Memoirs are probably the most difficult genre to critique. And the lately emerged subgenre of identity crisis memoir has become even more exempt from negative reviews. So most likely, my reflections on two of the best-selling examples, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love might seem redundant when compared to those pages of enthusiastic blurbs inside dust-jackets, available wherever books are sold. But what can I say? I love a good identity crisis- I’ve had at least three in the past few years alone! I like to think it keeps me sharp (and might grant me immunity from the mid-life species). We’ve all been confounded by some cataclysmic someone or event which has pulled the essential thread that binds the course of our lives to who we are. More simply put, we all fail and flail. When other, more articulate souls find the courage to expose a version of their intimate struggles with the rest of the world, it’s impossible to offer judgment on their experiences. The best I can do is throw around some weighty words like “identity” and “spiritual skepticism,” all the while mumbling a small prayer of thanks that I’m not alone in both my beliefs and my doubts.
Through my combined reading of these self-help memoirs and from my own deviations from the familiar and narrow comes the comforting realization that although history repeats itself, there is no single correct method of redemption. While Strayed finds solace in the enforced absence of thought, the revival of instinct, and the sheer, indomitable activity of her mission, Gilbert gravitates towards a deliberate introspection and the art of doing nothing in her parallel excavation of clarity and self.
Strayed’s tale of endurance, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, begins long before she sets foot on the desert trail, tracing the outline of an abusive father, a stepfather who abandoned her and her scattered siblings after her mother’s untimely cancer-induced death. Rather than diminishing or dispelling her demons along her journey, she shatters them with honesty, self-awareness, and sheer bad-ass determination, constructing a new and whole identity from the shards. Many recognize her captivating archetypal phrase, “The woman with a hole in her heart,” but few attempt to suture the jagged, unraveled edges of the acknowledged emptiness. However, Strayed faces the transformation of her identity with humor, humility, humanity, and the almighty wisdom of impulse. Rather than weakening her extraordinary endurance in the eyes of the reader, her frequent assertions of idiocy, doubt, repressed fear, physical anguish, and many thoughts of surrender only serve to magnify the strength of character which compelled her to continue regardless.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love begins with equal desperation and all measures of outward success in lieu of dramatic tragedy. Gilbert claims that her entertaining and acclaimed journey began with a plea to the divine, and her wit, narrative, and light-footed philosophizing proved to be no less than an answered prayer to those looking to reconcile the contradictory reaches of their lives. She seems to possess the rare talent of effortlessly, humorlessly, and colloquially conversing with her audience, whether appealing to their spiritual skepticism or their inner foodie. Dividing her search for balance neatly in three, Gilbert devotes equal attention to Italian pleasures (and pastas), devotion, self-control, and yoga in India (complete with some snappy and self-effacing effusions of tree-hugging), and deft balance between the two worlds in Bali, Indonesia. She also raises an interesting complexity to the art of self-reliance by suggesting that love is not always the problem, any more than it is always the solution when any unresolved existential crises come knocking. This flexibility of resolution, this signature revaluation of self and intention set Gilbert’s memoirs in a category of their own. Not only do they seem artless in their self-portrayal, they acknowledge the continuous flux and possibility of constructing identity. She withholds the right to revise even the most complete manuscripts of self-concoction, and in endless editing, she retains the magic of the elusive happy ending.