Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eat Pray Love: A Critique of the Memoir

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!


  1. I didn't read the book, nor did I plan on seeing the movie, for I suspected that the theme would be what you found it to be. Not to sound like a know-it-all here, just had heard enough bits and pieces about both to conclude that. For entertainment, think I'll rent The Blind Side soon. :)

    Thanks for sharing about both. I wondered what the deal was, and now I have a first hand Godly perspective on it!


  2. I haven't read the book or seen the movie either but seeing the perspective that in the end there's the me syndrome I may watch this movie and read the book. I like to take things like that and relate it to me and find areas that I need to work on my spiritual walk. I think that is great that you were able to look at how you pat yourself on the back and sometimes take credit that is God's. What a great thing to take from them that we need to give credit where credit is due...thanking God for the blessings in our life!!


  3. Wow! I've been saying that I hated the book but the movie was okay. I couldn't quite put my finger on why, though. You pretty much summed it up. I found Gilbert's voice unappealing. Like you, I had no problem with her journey or the idea of her writing this memoir. I guess what I didn't like was her neverending focus on herself elevated to the level of God. I couldn't get past the few pages of the "Pray" portion of the book. I tried to skip ahead but it was all just too much.

    I liked the movie though. In general, I like Julia Roberts' movies although I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan. But even in the theater I found myself bored with the first 1/3+ of the film.

    Afterward, some other moviegoers also lamented about how they hated the book but enjoyed the movie. We're not alone.

  4. Here's why I liked this movie: It's a brutally honest depiction of one woman's journey of unhappiness to .. striving toward better.

    Now -- I do not believe in Hinduism, nor do I agree with being in a perpetual state of selfish behavior ..

    But -- THIS is what women deal with... the struggle to know who they are, what they are missing, and to just find some peace in some form.

    Me, being a woman, I know. Christian women face hardships of not being able to 'break out' of traditional expectations. Some real and just, some just plain traditional..

    We, as women -- NEED to accept and help each other in our quests for joy.. and not turn our noses up in holy disrespect when those struggling around us are on their journeys.

    It's a deep struggle and a good movie to depict what we as women face, dream of, and etc.

    That's about it.

  5. Thanks for all your thoughts! Shelby, your words made me re-think. I think you're absolutely right, it is a universal need for women to process, heal from relationships, dream forward, etc. I have a deep respect for anyone who is seeking truth, who wants more out of life. And I still love the idea of finding joy in simple pleasures which she does all throughout her travels. I think to sum it up I respect most of what Gilbert is striving for, but I think she sometimes goes to the wrong sources to find it.

  6. I loved her comment of "God dwelling in you, as you", and took it as my body being the temple of God and that my actions should be filled with God's love even as I go about my day. Sure, the movie was flawed, but it did offer inspiration to those who would seek it.


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