Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


Having it All
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

In November of 2003, a moderately successful 29 year-old writer named Elizabeth Gilbert found herself sobbing on her bathroom floor at four in the morning, despairing that the American dream of a husband, big house, and motherhood was not what she wanted. Then, at her bleakest moment, something surprising (for a raised-Protestant/mostly secular New Englander) occurred:

“I started to pray. You know—like, to God.”

Three years later, Gilbert’s dark night of the soul—and her year-long experience of self-discovery and conversations with God—had sold 5 million copies in 30 languages, spent 85 weeks (and counting) on the New York Times best seller list for non-fiction paperbacks, and propelled her to Time’s 2008 list of the Most Influential People.

How did Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia do it?

The idea for the book came out of Gilbert’s experience as a travel writer: She spent four months eating her way through Italy, four months experiencing God at an ashram in India, and four months in Indonesia, looking for balance…and falling in love with her now-husband, an older Brazilian businessman.

The conceit of Eat, Pray, Love is that each “chapter” represents one of the 108 beads on a japa mala, a meditation necklace. Bead 96 captures the flavor of Gilbert’s writing. She’s in Bali and has kissed the new man in her life for the first time, cooked potatoes, masturbated, and meditated for an hour the next morning until:

I finally felt it again—that specific, constant, clear-sky, unrelated to anything, never-shifting, nameless and changeless perfection of my own happiness. That happiness which is better, truly, than anything I have experienced anywhere else on this earth, and includes salty, buttery kisses and even more saltier and more buttery potatoes.

The hard cover version was published in February 2006 by Viking Press (which had bankrolled the entire adventure) to mixed reviews.

Ericka Schickel of the Los Angeles Times called it a “delectable read” but noted that Gilbert’s “hard-won happiness lacks the drama of her prior misery.” Jennifer Egan’s New York Times review praised Gilbert’s “sassy prose” but concluded, “Lacking a ballast of gravitas or grit, the book lists into the realm of magical thinking.” While giving Gilbert some props for writing about “her search for faith in a pop-culture world,” Grace Lichtenstein of the Washington Post concurred.

It was the January 2007 paperback release that turned Eat, Pray, Love into a blockbuster. As Jeffrey Trachtenberg noted the following September in a page-one feature in the Wall Street Journal, “Virtually all of the hottest paperback sales have flourished because they appeal to women,” and perhaps because “they are about lives that are being transformed.”

After winning a coveted slot in Oprah’s book club, Gilbert appeared on the Winfrey show in December and one after another white, 30-something women got up and testified that reading the book had opened her eyes:

“I was a self-proclaimed atheist. But I have since found religion, and I made my bathroom my ashram.

“Several women said to me ‘This is the Bible. You must read it.’”

“It was just very special and it made me feel like, ‘You can do anything.’”

Fueling the Eat, Pray, Love fever was a proliferation of dinner parties based on the food consumed in the book, travel agencies offerings trips to Gilbert’s destinations, and news that Paramount had purchased the movie rights and intended to cast Julia Roberts in the lead role.

Cue the backlash.

Writing in the online India Today May 22, 2007, Shampa Dhar-Kamath sniffed that Gilbert claimed to get from Hinduism and yoga what real devotees believe takes more than a lifetime. Meditate for four months in an ashram in Mumbai and “voila, kundalini shakti is hers.”

In a December 23 New York Post commentary entitled “Eat, Pray, Loathe,” Maureen Callahan wrote that what she found “most disturbing” was Gilbert’s typically Western “fetishization of Eastern thought and culture.” No fan of New Age spirituality, Callahan asked, “Why is it that women, in overwhelming numbers, are now indulging in this silliness?” Her answer? Gilbert’s shortcuts to nirvana gave them “a license to abandon all critical thinking.”

“Is She, Pray Tell, Self-absorbed or True Seeker: Not All Readers Love Elizabeth Gilbert” ran the headline on Carol Memmot’s February 7 story in USA Today on online reactions to the book like “cloying” and “disastrous.”

Given an opportunity to respond, Gilbert emailed: “While I understand people’s objections to anything that smacks of the New Age movement…mine is just a simple old human story—of one person trying, with great rigor and discipline, to comprehend her personal relationship with divinity.”

For some, however, it was Gilbert’s selfishness that stood out. Renee A. James, writing in the Allentown Morning Call March 9, examined her own “resentment” of the book and concluded: “[O]bsessed with finding ‘better and perfect,’” Gilbert was asking for too much.

To author Nyla Matuk, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail April 19, Eat, Pray, Love was “[o]ne of the worst books I’ve read.” What distressed her most was Gilbert’s portrayal of her search “as a set of consumer choices.” 

While female readers pondered whether they were entitled to take their own spiritual journey out of boredom and despair, one movie company figured it had the yang to Gilbert’s yin.

On August 5, the Hollywood Reporter reported that, to coincide with the movie release of Eat, Pray, Love, Warner Bros. would be putting out a comedy based on Andrew Gottlieb’s novel about a man who, after his wife leaves him, goes on a bender in Ireland, embraces the slots in Vegas, and finds “company” in Thailand.

The title? Drink, Play, F**k.


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