Monday, April 6, 2015

The Power of Words


"Words have no arrows or swords, yet they tear men's minds to pieces." Tibetan Buddhist proverb

Words. How many of us can look back upon our lives without remembering times when a few uttered words had an impact on us in some way? And it would also be fair to say that more often than not we recall words that were critical or negative or hurtful versus the positive or loving or encouraging ones directed at us. 

From an early age we start to bank them. We store them in our brains and allow them to collect interest. I have a passbook full of them. "You have heavy calves. You have a crooked tooth. Your folks are pretty blue collar. Maybe he cheated on you because you're too independent. (still not sure if that was a criticism or a compliment) Your weight is up again. Don't you regret having only one child? I don't love you anymore. I love you...I am just not "in love" with you. I bet if  we break up, you will get fat. "

Suffice to say, I can still dredge up the hurt caused by these comments. Comments that were uttered by friends or loved ones. The good news is I did not really dwell on them, but clearly, I never forgot them. My self-esteem, although tested over my lifetime has generally allowed me to let these words roll off my back. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my memory of positive, loving and encouraging words have had a much greater impact on my life so far. 

These too appear in my passbook. "You're so creative. You're very talented. You have such an eye for design. Your daughter is lovely. You're doing an amazing job. You look great. Your words have inspired me. I love you. I love you very much."

As much as the negative words hover in the debit column of the passbook of my life, the positive statements far outweigh them and feed me and spur me on. It makes sense to me that they would. Having said all this, sadly, it is not true for everyone. Not everyone is able to set aside the barbs and slurs. This is particularly true in the case of a woman I met yesterday. 

A woman who became obsessed with a few negative words. A woman who allowed a few  negative words to consume her life for several years. A woman who felt compelled to write a memoir to make sure her side of the story was made public. A woman who in my mind wasted several of the best years of her life in mental turmoil over a few words. A woman who could not see she was making a mountain out of a molehill. 

I attended the launch of Committed Undone, by Elizabeth Lowrie at Gataker's Artspace here in Maryborough, Queensland yesterday morning. It was Easter Monday, a holiday here in Australia and a seemingly odd day to hold a book launch, but according to Lowrie, it was the day her swami had advised. Clearly swamis don't give a fuck about holidays.

For those of you who do not know who this woman is (you are not expected to know), she is the ex-wife of Jose Nunes, the man currently married to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love. In that book, he is known as "Felipe", the man she meets in Bali and falls in love with and eventually marries a short time after the book is published. 

Lowrie and Nunes divorced in 2001, years before he met Gilbert. Lowrie is the mother of his two children, so despite their parting, he continues on as part of her life via their children, as most divorced parents do. After reading Eat Pray Love and Gilbert's follow-up book Committed, I came away with the impression that Lowrie and Nunes had a civil and agreeable post-divorce arrangement for the sake of their children. I did not for a moment think that their divorce had been particularly difficult in the way some divorces can play out. I did not think that Lowrie had been painted in a negative light at all. In fact, her role seemed entirely minimal in either of the two books. She was a good mother, a cooperative ex-spouse, and an Australian woman. Case closed. She was in no way central or important to either book in my mind and I doubt that the millions of readers of these books saw her much differently. 

However, after reading her self-published memoir, it is evident that she thinks she was portrayed as a "bitch", a difficult ex-wife. She claims that the words used in the promotional materials for Committed defamed her character. The publishers of Committed used a quote from the book that read (in reference to Gilbert and Nunes) "they were survivors of previous bad divorces". In earlier promotional materials, the adjectives were a bit harsher. In one case the word "horrific" was used. In another, "catastrophic" and in yet another..."very, very, bad". Lowrie objected strongly to these adjectives as she had always thought she had what she refers to as a "gracious divorce".  She hired a lawyer and insisted the offensive words be removed from the ads. 

Now, you would think that this would have been enough to placate her, as the harsher words were consequently removed from the promo materials. As a self-proclaimed "practicing buddhist", she might have been able to "let it go". Sadly for her, that was not the case. She became obsessed with following the internet "hits" and how many people were seeing the words that she felt were defamatory. Each "hit" is taken personally as though the unsavoury adjectives were being absorbed by the public to such an extent that all the readers of these words were interpreting them as direct arrows targeting her character. Really? Throughout her memoir, she updates us on the numbers. With each large increase, her anxiety level seems to escalate. It is not long before she finds it difficult to focus at work. She plans a long holiday, not unlike the journey taken by Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, but at the same time, nothing like it either. 

She heads to the USA to do a week-long river rafting adventure on the Colorado River, spends some time in LA and Las Vegas before flying to Sao Paulo in Brazil for a 6 week meditation retreat at a Buddhist temple. From there, she heads to NYC where she departs by train for Canada and a rail trip from Toronto to Jasper, followed by a car trip from there to Vancouver Island. This part of the memoir reads like a journal and any attempts to make it more readable with forced injections of humourous moments (like she forgot this was a book and was trying to get people to read it) fall flat. What the book is full of are catty passive aggressive attacks on Gilbert and Nunes like this  belittling remark about Eat Pray Love ("Everyone did it in the 60's and 70's, meditating in monasteries is not something new! My friends and I have been doing retreats for years."), to name but one. And pretentious, pompous statements such as her description of her yearly gal pal get togethers where they only drink "quality wines". Or her mocking politically incorrect imitation of a Chinese waiter..."Chineeese boocccali?" 

Change seems to terrorize her as the secondary obsession throughout the book is her fear of retirement. She thinks about it constantly. She observes older people as though they are some sort of strange science experiment she does not understand. She asks them how they are surviving their decisions to retire as though it were not inevitable. She refers to her children leaving the nest as though they were the first ones in the world to leave home. She is clearly uncomfortable with change and the journey through life that all of us take. This is not a woman who rolls with the punches.

The memoir is full of contradictions as well. Her constant references to being a 'practicing buddhist" fly in the face of her often mean and catty barbs. She delights in any criticisms toward Gilbert's writing and is equally deflated when she hears praise. Lowrie says her mother taught her not to air dirty linen in reference to Gilbert's statements...yet her entire memoir is exactly that. Throughout the book she inserts famous (and not so famous) quotes that seem like great advice that she never took. ("Learn to let go. This is the key to happiness."- Buddha) If anything, she gripped even tighter.  She claims she was compelled to write her 'truth' as the only way to "heal" from her trauma. She claims her once 'perfect" life was shattered by these few words. Surely if one's life is so perfect, would you not work to preserve such perfection? Better still. how about realizing that there is no such thing as perfection, aka, "being human 101".

Lowrie's memoir does not read like an inspirational journey. Unlike Eat Pray Love that inspired thousands and thousands of women all over the world to be courageous and brave, Committed Undone is merely a portrayal of how not to cope with adversity. It is an example of how allowing anger and bitterness to consume  you can steal years from you. It does not provide divorced women with hope or consolation as she suggests. On the contrary. After reading this self-aggrandizing, 'woe is me" tale, it only serves to encourage divorced women to bloody get on with their lives and get out of their own way.  

I bought a copy of her book at the launch, but before I did, I approached her with a few questions. I asked her how she ended up in Maryborough and if she enjoyed her tour of Canada, to which she replied..."it's all in the book." Fair enough. I assured her I was planning to buy a copy, since that seemed like the only way I would get my answers.  I asked her if Gilbert was aware of her memoir and she said she "imagined she did". I asked her how her children (whom she claims to be fiercely protective of) felt about her book, and she curtly told me she did not talk about her children (another contradiction). I then told her 'for what it is worth, I never felt she was painted in a negative light, having read both Eat Pray Love and Committed, if that made her feel any better". She said she did not feel bad at all as she was now "healed". 

There was one other question I asked her that may have been most telling of all. I asked her if her book was self-published. Her eyes lit up and a smile crossed her face instantly. For a brief moment, it was as though she thought I might have an interest in publishing her book. She had no idea who I was other than I did not have an Australian accent. I told her I was not a publisher and her momentarily lit up face was extinguished as quickly as it had lit up. I sensed a defensive tension about her. I cannot say for sure what her motivation has been to publish this book, but I am not convinced it is only about telling her "truth". 

I want to believe it is, but she got my $29.99, didn't she?

The "truth" is, despite her best intentions, her self-published memoir may do more harm to her reputation and character than her silence, illustrating once again the power of words. Talk about turning the sword in on yourself. 

Ouch.




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