In Defense of Elizabeth Gilbert
...and the fact that her books exist.
In 2008, Lori Gottlieb wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled "Marry Him!: The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough." She argued for a lowering of expectations, the deflating of the fairy tale expectation of a Prince Charming. There is no perfect man, and if you reject someone because he does not match your ideal vision — if he's a little short, if he's not as ambitious as you would like, if he doesn't make as much money as you — then you could be missing out on the perfect match. It almost sounds sane, until you start reading Gottlieb a little more deeply.
- Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert. 304 pages. Viking Adult. $26.95.
- Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb. 336 pages. Dutton Adult. $25.95.
"Marry Him" the article is now Marry Him the book, and it gives me the creepy crawlies. In it, Gottlieb compares being single at 40 to being thrown out a windshield and lying brain dead on the pavement. She portrays women as their grossest stereotype, of being out to trap men, of being willing to slit the throat of their best friends for a chance with a guy, of being power hungry bitches. Marry Him didn't need to be a book. I appreciate what it purports to say — "Don't be a shallow asshole." After all, no one wants to live a life without love. But Marry Him wants you to be afraid: afraid of being alone, of social shame, of not being perfect. It's two steps away from using the word "spinster," declaring that a life without a man is not worth living and reminding you that if you don't get married, there will be no one to stop your pet dog from feasting on your corpse when you drop dead in your lonely little apartment. They won't even find you until your body fluids start dripping through the downstairs neighbor's ceiling.
Spinster fear is a serious stressor. And it's not just Gottlieb. An entire industry of self-help books, sitcoms, romantic comedies, seminars, scientific studies, magazines, and Web sites are designed to pressure you about your marriagability. "Don't waste the pretty!" He's Just Not That Into You said, reminding us that our attractiveness is an asset with an expiration date. "You're more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than get married after 40!" Newsweek famously declared. "Better have your babies now, while you still can!" yelled 60 Minutes. And in the middle of all that, one woman cried out, "Fuck this." She decided she didn't want the life of so many women — the ones buying the Gottlieb book — want: the marriage, the house in the suburbs, motherhood. She wanted something else, but she had no idea what that something else was. And that led Elizabeth Gilbert to her bathroom floor, depressed and suicidal, sobbing night after night. But I think that's what some depressive episodes are: the soul going on strike, or yelling, "Fuck this." Gilbert finally made it off the floor, got a divorce, and figured out a way to keep herself alive while she restructured her life. Being a writer, she wrote a book about it. And it sold millions and millions of copies and made Elizabeth Gilbert a household name.
Then the backlash began.
I have been having an argument about Elizabeth Gilbert for the past two years. A male friend e-mailed once asking if I had read Eat, Pray, Love, and if I had, what I had thought of it. The argument that started that day still has not ended. I thought it was good, I told him. The first section (Eat, Italy) was great, the second (Pray, India) good, the third (Love, Indonesia) barely OK, but I appreciated that the book existed. It can be extraordinarily painful to rebuild your life from the ground up and not simply use the model you've been provided, and I'm glad a massively bestselling book said that. And him? Oh how he hates Elizabeth Gilbert. And he hates that women are reading her. If a man wrote a book about ogling young Italians and abandoning a spouse back home to run away with a much hotter Brazilian, my friend argued, he would be pilloried for being a misogynist asshole. To which I responded, Do you honestly think that book has not been written in different forms by men, over and over again? Have you read any 20th-century literature?
Six months later we found ourselves at a bar, and out of nowhere he says, "You know, you look a little like Elizabeth Gilbert," and the fight began anew. Maybe it was the whiskey, but his argument changed. "Men have been told for years that women want security and a good husband and kids, and now this! How are we supposed to know what to do?" (My friend, as much as I adore him, does not see the irony in saying this while himself being in his late 30s, traveling the world as his job, unmarried and writing about a beautiful woman he was ogling in India.) How bizarre to hear him echoing the crazy online commenters that show up on Amazon or under interviews with Gilbert on NPR's Web site. "I wont rant against feminism here as I think it has some positive aspects but I will say I think the subject of both books seems incredibly self-serving and shallow. Which I think sometimes feminism mistakes as a quality they wish to emulate of the old male dominated order." It wasn't just the men — women scolded Gilbert as well, suggesting she should just accept her lot, stay at home, and have the babies we should all be having. They had to, so why should she get away with not going through the motions?
These are the accusations against Elizabeth Gilbert I have read: treacly, annoying, feminist, insincere, spoiled. Then there are the more brutal ones: bitch, dyke, cunt. The most common, however, was "selfish." How dare she? How dare she leave her husband to travel? How dare she write a book about it? How dare she fall in love again? And with a Brazilian! How dare she... what? Attain happiness? Or at the very least, put a stop to her death wish? That bitch, that dyke, how dare she walk away from her man?! Doesn't she understand that this is the shameful masculine territory? It's just as bad when men do it — we're not saying it isn't! — but women are supposed to be above all that, all of that free will stuff. Really. How dare she?
Now of course there is the follow-up, a book examining the state of marriage after Gilbert discovered she had to marry her Brazilian lover for him to attain citizenship. As a history of marriage, Committed is a thoroughly unnecessary book. There are a ton of books on the market telling us that marriage is a raw deal for women. Men thrive in marriage, they are healthier, they earn more money, they are happier. These gains appear to be at the expense of women, as they do not thrive in marriage. Quite the opposite. There are the added hours of housework, a decline in earning power, the depressed libido. Then there are the rates of divorce and infidelity, that sticky statistic about the chances of a woman being murdered by her husband. We know all this, and we get married anyway. If this is the paradigm, why do we cling so tightly to it? And why do we freak out when someone rejects it?
But what's good about Committed is what's good about Eat, Pray, Love. While Eat, Pray, Love is the result of a very painful process, Committed is a clear-eyed examination of the negotiation of a relationship and the struggle to create a supportive partnership after coming out of a traumatic one. Sure, both books kind of fall apart, they are not stylistically daring, and Committed is kind of boring and just rehashes a lot of Stephanie Coontz's vastly superior Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. It's value lies in that it's about how we get married despite all the bad news, and how, if we go into it really knowing what we're up against, we can create new types of marriages. Marriages where one partner is not unconsciously lifted at the expense of the other.
Like a lot of people who care about books and writing and sentence structure, I was initially horrified at the success at Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Then I realized what it meant: 80 million people read a book about the removal of femininity from the Catholic Church, about how Jesus liked women and prostitutes and screw-ups and freaks, about how the Bible was edited by men in power, about how Jesus' divinity was not universally accepted. They read the book, and now it's in their brains, like a vaccination against patriarchal monotheism, even if they don't do anything with the information. Even if the people who read Elizabeth Gilbert's books now only toss them away and grumble ''How dare she?,'' Gilbert's sincerity about figuring out a new way to be in the world are now out there. It won't rid the world of its Lori Gottliebs, the fearmongers and the scolds, but the books can create little antibodies in the culture, boosting our immune system against them. • 3 February 2010
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.