Sunday, April 03, 2016

Eat, Pray Love 10 years on: Elizabeth Gilbert on rereading her bestseller -and what she left out

The Telegraph

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth ten years after her trip of a lifetime CREDIT: CAMERA PRESS

Irealised recently that I hadn’t read Eat Pray Love in 10 years. This was a curious realisation, because I’d certainly spent the last 10 years talking about Eat Pray Love – presenting it, explaining it, defending it, expounding upon it, and oftentimes flat-out joking about it. But I hadn’t actually read the thing – not since I finished editing the final draft of the book, several months before it was published back in January 2006.

Advertisers started using the “Eat Pray…” construct to sell just about anything.
Elizabeth Gilbert

This is not uncommon. I don’t know many authors who go back and reread their books once their work is done. Sometimes this is because of embarrassment (we all tend to wince at our words, in retrospect); sometimes it’s because of boredom (we already know how the story ends); and sometimes it’s just because we have moved on to other projects. 
But with Eat Pray Love, my feeling was this: I had no business reading this book again, because it wasn’t really mine any more. You see, very quickly upon publication, Eat Pray Love was gobbled up by the world, and the world made it theirs – theirs to love, theirs to hate, theirs to emulate, theirs to parody. 
Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts as Elizabeth during her Italian eating stint CREDIT: FILM STILLS
After my book became such a surprisingly big bestseller, advertisers started using the “Eat Pray…” construct to sell just about anything. Eat Pray Shop! Eat Pray Ski! Eat Pray Drink! You can now go on “Eat Pray Love tours” all over the world – none of them officially sanctioned by me, by the way, though I’m always happy to see people travel. Hollywood turned my story into a movie in which my husband and I got seriously upgraded by Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. (Sad truth: my husband and I don’t actually look like Roberts and Bardem. But I still loved the movie. No, wait – that’s why I loved the movie…)
Some of the reaction to Eat Pray Love has struck me as beautiful, some of it has been hateful, much of it has been incomprehensible – but all of it has been astonishing to me. Millions of women seem to have used the book as a recovery manual for their own heartbreaks and spiritual explorations, which has been magnificent to behold.
Over the last decade, I think I’d narrowed down the whole Eat Pray Love experience to: pizza, pizza, pizza.
Elizabeth Gilbert
I’ve made a determined effort to remain as steady and sane as possible in the midst of this whirlwind. Some of my steadiness came from the good luck of having been the right age (mid-30s), and in the right relationship (a happy second marriage) when success hit me. Some of my sanity came from having already lived through my own version of insanity, and never wanting to dip into those dark and turbulent waters again. Writing this book, in fact, was one of the ways I pulled myself out of crazy. 
I have never stopped being grateful to Eat Pray Love for all that it’s brought me. But grateful as I am, I’ve also learnt to keep a few inches of protective space between myself and it. It just feels safer and calmer that way. But finally – in preparation for the 10-year anniversary of Eat Pray Love – I sat down and read it again. And the experience was remarkable for me.
For one thing, I had forgotten so much! This memoir recounts a year of wide-ranging travel and exploration, but so many of the details had gone missing from my memory already. Over the last decade, I think I’d narrowed down the whole Eat Pray Love experience to: pizza, pizza, pizza. So there were people and incidents and scenes (and even meals) that I’d totally forgotten about. I’d forgotten some of the nuances of the hilarious but always transformative conversations I’d had in India with my friend Richard from Texas – who is sadly no longer with us. I’d forgotten about that road trip I took across Bali with my Indonesian friend Yude.
Elizabeth GIlbert
Elizabeth at home in her apartment in New York CREDIT: CAMERA PRESS
A good deal of the criticism levelled against Eat Pray Love has been about my extraordinary privilege, and I have to say in response: I get it. The woman who went on this trip was exceedingly lucky. Reading about this journey again drove that point home for me more deeply than ever, because: Who has 12 free months to spare, just to kick around the globe? Who has the freedom or the money for that? 
In other words, I thought I had been grateful for this experience before, but perhaps I have not been grateful enough. 
But I also realised in my rereading that one of the reasons I was so free that year was because I was such a mess. It was easy for me to leave everything behind because I didn’t have much to leave behind. I had no property, because I’d lost it all in my divorce. I had no romantic relationships, because I’d exploded them. I had no job, because I’d quit it. Everything was in turmoil, everything was in flux, and I was so bloody sad. 
Thirty-four feels like infancy to me now, but apparently I felt ancient back then.
Elizabeth Gilbert

Put simply: I was not in a good place before I flew away to Italy. I’d been so depressed that I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, could barely function. I was heavily medicated with antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills, and sleeping pills. I was as skinny as a stray dog. Everything about my life made me anxious, and the anxiety made my hands shake.
I had forgotten about all this. I’d forgotten the punishing shame of what it feels like to have failed at marriage, or what it feels like to have failed at life. I had forgotten what it feels like to not trust yourself in the least. It’s been so long since I felt this sad, and I guess I’d put that miserable version of myself out of my memory. 
But what really struck me about the person who wrote Eat Pray Love was that she apparently felt so freaking old. This was the biggest surprise for me – how many times I use the word old in these pages, in referring to myself. 
Thirty-four feels like infancy to me now, but apparently I felt ancient back then. This is a real point of cognitive dissonance, because now I am nearly 46, and I do not feel old in the least. I ran five miles this morning and nothing hurts. I slept like a baby last night. I cannot wait to unfold this day, this week, this year. That sort of enthusiasm and vitality, I think, might be the operative definition of “youthfulness”. 
Julia Roberts and JAvier Bardem
Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem in the film CREDIT: FILM STILLS
But I sure did feel old back then. I describe myself in those pages as being too old to be reasonably attracted to my handsome young Italian-language partner Giovanni. I also say that I’m too old for my cute little Swedish friend Sofie – claiming that she is more like my daughter than my peer when we are separated by just a few years. I worry that I’m too old to be travelling around the world with a backpack; at my ripe age I say that I’m too old to even imagine having wild sex like the sex I overheard one night happening above me in my Roman apartment. And when I use the word “old” I don’t mean it in a good way. I don’t mean wise and seasoned. I mean desiccated, tired, spent.
Reading this made me realise all over again what great harm depression and stress do to us. The word “stress” comes from the Latin word for compression, and that compression is what prematurely ages us – compacting us, physically and emotionally, into a feeling of frailty and brokenness. To fight against that compression is to open up your life, to create possibility where once there was nothing but pressure. 
Opening up space for ourselves is a life-affirming act, a sacred act. I do not believe we were put here to grow old when we are still young. 
I had been trained to believe that a woman my age was supposed to have children by her mid-30s – or at least that she was supposed to want them.
Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the message, I think, that made Eat Pray Love resonate so deeply with so many millions of women – the message that, if your life has become a trash-compactor, then you are allowed to try to escape that trash-compactor, whatever it takes. Society’s message to women has always been the opposite: Embrace the trash-compactor that is your life. Be a good sport. Give up more. Work harder. Surrender more. Your life belongs to your father, your husband, your children, your community… 
But Eat Pray Love asked this question: “What if your life belongs to you?” 
This is the question that I asked myself back when I was lost in a fog of sickness, shame, and sadness, and then – with the publication of that book – I turned around and asked that same question of the world. And from what I heard back, from women from a wide variety of backgrounds, in a vast number of countries, Eat Pray Love was the first time many readers had ever really considered this question for themselves. I received a letter recently from a middle-aged woman in Japan that said simply: “It never occurred to me before reading Eat Pray Love that I could change my own life! Oh my goodness! What shall I do with myself now that I know this?” 
Such a dangerous and beautiful question – which has yielded such dangerous and beautiful results! 
I also realised, upon rereading this book, how much I had internalised society’s messages back then about who and what a woman is supposed to be by the age of 34. I had forgotten how obsessed I was back then with the fact that I did not yet have children, and did not know if I ever wanted them. I can see now that this obsession, too, was making me feel old. I had been trained to believe that a woman my age was supposed to have children by her mid-30s – or at least that she was supposed to want them. 
Again, this reminder of who I was then took me by surprise, because it is so different from how I feel today. I am comfortable with my childlessness. 
But the suffering of that younger woman over this question of children/no children is still painful for me to behold. I want to reach into the past and say to her: “It’s OK! You don’t need to be a mother if you don’t want to be one! Your life is going to be wonderful! Relax!”
Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts as Elizabeth having a moment with an elephant in India CREDIT: FILM STILLS
Which reminds me of a story that I did not tell in the original pages of Eat Pray Love, but which I will tell now. It happened when I was in Italy. I was taking the train from Florence to Bologna. I shared a compartment with an exhausted young mother and her rambunctious toddler. For the duration of the train ride, the bambino and I played peek-a-boo, pat-a-cake, and I’ve-got-your-nose. We pointed to objects out the window, and I practised my Italian nouns with him. At age two and still a beginner in Italian himself, he was a perfect conversation partner for me.
When the train arrived in Bologna, I helped the woman disembark. She had all her own luggage to manage, plus a stroller, plus all her baby’s gear. I carried the child out onto the platform while the woman got herself organised.
I watched them walk away – this devoted young mother, who was around my age, and her gorgeous and impossible handful of a son. Then I turned around and walked in the opposite direction – a solo young woman, carrying only her backpack, ready to spend a few days in Bologna doing nothing but eating pasta and practising her Italian. 
And that was the moment when I knew. I would never have a child of my own. I could love children; I could help other women take care of their children… but I would never have one myself. I was literally and emotionally heading in a different direction.
I have forgotten so many details about that year of travel, but I have never forgotten that moment of realisation and liberation on the platform of the Bologna train station. Maybe I didn’t write about it because I felt it was too dangerous and subversive, to speak publicly of that joy and that immense relief. Maybe I didn’t trust my own revelation. All I can say is: I trust it now.
I’ve received a lot of letters over the last decade about Eat Pray Love. The strangest letter I ever received, though, was from a woman who began her correspondence: “Listen, b----!” She went on to say: “Don’t you think I hate my marriage, too, b----? Don’t you think I would love to get a divorce and go find myself in the world? But I don’t, b----! I stick with it, b----! Because this is what marriage means, b----! It means honouring a commitment, b----!” How do you even respond to something like that? 
But that letter certainly gave me things to think about. I don’t think marriage is supposed to be an endurance contest. Indeed marriage is a contract, but in most of the modern world, it is a voluntary contract. We marry these days for love and for companionship – otherwise, we don’t need it. 
Marriage can be something besides misery, as I have personally learnt in the last 10 years. Eat Pray Love is – among other things – a love story, and I can tell you right now that this love story has not only continued but grown. Felipe and I have been married for eight years now, and I have learnt that marriage can be more than just a stubborn, white-knuckled commitment; it can be a delight, a comfort, a compass, a refuge. Back then, I did not know that such happiness in marriage could be possible, but I know it now.
I have never presented my Eat Pray Love journey as a prescription for other people’s lives. Nobody has to get divorced and move to India just because I did; that was my path; it does not have to be yours. 
You don’t need to go eat all the pizza in Italy in order to find yourself – unless you want to. But maybe you do need to ask yourself what you are willing to risk or change, in order to find a sense of freedom, joy, and reanimation within your own life. People sometimes make fun of my book. Sometimes I make fun of it. Sincere as she was, its author is terribly earnest and occasionally grandiose.
But let’s forget for a moment about who wrote Eat Pray Love, and let’s remember who read it – millions of women all over the world, who used it as a doorway through which they stepped into an expanded sense of their own worth, their own possibilities, their own destinies, often for the first time in their lives. 
© Elizabeth Gilbert 2016

Eat, Pray, Love by numbers

  • $200,000 - The publishing advance paid to Gilbert prior to her trip
  • 46 - The number of languages the book has been translated into
  • 12 million - The number of copies sold globally
  • 57 -The number of weeks it spent at the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • £146 million - The amount made at the global box office for the Hollywood movie

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