Thursday 27 October 2016

'I'm in love with her. I have no more time to deny it'

Although we're used to Elizabeth Gilbert's personal revelations, no one would have predicted what the 'Eat, Pray, Love' author's next chapter was going to be

Elizabeth Day

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Elizabeth Gilbert declared her love for Rayya Elias in a Facebook post
Elizabeth Gilbert declared her love for Rayya Elias in a Facebook post

When Elizabeth Gilbert decided to reveal that she was in love with another woman, she did so on Facebook. It was the perfect platform for someone who has spent the last decade sharing the most intimate details of her life in a succession of personal memoirs and essays that have made her famous.

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This week Gilbert, the 47-year-old author of the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love announced on the social networking site that her second marriage had come to an end this spring. The reason? She had, she said, fallen in love with her best friend, Rayya Elias, a Syrian-born author and former punk hairdresser.

Gilbert and Elias
Gilbert and Elias

That post, which has attracted almost 40,000 'likes' and been shared more than 3,000 times, also revealed that Elias was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer - "a disease", Gilbert wrote, "for which there is no cure".

Her admission that she was in a same-sex relationship was made in the same spiritually enlightened, open-hearted style that has become Gilbert's particular idiom. "I was faced with this truth," she wrote. "I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth."

Many applauded her bravery and her honesty, but, as a writer, she has made sharing into an art form. Gilbert unashamedly plunders her own life for material and is honest about her vulnerabilities. The publication of Eat, Pray, Love in 2006 chronicled her journey to self-discovery after a failed marriage, earned her respect, wealth and the dubious title of 'self-help guru'. It sold over 10 million copies, was translated into 30 languages and adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts.

It also made Gilbert into a beacon for a certain kind of unhappy woman, trapped in loveless relationships and on a constant quest for greater meaning. Her fiction, too, explores what happens to women who defy expectation. The Signature of All Things, her 2013 novel, tells the story of a 19th-century botanist grappling with her own desires and chafing against convention. In her writing, she often seeks out human connection. Gilbert's genius is that she makes us feel she is on our side.

In an article for the Huffington Post last year, she urged women to stop being so hard on themselves. As ever, her starting point was personal: "The problem is, I do it, too. Despite having written five books, I worry that I have not written the right kinds of books, or that perhaps I have dedicated too much of my life to writing, and have therefore neglected other aspects of my being. (Like, I could really stand to lose 10 pounds.) So here's what I want to know: can we lighten up a little? Can we draft a joint resolution to drop the crazy-making expectation that we must all be perfect?"

Despite her success, Gilbert wants to remind us that she still has her own stuff to deal with. After all, authenticity is only believable when you share the tragedies as well as the triumphs. In her latest post, she writes: "For reasons of my own integrity and sanity, I need to be able to walk into any room in the world with Rayya on my arm, feeling relaxed enough to stand comfortably in simple openness about who we actually are to each other. Pretending is demeaning, and it makes you weak and confused..."

But not even the most devoted Gilbert fan (and I count myself as one of them) had seen it coming. For a woman who shares so much of herself, the most surprising thing about her revelation was precisely that it was so surprising.

She and Elias have been friends for 15 years, ever since Gilbert was sent for what she described as "a hair intervention". The hairdresser was Elias, who was born in Aleppo in 1960 before moving to Detroit with her family at the age of eight. While Gilbert was raised on a Christmas-tree farm in Connecticut and went on to study political science, Elias moved to New York, became a drug addict and spiralled into homelessness before getting sober in 1997.

"When [Elias] was doing speedballs, I was at the library doing my homework," Gilbert said in a recent profile for the Sydney Morning Herald. In that same article, Elias revealed that some of her friends referred to Gilbert as her wife: "I know it sounds like a love story and it totally is," Elias said.

"She wants everyone to fall in love with her all the time," says one acquaintance. "When she talks to you, she makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room."

Gilbert did, in fact, write a piece for The New York Times last year in which she identified herself as "a seduction addict" and detailed years of failed relationships, often with other women's partners. "Seduction was never a casual sport for me; it was more like a heist, adrenalising and urgent," she wrote.

"I would plan the heist for months, scouting out the target, looking for unguarded entries. Then I would break into his deepest vault, steal all his emotional currency and spend it on myself."

During that time, Gilbert saw herself as "a revolutionary feminist, taking brazen agency over my own sexuality". She felt she only ever existed when "blazing in the heat of somebody's longing gaze". And although Gilbert got over that need with the help of a therapist and a period of celibacy after her first marriage ended in 2002, perhaps there is something in her still that believes love is a fluid, precious thing that must be grasped at whenever it appears.

And then write about it, of course.

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