All things considered Elizabeth Gilbert is an exceptionally fine writer. She is one of the best. It’s not just about the mega-quantities of books she has sold—in particular, her Eat Pray Love—but about the quality of her prose. For example, check out her book: The Last American Man.
Agree or disagree with her point of view, accept or not accept her tendency to overshare, she is always worth reading.
Now, she has just written an article for the Times about her history of seducing men. At a time when we are obliged to live in a fictional world where women are victims of predatory males Gilbert draws back the curtain on the mind and the activities of a woman who perfected the art of seducing men. It's a mix of femininity, empowerment and abuse.
It is not a pretty picture, but it is well worth showing.
When she was younger, Gilbert was addicted to seducing men. It did not always end in a party, but it was always filled with drama. After all, when you live your life as a fictional character you will surely attract more than your share of drama.
It started with a boy I met at summer camp and ended with the man for whom I left my first husband. In between, I careened from one intimate entanglement to the next — dozens of them — without so much as a day off between romances. You might have called me a serial monogamist, except that I was never exactly monogamous. Relationships overlapped, and those overlaps were always marked by exhausting theatricality: sobbing arguments, shaming confrontations, broken hearts. Still, I kept doing it. I couldn’t not do it.
What was she looking for? It is not altogether clear:
I can’t say that I was always looking for a better man. I often traded good men for bad ones; character didn’t much matter to me. I wasn’t exactly seeking love, either, regardless of what I might have claimed. I can’t even say it was the sex. Sex was just the gateway drug for me, a portal to the much higher high I was really after, which was seduction.
Was she seeking power and control? Many of today’s therapists would say that she was. But she was also competing against other women, competing for conquests. But, she was not acting as a huntress but as a woman who was gathering up men as she went. Clearly, she was trying to prove something, to assert something about herself… and she did not care who got hurt in the process.
Gilbert concludes correctly that seduction, as she practiced it, was thievery and coercion, taking something on false premises, conning a man by convincing him that she really wanted him, and using him for her own psychological purposes:
Seduction is the art of coercing somebody to desire you, of orchestrating somebody else’s longings to suit your own hungry agenda. Seduction was never a casual sport for me; it was more like a heist, adrenalizing and urgent. 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.
One is surprised to see this much raw honesty. In our liberated time, we imagine that women are perfect and that men are fatally flawed. The notion that a woman might use men without any regard for their feelings, strikes a truthful, but discordant note.
Gilbert did not care about whether the man she set her sights on had a girlfriend or was otherwise attached. She had no moral scruples about hurting other women.
How did she do it? She explains that her secret was, being different:
If the man was already involved in a committed relationship, I knew that I didn’t need to be prettier or better than his existing girlfriend; I just needed to be different. (The novel doesn’t always win out over the familiar, mind you, but it often does.) The trick was to study the other woman and to become her opposite, thereby positioning myself to this man as a sparkling alternative to his regular life.
She was looking to invade their minds, to watch them obsess about her, to see them throw everything to the winds for her:
That’s what I was after: the telekinesis-like sensation of steadily dragging somebody’s fullest attention toward me and only me. My guilt about the other woman was no match for the intoxicating knowledge that — somewhere on the other side of town — somebody couldn’t sleep that night because he was thinking about me. If he needed to sneak out of his house after midnight in order to call, better still. That was power, but it was also affirmation. I was someone’s irresistible treasure. I loved that sensation, and I needed it, not sometimes, not even often, but always.
Unfortunately for Gilbert, the love she elicited and even stole did not last very long. Besides, being a woman she was not looking for extra notches on her bedpost. She was looking for true love, no matter the cost. She did not seem to realize that her style of seduction would preclude anything resembling a durable relationship:
But over time (and it wouldn’t take long), his unquenchable infatuation for me would fade, as his attention returned to everyday matters. This always left me feeling abandoned and invisible; love that could be quenched was not nearly enough love for me. As soon as I could, then, I would start seducing somebody else, by turning myself into an entirely different woman, in order to attract an entirely different man. These episodes of shape-shifting cost me dearly. I would lose weight, sleep, dignity, clarity. As anyone who has ever watched a werewolf movie knows, transmutation is excruciating and terrifying, but once that process has been set into motion — once you have glimpsed that full moon — it cannot be reversed. I could endure these painful episodes only by assuring myself: ‘‘This is the last time. This guy is the one.’’
For Gilbert, marriage was not a cure. Her first marriage did not cause her to change her ways:
In my mid-20s, I married, but not even matrimony slowed me down. Predictably, I grew restless and lonely. Soon enough I seduced someone new; the marriage collapsed. But it was worse than just that. Before my divorce agreement was even signed, I was already breaking up with the guy I had broken up my marriage for. You know you’ve got intimacy issues when, in the space of a few short months, you find yourself visiting two completely different couples’ counselors, with two completely different men on your arm, in order to talk about two completely different emotional firestorms. Trying to keep all my various story lines straight (Whom am I angry at, again? Who is angry at me now? Whose office is this?) made my hands shake and my mind splinter.
At times Gilbert thought that she was a hopeless romantic. At other times she saw herself as a feminist heroine. Eventually she began to feel ashamed:
Tinkering with other people’s most vulnerable emotions didn’t make me a romantic; it just made me a swindler. Lying and cheating didn’t make me brazen; it just made me a needy coward. Stealing other women’s boyfriends didn’t make me a revolutionary feminist; it just made me a menace. I hated that it took me almost 20 years to realize this. There are 16-year-old kids who know better than to behave this way. It felt shameful. But once I got it, I really got it: There is no way to stop a destructive behavior, except to stop.
How did she break the spell? She credits a good therapist with helping her to get her bearings. And, six months of abstinence helped out. But the decisive change occurred when, one day, she met a new man, was thrilled to be invited back to his apartment, and demurred:
Then one afternoon I ran into a guy I liked. We went for a long walk in the park. Flirted. Laughed. It was sweet. Eventually he said, ‘‘Would you like to come back to my apartment with me?’’
Yes! My God, how I wanted to unwrap this man like a Christmas present!
But I also didn’t want to: I was only beginning to pull myself together, and I feared unraveling.
Uncertain, I tried something radically new. I said, ‘‘Do you mind if I take a moment to think about this?’’
After some reflection, Gilbert told the man that she was not ready to go any further.
What worked for her? Two things stand out: first, the shame she felt when she took a step back and looked at herself… judgmentally. That shame gave her a choice… to accept or not to accept the erotic interest that she had cultivated. Second, she made a real world decision that ran counter to her habit and she acted on it. Thus, she took a step toward breaking the habit and overcoming her desires.