It was not unusual for my group of moms to sit on the wooden curb that ran along the parameter of the playground at our children’s elementary school on warm spring afternoons. It was on such a day that my friend Wendy, with whom I shared an affection for books, arrived and said, “Nerida, I just finished reading a book that you would love and you have to read!” A little about me… I’m a bit stubborn, and don’t like it when people presume to know what I’ll love, and I’m equally stubborn when someone tells me I ‘have’ to do anything. When she told me the title of the book, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert my eyes rolled so far back in my head that they risked getting permanently stuck. I imagined a book in the style of the then popular, Nicolas Spark genre of fiction that I found trite, emotionally manipulative, and nauseatingly unsatisfying. Needless to say, I didn’t rush out to buy Eat Pray Love, but about a year later I read it, and like many readers (it was a New York Times bestseller for 187 weeks), I found it curiously satisfying, and joyously fun. Three years later, Gilbert’s book was turned into a movie staring Julia Roberts, and an additional three years after that, I went through my own divorce.
In the spirit of vulnerability, I will share a secret with you. During some of the darkest moments of my divorce, I would find peace and comfort watching the movie (not the “coolest” of things for a PhD student to admit.) The words in the movie felt like an old friend— always there at 2am when sleep would not come, and tears would not stop. My favorite words from the movie are from a scene where “Liz” visits the Augusteum, the mausoleum built by Ocatavian Augustus, which fell to ruins in the Dark Ages. The narration goes as follows,
“It is one of the quietest and loneliest places in Rome. The city has grown up around it over centuries. It feels like a precious wound— like a heartbreak you won’t let go of because it hurts too good. We all want things to stay the same. Settle for living in misery because we are afraid of change— of things crumbling to ruins. Then I looked around this place, at the chaos it has endured— the ways its been adapted, burned, pillaged then found a way to build itself back up again, and I was reassured. Maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic, it’s just the world that is, and the only real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is a road to transformation. Even in this eternal city, the Augusteum showed me that we must always be prepared for endless waves of transformation.”
Surrendering to the waves of transformation resonated with me—to acknowledge that I had willingly, and without regret, set fire to my marriage to foster a change that I knew no other way of inducing. I was knee-deep in the pain of witnessing my carefully constructed life burn to the ground and watching this scene reassured my raw spirit that the searing destruction I was enveloped in would inevitably transform into a period of rebuilding. I need only get through one day at a time.
As I embarked upon my critical theories of marriage readings, Elizabeth Gilbert has been on my mind of late. In July 2016 Gilbert announced via Facebook her separation from husband, Jose Nunes, whom audiences know as “Filipe” from Eat Pray Love. Two months later, she announced, once again through Facebook, that she was “in love” with her long-time best friend Rayaa Elias, who had been diagnosed in the Spring of 2016 with pancreatic cancer. As Gilbert stated, “Rayya and I are together. I love her, and she loves me. I’m walking through this cancer journey with her, not only as her friend, but as her partner. I am exactly where I need to be — the only place I can be.”  She also admitted that “this situation” is why she had separated from her husband earlier that year. The waves of transformation continued in Gilbert’s life, and in June 2017 she posted wedding-like pictures of Rayaa and herself intimately smiling at each other, describing their spontaneous and simple celebration of love. She stated that their ceremony was not legally binding, but was rather, a private celebration of their belonging to each other.
On January 4, 2018, Gilbert announced the passing of Rayaa, “She was my love, my heart, my best friend, my teacher, my rebel, my angel, my protector, my challenger, my partner, my muse, my wizard, my surprise, my gift, my comet, my liberator, my rock star, my completely impossible non-cooperator, my otherworldly visitor, my spiritual portal, and my baby.” The waves of transformation have most assuredly been pounding the shores of Gilbert’s life.
But here is where I get curious… in an interview published on November 28, 2017 (5 months after Gilbert’s commitment ceremony with Rayaa) between Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert for Oprah’s Super Soul Podcast, Gilbert talks about her husband, Jose Nunes, stating, “my husband is my best friend […] it is simple showing up with each other.” The recording date of the interview is unclear, and I am intrigued that it “appears” as though Gilbert holds emotional space for both Jose, whom she continues to refer to as her husband, and Rayaa concurrently. Although Gilbert is a public figure who penned two books about her relationship with Jose (her 2010 follow-up to Eat Pray Love, entitled Committed explored her ambivalence towards marriage), there is surprisingly little information available regarding her separation from Jose. To be frank, the public isn’t entitled to any information – it’s Gilbert’s life, and she can live it as she damn well pleases without apology or explanation. Yet due to the success of Eat Pray Love, the public (myself included) may be inclined to entertain a curiosity about the direction of Gilbert’s life.
I would like to take the liberty of considering Gilbert’s life from a queer theoretical perspective, particularly related to both compulsory heterosexuality and monogamy. Although I have no idea whether Gilbert self-identifies as queer, utilizing the work of queer theorists provides a useful framework for considering the norm- defying choices of Gilbert. I am intrigued by the tension that exists between the heteronormative legacy of Eat Pray Love, and Gilbert’s ensuing life trajectory that complicates naturalized expectations of marriage, commitment, friendship, and erotic desire. Keeping in mind that “those who lack ‘rightness’ help define what is ‘right,’” it is precisely through this tension that the compulsory nature of monogamy is most clearly articulated, as it demonstrates a resistance to/and inability to imagine alternatives to monogamy.
Gilbert’s life choices of late defy the particular moral ethic and prescriptive behavioral expectations of compulsory heterosexuality. She has very publically and purposefully re-directed her love, energy and resources toward Rayaa, behavior that she felt inclined to explain in her Facebook posts. Likewise, she appears to be challenging normative assumptions of monogamy as she continues to refer to Jose as her husband while publically committing to Rayaa as well. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of details are missing, but what is apparent, is that Gilbert is disrupting the scripts of both compulsory heterosexuality and monogamy.
I take no exception to Gilbert’s normative defying behavior, and in fact, I celebrate it and cheer her on. I also marvel at her defiant choices circumstantially rooted in the inevitable loss of her friend, and love, Rayaa. However, I am highly aware that my position of acceptance and celebration (grounded in a queer ethic) departs from the norm. It would be safe to assume that other reactions may range from bafflement to downright hostility. Marriage and erotic love are highly prescriptive in western culture, and it is through the violation of norms (and the personal and public discomfort that ensues) that we are able to disentangle the taken for granted assumptions of marriage and monogamy.
In 2009, when the debate on same-sex marriage in the United States was playing out through ballot initiatives, court rulings, and legislative changes, Elizabeth Emens wrote an essay calling for a critical rethinking of monogamy and its alternatives. Although the public debate surrounding same-sex marriage largely focused on whether or not the state should extend the privileges and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, gay liberationists, lesbian feminists and queer critics felt the move toward marriage equality was misguided and potentially signaled the “death of what makes queer people unique.” They argued that energy spent in the marriage equality movement would be better spent pursuing the legal recognition of a variety of family forms, including unmarried partners (whether or not they were romantically or sexually attached), and polyamorous unions. Where conservative opponents of marriage equality argued that that same-sex marriage was a “slippery slope” that would destabilized the institution of marriage by weakening the boundaries of inclusion/exclusion, gay liberationists and lesbian feminist were calling for exactly that – the elimination of rights and privileges premised on marriage. “Mainstream” LGBTQ advocates of marriage equity rights did not challenge the slippery slope argument by asking “who cares” or “so what” if marriage destabilizes and alternative configurations of family occur (including multiparty marriage.) Rather, marriage equality advocates double down on the ‘normalizing’ efforts, arguing that same-sex couples were just like heterosexual couples, thus reaffirming the ideals of neo-liberal governance through the institution of marriage (more on this next week), and re-inscribing monogamy as naturally superior.
Elizabeth Emens takes on the challenge of considering opposition to polyamory by seriously reflecting on why non-monogamy, or relationship configurations that challenge numeric configurations beyond the dyad are at the receiving end of extreme social hostility sustained through legal burdens such as marriage and partnership laws, adultery and bigamy laws, residential zoning laws, and custody consequences.
Emens engages with five possible reasons for the negative responses to the practice of polygamy, but argues that these reasons cannot fully explain the negative response to polyamory. The first reason is the assumption that monogamous couples are the most efficient unit for family formation. Second, multi-party relationships evoke the image of the patriarchal practice of polygamy (i.e. Fundamentalist Mormon practice of plural-wives) wherein multiple wives are a symbol of power and status, and are subservient to male authority. Closely related, is a third concern about the negative psychological effects on participants of polyamory especially on women and children regarding issues of coercion and oppression. This concern ties into a larger set of beliefs that polyamorous relationships are unhealthy not only psychologically, but in terms of physical health as well, particularly concerning STD’s. Fourth is the concern that polyamory is incompatible with love. And finally, that polyamory taps into social taboos such as bisexuality.
Each of these objections can logically be challenged and refuted, yet the resistance to polyamory remains strong. Subsequently, Emens argues that something else is going on, and that “a key reason for the opposition to polyamory is, somewhat paradoxically, the pervasive or potential failure of monogamy.”
The paradox of prevalence argues that the resistance to polyamory is rooted in monogamy’s failure insomuch as people fear not only their own non-monogamous impulses, but their partners as well. Monogamy is extraordinarily difficult to maintain, and failure, as measured by infidelity is so common place that there is scarcely a life that hasn’t been touched by it. The paradox of prevalence is rooted in a universalizing principle wherein the desire to be involved with more than one person is not considered unique. In other words, “most people want to sleep with others; they just resist that impulse.” The universal experience of desire would seem to create many potential allies for polyamory as “many people may not actually want multiple sexual partners in love, [but] most can presumably empathize with the aspect of poly desire that means more than one sexual partner.”
Yet Emens argues that paradoxically, when traits are stigmatized, such as is the case for polyamory, rather than empathizing with others who share those traits (the desire for others), people will shun the people they fear they, themselves might become. Furthermore, “many people may fear not only a non-monogamous impulse in themselves, but also, or perhaps more so, in their partners. The mere possibility of her partner’s interest in polyamory could cause someone to treat the idea of polyamory as absurd and avoid discussion that might increase its legitimacy.”
In this light, Emens invites “monogamous identified individuals to examine monogamy as a choice for themselves and others” and in reference to Rich (Read: What is it about marriage?) “to do the intellectual and emotional work that follows.” Rather than dismissing alternatives to monogamy, or being worried about the “slippery slope,” of destabilizing marriage, perhaps it is time to consider the potential and viability of alternatives to monogamy. To do so requires us to critically considered the function of marriage (beyond love and companionship) in neo-liberal states such as Canada and the United States. More on this next week…
Let’s return to Elizabeth Gilbert for a moment. I cannot presume to know the intimate details of her relationship with husband, Jose, and love Rayaa. However, what I do know is that western societies have no “terms” related to partnerships that extend beyond the dyadic couple. We simply have no language to describe variances of love and commitment. “What if” Elizabeth Gilbert concurrently held her love and affection for both her husband, Jose, and Rayaa? “What if” she could publically refer to both, in a naturalized way, using shorthand terms that communicate an assumption of legitimized connection? Husband is a term that we understand, but the language available to describe Gilbert’s spiritual, romantic and physical commitment to Rayaa under these extraordinary circumstances simply does not exist. Did Gilbert announce her “separation” from Jose to help people understand her connection to Rayaa? Once again, I do not know, and it is none of my business. However, I do know that there is an extraordinary lack of imagination (and language) when considering the complexities of love and commitment in multiparty arrangements. Which brings us full circle— our obligation to monogamy, aka “compulsory monogamy” is demonstrated by a lack of alternatives in both imagination and language. Efforts to imagine alternatives (let alone embody alternatives) are stymied by both the paradox of prevalence and a lack of shared experience.
There is a video on YouTube that demonstrates “selective attention” or “inattentional blindness.” Viewers of this video are asked to count the number of basketball passes between players wearing white t-shirts. While focusing on counting, most viewers are entirely unaware of a gorilla that walks to the center of the scene, looks directly into the camera and thumps it’s chest. Viewers are so focused on the basketball players, that they literally cannot see, let alone process, what is actually happening in the scene. Perhaps the western focus on monogamous marriage is another example of inattentional blindness. Maybe our focus on marriage has blinded us to the possibilities and realities of other forms of commitment and love. Examples of arrangements of nonconformity right before our eyes, may not be seen, let alone processed.
Elizabeth Gilbert has certainly been at the mercy of waves of transformation, and like the Augusteum, ruins will certainly give way to new growth. When the dust settles, the grief subsides, and she is able to take stock, I sincerely hope she will write another memoir about this chapter in her life—there is much to be shared, and a receptive audience awaits.
- Eat Pray Love. 2010. Directed by Ryan Murphy. Columbia Pictures. ↑
- Gilbert, Elizabeth. July 1, 2016. Facebook post available at: https://www.facebook.com/GilbertLiz/posts/1054602967955151:0 ↑
- Gilbert, Elizabeth. September 7, 2016. Facebook post available at: https://www.facebook.com/GilbertLiz/posts/1107564732658974:0 ↑
- Gilbert, Elizabeth. June 6, 2017. Facebook post available at: https://www.facebook.com/GilbertLiz/photos/a.356148997800555.79726.227291194019670/1434690803279697/?type=3&theater ↑
- Gilbert, Elizabeth. January 4, 2018. Facebook post available at: https://www.facebook.com/GilbertLiz/photos/a.556279917787461.1073741861.227291194019670/1666540500094725/?type=3&theater ↑
- Oprah Winfrey, Super Soul Conversations Podcast. “Elizabeth Gilbert, Part 2: What is a Soul Mate?” Interview by Oprah Winfrey of Elizabeth Gilbert. Published November 28, 2017. Available for download: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/oprahs-supersoul-conversations/id1264843400?mt=2&i=1000395400595 ↑
- Gilbert, Elizabeth. 2010. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Piece with Marriage. New York: Viking. The title of the book was changed for the paperback edition to: Committed: A Love Story. 2011. Penguin Publishing Group. ↑
- Reynolds, Jill and Margaret Wetherell. 2003. “The Discursive Climate of Singleness: The Consequences for Women’s Negotiation of a Single Identity. Feminism & Psychology 13, 4: 489-510 at 490. ↑
- The mainstream media has been curiously silent regarding Gilbert’s relationships. I would suspect that the privileges of being white and financially liberated has curtailed what could have been a media-horror show had a famous author of color made similar choices. ↑
- Emens, Elizabeth F. 2009. “Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence.” In Martha Albertson Fineman, Jack E. Jackson, and Adam P. Romero (eds.) Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversations. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing. 259-285. ↑
- Bernstein, Mary and Verta Taylor (eds.). 2013. The Marrying Kind? Debating same sex marriage within the lesbian and gay movement. University of Minnesota Press at 17. ↑
- Ibid at 25. ↑
- Emens supra note 10 at 259. ↑
- Ibid at 260. ↑
- Ibid at 277. ↑
- Ibid at 277. ↑
- Ibid at 277-278. ↑
- Ibid at 270. ↑
- Ibid at 279. ↑
- Ibid at 260. ↑
- Ibid at 281. ↑
- Ibid at 282. ↑
- Ibid at 282. ↑
- Ibid at 283. ↑
- Ibid at 285. ↑
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo ↑