Elizabeth Gilbert: I thought that grief would look a certain way. Just a lot of weeping and loneliness. To my surprise I was in a blaze of rage for months
What happens after happy ever after? Author Elizabeth Gilbert talks to Liadan Hynes about finding, and then losing, love with her best friend, grief, depression and a life lived honestly
In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book that sold more than 12 million copies, became a movie starring Julia Roberts, and led to Time magazine naming Gilbert one of the 100 most influential people in the world. That book, Eat Pray Love, tells the story of Elizabeth's brutal depression and divorce, and subsequent personal odyssey through Italy, India and Indonesia, where she ate, prayed and eventually loved her way back to happiness. The story ended with her meeting the man who would eventually become her second husband.
So far, so happily ever after. Except that as everyone knows, life is not a fairy tale; it keeps going. In September 2016, Elizabeth Gilbert announced on Facebook that her best friend Rayya Elias had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. Elizabeth's second marriage had ended earlier that year, she was now in a relationship with the woman she referred to as "my person".
Rayya died in January 2018, after being nursed by Elizabeth, along with Rayya's ex-wife, and ex-girlfriend; "three hot blondes", Elizabeth joked.
Of Syrian origin, Rayya was a former addict, a musician, a writer and a hairdresser; the pair first met two decades ago when she cut Elizabeth's hair.
Elizabeth Gilbert grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Connecticut, her father a chemical engineer, her mother a homemaker.
When Elias was diagnosed, Elizabeth dropped everything. "One of the big questions in life is 'what is my purpose, what am I here for?'" Elizabeth says now. "An interesting use of great tragedy is that often it's like, 'oh, this is what I'm here for. The love of my life has pancreatic cancer. Literally nothing else matters to me'. There is clarity. And it's a weird thing, because you've been asking for it. 'Show me my purpose'. You didn't want it to be that, but there it is."
When Rayya got her diagnosis, Elizabeth knew that she could not let her die without telling her how she really felt; the two became a couple.
Rayya had been sober for years, but had had a turbulent past before meeting Elizabeth. "Rayya was a junkie and an addict. There are some nice addicts; she wasn't," Elizabeth says. "All that power, all that will, all that charisma; when she was in her addiction, it made her into a truly bad person, who did bad things to good people. A hustler, a liar, a thief, a felon." It was a person she got to meet during Rayya's illness; the opioids she had to take sent her back into a spiral of addiction, for a time.
Elizabeth went into the role of carer with notions of Florence Nightingale, she smiles. "I was going to curate her death. A little bit like a parent who is like 'I'm going to be great at this. Because I read all the books'," she laughs. "And this is the beautiful generous gift of life, that it will relentlessly do whatever it has to correct you of your delusions.
"I went into it saying 'I'm going to be the world's greatest caregiver, because I love her more than I've ever loved anyone, and that's all it takes'. And that's of course not true. Anyone who is a caregiver knows it will grind you, it will pulverise you into dust. And there's also the inconvenient thing of how that person behaves, where she refuses to play the role of the perfect patient. I was like 'you're not making my movie right'," she says, laughing again.
"For her whole life, and that's why I loved her, Rayya was an iconoclast, and she was so completely uncooperative. She was like 'I'm not your story bitch, I'm not going to make your story beautiful, I'm going to do what I've always done, which is exactly what I want, even if it destroys everyone around me'. So I was humbled and I was beaten down, and I was heartbroken and I was devastated."
After Rayya died, Elizabeth and Rayya's ex-wife Gigi went to the warehouse where she was being cremated. Rayya had been afraid of her body being alone after death; the women wanted to keep her company for as long as they could. Burning, surrounded by flame, she looked like the Viking queen she was in life, Elizabeth says now. The process took hours. They meditated, sang, prayed, cried, laughed. At one point, Gilbert's phone began to spontaneously play Rayya's favourite song, Van Morrison's And it Stoned Me, an ironic choice for a former addict, Elizabeth jokes, and the two women danced.
Elizabeth had suffered from depression before, a consequence, she says, of blocking feelings. In the wake of Rayya's death, despite the, at times, overwhelming grief, she was determined to avoid this.
"My friend Martha Beck once told me 'I will feel anything I need to feel in order to avoid depression'. I was very surprised at how much rage there was in grief. I was raised by mid-western Scandinavians. Lutherans! You try finding rage! It's not just gender, it's the culture I come from," she says, of how the expression of anger can be difficult for women. "I thought that grief would look a certain way. Just a lot of weeping. And a lot of loneliness. And to my surprise, I was in a blaze of rage for months after Rayya died. And it was incredibly uncomfortable."
There was rage at the people whom she deemed had failed Rayya in her last months. Rage at Rayya, who had herself raged at her own imminent death. "I had rage at God, for taking the only person in the world I felt I could not live without. 'Donald Trump is alive and Rayya's dead?'."
There was rage at the rage for getting in the way of her grief.
And then one day, writing in her journal, she realised "oh, this is your grief, this is what your grief looks like. There's no template. You know the stages of grief? That's all true, but they're not in order", she says, laughing at the idea that there is any tidiness to grief. "We just do what humans do, which is make order so we can feel more comfortable. And there just isn't any. Surrendering to the powerlessness of that is actually the threshold into peace."
Rayya died in January, Elizabeth's book, City of Girls, needed to be finished that August. "I could never imagine caring about that book again when Rayya got sick," Elizabeth recalls. In fact, writing the book proved a source of healing. City of Girls is a tale of women in New York in the 1940s, showgirls and theatre folk. It is intended, she says, to be like a champagne cocktail going down. That she wrote it while in the depths of grief is remarkable.
"Something in me very shortly after her death knew that the best possible thing that I could do for myself was to now write this very light, very giddy, very life-affirming, very joyful story. And it was. It rebalanced the scales in a way."
When all around her was out of control, going back to creating characters gave her a much needed sense of a modicum of control.
"I could make characters that I could actually control. Which is not what I was able to do when I was dealing with Rayya and what we were dealing with. I couldn't control life, or death, or any of it. And so there was something very soothing for me about going back to 'oh this I can actually create, and I can have it begin and end just how I want it to'. And there is something very healing about that. I will say that the second year of my grief has been a great deal harder than the first. But, I did have a really great time writing that book. And it did remind me of who I am and what I can do. Part of being a caregiver is that you just become so subsumed by the person that you're taking care of that you kind of forget your own self, your own path, your own joy. So I would recommend writing a frivolous novel about 1940s showgirls to anybody who's having a hard time," she says, laughing.
City of Girls is a story about women who are promiscuous, who suffer the consequences of some of their unfortunate choices, but are not broken by these consequences.
"This is a story that I've wanted to tell for a long, long time," admits Elizabeth. "There is this trope in Western literature of the ruined woman. And it makes for a really great story. And yet as a female reader, there is something so anguishing about reading these stories, and about feeling like the wages of pleasure are so violent.
"Women are actually quite capable of surviving the consequences of the terrible, terrible choices that we make around sex, and love and romance, and if that were not the case, then there would be scarcely a woman left alive in this world, because we all make dreadful choices."
She had started work on this story before the #metoo movement took off. "I am a giant fan and supporter of the #metoo movement," she says now. "I think it's a long overdue expression of female rage that needs to have its voice. As a feminist, it's an incredible moment to see for the first time in my experience, and probably for the first time in Western history, that the patriarchy is on the defensive, rather than feminism being on the defensive.
"And, it's not but, it's and, I just don't want the only conversation about female sexuality to be about consent. I also want to keep reminding everybody that there is such a thing as female desire, that has its own impetus. And there are moments, seasons in a woman's life, where she is every bit more predator than prey. And to deny that, and to forget about that, is to actually not be speaking from a place of equality."
In March, Elizabeth posted on her Instagram account that she had found love again, with a friend of her and Elias, photographer Simon MacArthur. She turns 50 this year, a fact she is celebrating by taking some of her many friends on various holidays.
With Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert created a shorthand instantly recognised by millions as code for admitting when you are not happy in your life and doing something about it. It is a rigorous honesty she continues to apply to her own life. "I have a real low tolerance at this point for being miserable. So if I'm miserable I'm like, 'what's going on?' And truly, the real question is 'what am I lying about? Am I lying that I'm happy in this relationship, that this is where I want to be doing this job right now, that this friendship is nourishing? Am I lying, the ultimate lie, that there's something wrong with me, I'm unworthy, that I'm not deserving of love and compassion?' That's the big, big lie."
In the past, she has described Eat Pray Love as a book that gave permission to people to admit this, to admit when they are lying to themselves. "I like to think that I'm just a big walking permission slip," she says now. "Permission to create something, to leave, to change, to try something. To fall in love. To fall out of love. If my life can do nothing else, let it just make other people feel better about how weird their own lives are.
"If you happen to be somebody who has spent your life doing what you were taught, and told, and that has made you happy, then you have what I like to call, not a problem, so good on ya, and you're very lucky. And if you're somebody who had spent your life trying to do what you were taught and told, and it has made you deeply unhappy, come and sit with me, and we'll talk about that, because I know that feeling very, very well."
There is a scene early in Eat Pray Love, in Italy, where Gilbert, makes a sort of bargain; 'I know I am being irresponsible, I will go back and do the things I should do, but just not yet'.
"I look back at that woman and think, who are you apologising to," she says. "In the middle of this incredible meal, and it was one of the first days that I felt completely free of depression, and instantly I felt apologetic. And what I felt apologetic about was 'I know I f***** up, I know I'm 35, I know I'm supposed to be married, I'm supposed to have a house, and I'm supposed to have children, that's where I should be, at this time. That didn't work, and I promise that I will go back'. I even said, I mean it makes me wince, but I said something in that passage like 'I promise, soon I'll be a respectable person again. But just give me this meal, not quite yet'.
"The only really big glaring error that I see in Eat Pray Love is that. This idea that I still had, this absolute fallacy that I owed it to somebody, to anybody, to culture, to family, to reader, who I don't know, to recreate and reassemble what would look like a respectable life, that would make other people and me feel more comfortable about me. That is such bullshit, it's unbelievable.
"I will say that the only mistake that I made in Eat Pray Love was to stop going. I ended it after a year. I was like 'Okay, you got your year, now go be'... and that's what I went and did. I went and got married, and I bought a house, and I became a respectable person. And I don't regret those years, those were beautiful years. But why did I have that idea that that's exactly what I need to do? The ground water is so infused with these ideas about what you're supposed to look like at certain periods of your life, and it takes radical awakening to get on the other side of that."
With Elizabeth Gilbert, you get the unmistakable impression she is now firmly on that other side.
- City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury, £16.99