In Defense Of Elizabeth Gilbert

Published on March 30th, 2011 in: Back Off Man I'm A Feminist, Books, Culture Shock, Feminism, Issues, Over the Gadfly's Nest |

eat pray love movie poster

Expatriate Focus:

The same blogger that mentioned the “smiling medicine man” archetype pointed out that in each country, Gilbert made friends with other expatriates: A Swede in Italy, a Texan in India, and a Brazilian in Indonesia.I can actually think of native friends that she made in each country. Not having read the book of course, the blogger may not have been as aware of those friendships, but they were covered in the movie, too.

I don’t think that Gilbert’s friendships with other expats prove her disinterest in the people of the countries she visited. I think they prove that other countries are more cosmopolitan (and their immigration laws less rigid) than the US.

High Class Problems:

It was the fallout from divorce that drove Gilbert to travel, and it has been pointed out that she suffered much less than some people in the places she visited, or other war-torn and marginalized countries. This is hard to argue with, but a story she relates at the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love is very telling.

A friend of Gilbert’s who is a therapist was asked to treat Rwandan refugees. She found that her new patients—who had been through so much—were nevertheless quite preoccupied with questions of love.

In other words, relationship trouble can cause pain for anyone, no matter what their other circumstances. Nor is Gilbert unaware of the other kinds of suffering in the countries she visits. If Eat, Pray, Love doesn’t convince you of that, pick up her following book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, and read about her trip to Cambodia.

Economic Privilege:

Most of us aren’t able to take a year out of our lives to live abroad. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to get an advance from a publisher to do that. All of this is true.
It’s also important for fans of Eat, Pray, Love to realize that the same kinds of fulfillment, whether Yoga or Italian cuisine, can be experienced closer to home, and for much less money.

committed cover

But here again, reading Committed helps understand the full scope of Gilbert’s experience. When she and her new partner, Felipe, ended up stuck outside of the US, awaiting the immigration process, they didn’t bide their time in a Parisian hotel suite. Eat, Pray, Love had not yet hit it big. They returned to Southeast Asia, which was the only place they could afford to live, and they stressed about money for much of the time.

Self-Involvement:

If this is not the most common charge against Elizabeth Gilbert, it may be the most gendered, and the most irritating to me. Committed made Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the five worst books of 2010 for this reason. I found this curious, since the book was chock-full of fascinating information about the history of the institution of marriage. Elizabeth and Felipe’s story was merely the framework which made it more accessible, and which I happened to enjoy.

I don’t think that someone self-involved would have regretted hurting her ex-husband as much as Gilbert did. Someone self-involved would not have had the concern Gilbert did for the young bride in India, or the young mother I mentioned in Bali. Gilbert was pretty self-aware in Committed as she acknowledged, time and time again, the limits of her perspective as a white Westerner.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if the phrase “self-involved” is only used because Gilbert is a woman telling her own story. Men from Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain to Ricky Martin and Keith Richards have written autobiographies without getting called self-involved, at last that I can recall.

In summary: No, Elizabeth Gilbert is not perfect, and her experience can’t be duplicated by most people. Eat, Pray, Love and Committed may not be great literature, but they are informative and engaging. Gilbert’s compassion and curiosity are genuine, and that is what makes those books worth reading.

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