Once upon a time in American letters, people would rather die than exploit their own mental problems. F. Scott Fitzgerald had an estimable career plus five years of posthumous respectability before The Crack-Up revealed that he'd gone appealingly mad at the end. The Beats died young, leaving beautiful corpses and a cottage industry in memoirs. And then there's Sylvia Plath.
Now severe mental problems are emerging as a mid-career ploy. Daphne Merkin labored in genteel midlist obscurity until she published an essay in The New Yorker on her life as a masochist, with special attention paid to bare-bottom spanking. And how many people had heard of art critic Andrew Solomon before he recounted--also in The New Yorker, and also in the overheated detail that hints at secret delight--his experiences with severe depression?
It ought to be difficult to convince the world to take you seriously once you've impressed upon it that you're irresponsible and insane. But the world (or at least the literary world) has long since gone past toleration of mental illness to glamorization of it. So: Want in? Take Elizabeth Wurtzel as your guide. Her first book, Prozac Nation, was a best-selling memoir of dropping in and out of mental hospitals. With her new book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, she has written a primer for the aspiring literary lunatic.
First, brag about it, and don't be afraid to gild the lily. Wurtzel told Newsweek that she wrote the book on Ritalin--because it helped her get over heroin. Second, make your condition the basis for a social critique. Wurtzel's is a version of bad-girl feminism. A woman, she writes, "can be a deeply depressive Sylvia Plath, a luxuriating decadent Delilah, a homicidal adolescent Amy Fisher, she can be anyone who decides that what she wants and needs and believes and must do is more important than being nice. ... [A]s soon as she lays down the option of my way or the highway, it's amazing how quickly everyone finds her difficult, crazy, a nightmare: a bitch."
Amy Fisher? Yup. "Amy Fisher has emerged as a heroine--and even a martyr--in this story, at least as far as I am concerned, because it seems far preferable to be Amy Fisher in prison than Mary Jo anywhere on earth--even before she was shot. ... [W]ho cares if Mary Jo Buttafuoco lives or dies." And thus Rule 3: Don't worry about overstating the case. After all, you're nuts.