I read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ several years ago, along with a good portion of the female American population; finishing the book felt similar to waking after one of those early morning dreams where I binge on chocolate (or bread or cake): strangely guilty and with a false sense of actually having eaten something. A few years later, I tried but didn’t get far with Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’. There was nothing satisfying about it, no guilty pleasure, and I left the book unfinished. Both women use solo travel after crisis as a form of meditation (sometimes literally), trying to delve deep, learn about themselves and attain a greater sense of self without the distraction of a man, with varying degrees of success. Gilbert’s path is more fun-loving and social while Strayed’s feels like atonement for sins committed against herself and others: drug addiction and infidelity among them. While both women suffer from a self-imposed dating exile for much of their books, Strayed actually appears to be experiencing symptoms of withdrawal and comes across as a borderline sex addict. While I’m at it I should add that she’s naive, immature and self-centered, not unheard-of traits in a twenty-something year old, especially one who has lost her mother and screwed up her life, but what made the book such a hard-read for me is that Strayed is writing in reflection, over ten years after the events, and there’s not an inkling of a more mature woman behind the writing. Instead of a real process of healing and coming back to herself through weeks of grueling physical effort, the book chronicles Strayed’s infrequent moments of insight and real independence with her ever-present narcissism. And at the point where I quit reading, the narcissism appeared to be winning.
As I said earlier, Gilbert’s way of dealing with her dilemma seems more mature, but is quite similar to Strayed’s. She makes a plan, sets an itinerary, eschews Italian men in favor of pasta, ice cream and platonic friendship and only succumbs to romance, reluctantly, in Bali. And some would shout, ‘Why not?’. Unlike Strayed, she doesn’t spend her three country tour fantasizing about every man she meets, but still somehow ends up in situations where she’s drunk and has to turn down naked men on the beach; for the sake of her own growth. Inherent in both memoirs is the fact that these women have been adored to varying degrees by men since they developed breasts and can’t seem to conceive of themselves as anything but the romantic lead. Gilbert appears more alarmed by this fact than Strayed, who comes across as the type of woman who has to age out of beauty before she stops trying to seduce every beddable man.
I guess I should applaud both women for making the effort to emotionally stand on their own two feet. There probably isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t dealt with co dependency in some form or another, or lost her center, or allowed herself to be absorbed into the personality of her partner. In Gilbert’s case, I wish she would have held out longer, visiting all three countries and returning home a single woman who had met a promising man. Honestly, when Gilbert acts a little suffocated at her Brazilian lover’s invitation to spend a week on an isolated island, I was with her. After all, weren’t they cloistered in a Balian hut for days on end, they had to take it one step further and seek the privacy of an island? I don’t think Gilbert’s reaction was overblown. She had practically just met the guy, on a trip to heal after a bad divorce. Would it have been asking too much for him to respect the journey she was on? let her meditate in the mornings and visit her wise man and come together at night, spend weekends together? It’s not that I was rooting for Gilbert and Strayed to be well-adjusted old maids. I guess I’m just bemoaning the same pattern we see in the majority of movie roles for women, that is: we have to view a woman through the prism of a man, preferably a love interest, to find her relevant, or even visible, and we have to see woman as malleable, adapting to the needs not only of men, but everyone around her. And while both Gilbert and Strayed devoted time to and space for themselves in their memoirs and their lives, neither could manage to sustain themselves as individuals for the duration of a book. For that reason I’m disappointed, but I guess I still care.