YALE LAW SCHOOL has graduated some of the nation’s most prominent public figures, among them Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Michael B. Mukasey, the nominee for United States attorney general.
In January, a new alumna will grace their ranks, one whose attempted suicide, drug use, self-mutilation and indiscriminate sex have made her famous.
That would be Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” and “More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction.” Once dubbed by Salon.com “the Suzanne Somers of literary letters,” she is now completing her transition from woman behaving badly to doctor of jurisprudence.
Ms. Wurtzel spent this summer working at the Manhattan firm WilmerHale, drafting legal memoranda about intellectual property and jurisdiction, and was offered a full-time position there upon graduation.
“I thought they would think twice before they made me the offer,” Ms. Wurtzel said. “Not because I did anything wrong, but because I was such an unusual candidate.”
Indeed, when Ms. Wurtzel met with various firms last fall, she found that her reputation had preceded her. “One person I interviewed with said, ‘How can we overcome everything we know about you and come to hire you?’” she recalled.
Ms. Wurtzel was once a walking advertisement for the miseries of depression. She cut her legs with a razor, abused heroin and cocaine, and called her boyfriend a dozen times a day. Eventually, she achieved a semblance of equilibrium through endless doses of therapy and prescription medicines.
“Prozac Nation,” her first book, received considerable attention from fans who praised her vivid prose and brutal honesty, and from critics who found her overwrought, narcissistic and relentlessly self-promoting. Her 1998 follow-up, “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women,” drew mixed reviews.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Wurtzel watched the twin towers fall from her apartment at Greenwich and Warren Streets, close to ground zero. In an interview with The Globe and Mail of Toronto five months later, she said: “I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought, ‘This is a really strange art project.’” She also said: “I just felt, like, everyone was overreacting.”
Her comments played a large role in Miramax’s decision to shelve the film version of “Prozac Nation” for more than three years. In the interim, “More, Now, Again” received largely negative reviews. “Sorry, Elizabeth,” wrote Peter Kurth in Salon. “Wake up dead next time and you might have a book on your hands.”
Ms. Wurtzel denied that these reversals of literary fortune had anything to do with her decision to apply to law school. The events of 9/11, she said, left her paralyzed with fear and largely unable to write.
“I really had the feeling that the whole world had gone crazy,” she said. “I felt very powerless. If I’d been a lawyer, I would have known what to do.” So she looked to law school as a solution. An honors graduate of Harvard, she applied to New York University, Columbia and her alma mater, but set her sights on Yale.
Her combined LSAT score of 160 was, as she put it, “adequately bad” (173 is the median for Yale’s current incoming class). “Suffice it to say I was admitted for other reasons,” Ms. Wurtzel said. “My books, my accomplishments.”
Janet Conroy, Yale Law School’s director of public affairs, would not specify why Ms. Wurtzel was admitted. “We take the entire application into account,” she said.
On a recent Monday in October, as the faint smell of burning leaves wafted through the New Haven air, Ms. Wurtzel attended classes in family law, comparative law, and the philosophy and history of the Constitution. With her oversize earrings, high-heel black boots, and nose stud, she blended in with her fellow graduate students.
Her off-campus apartment, one of six in a prewar tenement, is decorated with a framed George McGovern 1972 presidential campaign poster propped up on the den floor; a framed copy of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” hangs in the bathroom. Hundreds of CDs line the wall, and one bookshelf is given over largely to various editions of Ms. Wurtzel’s works.
Returning to the classroom after 15 years, she found, was tough at first. Early on, she didn’t bother handing in a required assignment in her civil procedure class. “I thought, why should I do this?” she said. “I really had some kind of attitude problem.”
That attitude problem, coupled with many outstanding speaking engagements and some writing assignments, prompted Ms. Wurtzel to suspend her studies following her first year. But when she returned a semester later, she earned honors in all her courses.
“Most law students are risk-averse,” said Justin Shubow, a classmate. “She, by contrast, is a bomb-thrower.”
James Whitman, her comparative law professor, agreed. “We read an article by one prominent scholar,” he said, “and she raised her hand and said, ‘He’s very pompous, isn’t he?’ Which is very true, but you don’t know how to respond to that.”
One day, in her criminal law class, while discussing the differences in sentencing guidelines for cocaine- and crack-related offenses. Ms. Wurtzel said, “Cocaine is a party and crack is a crime spree.”
“We talked so much about drug policy in that class, and I was struck by how little knowledge these people were working with,” said Ms. Wurtzel, who in “More, Now, Again” describes how she once smuggled cocaine to Scandinavia in her diaphragm. “I said that if you removed drugs and alcohol from the situation, there’d be no crime.”
Although Ms. Wurtzel received a $500,000 advance for her second book, “Bitch” (and half of that for “More, Now, Again”), she took out loans to pay for her education. Yale’s law school tuition this year is $43,750.
“I’m badly in debt,” she said. “It’s got to be in the six figures.” Ms. Wurtzel has until Nov. 15 to take up WilmerHale’s job offer. She also has an essay collection in the works but no publisher yet.
But she said her criminal past should not preclude her from a legally oriented future. “I would have to say I was certainly not in my right mind,” she said. “I don’t think I thought of myself as behaving illegally. I thought in terms of not being well.”
ON July 31, Ms. Wurtzel turned 40, and discovered that her once-decadent fin-de-decade birthday celebrations had become downright respectable. For her 20th birthday, she arrived late to a party that her mother threw for her, and stumbled into a bathroom to vomit. Much of her 30th birthday was spent inhaling cocaine.
By comparison, her 40th birthday was “completely undramatic,” she said. After dinner at Provence in Manhattan, she and her friends returned to her apartment for cake. At one point, she fell asleep. “I had to get up and go to work the next day,” she said.
Her personal life, once an open book, now has some hidden passages. Asked if she is dating anyone, she hid her face in her hand. “I can’t talk about that,” she said. “I think I should be discreet.”
As Ms. Wurtzel bustled about, preparing for a class, she threw open the back door of her top-floor apartment, allowing the loud strains of Loretta Lynn singing “High on a Mountain Top” to pour out.
“Let me pack up my sorrows,” she said, grabbing a casebook on her way out the door. Armed with a cigarette, she walked the short distance to the Sterling Law Building.
“It seems so distant,” she said of her wilder days. “Obviously it’s the same person, but I don’t know who that person was. You know that Lou Reed album ‘Growing Up in Public’? There it is. At least I grew up.”