The bestselling "Eat, Pray, Love" author on the value of being an aunt.
You might have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-best-selling travelogue, Eat, Pray, Love, pre-kids; the book came out in 2006. But if not, you may have come away wondering how you connected so well to a woman whose life at the time couldn’t have been more different than yours. While you swept up Cheerios, she was being swept off her feet in Bali by the courtly Brazilian, Felipe, who is now her husband. And while you were dozing at the pediatrician’s office with a Lego pressed into your thigh, Gilbert was napping in an Italian garden in a patch of sunlight.
Though Gilbert, 40, is childless, she’s nonetheless wildly relatable: early on in Eat, Pray, Love she talks to God from the bathroom floor while in the throes of a crushing depression. The New Jersey-based author’s new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, is about Gilbert’s struggle to come to terms with an institution she had sworn off, as had Felipe (whose real name is Jose Nunes), because both had been through catastrophic divorces. After the couple left Indonesia to move to the U.S., they swore eternal fidelity but planned never to wed.
But then U.S. immigration officials intervened - if Nunes wanted to stay in the United States, the authorities said, the easiest way was for the couple to get married. Thus began Gilbert’s quest to wrap her head around the vexing human habit of marriage: “It’s something we all think we know about but mostly don’t,” she said during a recent interview from her office at Two Buttons, the New Jersey business she runs with Nunes, where saris, exotic jewelry and hand-carved furnishings are on offer.
Another thing a lot of people don’t think about a lot - though they will after they read Committed - is the value of a loving aunt. Gilbert is one. Her much-adored niece and nephew live nearby in a Philadelphia suburb; one of the reasons she chose to settle in New Jersey was so that she could be close to them. In a chapter called “Marriage and Women,” Gilbert explores the contributions aunts, and all childless women, have made to nurturing children and, by extension, families, throughout time.
Babble spoke to Gilbert about the importance of what she calls “The Auntie Brigade,” the necessity of marriage and what it’s like to be played by Julia Roberts. “Eat, Pray, Love,” the film will be released in August.
You write in the book that you are part of something called “The Auntie Brigade,” and that you are an aunt “in quite a marvelous fashion.” Tell us about that.
Well, my niece is eleven, and when she was eight years old she said, “I think you were born to be an aunt.” And I said, “Cool! I agree!” I think there are people who were born to be mothers, people who were born to be aunties, and people who should not be nearchildren at all. I count myself in the middle category.
But what makes someone an aunt in a “marvelous fashion”?
Aunts are not obliged by the set of responsibilities necessary for mothers and children. I love the line in Peter Pan where the author, J.M. Barrie, says you can see glimpses of Peter Pan in the faces of women who don’t have children. Because there’s something that never had to become ferociously real in those women, you know? As every mother knows – and I’ve heard people say it a million times – when you’re pregnant you have two hearts inside you. It’s this strange moment in time when you’re carrying two human hearts, and then one of them leaves and you spend the rest of your life having to worry about it. That other human heart that was once part of you is now out in the world. There’s a sobriety to that that I think those of us who don’t have children never experience, and I think kids sense it in childless women. There’s an abandon that they feel when they’re with someone who’s, frankly, just not as responsible. It’s just ‘Wheee! Wow! What are we gonna do? Anything you want!’ You know? Every child needs somebody like that in their life, and I think every mother needs somebody like that in her life, to shunt the kids off to and let them experiment with things that they can’t do at home.
Like staying up until one in the morning watching “Futurama” or whatever I let them do that they would not be allowed to do at home. I always tell Mimi, “Don’t get me wrong - you must understand this. If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t let you do any of this stuff. And your mom is a good mom because she doesn’t let you do any of this stuff. But because I’m your aunt and I only see you a couple of times a month, we can do this. This is a special thing that only aunts and nieces can do.”
You did a lot of research on auntie-hood for this book - we learn, for example, that Leo Tolstoy and Truman Capote and all the Brontë sisters were raised by their childless aunts after their real mothers died or abandoned them. Where’d you go for your research?
I found it in a really great book called The Complete Book of Aunts, a wonderful little book that’s all anecdotes about aunties written by an auntie. It’s very sweet.
We also learn that John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi took him in when his mother ran off. And that Frank Lloyd Wright’s first building was commissioned by his aunts. Had you suspected that aunts were so prominent in the lives of great writers and artists?
No- I didn’t know it, I didn’t suspect it, but it’s one of those things that when it’s revealed to you, you respond to it with a big, “Of course!” Of course that makes total sense. And of course you see it in your own family history, that there are these really loving responsible childless women who step in and just take over what needs to be solved. And that’s why I really bristle at this accusation that women who don’t have children are selfish. Because it just doesn’t ring true to all the childless women I know, who tend to spend a lot of time taking care of people who are related to them, just sort of stepping in and care-giving across the board.
You know how every family has a crazy uncle? Does every family have a crazy aunt, too?
Don’t you have one?
Well, I’m wearing purple pants – I already have the uniform. I’m also wearing big baubly jewelry. That’s crazy aunt 101 wardrobe.
Do you, as a crazy-marvelous aunt, discipline your niece?
Yes. She said to me once, “You’re always so happy that it’s really scary.” She was talking about this the other day, actually. She said, “The couple of times that you’ve done it, it’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.” It’s like, “What? There’s actually a limit?”
What have you disciplined her for?
We have a very simple rule in our house that you can do anything, but you can’t be rude. So anything that I sense is a glimpse of rudeness, I come down on it with both feet, very hard. You know, I just think it’s important for people to learn from every possible corner that they have to be polite.
What do you do with your niece for fun?
We actually went to Australia with her recently.
What was that like?
I have to say it was fantastic. The day before we left I had a big crisis of doubt: What am I doing dragging a 10-year-old to Australia?
How did she do?
She loved it. Not only did she love it, she was great company. Jose’s son was getting married, and she loves her step-brother - I guess he’s her step-brother - so she came and she was just a ball. When we landed in Sydney I turned to her and said, “Mimi? Guess what? You just took the longest plane ride a human being can take on this planet. And you know what that means? You can now go anywhere in the world for the rest of your life. You can go anywhere and it’s never going to be too far away.”
What a great way of putting it.
Now that some time has passed since you handed Committed in to your publisher, do you still feel the same way about marriage?
Yeah. I don’t feel the same way I did three years ago when I started writing this book. But I feel the same about the conclusions. Marriages are evolving things, and the institution is evolving. I think that’s where people who want to box it so tightly into some ideal of an immutable institution go wrong. First of all, they don’t know the history. Because all marriage does is adjust. With every new generation and culture, we shape it. And that realization made me more comfortable with marriage, and it also made me come away with this regard for the institution - this is a life force that will take any shape in order to endure. People insist on intimacy, and you can’t have intimacy without privacy, and you can’t have privacy without drawing circles around yourselves that everyone has to respect. That’s what marriage is. People will continue to reshape that circle however they have to to keep their intimacy. I thought that was very good to know.
That is definitely useful to know. It’s probably less useful to know what it’s like to be played by Julia Roberts in a feature film. Still, I have to ask. How do you feel about all that? What is she like?
Julia Roberts is the most beautiful object I have ever seen in my entire life. I mean, it’s like we all think we know her because we’re so accustomed to her face. But she is startlingly beautiful. I’ve never seen fearful beauty - she is frighteningly beautiful. And radiant, and luminous. I said to her, “The only other job you could ever have besides movie star is fairy. You know - something that isn’t quite human.”
Did she laugh?
She did laugh. She’s sweet. Everyone involved in the project is very sane, very wonderful.
So you feel good about being the subject of a big-budget, megawatt movie?
I can’t even really approach it, actually. I haven’t bothered to sort out my feelings about it because it’s too big. So I just watch it go by like a parade.