Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia was published, taking the nonfiction world by storm. It sat on The New York Times Bestsellers list for almost 200 consecutive weeks and was featured in dedicated episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was later translated into over 30 languages, and the 2010 follow-up film adaptation starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert was a box office smash.
Gilbert was the take-control-of-your-life divorcee role model for millions of fans. As both a journalist and introspective writer, she invited readers into her personal life and world of thought, musing heavily on themes like independence, personal identity, and self-help. But it’s only recently that genuine criticism, not just surrounding Eat Pray Love but Gilbert herself, has started to surface, revealing why women assuredly never should have fallen for Elizabeth Gilbert.
Eat Pray Love: The Feminist Guidebook
Gen Z individuals and younger millennials might be unfamiliar with the plot of Eat Pray Love, but it essentially follows Gilbert, listless and unsatisfied in her marriage and her career as a freelance journalist, as she travels the world to discover renewed meaning in her life.
To the surprise of many who discovered her for the first time with Eat Pray Love, Gilbert was already an established literary writer, and in her own words, a “highly-paid” journalist for publications like GQ, Real Simple, and many more. To kick off her year-long journey of personal exploration, Gilbert left her job and divorced her first husband, whom she’d been married to for almost a decade. In the movie adaptation, the root cause of this divorce is unknown – but we’ll get to that later.
Gilbert later spent a year traveling to Italy (the “eat” portion of her book), then to India to visit an ashram (“pray”), and then closed her trip in Bali, Indonesia (“love”), where she met her second husband. She came back, wrote her memoir, and soon earned both financial and critical success.
Women devoured Gilbert’s story. On the surface, it was a glamorously unrelatable tale of travel and enlightenment, but underneath lay a feminist guidebook for all women promising fulfillment, self-awareness, and realization. “It infiltrated book clubs everywhere,” aptly says one cultural critic, and Gilbert’s vulnerability and emotion inspired women to leave both their unfulfilling jobs and their unhappy marriages in the name of self-actualization and unadulterated, unapologetic independence. Gilbert’s prose-filled accounts of her inner thoughts and personal growth promised women everywhere that they, too, could achieve their wildest dreams by unshackling themselves from the burdens a privileged, heteronormative culture forced on them. In her own words, Gilbert was “following my own joy, my own bliss, my own excitement.”
While the memoir was a massive success, Gilbert’s newfound cultural influence was just as lucrative. She was the ideal idol. Gilbert is articulate and a gifted writer – but her tendency toward humblebragging, oversharing, and being distinctly unrelatable in a relatable way goes to show that pick-me behavior isn’t as young as we believe it to be.
Is a Lie of Omission Still a Lie?
In the wake of Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love success, a number of notable personal and professional moments followed. She subsequently published two more self-help books, one on marriage and one on creativity, and two more novels – though her most recent literary work’s publication has been halted, at her own insistence, because it takes place in 1900s Russia and her Ukrainian readers voiced their displeasure.
But Gilbert’s personal life has always been her boon, and its ups and downs have been fodder for her fans as much as for her own writing. Following the publication of Eat Pray Love, Gilbert married a Brazilian businessman whom she’d met in Bali, the basis for the character played in the film adaptation by Javier Bardem. But as Gilbert puts it, “Every time I’ve tried to be civilized and responsible, it just doesn’t seem to work. Convention might be the right word. I’m very bad at it.”
Truer words were never spoken, but there’s no sadness or regret in her words. In 2016, Gilbert and her second husband divorced, and she entered into a commitment with her female best friend, a fellow writer, whom she realized she had feelings for following her friend’s terminal cancer diagnosis. After a two-year relationship, her partner’s passing, and another year later, Gilbert was in a relationship with the best friend of her previous partner, British photographer Simon MacArthur.
Gilbert’s romantic life has been dotted with get-togethers and break-ups, and leaving her husband for another man was the basis for her first tumultuous divorce – something the movie conveniently omitted. Gilbert only refers to it years later in a 2015 article titled “Confessions of a Seduction Addict.”
This particular article is rife with clues about Gilbert’s mindset as it pertains to personal relationships, and it’s also very telling of the values she has, which she encourages many others to adopt. She writes in the article that “not even matrimony slowed me down. Predictably, I grew restless and lonely. Soon enough, I seduced someone new; the marriage collapsed. But it was worse than just that. Before my divorce agreement was even signed, I was already breaking up with the guy I had broken up my marriage for.”
She discusses her penchant for seduction as a “heist,” rather than a “casual sport,” as well as her casual indifference at being the other woman – something for which she didn’t need to be “prettier or better,” just “different.” And, as you’d expect, within a few paragraphs, Gilbert has resolved all her hang-ups about love, romance, and sex, and she’s fixed, cured even! After six months of celibacy, no less.
In the Eat Pray Love movie, Gilbert “dives head-first” into a new relationship only after her divorce is settled, but from her own admission almost a decade later, it’s clear that wasn’t really the case. The fact that Gilbert’s wronged ex-husband in the film is also portrayed as an angry, controlling, borderline abusive man (because he doesn’t want to get divorced) leaves a bad taste in the mouth, knowing what we know now.
This disparity might leave some of us shaking our heads. It’s not just that Gilbert, as the female patron saint of 2010s feminism, sanctions no-fault divorce, but that she’ has personally caused so much damage and left havoc in her wake – only to write about it almost in a pornographically gratuitous way and end with “that’s when I realized the better part of my life had already begun.”
Millions of readers were led to believe that the choices they modeled on Gilbert’s own behavior promised them the best years of their life, but Gilbert concludes her 2015 article with the realization that endless flings, drama-filled relationships, and dysfunction caused by her own doing wasn’t really as fulfilling as she made it out to be.
The Bad Choices and Bad Advice of a Poor Role Model
The years may have been critically successful for Gilbert, but a new generation of readers and thinkers isn’t joining in. In the years since her famed memoir’s publication, many have decried Gilbert’s thinking and observations on the East as colonialist and privileged. Not to mention, that even while it spelled great success for Gilbert, traveling to a different country won’t solve all your problems. Not everyone can afford to treat Italy as an all-you-can-eat buffet or travel on their publisher’s dime to think about themselves non-stop in an ashram.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Gilbert made her career on her self-help musings, specifically targeted toward unhappy women. She encouraged them to follow her own example and sang the praises of independence and rootlessness, specifically in her romantic life, only to turn around nine years later and finally recognize her own disruptive and problematic behavior.
It’s hard to say exactly how many lives, relationships, and families have been ruined by this kind of self-worship, but given Gilbert’s popularity and impact, it’s fair to say a few. By Gilbert’s own admission, she has problems with “convention” and propriety. She publicly announces every time she falls in love, or moves to a new state, or begins a new beginning. And to be fair, we all have those friends who can’t seem to quit seeking out drama in their life. But most of us are smart enough not to take advice from them.
Gilbert isn’t a role model for any of us, except in her own mind. She is the kind of woman who is constantly seeking excitement, or the next best thing. And while her adult decisions are her own, it helps none of us to follow her example.
Living for your own independence, constantly crafting your own identity, and finding love and adoration in the process – ad infinitum – can be exciting. It’s an exhilarating experience to travel to a new place, or fall in love with someone. But failing to put down roots and following the excitement of things can get old, as well as exhausting. When we look around in our old age, we won’t be surrounded by children and grandchildren, or the concrete, breathing legacy we’ve built. We won’t get to reminisce fondly on the sacrifices we’ve made to be who and where we are. We’ll be lonely, isolated, bitter, and narcissistic.
Ever since Elizabeth Gilbert returned from her year-long global sojourn, it looks as though she never stopped traveling. While she and the women she's inspired might perceive that as a compliment, this kind of existence can be hollow and unfulfilling. It’s always new and fun, until the dust settles. It’s always exciting, until it isn’t.
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