Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert
So, here’s the thing about Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love was not a good book, not by any stretch of the imagination, for reasons that, weirdly enough, she explains herself in the introduction to her latest memoir-style book. Gilbert used to write, as she says, predominantly for and about men. She worked for such testosterone-fueled magazines as GQ and Esquire. She wrote about very masculine subjects, like lobster-men and cowboys. And then she goes and writes an emotional tale of self-discovery set in Italy, India, and Indonesia. One gets the feeling that she wrote it journal-style, without any expectation of response, and was then overwhelmed by the viral response it incited.
I’m not sure this is a return to form, exactly – the book is still predominantly about Gilbert, and even more specifically about her romantic life. But regardless, it’s a book whose subject I find much more palatable – namely marriage, and being really fucking terrified of it.
I have no such excuse as Gilbert does for being petrified by the very word “marriage,” much less the idea of it. She at least has a hideous divorce to fall back on as an excuse; I have a pretty functional set of parents who seem to still be very much in love with each other, and several siblings who have found partners who love and respect them, and whom they love and respect. Still and all, good examples aside, I find the very idea of marriage completely terrifying. Every feeling revolts. And in this I found an unlikely kindred spirit in Elizabeth Gilbert.
Committed finds Elizabeth Gilbert in a predicament. On their way back into the country, her long-term partner Felipe (you may recognize him as Javier Bardem’s character in Eat, Pray, Love) is prevented from reentering the country. He has been, according to Homeland Security, abusing his non-immigrant visa to periodically leave and reenter the country every 90 days. He has essentially been living in the country semi-legally, and to be allowed to reenter it, he must do so permanently, by rite of marriage.
For the next year, Liz and Felipe hop from country to country, awaiting the permission of the US Department of Homeland Security for Felipe to obtain his fiancée visa, after which they will have 90 days to procure a marriage license. During that time, frustrated by the exhaustion of constant traveling and the vagaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Liz devotes her spare energy to researching marriage, and in doing so, tries to get to the bottom of her deep-seated fear of the institution.
Her reasons for doing so are fairly admirable – she goes into further detail in this book than she did in her previous as to why her marriage failed. To be clear, she levels no more blame on her husband than she did in the last book, but she does not act quite the irritating martyr that she did then, blaming the failure of her marriage on the flippancy with which both of them, but her in particular, entered the institution. She is determined to avoid the same trap this time. She delves into the history of marriage, uncovering a much more complex social institution than conservatives would have you believe. The resulting history is colourful, if not entirely thorough. She admits that she is no historian, but the book is not necessarily the lesser for it; if I wanted to read a history of marriage, I’m confident I could find it, but that’s not what I was looking for here. What I was looking for is a kindred spirit to talk it through with me. The book has a conversational tone distinct to most of Gilbert’s works, and I appreciated it much more in this one, particularly because this is exactly the sort of topic that one wants a girlfriend to discuss with.
One of the topics that Gilbert brought up particularly, and that was the idea of coverture. Coverture is a legal doctrine wherein a woman’s rights were subsumed to her husband’s upon their marriage. Essentially, it meant that a woman ceased to exist when she married – her rights were entirely dependent on her husband’s. If that seems archaic to you, consider that barely 50 years ago, a woman could not get a bank account or a loan without the written permission of her husband. A year before I was born (1984, to be exact), it was still legal in New York for a man to rape his wife. So, not as archaic as one might think.
It is this particular chapter of Gilbert’s book that stuck with me the most. It’s a bit out of fashion to admit it, but marriage makes me a little nervous as a woman. I can’t quite get past the idea of marriage equating to submission at best and oppression at worst for people of my sex. I think this is probably because I went to Christian school. Gilbert’s book didn’t quite cure me of this fear, but it did make me feel understood. I’ve found that attempting to talk honestly about one’s fear of marriage in these terms can lead to what I’ll kindly refer to as scoffing, so reading Gilbert’s fears were in some way validating. And despite my revulsion of the whole idea, I did find myself rooting for her when she and her fiancée finally made it back to the States, and threw themselves a simple wedding (she wearing a red sweater instead of a white dress) in the house that they had bought themselves (with a mortgage under her name, no less). I’m not sure that my ideas on marriage have changed, but I think I will keep the book all the same, and should I ever find myself in a similar situation, where marriage is thrust upon me, I’ll probably pick it up and give it another read – everyone needs a girlfriend to talk them through these sorts of things, and there are worse faux-girlfriends than Elizabeth Gilbert. As long as she isn’t writing about ashrams, anyway.