Normally I hate it when authors self-promote by discussing how bad someone else’s book is and how much better theirs is. But it’s impossible for me to discuss Elizabeth Gilbert’s obnoxious memoir without at least mentioning my own (much better!) one, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit In India, as they have some notable similarities and when I describe mine, people keep asking me if I’ve read hers. ("Oh, your book is about how you became a cynical atheist after growing up surrounded by crazy American hippies on an ashram in India? In that case, you will love this other book about how an American woman learns the meaning of life and finds enlightenment, self-worth, and joy on a beautiful peaceful ashram in India!")

Obviously, my own miserable ashram childhood contributed to my detestation of Eat Pray Love. (To be fair, Gilbert’s ashram, which is not mine, sounds well-run and sensible, if you’re into that kind of thing.) So I'm making that disclosure, but honestly, there are many other reasons to detest Eat Pray Love.

But since I cannot type the name of my own memoir without some wistful hope that readers will be inspired to seek it out and purchase ten additional copies to give as gifts to their loved ones, I cannot even disclaim any intention of self-promotion. Given that, all I can do is apologize in advance.

Sorry!

Gilbert is a rich white American writer undergoing a painful divorce when she becomes suicidally depressed, finds God while collapsed in a puddle of tears on her bathroom floor, and obtains a hefty book advance to live abroad for a year and write about it. She decides to explore pleasure in Rome, spirituality in an unnamed Indian ashram (spiritual center), and balance in Bali.

In Rome she eats lots of excellent food and banishes depression with sheer force of will and grace of God. In India she has amazing spiritual experiences via meditation and introspection, including getting zapped by an inner blue light. (The ashram section, unsurprisingly considering that it mostly takes place inside Gilbert’s head as she attempts to empty her mind of thought, is narcissistic and boring.) In Bali she hangs out with two traditional healers, raises money to help one of them buy a house, and finds True Love with a sexy, confident, passionate, loving, sophisticated, and generally perfect Brazilian man who is just like her, only older, male, and did I mention perfect?

I finally forced myself to read this book, which from other people’s recommendations (“She goes to an ashram and has amazing spiritual experiences! You’ll love it!”) I felt sure I’d hate, because I want to get into travel writing and I wanted to see what made this particular travel book a bestseller. The answer, once I finished it (with increasing hatred of the smug, self-absorbed, self-righteous Gilbert), was clear:

1. Wish-fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want to be paid to spend a year abroad, going wherever you want and doing whatever you want? I sure would! Moreover, she gets over her awful divorce, breaks her cycle of bad romantic relationships via True Love, does a substantial good deed, finds spiritual peace and fulfillment, and eats the world’s best pizza. And then comes home and publishes a best-seller.

2. It tells a certain cadre of readers— middle to upper class Americans with vaguely New Agey leanings— exactly what they already believe is true: that enlightenment can be found in India, that personal fulfillment is a profound and meaningful goal, that all things natural and Asian are superior to all things manufactured and Western, that charity is satisfying and worth doing but you have to be kind but firm with your poor Third World recipients or they’ll rip you off, and that if you try hard and navel-gaze and seek spirituality in exotic foreign lands you’ll be rewarded with everything you’ve ever dreamed of, right down to a fairy-tale romance.

3. Gilbert is a pretty good travel writer in the few parts when she’s looking outward rather than inward. Portions of the book are well-written and funny. (Those portions are concentrated in the first third.)

I find it difficult to separate my loathing of the book from my loathing of Gilbert from my memories of people and attitudes I loathed at the ashram where I spent my childhood. Her attitude about antidepressants (“I really needed them, but you peasants who lack my superior contempt of them shouldn’t be allowed to get them as easily as I did”) mirrors an attitude about India that I often got from Westerners at the ashram, and which oozes from every page of Gilbert’s memoir: “I need my Western medicine and appliances and education and opportunities, but you’re actually lucky not to have them because that stuff sucks, really, and anyway you have herbs and yoga which is so much better. Bye-bye! I had a great spiritual experience in your beautiful country which I will treasure forever as I relax in my New York penthouse.”

I’m not saying that herbs and yoga are worthless, or that Westerners should be banned from having spiritual experiences in Asia. It’s the self-centeredness, entitlement, lack of perspective, and lack of empathy for the actual occupants of the country which bothers me.

Gilbert does show kindness and compassion when she raises money to buy a Balinese woman and her family a house. But I wish she’d sat down and had a discussion with the woman about what she wanted, and what she would like Gilbert to do to help—and that, when the deal got rocky, Gilbert had sat down again and discussed both of their concerns instead of bullying the woman for her own good. Openness can go wrong, and high-handed condescension can produce good results. But the latter is not how you deal with people whom you consider your equals.

In short: hated it, hated it, hated it. Hated her. Hated her perfect Brazilian boyfriend. Even hated her guru, and she doesn't even appear in the book except as a perfectly enlightened and compassionate gaze via a photograph. In conclusion: hated it. Buy my book instead!
From that book that I finally got around to reading for research purposes (research question: "Why is this book such a huge bestseller?") and which everyone but me loves to bits, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. Context: During a harrowing divorce, Gilbert becomes depressed. She tries endless "natural remedies," but seeks the care of a psychiatrist after she attempts suicide.

I do know these drugs made my misery feel less catastrophic. So I'm grateful for that. But I'm still deeply ambivalent about mood-altering medication. I'm awed by their power, but concerned by their prevalence. I think they need to be prescribed and used with much more restraint in this country, and never without the parallel treatment of psychological counseling. Medicating the symptom of any illness without exploring its root cause is just a classically Western hare-brained way to think that anyone could ever truly get better. Those pills might have saved my life, but they did so only in conjunction with about twenty other efforts I was making simultaneously during the same period to rescue myself, and I hope to never take such drugs again.

There are so many selfish, condescending, and hare-brained statements in that one little paragraph that I need to pull it apart to address each one.

But I'm still deeply ambivalent about mood-altering medication. I'm awed by their power, but concerned by their prevalence. I think they need to be prescribed and used with much more restraint in this country

In the year 2020, approximately 1.53 million people will die from suicide based on current trends and according to WHO estimates. Ten to 20 times more people will attempt suicide worldwide (2). This represents on average one death every 20 seconds and one attempt every 1-2 seconds.

It is, of course, possible for a medication to be over-prescribed in some cases and under-prescribed in others. But considering that, according to WHO, "Suicide is among the 10 leading causes of death for all ages in most of the countries for which information is available. In some countries, it is among the top three causes of death for people aged 15-34 years," I'm going to say that under-prescription is the bigger problem-- a problem which attitudes like Gilbert's foster.

I think they need to be prescribed and used with much more restraint in this country

How callous, priveleged, arrogant, selfish, and smug can you get?! So meds are okay for her, because she had a real problem and didn't take them until she was at the point of suicide and has moral qualms about their use, but all those other ignorant peons who gobble them like candy need to have their access restricted?!

That is one of the most despicable statements and sentiments I've come across in quite some time.

and never without the parallel treatment of psychological counseling.

I agree with that, actually.

ETA: Oops, missed the "never;" I think counseling should always be offered, but should not be mandatory. If nothing else, the experience of having a mental illness for a long period of time will usually give you dysfunctional thinking patterns and ways of relating to people that counseling will help address. But if your problem is being completely addressed by meds and you're doing fine, no, you probably don't need counseling if you don't want it.

Medicating the symptom of any illness without exploring its root cause is just a classically Western hare-brained way to think that anyone could ever truly get better.

1. In many cases of mental illness, the "root cause" is either known as a biological and/or genetic problem and so doesn't really need to be "explored" in the sense of discovering its root cause (like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) or the patient is so ill that she will not benefit from such exploration until medication has kicked her into a higher-functioning mode.

Also, some forms of talk therapy are specifically about the present and not root causes -- and those forms are statistically more effective for some disorders than classic "root cause" therapy. (ie, cognitive-behavioral therapy vs. psychoanalysis for depression.)

2. What a stupid statement!

"Medicating the symptom of a broken leg by setting it without exploring its root cause is just a classically Western hare-brained way to think that anyone could ever truly get better."

"Medicating the symptom of the bubonic plague with antibiotics without exploring its root cause is just a classically Western hare-brained way to think that anyone could ever truly get better."

"Medicating the symptom of a cataract with surgery without exploring its root cause is just a classically Western hare-brained way to think that anyone could ever truly get better."

3. Gilbert's Asia-philia blinds her to the reality of actual Asian medicine, which is not necessarily as holistic as she thinks. She should read Atul Gawande's Better for an excellent portrayal of actual doctors in India doing brilliant work under extremely difficult conditions.

Those pills might have saved my life, but they did so only in conjunction with about twenty other efforts I was making simultaneously during the same period to rescue myself,

I am absolutely not against doing whatever might help. All the same, the plural of anecdote is not data.

and I hope to never take such drugs again.

Well, I hope you DO!

I can't believe I'm wishing such ill on anyone, whatever sort of scumbag they are... but this book was a huge bestseller, people are influenced by what they read, and so Gilbert's screed may be indirectly responsible for someone committing suicide because they were trying to make sure they waited to use them as long as she did -- and she waited till it was down to her, a knife, and a worried friend. What if some reader doesn't have a worried friend?

What a loathesome and damaging thing to write.

Here is a three-part essay on my experience with depression.

Here is a three-part essay on my experience with post-traumatic stress disorder.
.

Profile

rachelmanija: (Default)
rachelmanija

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags