I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert

12th July 2012

*The fabulous Mel from The Feminist Texican [Reads] sent me a copy of this book when she learned I wanted to read it. Thank you!

Jennifer Gilbert is 22 in 1991, happy and carefree, back from a year in Europe, and on her way to visit her friend when the unthinkable happens: a man follows her into her friend’s building and stabs her over 30 times. She survives (I’ll pause to allow that to sink in)….and recovers in an amazingly short amount of time – physically. Mentally, she shuts down, unable to sleep without someone outside her bedroom door, unable to venture out without someone she trusts by her side. I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag is Gilbert’s exploration of this violent attack and her story of survival.

When Mel from The Feminist Texican [Reads] mentioned on Twitter how effective the opening to this memoir is, I knew I had to read it, and indeed, it is gripping. Even though Gilbert isn’t overly graphic in her description of the attack, I was absolutely sickened. I had to put the book down several times and breathe deeply, reminding myself that the woman who was attacked wrote this book, that she is alive, that she made it.

After being released from the hospital, Jennifer is an absolute mess. She can’t sleep. She doesn’t look in the mirror. Her mother, absolutely petrified by what could have happened to her daughter, can’t discuss the attack. Her father doesn’t. When mentions of the attack are on the news, her parents change the channel. No one knows what to say and in trying not to upset her, Jennifer describes it as feeling almost like the attack was a dream, yet she’s fearful her attacker will find her and finish the job.

After initially shutting down, Gilbert describes throwing herself into planning weddings and parties, so focused on a missing petticoat or an upset mother of the bride that she doesn’t have time to face her own crises. She shuts the attack and her fears away and learns that everyone around her is more comfortable not discussing it as well. Twenty years down the road, Gilbert is a successful businesswoman who owns a prestigious event planning company in New York City, and in telling her story, she traces the moments in her life where she’s had to stop, slow down, and work through the attack and its residual effects.

I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag was an intense, personal book for me, though thankfully I’ve never been physically attacked. In one of the passages, Gilbert said something that struck home:

This is what people said to me after the attack:

At least he didn’t get your face.
At least you’re alive.
At least you weren’t raped.

I learned that this is what “at least” means: Move on. Get over it. Let’s not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better…I’m sure this was meant to be encouraging. But the message I received was that I should feel lucky to be blessed with such resilience, and that they expected me to bounce back, good as new. Meanwhile, I couldn’t imagine leaving my house without an armed escort.

At least. People mean well, they do. Tell almost anyone something terrible you’ve experienced, and the natural inclination is to make you feel better. That’s where the “at least’s” come out. Or the “I know what you’re going through.” It’s just what people say, right? The problem is that even if you’ve been through the same exact experience as someone else, you don’t and can’t actually know. Gilbert acknowledges this, saying people wanted so badly to relate, and they would tell her about the time they got mugged or how their best friend’s sister was shot.

Unfortunately, these instances reinforced Gilbert’s feeling that the attack was something to be processed and pushed aside. But grief and anger and fear are not linear processes, and these observations affected her so deeply that after a miscarriage, she emails family and friends asking that they leave her to her grief. As she says, after the attack, she “had absorbed the pain that other people felt for me, to the point that I could no longer feel my own.”

Memoirs are tricky for me to read. Often, I read something in a memoir so far out of my own experiences that I cannot relate, but Gilbert writes about her life in such a way that not only did I relate to her pain, but I also nodded my head again and again, agreeing with her observations and sympathizing with her reactions and perceptions of her life.

  • YAY! I’m glad you liked it. 🙂 Definitely a page-turner.

    • Thank you again for sending it to me!

  • Sounds good and interesting. . . though I’m not sure I like the cover.

    • Eh – I think it doesn’t *quite* fit, though she does talk a lot about event planning. But yeah…interesting.

  • Oh, gosh, I don’t think I can handle this. Fictional violence can make me hyperventilate; knowing it really happened to the author might give me an anxiety attack. Question: Was her attacker ever brought to justice?

    • To answer your question, yes.

      As for the other, it’s not an extended scene. Once it’s over, it’s over. You know, this surprised me. Had I never read Melissa’s review, I may never have really wanted to read it.

  • I’m floored by this book. It’s definitely being added to my to-read pile!

    • That’s pretty much exactly how I felt. I hope you get something from it as well!

  • Wow! This sounds really good. Definitely adding it to my to-read list!

    • Hope you enjoy it!

  • WOW — I think this would be just too intense for me but…at the same time, I’m kind of intrigued. Minimizing pain is so common in our culture (or at least, the culture of my family, my in-laws, etc) that I suspect much of what Gilbert writes would resonate (thankfully I’ve never endured such a horrifying and frightening experience). Not wild about the cover — it makes me think it’d be a funnier, perhaps sardonic ‘confessions of a party planner’ type thing — but this sounds far more visceral and real. (Which I like!)

    • Definitely visceral.

  • This does sound incredibly powerful. I’d love to read this and will be putting this on my TBR. I think that’s an eye-opening consideration on what to say after someone has been attacked. It’s not that you mean to say something that will minimize what they’ve gone through, but we should definitely put much more care into how we convey what we are trying to share with them. Definitely something to ponder deeply.

    I don’t like the cover of this book for the immense contemplation that will come about, though. It girlishly lightens up a very serious event; I wish another cover had been selected for it. It certainly needn’t be something extremely depressing or anything like that, but I don’t think the art is the right fit.

  • Wow, this book sounds both intense and heartbreaking. Not sure if this would give part of the book away or not, but did her attacker ever get caught?

    Excellent review!

    • Rayna – It doesn’t give it away. In fact, it comes fairly early in the memoir. He does get caught. Relatively quickly.

      • Thanks — glad he got caught. I definitely want to get this book.