Elizabeth Wurtzel Learns Her Father Was Civil Rights Photographer Bob Adelman
Elizabeth Wurtzel, famous for “Prozac Nation” and infamous for her claim that motherhood isn’t a job, is speaking out against her mother for her failure as a parent. That failure? To tell her who her real father was.
In a blistering essay for The Cut, Wurtzel reveals that she lived her life until 2015 believing her father was Donald Wurtzel, a drug-dependent, absentee dad.
“I have been working out that relationship all of my life, in writing and therapy and conversation, with cocaine and heroin, with recovery and perseverance, and with my thoughts,” Wurtzel wrote of her strained dynamic with her father, a large part of her 1994 breakout memoir “Prozac Nation.”
It came as a shock then when Wurtzel learned her real father was famed photographer and chronicler of the civil rights movement Bob Adelman, a man she had known since birth. Suddenly, the fact Adelman lived a block away from her as a child and gave her expensive or historically significant gifts started to make sense, as did his divorce from his wife, precipitated by an affair with another woman (who, it turned out, was Wurtzel’s mother).
Wurtzel first learned the truth from Adelman’s girlfriend, before her mother confirmed it. Wurtzel was the result of a liaison between her mother and Adelman, a colleague of hers at Random House in the 1960s. At that time Wurtzel’s mother was living by herself on the Upper East Side while her husband resided in Poughkeepsie. Wurtzel’s mother never told him either, though Adelman knew.
“None of the men my mother turned to for advice in the very patriarchal culture that we lived in told her to do the right thing and be truthful,” Wurtzel wrote. A rabbi at her shul suggested such a revelation would lead to suicide, a psychiatrist advocated telling her with her suspected and biological fathers in the room with her.
“Instead, she let me struggle with my father. She let me work — she let me build pyramids in Mizraim — with the man I always believed was my father,” Wurtzel wrote in her lengthy, pained story.
While Wurtzel forgave her mother for the damage she had done keeping quiet in a patriarchal world, she wondered at her actual father, Bob Adelman’s silence. After all, Adelman, who died in 2016, had no trouble doing other difficult things in the past — risking life and limb documenting the marches in Selma and boycotts in Montgomery.
“Bob was brave so that the world could see what was going on,” Wurtzel wrote. “But photojournalism is a sneaky art. Bob ducked behind grand old oak trees. He hid away from nightsticks. He felt only the precipitation from fire hoses. He was behind the lens of his Nikon. He did not confront me. Bob died without telling me who he was, who I am.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected]