After a long journey both outward and inward, Elizabeth Gilbert has settled not only in a community — Frenchtown, New Jersey — but in a marriage with the man she dubs Felipe, a dealer in gems who she met in Bali. Anyone who has read Gilbert’s bestselling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” which chronicles her post-divorce journey through Italy, India, and Bali, will already know Felipe, whom Gilbert met — and fell in love with — in Bali. In her new book, “Committed,” Gilbert sets out to tell the tale of how she and Felipe overcame their fears of commitment after a tangle with Homeland Security prevented Felipe from coming back into the United States. “Committed,” published in January, is already among the top five entries on the New York Times nonfiction best sellers list.
Gilbert speaks on Tuesday, February 23, at the State Theater in New Brunswick, as part of the SmartTalk series, a series of lectures by prominent women speakers.
Gilbert, who grew up in Litchfield, a tiny town in northwestern Connecticut, always knew what her career would be. “There’s one way in which my life has been simple,” she says in a phone interview. “I never even for one minute wanted to do anything but write, and I was lucky to be raised by parents who didn’t fetishize the idea of a career.” Her mother was a nurse and her father an engineer, but he quit his job while he was still young so that both could become full-time Christmas tree farmers. Gilbert was lucky, she says, because her parents did not think that the right career was the secret to happiness, and they encouraged her to indulge her dream of being a writer. Her sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, is also an author.
Not only did Gilbert start writing at an early age — evidence the fact that when she recently ran into her fourth grade teacher, she recalled Gilbert constantly writing — but she was also ambitious. At 19 she was already sending short stories to magazines and at 23, she got one published in Esquire.
Determined to get out of her small-town environment and live in New York City, Gilbert applied only to Columbia and New York University, and ending up downtown a NYU in Greenwich Village. She majored in political science. “I knew I was going to continue writing,” she says, “but school was expensive, and I wanted to make sure I would learn things that I couldn’t learn on my own.” She had always wanted to travel and was interested in the wider world that political science let her access. “It answered all my curiosity,” she says.
The publication of her story in Esquire, she says, opened the door to journalism, and she also completed three books in her 20s: “Pilgrims,” a short story collection; “Stern Men,” a novel about lobster fishing in Maine; and “The Last American Man,” a biography of Eustace Conway, who moved into the woods as a teenager and never left.
“Stern Men” grew out of tales a friend from Maine had regaled her with about lobster fishing. “He told a few stories about brutal, generation-long battles that would go on over territories and about rival islands, lawless places in the sea, and feudlike battles that would lead to death,” she recalls. “It seemed amazing to me that off the coast of the northeast of the United States this very tribal kind of society was living.”
Gilbert was married to her first husband for six years. The marriage started to fall apart when she was 30, and the divorce process started the next year and lasted over two years. Looking back on her post-college buzz of activity, Gilbert says, “It makes me tired when I think of everything I did during that decade. It’s not a surprise that my marriage and everything else fell apart by the end of it.”
Engaged at 23 and married at 24, she understands now that she was far too young. “In many ways I was very mature — I had a career path, had written books, and looked like I had it together,” she says, “but emotionally, like most people that age, I was far, far away from what I needed to be to keep a stable relationship with anybody.”
To recover from the emotional devastation of her divorce and the deep and frightening depression that followed, Gilbert planned a three-part pilgrimage, with four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia. “I had lost myself and my vitality, and I didn’t know who I was anymore,” she says. As a person who had always followed her passions, she found herself no longer able to identify them. “When you are going through a depression,” she explains, “everything in the world becomes bland and tastes like sawdust; nothing excites or inspires.”
She chose to immerse herself in the Italian, Indian, and Indonesian cultures, because each was masterful at something she had lost. In Italy of course she regained the essential pleasure of eating. “I spent four months eating to try to get my pleasure back,” she says. “Depression translates to a feeling of austerity of the self, and I thought, ‘I’m going to just roll in butter,’ and it totally worked.” She gained 25 pounds and got very healthy and happy as she relished food from “people who have mastered it for centuries.”
Because depression had also made Gilbert lose her sense of wonder and devotion, she decided that an appropriate antidote would be four months in an Indian ashram in prayer and meditation. “That was the hardest part,” she says. “It was rigorous, getting up at 4 a.m., meditating, being alone in my own thoughts — but it was essential and transformative.”
She chose Bali as her third stop because of what she had learned there on a previous visit. “It felt like it had some kind of magic trick in being able to combine pleasure and devotion — how to build a life based equally in both. It was the perfect combination of Italy and devotional Indians,” she says.
But even the most careful plans do not account for all possibilities, and neither did Gilbert’s. In Bali she not only completed the previous phase of her life, but started a new one. “I met my now husband and, very much to my surprise, fell in love.”
All was well between them until Homeland Security stepped in. The two divorcees were happily maintaining both their independence and their commitment to each other, together but not married — until they were pushed to the brink. Right before Felipe was shipped off to Australia, where he had a passport, the two were pushed to declare themselves to each other. Gilbert writes:
“At the last instant, Felipe whispered to me, “I love you so much I will even marry you.’ ‘And I love you so much,’ I promised, ‘that I will even marry you.’”
This was the beginning of what would be months of travel abroad, a journey of exploration into their commitment to each other. For Gilbert this period initiated an almost obsessive effort to understand marriage in every possible configuration — to try to overcome her fears about commitment.
In northern Vietnam, for example, Gilbert conferred with a houseful of Hmong women, enduring their giggles when she asked “silly” questions like: “When did you realize that your husband might be somebody you wanted to marry?” “Did you know he was special right away, or did you learn to like him over time?” Finally when Gilbert asked, “But when did you fall in love with him?” and “What do you believe is the secret to a happy marriage?” the roomful of Hmong women broke out laughing. After much thought Gilbert concluded that the Hmong women do not place their marriages in the center of their emotional biographies as do women in the West.
Gilbert also explored the history of marriage, including the notion of coverture, “the belief that a woman’s individual civil existence is erased the moment she marries.” Parts of that notion have lingered; for example, not until 1975 could a Connecticut woman take out a loan or open a bank account without her husband’s permission. Gilbert also learned that divorce rates skyrocketed when women and men started getting married for love, and she ties this upsurge in divorce to the role infatuation plays in many marriages.
Infatuation was the plague of Gilbert’s 20s, and she offers a couple of explanations for its power. First she describes an ancient Greek myth that humans once possessed two heads, four arms, and four legs, a state in which they felt so complete they had no need to pray. But their pride angered Zeus so much that he sliced the human in half, and ever since humans have been doomed to a continuing quest for wholeness. “Infatuation can give us the illusion of that, at least temporarily,” says Gilbert.
She also cites evolutionary biology as a reason for infatuation. “It’s about propagating the species,” she says. “There’s nothing like the thrill and endocrine system to make people reckless with their sexuality.” She adds that infatuation and its attendant recklessness tends to last about six months, just long enough for the woman to end up pregnant.
But for Gilbert, there is also a spiritual layer to infatuation — a challenge she had to overcome to move on with her life and commit herself legally to Felipe. In this sense, infatuation was the desire to lose oneself in another. “At some point I reached the age that I realized I wasn’t going to find it in someone else — the everything, the completion, the answers, the peace, the solace,” she says. And that is the point where an authentic relationship could actually begin.
Having finally resolved their immigration woes and come to terms with their fears, Gilbert and Felipe married three years ago and eventually bought a 12,000-square-foot building in the 1,200-person town of Frenchtown. Gilbert had discovered the Delaware River Valley visiting a friend in Stockton years ago and fell in love with the area. “I made a note to myself, when it was time to live somewhere else, I would live here,” she says.
Felipe and Gilbert started a business, Two Buttons, selling imports from India and Southeast Asia, including statues, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and antiques; the business is open except during January and February, when they go abroad to buy their inventory. When Felipe and Gilbert heard that a Milford bistro, Lovin’ Oven, had lost its lease, they invited the restaurant to move under their roof. It should open in their building in March.
Gilbert is enjoying the pleasure of being in one place for all the seasons, something she has not done since childhood. “It’s pretty wonderful here,” she says. “One of the things I have never been able to experience in my life is the pleasure of community and the sense of connection to your neighbors and the people you are with. I never stayed anywhere long enough for that to occur.”
Liz Gilbert, Smart Talk Connected Conversations, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tuesday, February 23, 7:30 p.m. “Beyond Eat, Pray, Love,” presented by the popular author of the New York Times bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love,” the story of Gilbert’s search of personal restoration following a difficult divorce, who discusses her new book, “Committed.” $25 and $50. 732-246-7469 or www.Smarttalkwoman.com.