By: Stephanie S. Smith, blog editor
Last night my husband and I settled into a movie theatre, surrounding ourselves with middle-aged women, some by themselves, with a friend, or with a whole book club, to watch the film rendition of popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia.
I was skeptical about the movie for the same reasons I am skeptical about the book, but looking forward to a sweeping visual tour of Italy, India, and Indonesia to which the main character travels throughout the story. I also banked on the fact that Julia Roberts (playing author Liz Gilbert) would show less of the self-focus that made the book distasteful to me. And it's true, the film omitted much of the self-saturated theme that Liz Gilbert infuses her manuscript with.
I cracked the cover on this one several months before, loving the concept of insightful living through travel and the introduction where author Elizabeth Gilbert masterfully structures her book around the beautiful overarching metaphor of prayer beads. I ate it up. But alas, it went downhill from there. Her writing is impressive and eloquent, her cultural observations are sharp and fascinating, but the personal journey of Gilbert through depression to self-actualization was hard to swallow.
Perhaps the most common critique of Gilbert's book is its obsession with the self. In and of itself, I do not think it is terribly self-centered to travel as a way of processing and healing, or to write a memoir about it. I think dedicating your year to the search of God and learning about yourself in the process is actually an admirable quest, but Gilbert blends the self and divinity in a way that I found disturbing. She allows incredible overlap between God and the self, two separate identities that she views as one.
Gilbert's idea of God is "an experience of supreme love", which sounds about right, but sounds plain creepy when applied to yourself since you and god are the same being. To love yourself, forgive yourself, and do what's best for yourself are the primary morals of the book, and God is portrayed as a tool or a resource in the process. Gilbert's god is so tangled with her inner world that she hears her own voice as divine communication. There are scenes where Gilbert gives her id a pep talk saying things like, "I will never leave you. I love you." In fact, she has a notebook where she writes two-party dialogue between....who knows? Gilbert writes, "Maybe the voice I am reaching for is God, or maybe it's my guru speaking through me, or maybe it's the angel who was assigned to my case, or maybe it's my Higher Self...." Whatever it is, Gilbert pinpoints its location as "within." She writes, to sum up the fruit of her spiritual experiences, "God dwells within you, as you."
This self-stuck focus reads more like therepy than spirituality. Not to mention that it dismantles any possibility for relationship, for community, and for intercommunication. If the Highest Being in the universe resides in your very chest, isolation would be the natural course for everyone. There would be little need for reaching out; our souls would become ingrown.
By the end of the book, Gilbert has transformed from a depressed, divorced, depleted woman into a self-actualized woman who has not only discovered who she is, recovered from all her losses, and learned to love life again, but she has found a new man as well who she eventually marries. After all this, she insists, "I was the administrator of my own rescure" and states that it was most likely her Higher Self, her enlightened self who had already made it through all these enriching experiences, who had been the voice of comfort and strength when she was falling apart. She would like to take the credit for whatever grace she has been given.
Probably the reason this strikes me as so conceited and presumptuous is because I so often do this myself, patting myself on the back for something I think I have earned and forgetting to thank God who is the Source of all the goodness in my life. As Christians, we know we are not able to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grace is essential for living, we are ever in need of rescue, and a dialogue with the Savior can truly save us in a way our self-soothing strategies never could.
What did you think about the book and/or the movie? What flaws did you find in it, and what redemption? I'd love to hear from you!