In this exclusive extract from a new anthology that brings together the stories of those whose lives were changed by Elizabeth Gilbert’s global phenomenon, the author herself reflects on the inestimable impact of Eat Pray Love ten years after the journey first began.
For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to figure out why Eat Pray Love became such a giant phenomenon in the first place. Certainly nothing in my life had prepared me for such monumental success. I’d never been a bestselling author before (I always joke that my first three books had sold “upwards of dozens of copies”), and heaven knows there were already plenty of divorce memoirs, travel memoirs and spiritual memoirs out there on the market before mine hit the bookstores in 2006. But for some reason, Eat Pray Love became a tsunami.
I’ve never really known. Whenever interviewers have asked me why I think the book became so popular, my usual answer has been something cheeky and dismissive—something along the lines of, “Your guess is as good as mine, pal!” But all the while I was shrugging off that question, I was also running into people who kept wanting to tell me stories—stories about how my book had personally inspired or influenced them, stories about how my book had changed their lives—stories, in other words, about what Eat Pray Love had made them do. Some of those stories were delightful, some were strange, some were deeply moving. Two of those stories, in particular, have never left me.
Here is the first story I’ve never forgotten:
One day at a book-signing event in Atlanta, I met an African American woman in her early thirties who seemed positively radiant with happiness. She told me that, a few years earlier, she’d picked up Eat Pray Love on the recommendation of a friend. She read it in one sitting. After finishing the last page, she put the book down, stood up from the couch, walked out of her home and never went back there again.
“It turns out that she had shared that home for ten years with a man who had been physically and emotionally abusing her every single day—but now she was done with it.”
She left the city, moved back in with her mother, found a new job, saved her money for several years, lost a bunch of weight and (when I met her) had just gotten back from her first trip all alone to Paris. She’d never even gone back to her old home to collect her belongings, and she had never seen her abusive ex-boyfriend again. Her old life was over, never to be revisited. She was an entirely transformed human being.
Here is the second story I’ve never forgotten:
One day, I received a letter from a woman who wrote, “You’ll never believe what just happened because of your book.” This woman had read Eat Pray Love, and she had enjoyed it, but it hadn’t changed her life. Mostly, she’d just liked the travel descriptions and all the details about the food in Italy. But she’d taken the book with her on a family sailing trip that included her older brother. “What you have to understand about my brother,” this woman wrote to me, “is that he’s a jerk. I love him, because he’s my big brother, but he’s an arrogant, controlling, entitled jerk.” Her brother had been going through a long, drawn-out, expensive and acrimonious divorce. His wife had been trying to leave him for many years, and he’d been punishing her for it— making sure she would suffer dearly for the insult of having walked out on him. He had no intention of ending the battle anytime soon. Then, during this family holiday, he randomly picked up his sister’s copy of Eat Pray Love and started reading it, mostly as a joke. A few pages in, though, it wasn’t a joke for him anymore. He read the whole thing. When he was done with the book, he phoned his lawyer from the sailboat and said, “Call off the dogs.” Then he phoned his wife and left her a message saying, “I bless your journey, and I’m sorry.” And at last, he let her go.
On the surface, these two people—and these two stories— don’t seem to have a single thing in common. Yet I could never forget either, and for years I’ve been telling them together, in order to demonstrate the impossibly (even bizarrely) wide audience that Eat Pray Love has found.
Still, I didn’t really know why my book had touched these people specifically, and so many others besides. It was only seeing the incredible range of submissions that came pouring in for this anthology that I finally got it—that I finally saw what those two stories had in common, and why I’ve been telling them for years. Because at heart they were the same story, the story of a person finally realizing, My life doesn’t have to look like this anymore.
The abused woman realized she didn’t have to be a victim anymore. The abusive man realized he didn’t have to be a menace anymore. Both had stepped out of their tired old selves—from one moment to the next—and walked forward into completely new lives. And Eat Pray Love, incredibly, had helped them do that. This is what my book is really all about. It was never really about eating pizza in Italy or meditating in India or falling in love in Bali. It wasn’t about travel or spirituality or divorce. No, Eat Pray Love was about what happens when one human being realizes that her life doesn’t have to look like this anymore—that everything (including herself) can be changed.
“After that realization occurs, nothing will ever be the same again.”
That’s also the story told by every single person featured in this anthology. Don’t get me wrong—these narratives feature an incredible breadth of experience, and they are told in many different voices. But no matter what the background, age or gender of the writer, every single one recalls a moment when he or she realized: “My life doesn’t have to look like this anymore.” At which point they, too, stepped out of their tired old selves and walked into strange and marvellous new lives.
My friend Pastor Rob Bell has a wonderful definition for the word despair. He says that despair is a spiritual condition in which you convince yourself that tomorrow is going to be exactly the same as today. Once you fall into a state of despair, you don’t even bother trying to alter anything about your life because what’s the point? You become hypnotized by your own stagnation. You resign yourself to sameness because that’s what you’ve tricked yourself into thinking life is: eternal, soul-crushing sameness.
But it’s a myth and a lie to believe that tomorrow is going to be exactly the same as today. History and science (and our own lived experience) teach us that we live in a world—indeed, a universe—that is constantly transforming. Not only is tomorrow going to be different from today, the world will be a completely different place an hour from now compared to what it was an hour ago. Look around you: the evidence is everywhere. Everything is shifting. Everything is flowing. Everything and everyone is in a state of becoming. The earth is spinning; the tides are moving; the seasons are unfolding; people are dying and being born (indeed, the cells within your very own body are dying and being born); and God knows that your thoughts never sit still for an instant. The entire story of creation is a story of ongoing change. And the moment you wake up to that story, you realize that you, too, are allowed to change and are allowed to assert agency over the direction you go next. This realization is the beginning of the end of despair. This is what we call resurrection—and it’s available at any moment, to anyone.
That’s what Eat Pray Love was all about, and that’s why people responded to it—because it’s a resurrection story. And that’s what every tale in this anthology is about, too: transformation and resurrection. It was an incredibly powerful emotional experience for me, reading these essays.
“I write in Eat Pray Love that “one must be prepared for riotous and endless waves of ongoing transformation,” but to see those waves rolling in—page after page, wave after wave, change after change—has been pretty amazing.”
Search for it, as you read along. You’ll see it in every single essay. Search for the moment when each person realizes: “My life doesn’t have to look like this anymore.” Search for it in yourself, too. That’s generally the most interesting moment in anyone’s life. Because after that moment? Whatever happens next can quite literally be: ANYTHING.
Introduction and extracts taken from ‘Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir’, published by Bloomsbury, $18.99, out now. A trip to Bali in celebration of ‘Eat Pray Love’s tenth anniversary is also up for grabs – more information on that here.