The movie of Eat, Pray, Love commences with the kind of moment that, depending on your outlook, leads you to find memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert either deeply appalling or appealing. In a chatty voice-over, Julia Roberts tells us the story of her psychologist friend, Deborah, who’s daunted when asked to counsel a bunch of recently deposited Cambodian boat people.
The boat people, Julia tells us, have suffered “the worst of what humans can inflict on each other—genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes.” How can a privileged American—a mere Philadelphia shrink—possibly relate to their suffering?
But luckily for Deborah, boat people have no interest in discussing their years in refugee camps or having to feed expired fellow travelers to the sharks. Instead, their worries comprise a sort of deposed-dictator, PTSD season of The Bachelorette: “I met this guy when I was living in the refugee camp, and we fell in love. I thought he really loved me, but then we were separated on different boats, and he took up with my cousin. Now he’s married to her…”
At this punchline, the audience at my screening chuckled at the oh-too-truthiness of it all. It’s not surprising Hollywood chose to launch the movie thus. It is a moment pure Gilbertian, exactly the kind of psychic pass those troubled by uniquely unspeakable acts require.
Sure, life is filled with nasty inconveniences like rape and having to pitch a corpse or two overboard when you least expect it! But never fear. At the end of the day, all we all really care about is if that guy is going to call.
For those of us who’ve watched Gilbert transmute from a National Book Award nominee (for The Last American Man) to an author who breathlessly hears God declaim, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS!!!!!!!!” (formatting Gilbert’s), watching her cinematic transformation is even more fascinating. Yes, Oprah tended to elide the side of the beloved spiritual rehabber that shipped a set of Gibbon in advance of her journey to Rome. But Hollywood has circumscribed even this Oprah-approved Gilbert entirely, rendering a zippy over-formatter with a direct line to our creator a passive rom-com goddess.
While a real-life Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love’s protagonist were avowed globe-trotters, when we meet Julia Roberts’ Gilbert, she is entirely landlocked, wandering her sterile suburban home in darkness and leafing through a sheaf of withering maps of places she’d like to go. (How did this chained wife finance said home? The filmmakers punt this headscratcher by referencing callow junkets to Aruba.)
For this Elizabeth, one’s love life lives in lockstep with self-discovery, and each phase of her spiritual and physical journey is simply a means to further her romantic one. To this end, the screenwriters haven’t simply emphasized parts of the memoir. They’ve created entirely new plot points, ones that effectively hold together the movie’s lovesick Gilbert but have little to do with the memoir’s one.
Gilbert of the memoir barely mentions children. But for Hollywood’s Gilbert, the specter of motherhood looms like Alcatraz in the distance, the impetus for setting off on the journey of a lifetime, not a lifer. Now, a crappy Dear John email in the memoir is buffeted by a discourse on a descent into Rome’s Augusteum. The memoir’s uneventful stay in an ashram (what do you want? It’s an ashram) suddenly contains not only a real wedding but a ghostly wedding dance with Gilbert’s ex on the ashram’s roof. (I cried. Sue me.) There’s even an official meet cute. In the memoir, Felipe and Gilbert simply run into each other at a party. But now, her future husband plows into Gilbert on her bike, running her off the road before he bangs her in real life.
But it’s Gilbert the observer whose absence is most striking. Eat, Pray, Love was studded with sharp buds of cultural critique, including a clever discourse on Italians’ skill at Il bel far niente—the beauty of doing nothing. Hollywood, puppeteer, delivers this recitative entirely through the mouths of others while Gilbert nods and looks on. It’s practically a reprimand. Gilbert the author was a vivid tour guide, showcasing the grapes of Rome with “champagne-colored skins as tight as a showgirl’s leotard.” But Julia Roberts’ Gilbert simply sits and absorbs, dutifully sipping her delightful espresso. This character won’t describe squat to a reader. She is her reader.
But it seems unfair to blame Hollywood for divesting Gilbert of her authority when it’s her author’s ruling shtick is to pretend she has none. (As a writer, Gilbert is a bit like a brainy professor who distracts you from her intellect by asking if her skirt matches her shoes.) She’s left the screenwriters no choice but to put a plot, any plot, in place. For it is the great irony of this soul-baring epic, one whose epigraph reads simply Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, that the cagey author leaves us entirely in the dark as to how the Gilbert sausage gets made.
Gilbert may make her living talking, like, to God, but you cannot get her to tell us about love or money—well, for love or money. This begins, of course, with the elision of the book’s impetus, which was, of course, not a bolt from God but a book contract. (You know—the thing writers live on.) We have no idea who financed this trip. Was it an advance, or help from her uncle and aunt? (The acknowledgments seem to suggest the latter, but travelers on “Eat, Pray, Love” pilgrimages would probably benefit from a ballpark figure.) On the dissolution of her marriage she remains assiduously mum. Is she legally prevented from talking about what happened? If so, why not be Zen and tell us? (Especially when the edict, whether spiritual or legal, doesn’t prevent her from clarifying the petty ex demanded their house, pied-a-terre, retirement accounts, and a stake in her future earnings.) Eat, Pray, Love closes with her commitment to Felipe, but readers of her follow up, Committed already know how loath Gilbert is to reveal anything about the actual marriage.
But why is Gilbert so tight-lipped about the vicissitudes of her actual reality, and why are readers under the impression she’s anything but? In a recent, much popularized TED talk, Gilbert tells the audience what it’s like to go from an unknown writer who everyone was sure would fail to a mega-bestseller that everyone knows will fail, because she’ll find it impossible to ever have a follow-up as good as Eat, Pray, Love.
Gilbert refuses this responsibility. Nowadays, she argues, artists are driven into suicidal depressions by such expectations. Once, we had a muse we could blame for our failures, and it’s time to bring the muse back. If she never has a book as successful as Eat, Pray, Love, she tells us, so be it. She’s refused to “leak down that dark path.” Her mind is safe because, she puts a “safe distance” between herself and the risks of creativity.”
But one must wonder if it’s the crisis of creativity that’s hounding her, or simply the crisis of actual self-exposure. Gilbert’s ex, Michael Cooper, recently canceled a book deal that was supposed to be his own version of Eat, Pray, Love. He cited as his reason that publisher Hyperion wanted it to be more “racy,” while he wanted to focus instead on his “decades-long commitment to humanitarian relief and human rights work.”
Despite their divorce, this couple still has something in common: a wish to avoid gritty details. (After all, could you give away a book on “humanitarian relief and human rights work”?) But Gilbert, as in her marriage, is a more skilled elider. Eat, Pray, Love’s premise—to journey around the globe and the self—is appealing to the quiet desperado in all of us. Handed a memoir that does the first so engagingly, it’s hard to notice the author hasn’t really done the second.
And while we bicker endlessly on Gilbert’s self-involvement or lack thereof, talent or lack thereof, patronizing white hegemonic superiority or lack thereof, we miss the point. Because Eat, Pray, Love’s author has actually managed to hide everything: her skill in prosody; her depth as a reporter; her talent for research, and—most important—the reason why the book came to be in the first place. She’s her own Cambodian boat person, nattering on about love to avoid whatever wreckage lies in her wake.
We won’t know until Oscar season how well Julia Roberts has fared in the role. (For the record, I was shocked to find her scene crying in the bathroom quite moving—I don’t know if Roberts has evinced such convincing distress since her coma in Steel Magnolias.) But it doesn’t matter. For my money, as guru, writer, and spiritually evolved truth-teller, Elizabeth Gilbert still turns in the best performance of herself.
Bonus Link: File Under: Self-Realization in Women
Edmund Wilson encouraged his second wife Mary McCarthy’s first forays into fiction by shutting her in a room for three hours and asking her to write a story. Author Shirley Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and writer for The New Yorker, devised strict writing schedules for her. And with the money from Jackson’s royalty checks, he purchased a dishwasher to make more time for her writing. Alice B. Tolkas tended to domestic duties so that her partner, Gertrude Stein, could pursue her literary endeavors. As Stein said, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around and do so much nothing, really do nothing.”
Stein’s statement sounds like an exaggeration, but is it really? While most writers don’t have the dispensable time to become geniuses of Stein’s definition, writing requires a certain amount of intellectual autonomy. One common bond linking McCarthy, Jackson, and Stein—three women featured in Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers—is that their spouses allowed them the time and solitude required to imagine, write, and produce. Even if their spouses’ approaches were controlling or their motivations questionable, the writing flourished.
Showalter also profiles Catharine Maria Sedgwick, a popular writer from the early 1800s who never married. Sedgwick felt deeply ambivalent about remaining single, which is reflected in her story “Cacoethes Scribendi,” in which a group of four sisters, one married, take up writing as a hobby. The daughter who refuses to write seduces and marries the only eligible bachelor in town. With his proposal, Sedgwick writes, the girl’s mother and aunts “relinquished, without a sigh, the hope of ever seeing her an AUTHOR.” Sedgwick implies that marriage and writing are antithetical, and that a woman loses hope of becoming an author, and perhaps even remaining one, once she’s married.
Of a contemporaneous writer, Fanny Fern, Nathaniel Hawthorne critiqued:
The woman writes as if the Devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked… then their books are sure to possess character and value.
While social mores have changed, books written by women about marriage and other domestic topics continue to crowd Hawthorne’s categories of “feebleness and folly,” and flourish. We need not look far for proof. Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed, topped the New York Times Best Sellers list last week. The book’s narrative wrestles with the issue of whether or not Gilbert should remarry (she does). While some women writers and collections featuring their stories, such as This Is Not Chick Lit, attempt to thwart expectations of the usual modes of feminine domesticity and decency, they remain a minority. At least these women are no longer considered possessed.
Likewise, the anxiety of maintaining the distance and time to write within a romantic relationship continues to plague women (and men alike). Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” touches on this conundrum from the male perspective. In James’s story, the fledgling writer Paul Overt takes advice from the esteemed “master,” Henry St. George, and chooses his writing over pursuing a potential paramour. Overt travels abroad and pens a well-regarded novel, but returns home to find that the happy and unproductive St. George nabbed his girl. Overt wonders if he made the right choice by following intellectual passion instead of romance. Or if he really needed to make a choice at all.
Speaking of romantic choices, at HTMLGiant Nick Antosca recently posted a provocative list of reasons why writers should not date writers. He claimed that writers are less likely to let their significant others use writing as an excuse to avoid social obligations. But I’m wondering if he’s wrong, and that writers should date writers, who will likely understand the importance of clearing time and mental space to write. In spite of the control McCarthy’s and Jackson’s husbands exerted, their marriages show that liaisons with other writers can help make the space to write within the constraints a relationship. What matters most, it seems, is the agreed upon arrangement.
Katie Roiphe (of recent note for her New York Times essay about the sad state of male sex writing, which Sonya responded to here) wrote about unconventional couplings in her book, Uncommon Arrangements, which profiles seven unusual marriages in Britain between 1910 and World War II. Roiphe calls them “marriages à la mode” (a name she borrowed from a Katherine Mansfield story) to underscore the ways these couples, triads, and more complex entanglements sought imaginative, and at times almost untenable, set-ups to fulfill their needs and romantic desires.
These arrangements didn’t provide equal satisfaction for everyone involved, but for the writers who flourished a few common foundations aided their craft. Having money helped matters, of course. The young journalist and novelist Rebecca West was seduced by the older, established, and very married H.G. Wells, who fathered her child. He provided a house for West and their son, but he also chose to stay with his wife. This may have been a wise decision on Wells’s part—because it also helps as a writer to have a wife. By wife, I mean a partner who tends to the cleaning and cooking, watches the children and oversees the social affairs. Gender doesn’t matter, although in these cases a woman always occupied the role. An extremely devoted friend also suffices.
Take Katherine Mansfield as an example. Her on-again, off-again and highly impractical romance with the writer and editor John Middleton Murry developed out of a sense of mutual respect but offered little stability. When Mansfield contracted tuberculosis and had to spend winters abroad due to her health, Murry remained at home in England. Instead, Mansfield’s friend Ida Baker accompanied her, cared for her, and even woke to toast her in the middle of the night when she completed a story. These were some of Mansfield’s most productive years.
Retaining separate residences, a room of one’s own if you will, also provides space for lovers to write. The writer Vera Brittain married the academic George Catlin, who offered her “as free a marriage as it lies in the power of a man to offer a woman.” When he found a teaching position at Cornell, she moved with him across the Atlantic, but after the first year she returned to England and stayed. Roiphe writes: “It was [Vera’s] elaborately articulated position that a woman must be productive, and if that productivity was compromised by her domestic arrangements she had an obligation to change them.” And so Vera enlisted her dear friend Winifred Holtby as a third party in their marriage. Winifred would share the London residence, the expenses, and travel as she liked. She was Vera’s housemate and back-up nurse. Mary Wollstonecraft’s unlikely marriage to William Godwin (unlikely in that both opposed matrimony in their writing) never resulted in cohabitation. According to Cristina Nehring’s account of their romance in Vindication of Love, Wollstonecraft and Godwin kept separate flats, twenty doors apart, and sent notes to each other via a messenger.
In contrast to these rather dated romances, Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel I Love Dick depicts an even more ostentatious arrangement between a husband and wife named Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer, the Columbia professor, editor, and philosopher who is also Kraus’s real-life husband. As Chris’s infatuation with her husband’s colleague Dick develops into an all-consuming obsession, Chris devises ways to seduce him. She talks candidly with Sylvère about her obsession in hyperbolic exchanges reminiscent of those shared by teenage girls.
Chris and Sylvère are no longer having sex, but the external charge Dick supplies reignites their passion, at least temporarily, as husband and wife start collaborating, by writing love letters to Dick on Chris’s behalf. Sylvère makes phone calls; he imagines he’s Charles Bovary to Chris’s Emma. Chris continues to write, passionately and desperately. She turns her love-induced graphomania into performance art, and then into an epistolary novel. We as readers are led to believe that the letters she wrote to Dick, in turn, form the foundation of this book. For Kraus, love wasn’t just inspiration, it was art, it was all.
Chris’s obsession with Dick is central to the novel, but he also remains removed. Her husband, in turn, provides encouragement, companionship, and, surprisingly, acts as a collaborative accompanist within her fantasy.
If I Love Dick portrays a contemporary marriage à la mode, it also reflects the ways that the feminine role has changed—and resisted change as well. Kraus admits that in spite of her husband’s renown in the art world, at the time she wrote the book, no one took her seriously. Her anonymity gave her freedom to take risks.
Falling in love didn’t stunt Kraus’s writing. It inspired her. She said in an interview, “when you fall in love with someone the greatest rush is that you can be so many more sides of yourself with them than with anyone else in the world.” Dick’s distance allowed her to imagine, to fantasize, to write her fantasy into existence. Kraus has certainly thrown off the restraints of decency, and of privacy. No doubt, Hawthorne would pay her the compliment.
[Image: Virginia Woolf’s writing desk in her study in Rodmell, England.]