Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the Web and Ms. Wurtzel

UPDATED... see conclusion.

This morning I was reading Glenn Reynolds, the sharp and prolific web commentator/aggregator, on his Instapundit site, where he writes:

"ELIZABETH WURTZEL COMMENTS ON AUTOADMIT, something we've all been waiting for. I think her attitude is colored by this savage Jim Treacher parody on her narcissistic reaction to the 9/11 attacks."

Please excuse, but I'm too web-clumsy to link to the piece. Nonetheless, he's right in that Elizabeth Wurtzel's attitude about the web-smearing of her fellow classmates is undoubtedly colored by Treacher's savaging of her; but Reynolds also perhaps demonstrates the very phenomenon EW points to. (An early, unedited version of her piece can be found on this site as a guest-post, from Monday. Disclosure: EW has been a pal going on fifteen years, during which I've enjoyed her talent for always saying or writing something remarkable, remarkable in one way or another.)

Backing up… a few months after the attacks of 9/11 a Toronto journalist gave to a New York tabloid column an account of her interview with Wurtzel in which Wurtzel allegedly was unmoved by the human cost.  Was the Toronto journalist's account of their conversation reliable? Was the NY tabloid columnist's?  I don't know… but after the fact she did protest to the tabloid that she had said no such thing.  Her protests fell on deaf ears.  The Toronto journalist's account proliferated, and presumably led to the aforementioned savaging by Treacher that still lurks in a corner of the web. Wurtzel's  9/11 quotes are a canard that still trail her, as evidenced by Reynolds, even now when as a budding attorney she writes on more substantive matters.

Did she say to the Toronto what she was quoted as saying?   I don't know… but I strongly doubt it. I was actually with Wurtzel for a good portion of September 11th. We met up in the early evening at the friend's apartment where, after being forced from her own apartment, a block and a half from ground zero, she'd taken over the couch.  That day, I myself saw more, and I lost more, than I hope I ever have to again. I had to deliver some sad news, but on the other hand I got to share a beer in the late afternoon with my brother, whom my family had been convinced all day was a goner. Enough said. Elizabeth, on the other hand, saw something that no person should ever have to see. That she’s never written about what she actually saw and, so far as I know, never mentioned it to more than one or two people, including me in the immediate aftermath, I respect. This of course would be a rare instance of her not saying whatever popped into her head. Part of what she said to me that night, in one version or another, over and over, as she wept hysterically for hours was “I can’t think about it. I can’t believe what I just saw. I can’t think about those people. I can only think about my cat. My cat is still in my apartment. I can’t bear to think about those people. I can't think about what I saw, what just happened.” What part of this was trauma and somewhat impersonal, and what part grief sprung from sympathy from those nearby? Let's say it was a mixture. In any case, it was perfectly clear, even to her, that she was trying to hold on to her mind by blocking out an overwhelmingly horrific vision and concentrating on one small living thing in her world. Another close friend, older, was hundreds of miles from where we were that day, and simply following her natural inclination tried in her mind to embrace as much of the experience and feeling as she could. And, soon enough, her circumference expanded around her fairly miserably. A year later she descended for some time into her first ever, and only, bout of mental illness. If a week later Elizabeth, who has since she was a teenager struggled periodically with her own mental illness, was going to travel from being swamped by constantly re-envisioning what she's seen to instead mostly speaking about her cat, I for one was not going to begrudge her.

Did that Canadian reporter report honestly what Elizabeth had said? Quite simply that quote doesn't fit with Elizabeth's experience on the day, nor with the things she was saying to me and other friends at the time of the interview, so I seriously doubt it. And when the Canadian journalist later called a NY tabloid to dish on EW... did she recount their conversation faithfully?  Well, I think she simply wanted a headline and a Page Six mention.

Did Jim Treacher in his savaging of my friend, admit that he himself really had no sense of what she'd said in interview, and knew nothing about the reliability of the Toronto journalist who’d offered his account?  Well, no.  But he read it on the internet from a trusted news source!  But when we come to now that journalist's account does have a kind of authority by virtue of its continued presence on various sites on the web, including Wurtzel's Wikipedia and IMDB entries.

I've long suspected that since Elizabeth is so forthcoming about her own bad behavior that journalists feel the normal rules don’t apply to her. Long ago I took her to a book party where she bumped into a New York Times journalist whom I like very much. On seeing him, she exploded, “How could you have written that! I said nothing like that at all.” Apparently the NYT journalist had quote her in a self-damning way in a Style section article. To my astonishment he actually admitted to her that she was right, and he reluctantly apologized... then reversed himself by adding, “But come on, you’re laughing all the way to the bank.” That ("I lied, but it was to your benefit to get a headline") is not the proper attitude a writer should have toward their subject, even if their subject is another writer, a self-dramatizing one at that.

So, in her essay about people smearing others on the web, Elizabeth has a point. Civility, like history, doesn’t always find its ideal spokesperson.

Updated 15 June 2012 to correct spelling, bad grammar, missing words. 

Also, should be noted that both Jim Treacher and Protein Wisdom have linked to this post, offering it as a caveat to their making fun of Wurtzel.  I still believe they've bought into a libelous distortion, but kudos to them for this.  Lord knows I've seen major newspapers and television networks behaving less responsibly.

Lastly, for people like Wurtzel, whom reporters seem eager to misquote, it is a good idea, as so often said by Glenn Reynolds, to make your own recording of any interview.  That's good advice for political candidates too.

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