Scottish Daily Mail
Eat, pray and leave your man for a woman
She turned her quest for happiness and a man into a blockbuster book and film. Imagine Elizabeth Gilbert’s fans’ surprise when she announced this week...
Gilbert careened from one romance to the next ‘Revolutionary feminist? I was just a menace’
SHE gave millions of female readers an enviable diet of mouth-watering food, a torrid tropical love affair and a dollop of spiritual enlightenment on top. Her bestselling memoir about her journey to find herself after her divorce — Eat, Pray, Love — made American author Elizabeth Gilbert a multi-millionaire and launched a generation of women on pilgrimages to follow in her footsteps, often literally.
A Shirley Valentine for the yoga and quinoa generation, she substituted exotic travels through Italy, India and Indonesia and a steamy affair with a Brazilian gem trader under the banyan trees of Bali for Liverpudlian Shirley’s rather less glamorous holiday in Greece and romance with the tavern owner of her dreams.
The bestselling book was made into a blockbuster 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert and the dashing Spanish actor Javier Bardem as Jose Nunes (called Felipe in the film and book), the man she later married.
How her army of followers must have been saddened two months ago when she announced that it wasn’t going to be happy ever after with Nunes — they were separating.
But that disappointment was nothing compared to the bombshell news on Wednesday when Gilbert, now 47, revealed exactly why it had ended with Nunes.
She had found love with her best friend of 15 years — another woman, Rayya Elias, a former convict and ex-junkie, Syrian-born hairdresser.
‘Rayya and I are together,’ Gilbert announced in a long message to her fans on Facebook. ‘I love her, and she loves me.’ Gilbert revealed she had only realised the depths of her feelings for Elias, a fellow writer, when the latter was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer in the spring.
‘Something happened to my heart and mind in the days and weeks following Rayya’s diagnosis,’ she said. ‘Death — or the prospect of death — has a way of clearing away everything that is not real and, in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya.
‘And I have no more time for denying that truth.’
She went on: ‘The thought of someday sitting in a hospital room with her, holding her hand and watching her slide away, without ever having let her (or myself!) know the extent of my true feelings for her . . . well, that thought was unthinkable.’
Gilbert said she hoped her fans — or, as she gushingly calls them, her ‘dear ones’ — would receive the news ‘with grace’.
It’s understandable she might feel a little anxious about how her many readers will take the news that, for all her very public agonising over men, it appears that her real happiness never lay in that direction at all. Had she ever been entirely honest in her book, or was the romance with Nunes just the icing on the cake to justify a stonking $200,000 publishers’ advance she had already received before she even set out on her travels?
That said, as she revealed last year in an astonishingly candid article in the New York Times, a woman who has been addicted to seducing men since her teens may, indeed, have found that her sexual palate had become so jaded that heterosexual love was no longer enough.
The daughter of a chemical engineer and a nurse, Gilbert was raised on a Christmas tree farm in rural Connecticut, with no neighbours and no TV. She and her sister, the novelist Catherine Gilbert Murdock, read voraciously and loved to invent stories. There was nothing else to do, she says.
When Elizabeth reached her teens, she discovered sex and never looked back. In the New York Times article, entitled Confessions Of A Seduction Addict, she described how she had spent her life ‘careen[ing] from one intimate entanglement to the next — dozens of them — without so much as a day off between romances’.
Sex, she said, was simply ‘the gateway drug’ to the ‘high’ she really craved: seduction.
She described her technique as ‘more like a heist’, spending months ‘scouting out the target’. She didn’t care if her male target was with another woman — she would simply reinvent herself as the complete opposite of the wife or girlfriend, and position herself as a ‘sparkling alternative to his regular life’.
She added, shamelessly: ‘My guilt about the other woman was no match for the intoxicating knowledge that — somewhere on the other side of town — somebody couldn’t sleep that night because he was thinking about me.’
Even marriage in her mid-20s —– to human rights activist Michael Cooper, whom she met while working at a New York bar called Coyote Ugly Saloon — didn’t slow down her compulsive promiscuity, she said.
Growing ‘restless and lonely’, she seduced yet another man and the marriage broke down. She changed men so quickly that, by the time the divorce had been finalised, the relationship that broke up the marriage had ended and she was on to a second affair.
‘You know you’ve got intimacy issues when, in the space of a few short months, you find yourself visiting two completely different couples’ counsellors, with two completely different men on your arm, in order to talk about two completely different emotional firestorms,’ she said.
Finally, she says, a little light shone into her horribly selfish existence and she realised that ‘stealing other women’s boyfriends didn’t make me a revolutionary feminist, it just made me a menace’.
Some might have retreated for a period of self-reflection, but Gilbert — a successful magazine writer who had written three books already — saw the potential for a lucrative publishing deal.
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything was billed as a yearlong odyssey of ‘spiritual and personal exploration’. Cynics have always wondered quite how authentic it could be, given that she received her hefty book advance before she had even gone on her travels — surely putting pressure on her to come up with some gripping experiences.
After feasting on perfect pizza and gelato in Rome, getting some spirituality and yoga training living in an ashram in India, Gilbert — then aged 32 — moved to Bali, where her irrepressible libido thankfully kicked in for the ‘Love’ part of the book’s catchy title.
To her surprise, apparently, she fell in love with Nunes, called Felipe in the book. He was a sensual and courtly Brazilian-born divorcee 17 years her senior.
She never wanted children and — as luck would have it — he’d had a vasectomy. The story of their love and her struggle to find happiness with Nunes provided the core of her book.
Critics complained that Eat, Pray, Love was a cynical formula, but it shifted more than 12million copies and was printed in more than 30 languages.
On top of the film version — which earned £102million at the box office and resulted in endless speaking engagements — Gilbert was even named one of the ‘world’s 100 most influential people’ by Time magazine.
Trying to explain the book’s success, psychologists say it touched a nerve in a way other self-help books never manage.
Gilbert and Nunes married in 2007 and moved to Frenchtown, New Jersey, where he opened an Asian imports company and she started doing up a ramshackle Italianate house.
Now he is gone — she insists the split is ‘very amicable’ — and it’s fair to say that the new person in her life
wouldn’t have made for quite such a surefire Hollywood hit.
Rayya Elias, a punk rock-loving former convict and ex-drug addict, was born in Aleppo in 1960. She moved to Detroit with her family when she was eight.
A natural rebel, in 1983 she relocated to New York, where she had some success playing in a punk band and working as a hairdresser, before descending into drug addiction, homelessness and a jail term. Her drug addiction almost killed her, but she turned her life around and says she has been sober since 1997. She had an eight-year marriage to another woman, but they split up in 2008.
Of cleaning up her drug habit, she has said: ‘It’s funny, because after 12 rehabs and 23 detoxes and jail and institutions, I didn’t need to go anywhere. I just basically picked myself up, shook myself off and took about a week’s worth of Vicodin [a painkiller] just to get rid of the ache of withdrawing, started going to meetings and got clean.’
She and Gilbert met 15 years ago when Gilbert went to Elias for what she called a ‘hair intervention’ — that’s a haircut to you and me.
Elias still cuts it for Gilbert, but their relationship was so close that — long before this week’s lesbianism admission — friends of Elias would refer to Gilbert as her ‘wife’.
Until now, Elias has been living in a converted church owned by Gilbert in Milford, a town close to the writer’s New Jersey home. Gilbert initially allowed her to live there for free as long as her friend wrote her own memoir. Published in 2013, it is entitled Harley Loco: A Memoir Of Hard Living, Hair, And Post-Punk, From The Middle East To The Lower East Side.
In interviews together, they make clear that, although they make for an oddly-matched couple, Gilbert — with her far more wholesome background — finds that opposites attract when it comes to their relationship. Tellingly, even more than a year ago, they would describe their relationship as ‘love’.
Interviewed together in February 2015, the pair held hands and finished each others’ sentences as Elias fiddled with Gilbert’s hair. Describing their relationship, Gilbert said: ‘It’s not your sister, it’s not your lover, it’s not your BFF [Best Friend Forever]. There isn’t really an identifier for it.’
At the time, Gilbert made no secret of their inseparability. ‘I’d rather go to the laundromat with you than go to, like, Prague with almost anybody else,’ she told her foulmouthed punk amour.
‘I know it sounds like a love story and it totally is,’ Elias added.
In her Facebook message to fans this week, Gilbert quoted an American writer, David Foster Wallace: ‘The truth will set you free — but not until it’s had its way with you.’ She added: ‘Yes, it has been hard. Yes, the truth has had its way with us. And yes, the truth still stands.’
One can only wish them well together and hope that Rayya Elias prevails over a cancer that Gilbert stresses was incurable.
But if she was saying she was forced to live a lie as a heterosexual for years — and a very profitable lie it was — then she only really has herself to blame.
As for her more conventionally misty-eyed fans, it may be one final burst of truth they might rather have been spared.
‘It sounds like a love story — and it totally is’