The Magazine

Holy Deadlock

Marriage is an institution, and who wants to live in one?

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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Holy Deadlock

A Skeptic Makes Peace
with Marriage
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, 304 pp., $26.95

Traditional marriage is on trial from coast to coast, most recently in a San Francisco courthouse, where same-sex marriage advocates implied that this social institution had been established for a darker purpose, serving as a handy prop for gay bashing. Now Elizabeth Gilbert, the witty and honest author of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, has joined the prosecution—more or less. Her new book isn’t designed for policy wonks, though; it’s also difficult to predict whether her admirers, hungry for the next installment of her engaging memoir-cum-travelogue, will embrace it. 

So why should anyone care what Elizabeth Gilbert, a divorced writer, has to say on this vexed subject? Well, recognized expertise on marriage is no longer the preserve of pastors, historians, legal scholars, therapists, or yentas. In the San Francisco trial, and during the hearings preceding the Washington, D.C., city council’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian couples testified to their love—a state of mind and heart that directly challenged a status quo that supposedly devalued their experience. Personal stories have moved to the center of the national conversation on marriage, pushing aside tired arguments based on natural law, historical and cultural precedent, and even human reproduction. 

A heterosexual woman contentedly living and traveling with her lover, Felipe—an older but wiser Brazilian with an Australian passport—Gilbert wasn’t looking to join the melee over matrimony. You might say that the subject was foisted on her by the Department of Homeland Security, which informed the couple that Felipe could not reenter the United States unless they married. The victim of a “bad divorce,” the author immediately fretted that marriage would introduce a fatal toxin into her blissful union. However, as the subtitle implies, she found a way to get the job done without sacrificing her principles. The question is whether her expedient solution—reflecting a broad trend to reformulate marriage according to personal tastes—is likely to secure her future happiness, or the survival of an already battered social institution.

Committed begins with Felipe’s ignominious repatriation, following a six-hour interrogation at the Dallas airport. Distraught, Gilbert pleads Felipe’s case to a Homeland Security official, who is unmoved by her personal crisis: “When we have something to tell you about your boyfriend, miss, we’ll let you know.” Gilbert guesses the reason for his dismissive stance: “There is perhaps no more feeble-sounding word in the English language than boyfriend.” Thus commences her painful engagement with the cultural, religious, and legal legacy that burdens and elevates spousal relations—as opposed to the essentially inconsequential status of couples who merely play house.

When Gilbert joins her exiled lover in Southeast Asia, he works on his immigration case file. She uses the time to retrace the missteps that led to her past divorce while addressing the larger subject of marriage as an institution. Her ruminations are punctuated by encounters with ordinary people in Laos and Cambodia, but the snapshots of exotic traditional cultures aren’t especially relevant to Gilbert’s modern dilemma. She also reveals flashes of insight gleaned from self-directed studies in history and anthropology. Readers would be wise to conduct their own research, however, rather than relying on Gilbert’s scattershot approach: Her selective account of the checkered history of Western marriage, for example, encourages the reader both to doubt the motives and logic of its supporters and to shrug off radical new proposals as minor innovations.

Gilbert’s reflections are skewed, in part, by her lack of personal interest in bearing children. The central purpose of marriage always has been the regulation of human reproduction and the education and upbringing of children. 

Opponents of same-sex marriage have cautioned that children will be the innocent victims of any institutional redefinition that moves procreation to the sidelines, but Gilbert finds this argument unpersuasive, and predicts that the advent of “marriage equality” will actually reverse the declining status of marriage. 

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