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Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

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Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

Q: When we last encountered you, you had just concluded your journey across Italy, India and Indonesia in Eat, Pray, Love. At the end of that story you fell in love with a man in Bali named Felipe. It is that very relationship that led you to write this new book, Committed. Can you give us some background — why did you want to write this book?

A: As any author can tell you, there are books that you want to write, and books that you need to write and Committed definitely falls in the latter category. Because the United States Department of Homeland Security got involved in my love story with Felipe, the stakes and terms of our relationship changed overnight. Suddenly the two of us — two very marriage-averse divorce survivors — had been basically "sentenced to wed" by the government. I was hoping to make peace with those new terms — to essentially study my way through the history of marriage until I could find a way to be OK with the fact that I was entering that institution again, and the best way I know how to really get granular and intimate with a subject is to write a book about it.

Q: Why do you think U.S. divorce rates are so high? What statistical findings did you encounter that people might consider before tying the knot?

A: First of all, it's important to know that the famous "50% divorce rate" that we hear about so much these days is a little bit misleading. Across the board, there is a 50% divorce rate, true, but those numbers really change based on the age of the couple at the time of marriage. Young couples divorce at astronomically high rates, which blows the curve for everyone else. The fundamental conclusion we can draw from all the data is this: Marriage is not a game for the young. Wait as long as you humanly can to get married, and your odds of staying with one partner forever will increase dramatically. If you wait until you are, say, 35 years old to get married, your odds of success are pretty terrific. The other question is one of expectation. Modern Americans bring to their marriages the most over-stuffed bundle of expectations the institution has ever seen. We expect that our partner will not merely be a decent person, but will also be our soul mate, our best friend, our intellectual companion, our greatest sexual partner and our life's complete inspiration. Nobody in human history has ever asked this much of a companion. It's a lot to ask of one mere mortal, and the inevitable disappointments that follow such giant expectations can cripple marriages.

Q: In the book, you state that same-sex marriage may very well save the institution of marriage. How so?

A: Marriage is on the decline everywhere, and same-sex couples are the only ones who are really passionate about matrimony anymore. As one commentator described the situation, it's as if the institution of marriage is a crumbing, decaying, old neighborhood where nobody wants to live anymore. But then — in come the gay couples, begging to move into that neighborhood, buy up all that valueless real estate, renovate those old houses, bring creative new shops and galleries to the place and suddenly make it the coolest place to live again. After which, heterosexual couples and families will follow! So the argument becomes this — instead of trying to "save" the institution of marriage by excluding gay couples from matrimony, maybe it's smarter to try to rescue marriage by letting same-sex couples move in and gentrify the place. It's a cute argument, but it has a strong historic resonance — every few generations, marriage opens its doors a little wider and lets in a new population who had previous been excluded, and that breathes new life into the whole institution.

Q: The film version of Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts as you and Javier Bardem as Felipe is coming out later this year. How does it feel knowing your life is being made into a movie?

A: It's great. Everyone involved with this movie is passionate about the book, and they're all working really hard to try to make the movie as loyal to the original story as possible, which is really touching. (They didn't have to care so much, so I'm moved by their passion.) There is something surreal about the whole experience, but then again, there has been something surreal about Eat Pray Love from the beginning. I have never entirely understood the rocket-like trajectory of that book, and so — with the movie as with all of it — I stand back, amazed, watching it all unfold and wondering at this strange turn of destiny.

Q. Which myths about marriage, either personal or cultural, were most difficult for you to dispel in writing and researching this book?

A. I don't think I went into this project overburdened with dewy-eyed romantic myths about marriage (my divorce had pretty much wiped those out years ago), but I did carry an instinctive prejudice that marriage is an artificial construct of "society," invented as a tool of repression by states and religions. In truth, the story is far more complicated than that. In fact, it wasn't states or religions that invented the notion of marriage, but individuals and families, who wanted to create some sort of special protective bond that would be recognized and respected by everyone in the community, within private intimacy could be tasted. What shocked and amazed me was to discover, in fact, how vehemently repressive governments and institutions (Soviet Russia, for instance, or the early Christian church) battled against marriage, trying in the most idealistic phases of their evolution to break down the natural bonds of love and family in order to exert more control over the populace. Seen in such light, marriage starts to look appealing and subversive to me — but, of course, I lean that way, and so of course I would find that exciting.

Q: Since the publication and enormous success of Eat, Pray, Love, you have become something of a public figure. With Committed, once again we find you able to write honestly and openly about your personal life. Is it hard to write so intimately knowing that this new book will have a very large audience?

A: I don't think I will ever write another book as raw, intimate and revealing as Eat, Pray, Love, which I wrote without imagining that millions of people would ever read it. While Committed is also written in a familiar-enough memoir structure, it is far less personal, and much more a meditation, or a contemplation, on a vast historical subject. I use myself and Felipe as sort of stand-ins for the readers, who, I suspect, probably have similar questions and hesitations about their own marriages and relationships, but I actually don't feel very exposed or revealed by this story. If anything, I think Felipe and I are pretty representative modern lovers, and our story — with the exception of the dramatic encounter with the Homeland Security Department — is not that different from everyone else's story.

Q: Did your matrimonial research bring you a greater understanding of whether or not marriage was appropriate for you, or did it bring you greater confusion?

A: Well, it's kind of a moot point because I really had no choice: If I wanted to keep a relationship with my sweetheart and if I really wanted to live with him in America, I absolutely had to get married, or else I would lose him. So the decision was, in effect, already made. What I was trying to do was find a way to feel OK about it, and this book definitely helped. My fear was that the more I learned about marriage, the more I would hate it, but the opposite happened: The more I learned about marriage, the more I respected it. And when I use the word "respect" here, what I mean is something almost on the Darwinian level. I came to respect that this thing still exists, despite centuries and centuries of change and, yes, evolution. What I learned about marriage is that it will take any shape, adapt to any circumstances, in order to endure. And that is precisely because we seem to want it and need it. Our longing for legally-recognized private intimacy means that we will keep reforming and shaping this thing, generation after generation, in order to somehow make it our own. And I found that idea very touching, very transformative. I, too, am part of the history of marriage — as we all are, and all need to be.

Q. The notion of "tiny acts of household tolerance" is a beautiful and spiritual way of thinking about partnership. In your own life, how does your spirituality intersect with marriage?

A. Everything I have ever learned about life — spiritual and otherwise — helps me to do better within this marriage than I have in past relationships. I think this is part of the reason that marriage is so ill-advised for young people: With rare exception, most twenty-two year olds simply haven't been sanded down or humbled enough by life's experiences yet to have acquired the wisdom and perspective that make long-term human intimacy possible. But yes, certainly the lessons of a sincere spiritual quest have been awfully helpful in negotiating the challenges of running a household — with the most important lesson of all being that I am, at the end of every day, responsible for my own state of being. I doubt that there is a more important tool of cheerful companionship than that truth.

Q: In the chapter "Marriage and History," you point out that Christians believe marriage to be a sacred union. Where does this belief stem from and can marriage really be deemed a sacred union?

A: Just to be clear — Christian leadership decided that marriage was a scared union only very recently. The early Christian fathers demonstrated a serious aversion to marriage, believing instead that the only truly sacred state of being was lifelong celibacy and fellowship (in imitation of Christ and the angels.) For the first thousand or so years of Christian history, the church did not concern itself with the business of marriage at all, because marriage was not seen as a sacrament (as opposed to baptism, say, which was always a sacrament); instead, marriage was considered a worldly and secular affair, that had everything to do with sex and property and taxes and women, and nothing to do with the higher concerns of divinity. That changed in the year 1215 AD, when the Catholic church officially took over the marriage business, as a means of exerting greater control over the unions and divorces of European royalty. And since then, Christian leadership has embraced marriage and preached marriage and now is even "defending" marriage. But all that Christian reverence toward marriage is very recent — certainly in contrast to, say, Judaism, where marriage has been considered a noble union for thousands of years (although even in ancient Hebrew society, the union was never considered inviolably sacred: there was always provision for divorce.) I am not saying that marriage shouldn't be seen as holy or sacred, but I object when those words are used as weapons against individuals within something that should be a private union, and that is almost invariably a complicated one.

Q: In an effort to be sure you and Felipe were making the right decision, you went as far as making a list of your own faults so that he could better understand what he would be getting into if you married. What makes your relationship with Felipe so honest and successful?

A: Well, we've only been married two and a half years at this point, so it's a little early to be using the word "successful," but as for the honest part — that's simple: I have learned from painful personal experience that anything short of honesty will end in catastrophe for everyone.

Q: Marriage and children seem to go hand-in-hand, and as someone who was not interested in having children, you looked to your mother and grandmother for answers. What surprised you about their experience with having children?

A: I am a woman of an entirely new generation than both my mother and grandmother and I have options they never knew. (Which is to say: I have options, period.) My grandmother had 7 children, essentially because she had no choice or control whatsoever over her biology, and she struggled with poverty and exhaustion her whole life. My mother had two children, both of whom she chose, but she also made enormous sacrifices for her kids — including quitting a career that she dearly loved, in order to stay home and raise us, on account of the realization that she could not, in fact, do it all. (As one female friend of mine always says, "Just because you can do anything doesn't mean you can do everything.") The question of having children was a huge one in my life — my first marriage fell apart largely, though not entirely, because of this question — and I have chosen to remain childless, which is a decision that reflects my own life, my own desires, my own destiny. Still, I found it important to talk to both my mother and my grandmother about their choices, in order to put my decision in a deeper perspective. Probably the most surprising moment was when my grandmother told me that — while she loved her children and felt the happiest moments of her life during motherhood — she prayed that I would never have children of my own, and would instead dedicate my life to writing books and traveling. There was something very tender and touching in that revelation.

Q. As a sequel of sorts, Committed follows up the fairytale romance of Eat, Pray, Love with some stark realities, including the bureaucratic proceedings of the Department of Homeland Security. Was it difficult, as an author, to switch gears and take on this less romantic subject matter?

A. I like to say that the difference in tone between Eat, Pray, Love and Committed is the difference in tone between romance and marriage. Eat, Pray, Love is, in every way, a romantic story, full of escape and longing and sensual exploration and even the shimmering thrill of emotional imbalance. Such a tone was appropriate to that year of self-exploration, because that's what it was like. I was overcome during my Eat, Pray, Love journey by a sense of daring, of soaring possibility, and such expansion was exactly what I needed, in order to reinvigorate my life after a period of loss and sorrow. But I daresay that marriage demands of us a slightly more pragmatic temperament. And the events that precipitated Committed were so especially serious (you could say that Felipe's and my romance ended the minute the men in the Homeland Security uniforms handcuffed him and led him away) that a sense of sobriety and level-headed focus was really called for in this situation, in order to handle things wisely. That same sense of sobriety and focus, I think, informs the overall tone of Committed. It wasn't painful or limiting to write the book in such a manner; it just felt accurate and appropriate to both the subject and the situation. Anything else would have felt like a lark, which would not have benefited anyone, least of all me.

Q: What is the "Western Style Problem" that your friend Ting expresses in the chapter "Marriage and Women"? Do you think marriage is more beneficial to men or women?

A: This is not my opinion, but a fact backed up by every conceivable study: Marriage is far, far more beneficial to men than women. Married men perform far better in life than single men, and are happier than single men, and live longer than single men, and earn more money than single men. Married women, on the other hand, make less money than single women, suffer more from depression than single women, don't live as long as single women, and are more likely to be the victims of violence than single women. This has always been the case, which does fly in the face of the mythology and romanticizing of marriage that is epidemic in our culture. The "Western Style Problem" my friend Ting in Laos describes is the moment that women start deciding that they might want to delay or even defer marriage — understandable, given the facts — which tends to throw a wrench in the workings of traditional family structure. Social conservatives lament this, but maybe the bigger question needs to be, "How can we create family and marriage structures where women don't lose so big?" Maybe if that were the question being confronted, more women might be interested in embracing marriage again.

Q. The traveling in exile across Southeast Asia you describe in Committed is very different from the open-ended journeying of Eat, Pray, Love. For one thing, you were emotionally attached when you set out to write this book. How did that change your experience of traveling?

A. There's a big difference between traveling because you want to, and traveling because you are not allowed to go home again. Felipe and I had many wonderful experiences when we were living out our period of immigration exile, but we could never forget for long that we were, in fact, forbidden to return home, and we had no idea when that period of exile would lift. That knowledge alone brought a keen sense of homesickness to me that I had never experienced before as a traveler, and it seems to have colored forever my feelings about travel. (I will never again cross a border carelessly, for one thing.) It's also true that Felipe and I were in the early stages of a very sweet period of experimental domesticity when circumstances wrenched us out of our home, so that was painful, but also transformative. When we finally did return to America safely to settle down, we both felt a compulsion to really burrow in — which is exactly what we've done. For the first time in my life — living in a small town, with a lovely husband, in an old house with a big garden and several pets — I feel absolutely rooted, in a way I have never experienced before, and never would have imagined even desiring. But it is what we want — at least for now — and so we're relishing that stability.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel! It's a great relief to begin inventing characters and plot again, after three serious non-fiction titles in a row.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

BlossomingContradiction, January 3, 2011 (view all comments by BlossomingContradiction)
A truly compassionate, honest, witty and informative exploration of our western institution of marriage. Told with a sharp, critical eye toward herself and the dedicated investigative questioning of her journalistic background, Gilbert out does herself here in exploring the question of what makes us choose to be together and how can we remain happy. I laughed regularly, screamed at the historical context of some of the shocking truths of our legal system, and took a deeper look at my own relationship, as well as myself, to see how better to love each other. A thoroughly enjoyable story that invites you to take responsibility for your own values and align your life choices accordingly. LOVED IT.
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Tannis Sullivan, August 22, 2010 (view all comments by Tannis Sullivan)
As if righting the skewed balance of our socio-cultural marriage myths, this book rips off our rose-coloured glasses and exposes marriage for what it really is (imagine if every newlywed couple was so well-informed prior to their wedding day?). Reading it felt like having a deeply meaningful conversation with a good friend-lovely!
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(10 of 28 readers found this comment helpful)
Kelly A, May 25, 2010 (view all comments by Kelly A)
This is NOT "Eat, Pray, Love the Sequel" Thank God. I would be honored to be added to the list of 27 women Gilbert considered her readers for this book. After finishing it, much quicker than "Eat, Pray" I feel I just had a great conversation with a well-educated friend who is working on a really interesting research project. The tidbits of data are sprinkled throughout the main tale that served as the main thread of the book: the path to a life together with "the Brazillian."
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780670021659
Author:
Gilbert, Elizabeth
Publisher:
Viking Books
Subject:
Marriage
Subject:
Wives -- United States.
Subject:
Women
Subject:
Personal Memoirs
Subject:
Biography - General
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20100131
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Pages:
304
Dimensions:
9.3 x 6.3 x 1.05 in 1.11 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage Used Hardcover
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Product details 304 pages Viking Books - English 9780670021659 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Elizabeth Gilbert has some explaining to do. After requiring a year-long sabbatical to recover from the tumultuous aftermath of her first marriage, she does the unthinkable: she gets married again. Don't panic! Gilbert can still write. Expect the voice and narrative style that made Eat, Pray, Love an international phenomenon.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "[Signature]Reviewed by Amy Sohn "How does an author follow up a smash international bestseller that has catapulted her from obscurity into fame and riches she never dreamed of? Very carefully. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert's first book since the multimillion-selling Eat, Pray, Love, was written so carefully that it's actually her second attempt (she scrapped the first one after she decided the voice was wrong). The good news is her voice is clear and winning. The bad news is the structure doesn't work. Part history, part travelogue, Committed often makes for a jumpy read. Still, Gilbert remains the spirited storyteller she was in EPL, and her central question is a good one — how can a divorce-scarred feminist make a case for marriage?EPL ended in Bali with Gilbert falling in love with Felipe, a hot, older Brazilian divorcé. Book clubs across the country passionately debated her message: 'Is Gilbert saying I need a man to be happy?'; 'What if I go to Bali and don't meet the love of my life?'; and 'How did a woman who didn't want children land the only Latino hottie with a vasectomy in all of Indonesia?' In the year following their meeting, Felipe and Gilbert cobbled together a long-distance relationship; he would stay with her in the U.S. for 90-day jaunts, and the rest of the time they'd live apart or travel the world. One day in the spring of 2006, they returned to the Dallas Airport and Felipe was detained at the border. A customs agent said he could not enter the country again unless he married Gilbert.Gilbert spent the next year in exile with Felipe — straining the relationship — and did a lot of reading about marriage. In jaunty, ever-curious prose she tells us that today's Hmong women in Vietnam don't expect their husbands to be their best friends; that in modern Iran young couples can marry for a day; and that early Christians were actually against marriage, seeing it as antireligious. It's all fascinating stuff, but ultimately Gilbert is more interested in the history of divorce than marriage. The reader can feel both her excitement when she tells us that in medieval Germany there were two kinds of marriages, one more casual than the other, and her rage when she recounts the ill effects of the Church on divorce as it 'turned marriage into a life sentence.'For all of its academic ambition, the juiciest bits of Committed are the personal ones, when she tells us stories about her family. There's a great scene involving the way her grandfather scattered her grandmother's ashes, and a painfully funny story of a fight Gilbert and Felipe had on a 12-hour bus ride in Laos. The bus is bumpy, the travelers exhausted, and both feel the frustration of not being able to make a home together. They bicker, and she tries and fails at a couples-therapy technique, and a 'heated silence went on for a long time.' Later in the story, when she is hemming and hawing about the Meaning of It All, he says, 'When are you going to understand? As soon as we secure this bloody visa and get ourselves safely married back in America, we can do whatever the hell we want.' I am happy for Gilbert that she did a lot of research before tying the knot again, but she already did the most important thing a gun-shy bride can do: choose the right mate." Amy Sohn is the author of the novelProspect Park West: Hits and misses in the burgeoning genre of personal finance books targeting women. Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Gilbert's new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, explores what happens after that, when the couple is faced with their worst nightmare. Cancer.

No, wait. I mean, marriage. (I knew it was something really bad.)" Chelsea Cain, The Oregonian (read the entire Oregonian review)

"Review" by , "Presented in the author's easy-going, conversational style, the material is intriguing and often insightful....A vaguely depressing account of how intimate relationships are complicated by marriage, divorce and expectations about both."
"Review" by , "...[A]an irresistibly romantic tale spiked with unusual and resonant insights into love and marriage."
"Synopsis" by , Picking up where her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love left off, Gilbert details the extraordinary circumstances that surround her love with Felipe, the man she swore never to marry. Told with Gilbert's trademark wit, Committed is a celebration of love with all the complexity and consequence that real love, in the real world, actually entails.
"Synopsis" by ,

At the end of her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who'd been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but also swore to never, ever, under any circumstances get legally married. (Both were survivors of previous bad divorces. Enough said.) But providence intervened one day in the form of the United States government, which-after unexpectedly detaining Felipe at an American border crossing-gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again. Having been effectively sentenced to wed, Gilbert tackled her fears of marriage by delving into this topic completely, trying with all her might to discover through historical research, interviews, and much personal reflection what this stubbornly enduring old institution actually is. Told with Gilbert's trademark wit, intelligence and compassion, Committed attempts to "turn on all the lights" when it comes to matrimony, frankly examining questions of compatibility, infatuation, fidelity, family tradition, social expectations, divorce risks and humbling responsibilities. Gilbert's memoir is ultimately a clear-eyed celebration of love with all the complexity and consequence that real love, in the real world, actually entails.

"Synopsis" by ,
The #1 New York Times bestselling follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love--an intimate and erudite celebration of love.

At the end of her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian living in Indonesia. The couple swore eternal love, but also swore (as skittish divorce survivors) never to marry. However, providence intervened in the form of a U.S. government ultimatum: get married, or Felipe could never enter America again. Told with Gilbert's trademark humor and intelligence, this fascinating meditation on compatibility and fidelity chronicles Gilbert's complex and sometimes frightening journey into second marriage, and will enthrall the millions of readers who made Eat, Pray, Love a number one bestseller.

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