by Leah Squance
Several years ago, I read Eat, Pray, Love: One woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir. Like many of the millions worldwide who read it, I loved it. As a woman in my 30s battling depression, I sympathized with Gilbert’s angst, her desire to live a different life. I soaked up her journey as though it were my own, traveling to different places (I want to live in Italy! I want to go to an ashram!), meeting different people and having some kind of spiritual experience. I wasn’t interested in engaging in critical analysis. I saw only inspiration in the story: I am not the only 30-something woman who seems to have everything but feels hopelessly lost anyway.
While I don’t credit Gilbert with being the catalyst for my own life-changing journey, there is no doubt that her book provided a sort of backdrop. At the age of 35, I left my successful career, sold my condo, and headed to Mexico with my boyfriend, carrying (almost) all my material possessions in a 30-litre backpack. And yes, I did find what I was looking for – eventually – and share in common with Gilbert a “happily ever after” ending to my travels.
Because of my own lack of critical analysis at the time, I was unprepared for how deeply Gilbert was criticized, first when her book was published and later when the movie was released. EPL spent close to 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and undoubtedly got many positive reviews. Mixed reviews of bestsellers are to be expected, but what really struck me about the critical reviews is how many of them focused not on the quality of the book, but on Gilbert herself and the choices she made.
The words “navel-gazing” , “self-indulgent” , and “narcissistic” all come up. Some reviews smack of bitterness that, as a successful writer with a book advance, Gilbert was afforded an opportunity that few get. Others state openly that embarking on a journey to “find herself” is the worst kind of self-absorption. Both types of reviews suggest that Gilbert should just have been grateful for what she had rather than seeking any further kind of personal fulfillment.
I can’t help but wonder what’s at the heart of these angry – even hostile – reviews. Why is Gilbert attacked for her choices? Is it just another example of the sexism we experience all too often in our culture? Is it an example of differing standards for men and women about the life choices they make, standards that are too often applied by women to each other? Many of these reviews came from women who seemed to think that either she should have stayed in her marriage, happiness be damned, or that being a privileged white woman with a chance to “better” herself means that she already has it good enough and should be satisfied with what she’s got. At least one feminist review suggests that Gilbert plays into a whole genre of books that tells women they need to be improved.
When I first started this article, I intended to compare reviews of EPL to Eric Weiner’s 2011 spiritual memoir, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine. His book has received much less attention, but that attention has been more positive. Most of the criticism focuses on Weiner’s failure to reveal as much of himself as he does the religions he explores – nearly the opposite of the criticism of Gilbert who, it seems, revealed too much.
The more I read and wrote, though, the more the explanation of sexism seemed inadequate to me. Is there a gender bias? Probably – but I think the bias goes deeper than that. When I started paying closer attention to the critical reviews, it seemed to me that the real issue is the treatment of the spiritual quest, and in particular, women who undertake such a quest.
In tribal societies, spiritual or vision quests are rites of passage. Only in our secular society could a spiritual quest be called “self-indulgent,” as though seeking personal growth is somehow weak. Neither Gilbert nor Weiner wrote self-help books or parables. They told their own stories of personal struggle and their search for answers. Weiner is commended for undertaking the journey, but he is criticized – mildly – for not throwing himself wholeheartedly into his search, and therefore coming up empty.
Gilbert, though, is attacked both for taking the journey and, worse, for having the gall to claim a happy ending. She does throw herself into her journey and at the end of the book, she feels like she accomplished something. That’s what seems to have inspired so much hostility. Women just don’t undertake such quests, let alone succeed at them.
…[W]hen a single, child-free woman writes about her search for meaning outside of the expected confines of middle-aged, middle-class life, people get uncomfortable. People want to pick her to pieces: she’s a threat just for being different, for defining happiness on her own terms.
As a fellow traveler and spiritual seeker who set out on my own journey to find fulfillment and overcome depression, I naturally take exception to the suggestion that wanting to be happy is self-indulgent. I object to the implication that for Gilbert to undertake such a quest is an abdication of her womanly duties, or that she is, by her example, somehow sending other women the message that they are flawed and must seek to improve themselves. And I object even more to the invalidation of her happy ending, the belief of critics that they have a right and even responsibility to determine what a legitimate outcome to a journey of self-fulfillment should be.
Why Gilbert left her marriage and how she paid for her travels are not the real issues – whose business is that but her own? There’s more to a journey than geography, and Gilbert’s travels were just a setting for a story, not the journey itself. The issue here is that we presume to judge the legitimacy of another’s personal, spiritual journey: has she suffered enough to warrant this “self-indulgence?” Does she, in fact, deserve to find the happiness she is seeking? If all the critics turned their critical eye inward to work toward personal growth the way Elizabeth Gilbert did, perhaps we’d find that more women would be empowered to find their own happiness instead of being encouraged to resent someone else’s.