, that my mother lied to me my whole life, that there was so much I did not know, a bomb dropped in my life. Bombs, really, aerial bombardment. It was the Battle of Manila: bazookas, flamethrowers, grenades, tanks, cannons, howitzers, banzai charges, kamikaze tactics, I was shocked and stunned with feeling.

I did not know what to do.

I became a raging lunatic.

I was a mettle of rage.

My rage is my retinue. My rage is a filthy velveteen train I drag around with me, carelessly. It is my ruby tiara. It is my rainbow and my pot of gold.

My rage is cream. It makes Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee that my grandmother brewed in a percolator on the breakfront in the dining room taste not half bad.

It is the coloratura harmony to my singsong days.

My rage is my conscience. I insist on my right to feel.

But I got caught in a Möbius strip of emotion. I was gone round the bend of scream.

It was stuplimity.

🖤🖤🖤

My marriage is crushed beneath the weight of so much. It is delicate, like all relationships. It is not one of those fine elms that blows with the gusts and does not snap.

We are a scattering of branches on the lawn. We are deadwood.

Oh, there is a lot that holds us together, the love and the hours. We got married during chemotherapy. We are bound.

But my husband is not who he was.

Yes, I know: It is always like that. The sorrow of unraveling is the stranger you are facing. What happened? I want to scream. Where did you go?

My husband had a softness. I will not compare it to the feel of cotton balls or the touch of silk charmeuse, because it is better. He was new to love. I could tell. I could see. He was surprised. He did not see me coming. He did not know I was interested. He was alone in a room. His life was small. He had the same six friends he always had. He was shy. He was not brave. He had no expectations.

He was lovely.

The beginning is always like honey, liquid and sweet.

But he was open.

He was not wounded by a million heartaches.

He had not been through it all.

He did not have a wretched past.

He was 34, which is not young. Younger than I was, but a lot could have happened by then.

It had not.

He was fresh.

There was nothing I would not do for him.

There was nothing I did not want for him.

We met in October and got engaged in May.

We knew.

And now he knows he has had enough.

It has been too much.

🖤🖤🖤

Most of all, it is not easy to be married to someone with cancer.

I feel for my husband.

Cancer is so big. Everyone is prostrate before its deadly enormity. It is the answer to every question. It is the reason why. Is it an excuse or is it real? Who is anyone to argue? Cancer is a bully. It is an elephantine disease of body, mind, soul. My husband moved a half a mile away from it. I would love to do the same.

I am stuck until the end.

I do not know what he expected when he married me when I was ill. I am sorry that it has not been what he wanted. I am sorry that I hurt him.

After I got cancer, I was not the same.

I wanted to be.

I wanted my life to go back to what it was.

I was so lively. I was so lovely.

I was so busy. I was so social.

But I could not do it.

No surprise, I changed.

I was withdrawn during chemotherapy and my world became small. It contracted like starvation. It is hard to get back what is lost. It is more difficult still to begin anew.

I tried. So hard. I called. I emailed. I texted. I showed up.

But there was a diminishment.

Cancer is an ecosystem. It is a crime spree.

Things broke. My radius. My fibula. My tibia. My spirit.

My cancer came back a year after it went away.

You think people are nice about it? No.

Cancer is misunderstood.

Everyone says the wrong thing. Which is what they do so much anyway.

Then I say the wrong thing back.

There we are, bumper cars of mismatched words.

I can’t believe the stupid things people tell me in an effort to be kind, about something hard they had to deal with that is not the same as having cancer.

The worst thing anyone can do is tell me they are sorry about my cancer.

I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. About anything. Don’t apologize unless you have done something wrong. It is nasty to feel sorry for anyone for any reason because it pushes her away.

Mostly sorry is just a thing to say. Anything else would be better, including I don’t know what to say.

It is always people who are the problem. What else? Our suffering is small compared to our misunderstandings with others, how they fail to give us a break, know what it’s like, judge us fairly, see the world the way we do. It is not even cancer or especially cancer. It is especially this and even that. If you are looking for absolution, you are going to have to forgive yourself.

I have chainmail from years of frustrating conversations, of people who think something bad has happened to me.

I don’t see it that way.

You could tell me everything that’s bad about cancer, like that it’s cancer, but you could not convince me that cancer has been bad for me.

Cancer has made me optimistic.

These are the days of miracles and wonders, of biopharma fireworks, of immunotherapy wow.

I have been saved.

I am miraculous me.

I will skate figure eights into infinity.

I am all claws I am all fangs.

I am not afraid of cancer. I think cancer should be afraid of me.

This past October [2018], I had a tumor in my shoulder bone that was 5 inches: big! It was threatening to break it.

And worse.

My cancer antigens were at 205, when 25 is as high as the level can go.

I had meetings in the World Trade Center while all this was going on. I hate it down there. Skyscrapers as grave markers. It is an ominous place.

When I went for help in Philadelphia at the Basser Center for BRCA at the University of Pennsylvania, only Alistair, my service dog, was with me.

My husband said he had to work.

My marriage had already come undone.

I had stereotactic radiation at Memorial Sloan Kettering. It took only three sessions to zap the tumor away. The treatment saved me, but I have a five-inch hole in my bone that looks like a cave in the Thai jungle.

When my husband moved out, I was still healing. I have a rotator cuff tear and pain from the long way home.

🖤🖤🖤

This is a love story.

Every marriage is a love story.

People who run off to Vegas after knowing each other for 10 days and find a drunk outside the Sands casino to be their witness — they really mean it. Marriage is a big gesture. There is no reason to do it except: love.

It is effusive.

I am sorry I failed.

I am sorry for this confederacy of catastrophe.

I am sorry for it all.

I think that my husband can’t believe I hurt. I know what I’m like: I have a powerful personality, it’s true. But he got me.

He made a vow to love me in sickness and in health.

There was great love between us.

And love is hard to stop.

We made a commitment for when we could not remember why we did.

He decided enough.

I am a monotheist. I am in it for life. I am in everything for life. If you don’t stop me, I will not stop myself. I have the kind of faith that you can only have if you have talked your way out of trouble all along.

I feel so much and too much. Deep in my radiated bones.

I cannot believe it is like this with my husband and not like it was that long ago on Halloween, our first date, which he did not know was a date, maybe it was maybe it wasn’t, he showed up at my door not knowing anything at all.

We were resting on our future arms, we were like people who have never read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, have never seen City of God, have never heard Exile In Guyville, oh what lay ahead.

I remember my husband in the beginning, I know the man I married, I insist he is still there somewhere.

I keep peeling for the pentimento.

Or has this all been a fraud?

Love gone wrong feels like a confidence crime.

That is the worst of it.

Do I have an electron microscope or am I blinded? Do I see more clearly now or is this a distortion? I could ask that about the whole wide world.

Sex and race look different since Trump was elected. We know all the things that we never knew. We were living in a world of trust, we believed we were on a righteous path, that things were incrementally improving, so we did not look so hard into sunlight.

All anything ever is is another way of seeing.

I thought my husband was on my side.

I thought I knew him.

I did.

I don’t.

He changed.

I do not know how to help him.

I do not know how to reach him.

Anything is possible.

I believe in so much.

I am just that way.

I believe in love.

What matters more in this crazy world?

Shame on Casablanca’s ending! I will take the hill of beans.

(This is Garance again.)

Love. Sometimes in our lives when we feel most bereft it turns out that we are not alone at all. It is the kind of cloying Disney sentiment Lizzie might have scoffed at, but it was also the truth with her. She affected a toughness that was both real and a coping mechanism, but which also led her to downplay how sick she was. Even as she was telling me she was in remission in September, spots of cancer had already returned, I have since learned.

“The people who know us when we are not our best selves — what would we do without them? I am so grateful right now for even my mother coming through for me,” she wrote after her first surgery in December. Her mother Lynne Winters and she had a famously complicated relationship, but it was Lynne who took her home to recover both times she was released from the hospital, and who had the difficult burden of having to bring her back, and who sobbed in the sparkling clean MSKCC neuro ward hallway where other parents of too-young-to-die adult children paced forlornly.

“Jim has been the best,” Lizzie texted after the surgery. “I wish you a great first husband. That might be all you need.”

They had, in fact, not divorced. The papers were signed, but not filed. He was her husband until the end, during the final days after it was clear no further interventions would work, when she lay still in bed in what was by then her at least fifth different hospital room, for all the world the image of a big-eyed Renaissance pieta looking heavenward.

“Neurology takes a positive view toward god and prayer,” she had texted after the first surgery. “And relinquishing, which is what god and prayer is about. It is always turning your will over to a higher power and letting the will of the world and not your extraordinary manipulations lead you to your desired result. I always say that, it is my constant prayer: god, if you are out there, watch over me and your will, not mine, be done. That is what will happen anyway, but I pray for release from the dreadful fight.”

She spent her whole life fighting — fighting her parents, society, the patriarchy, social conventions, addiction, depression. But man, did she live big. She had a gift for building love into her life and at the end, her friends built a cocoon of love around her.

And on the morning of January 7, 2020, she was, as she had prayed, released.

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