In her new memoir, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, event planner Jennifer Gilbert writes about what tragedy has taught her about control and letting go—at work and at home.
Jennifer Gilbert has the kind of life for which the phrase “having it all” seemingly was invented. Named an “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Ernst & Young, she’s the founder and chief visionary officer of Save the Date, a New York–based special events company, which, with a client list ranging from Oprah Winfrey to the Bill Gates Foundation, successfully combines high gloss and substance.
A polished blonde, Gilbert divides her time between Manhattan, where she both works and lives with her husband and three children, and the Hamptons. She is glamorous enough to have been added to the cast of the third season of “The Real Housewives of New York City” reality show, and likable enough to have been dropped from the show for—critics speculated-- being too nice.
Behind her perfect exterior, however, Gilbert for many years hid what she calls her “scary, bad, ugly”: As a young woman just starting out in New York, she was followed from the subway and into an apartment building by a man who stabbed her 37 times with a screwdriver. Kicking, screaming, and clawing, Gilbert fought off her attacker, and was certain that she was dying.
The experience left her scarred and feeling damaged, isolated, and joyless—like “a heart beating without a soul,” she writes in her recent memoir, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events—the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t. She told no one about her attack and went on to become an event planner, because she was good at it and because it gave her a way to surround herself with other people’s joy. She writes: “It was the only way I could feel happiness myself.”
In her book, Gilbert tells how she built and then trans- formed her business and her life, one step at a time. She would have never told the story, she says, if one of her twin sons hadn't developed alopecia, an immune disorder that causes baldness, as a toddler. When her son was diagnosed, Gilbert found herself slipping back into her old habits of shame and denial. She had learned how to let things go to help her clients survive a crisis, “but when it came to my own son, all I could do was cry,” she said in a recent interview. “I needed to let it go. I needed to get over it for him.”
Gilbert writes: “Once you stop fighting yourself and the things you can’t control, and surrender—just let go—then you find your power and energy to move forward. ...We can all have a do-over, if we just let ourselves.”
When I spoke to Gilbert about her book by phone—she was in the Hamptons—her responses struck me as unrehearsed and utterly genuine. In fact, she seemed to be a little amazed that the story she had buried for so many years—and considered, she said, to be “so yuck”—was out in the world, and resonating deeply with readers.
Gilbert has been asked to speak about her memoir to groups, and when she does, “I am so not used to talking about [the attack], I never know what I am going to say,” she said. “I do not know the answers to a lot of the questions.” She added: “You deal as well as you can, and there are things that will shape you forever. But I can share the experience that not knowing is okay. Sometimes you do not know what you want until you know what you do not want. But no motion is just stuck.”
One of the things that is powerful about your book is that you do not minimize your struggles.
Everybody has got their story. Everybody has got their “something.” Mine just happened to have been this. I was really good at putting the mask on. I was not so good at taking the mask off. And I felt ... I felt terrible. And I went through really, really hard times. I felt the only way to be really true is to talk about the really “bad ugly,” and how it felt to be lost and scared and alone and trapped.
Your book is a business book as well as a personal memoir about transcending trauma. Can you talk about your decision to combine the two?
I do not know if I could separate myself from one part or the other, because I am all of it. There was always this shiny, fabulous outside person who went to all the clubs, and who looked pretty and knew everybody and did the whole thing.
And I feel like if you did not understand that my business was just as important to me as somebody having a child at that age, you have missed who I was and how I think about things—how I was not afraid to go for what I wanted. What was there to fear in life, once somebody tries to kill you? Your feeling of fear is not the same as most people. Fear of failure? So what? I will pack up and do something else. It never occurred to me to be afraid that it would not work out.
Were you fearless before the attack?
I think that I was resilient before the attack. I think that it is something that people are, A) a little bit born with, and B) [it was a result of] growing up in my family. I had to take care of myself. I always knew I was going to have to figure “it” out, whatever it was. There is some sort of part of me that does not break down when things go wrong. I think very clearly and I try to figure out what to do.
One of the satisfying parts of the book for people associated with the meetings and events industry are the stories of how you've found creative solutions during moments of crisis at events. Do you consider that ability to be an inherent trait, or do you think the fact that you survived and transcended your attack had something to do with that?
I thought that I was really good at my job because of my attack, because I was able to think on my feet. I felt really calm in a storm because the worst thing had happened to me. And I think there is something about going through trauma and pain that results in really understanding how to be helpful to others. When people are going through something [upsetting], most people want to say, “At least it’s not worse.” If an invitation came the wrong color or the cake never showed up, I wouldn't say, “Well, at least it is not raining out.” Yes, it is not raining out, but that does not help the fact that the cake did not show up.
When you are in the middle of something, you do not want to hear that it could be worse. You just want people to be there for you and do something that honestly makes you feel better.
Isn't it asking too much of people, when they are going through pain, to ask them to isolate the one thing that could be worse to make them feel better about what is actually happening? It’s very self-serving. People do not understand that. They think they are helping, but actually, they are not.
You were not a control freak before the attack, correct?
Oh, no. I was not.
You were kind of a slob.
Do you feel like becoming a control freak was a direct result of the attack?
Yes. I knew ultimately, I have no control of my life, not really. I think the way that I gained control was through the things around me ... physical things, tidying things up. That makes me feel like I can breathe. Because when things are chaotic in my house and my life, it just adds more chaos, and it does not calm me down emotionally. I went through many issues in my life, and it was all about control. If you cannot control anything externally, you try and control the things that you can.
If event planning is a mix of control and flexibility, how do you find the balance?
I think that at the end of the day, you have to let go emotionally. Because it just is not going to help anybody if you start to get hysterical.