Elizabeth Gilbert on finding the light in times of darkness

Why I left my husband for my best friend: Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert reveals how the tortured affair with a very damaged lover nearly destroyed her

When Elizabeth Gilbert met the woman who was to become the love of her life, she instantly thought her ‘the coolest chick in the world’. Gilbert may have written the best-selling memoir Eat Pray Love, but next to the colourful history of her lover, Rayya Elias, even she paled. Elias, a Syrian-born writer-musician, had at various times experienced homelessness, time in jail and drug addiction. ‘I thought, wow, it would have been so interesting to have known her back then,’ says Gilbert. ‘Then during the last months of her life I did get to see those sides to her. And she was a monster!’

Gilbert’s 2006 memoir had become the bible for disaffected women the world over, describing her escape from an unhappy marriage and the undertaking of an epic road trip, where she ate in Italy, prayed in India and eventually found love in Indonesia with businessman José Nunes. The book sold 13 million copies and her subsequent marriage to Nunes provided Gilbert with the perfect Hollywood ending (complete with a bona fide Hollywood star, Julia Roberts, playing her in the 2010 screen adaptation).

Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love became the bible for disaffected women the world over, describing her escape from an unhappy marriage and the undertaking of an epic road trip, where she ate in Italy, prayed in India and eventually found love in Indonesia with businessman José Nunes

And then in 2016 came the bombshell news that Gilbert was leaving her husband for her longtime friend Elias, who had been diagnosed with incurable pancreatic and liver cancer. Gilbert took care of her during the final months of her life.

‘She had a particularly bad death,’ says Gilbert. ‘Not that there’s any such thing as a very good one, but with Rayya, it wasn’t only the cancer that was so horrible. She was a 19-year-sober recovering drug addict who had fought very hard for her sobriety and had created a wonderful life after being a heroin and cocaine addict for many years. But when she went on the opioids that were necessary to manage her cancer pain, it triggered her addiction again. So there was a five-month period where she went fully back into being a junkie and she went back on to the cocaine.’

The last six months of Elias’s life were, admits Gilbert, ‘the worst time of my life’. Not only did she witness the deterioration of her lover’s health, but she was powerless in the face of Elias’s newly resumed addiction.

‘She took the painkillers she was given and then she mixed them with the drugs she bought herself, so she really took the whole ride again. And it was absolutely horrific. I asked a friend of mine who was a recovered addict, “Why is she acting like this?” And she said, “Different drugs have different qualities and cocaine just makes you into a horrible person who has a lot of energy.”

‘It was brutal seeing this person I love become so degraded and her personality so changed. I couldn’t handle her when she was like that and she almost took me down with her, but in the last two months, she ended up pulling out of her addiction. It was extraordinary and I’ll never know how she did it. She got to be herself again and I’m so glad that she died sober and with her dignity. Rayya is the one person in the world I knew 100 per cent and somehow our love managed to survive.’

While many of her readers were shocked that Gilbert should have eventually found love with a woman, it turns out that she was less so herself. ‘It didn’t even occur to me to have that be an issue,’ she says. ‘Anyone who knew Rayya knew that she was so epic and so powerful and captivating that she just transcended gender completely.’

Yet there was yet another twist to Gilbert’s tale. Last March, 14 months after Elias’s death, Gilbert announced that she had fallen in love again – once more with a man.

British photographer Simon MacArthur had been one of Elias’s closest friends and shortly after the news of his relationship with Gilbert broke, he announced on Instagram that they were ‘madly in love’ and ‘planning our future together’. Maybe he and Gilbert bonded over a shared need to keep Elias’s memory alive, but Gilbert, 50, now reveals that they are no longer an item. ‘I just can’t speak about it,’ she says now. ‘That relationship has ended, so it was short-lived.’

In 2016 Gilbert announced she was leaving her husband for her longtime friend Rayya Elias, who had been diagnosed with incurable pancreatic and liver cancer

Single once more, does she remain receptive to love after the repeated romantic blows? ‘Oh yes,’ she says without hesitation. ‘I’ll always throw myself into life.’

While it’s dizzying at times to keep up with Gilbert’s amorous adventures, it’s impossible not to be charmed by her endless enthusiasm. Her latest novel, City Of Girls, is a case in point. It’s a fabulously peppy read and even more impressive given that she completed it a mere seven months after Elias died.

‘I gave the entirety of myself to Rayya and was so empty when she finally died, it was as if this book was me reclaiming myself,’ she says. ‘There had been so much darkness, I had to go straight into the light.’

Set primarily in Forties New York, it follows narrator Vivian Morris, a well-bred, virginal 19-year-old who is kicked out of her prestigious women’s college and sent to live with her bohemian Aunt Peg, the owner of a run-down theatre. Vivian soon finds her place among its glamorous showgirls, until one night she makes a mistake.

It’s a book that revels in female desire and sexuality at a time when conversations about sex have become all too serious. Gilbert says writing her upbeat novel was a release after the strain of caring for Elias. ‘It was really restorative to write about gaiety and joy and bodies that were not sick but were engaged in pleasure,’ she says.

Growing up in Connecticut, Gilbert’s parents instilled in her the belief that ‘my life was mine and I could do anything I wanted’. Yet while her career as an author and journalist was flourishing, Gilbert’s private life was disintegrating rapidly. As she memorably detailed in Eat Pray Love, her first marriage, to human rights activist Michael Cooper, wasn’t making her happy. ‘I realised,’ she says, ‘that the formula that we are taught will make us satisfied and satisfying, namely marriage and children, was actually a catastrophe for me. I’d promised my then husband when I turned 30 that I would procreate and instead I fell into a suicidal depression that led to two years of real despair and despondency. Blowing that up was essential for me.’

Her second marriage, to José Nunes, ended after nine years and while it might have been a surprise to others to see him supplanted by Elias in Gilbert’s affections, Nunes himself was ‘gracious and lovely’ in the aftermath. ‘I was married to a truly wonderful man and it would be hard for me to imagine such a wonderful husband, but there is still a part of me that just doesn’t like the institution of marriage,’ she says. ‘It’s not for me. I’m allergic to it.’

The book Eat Pray Love sold 13 million copies and was turned into a film starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem

Nunes did at least have the good fortune of being portrayed in the Eat Pray Love movie by the actor Javier Bardem, although Gilbert purposely stayed out of the way during the shoot. ‘I didn’t want to be the one on set telling Julia Roberts, “Well, I would never have worn that shirt!”’

Gilbert is currently working on her next book, which rather touchingly is about Elias. ‘I feel her presence all the time and I’m writing about her now in a way that’s surprising even me,’ she laughs. ‘Everything about her in life was a surprise. I would expect nothing else of her even after death.’

‘City Of Girls’ by Elizabeth Gilbert is published by Bloomsbury on Tuesday, priced £8.99

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