Why do we love to write about celebrity author and lawyer Elizabeth Wurtzel? Because people love to read about her. Even a passing mention of La Wurtzel garners thousands of pageviews, and her name routinely shows up in the top search terms that bring readers to Above the Law.
We aren’t alone in devoting significant editorial real estate to Liz Wurtzel. New York Magazine just published a mammoth essay by this bestselling memoir writer and former Boies Schiller associate. The piece, exceeding 5,500 words, appeared in print as well as online — accompanied by photos of Wurtzel looking much younger than her 45 years.
Wurtzel looks fabulous in the photos, but the essay itself is something of a downer. If you enjoy hating on Wurtzel, taking schadenfreude from her financial, romantic, and bar exam failures, you need to read it….
Here’s how her essay, a chronicle of Wurtzel’s annus horribilis, begins:
I am so done with 2012. What a wretched year it was.
And she doesn’t even go into her bankruptcy filing or the lawsuit filed against her by a miffed publisher, which both took place in 2012. Wurtzel instead begins with a (rather chilling) tale about a supposedly insane former sublessor who allegedly stalked Wurtzel and threatened to cut up her face.
(Welcome to the world of Manhattan real estate! This is what people put up with for an apartment on Bleecker Street with thirteen-foot ceilings and two fireplaces.)
Wurtzel, a Yale-trained litigatrix, tried to invoke the majesty of the law against her nutty landlord. It didn’t really work:
From time to time, and I never knew when, [the allegedly crazy landlady] would buzz and bang on the door and finally barge in, using a spare key she kept, and yell epithets at me for twenty minutes at a time, for no apparent reason. I have boyfriends who have caught me in very compromised situations, and none has ever called me “a disgusting little whore,” which is the kind of thing this woman would scream in a variety of less appetizing ways, on and on. When I explained, calmly, because I have been told that is the best way to deal with a hysteric, that trespassing is against the law and she needed to leave, she would just harrumph, “You and your law!”
“You and your law!” I like this lady’s style. I kept waiting for her to quote Federalist No. 78: the judiciary “may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.”
That’s not the only mention of the law in Wurtzel’s deeply thoughtful and engaging essay. For example, here’s how she explains her decision to attend Yale Law School (which, together with her drug habit, apparently sucked up much of the savings from her successful career as an author):
I had loved everything about Yale Law School — especially the part where I graduated at 40 — but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity.
Indeed. Curiosity didn’t just kill the cat; it also bankrupted a former bestselling author.
I recently read Professor Paul Campos’s newest book, Don’t Go To Law School (Unless) (affiliate link), which I strongly recommend to anyone considering law school. One of Professor Campos’s pieces of advice: don’t go to law school unless you actually want to practice law. So he probably wouldn’t have approved of Wurtzel’s decision to go to law school (even at a place with as strong a job placement record as Yale):
I did not go to law school planning to practice law. I did not go to law school for any reason, except that it was something I had always wanted to do.
Despite this, Wurtzel wound up with a great job at a great firm, Boies Schiller & Flexner:
I sent David Boies an e-mail during my last year at Yale and asked if he would hire me. The printout ended up in a pile, and he only saw it a couple of months later. I was visiting my mother in Fort Lauderdale when David called me. He asked if I was still interested. “Why not?” And really: Why not?
It has been a singular privilege to work for David and to get to know him as well as I have. It’s enough to make me believe in luck. He is the smartest person I have ever met, and it is a steep fall to second place. I knew David Foster Wallace pretty well, and he was pretty smart, but David Boies makes David Wallace look like, well, some other lesser David, maybe David Remnick.
Ouch. Guess Liz Wurtzel won’t be pitching the New Yorker anytime soon.
Notwithstanding her admiration for David Boies, who helped her through the crazy landlady situation — it’s funny to imagine one of the finest litigators of our time getting his hands dirty with a landlord-tenant dispute — it sounds like Wurtzel has mixed feelings about what passes for the practice of law these days:
[M]ost people who think they are practicing law are actually making binders, and my guess is that most people who think they are doing whatever important thing they are doing are making binders. The binders from law firms go to a locker in a warehouse in a parking lot in an office park off an exit of a turnpike off a highway off an interstate in New Jersey, never to be looked at again. No one ever read them in the first place. But some client was billed for the hourly work.
Reading between the lines here, it sounds like Wurtzel wasn’t a fan of the kind of drudgery required of law firm associates (which may have contributed to her departure from Boies Schiller). But for better or worse, binders make the Biglaw world go around. Litigators have their binders of hot docs; deal lawyers have their closing binders. It’s hard to imagine any high-level practice of law without binders.
Law is not a major theme of Wurtzel’s essay; if I had to reduce her rich and rambling piece to a single sentence, I’d steal the title of Sheila Heti’s novel: How Should A Person Be? (affiliate link). But even if they’re not her central concerns, law and legal education make an appearance in Wurtzel’s final paragraph:
I have always made choices without considering the consequences, because I know all I get is now. Maybe I get later, too, but I will deal with that later. I choose pleasure over what is practical. I may be the only person who ever went to law school on a lark. And I wonder what I was thinking about with all those other larks, my beautiful larks, larks flying away.
It’s a lovely if improbable final image. Would that it were so easy to “fly away” from one’s poor choices in life.
You can love her or hate her (and some folks clearly hate her, or at least hate this latest essay of hers). You can question the coherence and consistency of her thinking and writing. You can call her all sorts of names, including but not limited to “disgusting little whore,” to quote her crazy landlady.
But you can’t ignore such a powerful and provocative voice. If Elizabeth Wurtzel is an attention whore, then we are all her johns.
(If you haven’t done so already, read her New York Magazine essay, in which she overshares about her love life, her finances, and sundry other subjects. Some will find it fascinating, some will find it frustrating, some will find it self-indulgent, but all will have a reaction — because Wurtzel is the kind of writer who always makes her audience think and feel. And isn’t that what writing is all about?)
Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life [New York Magazine]
Elizabeth Wurtzel Writes About Herself Again. Memoir Finally Hits Bottom. [XX Factor / Slate]
Journalism Is Not Narcissism [Gawker]
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