Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens, Pan MacMillan Australia, $32.99.
Anyone who read Eat Pray Love should be forgiven for never wanting to read another self-discovery book, especially not by a woman. That book was nauseating.
Yes, of course, like everyone else, I inhaled it, and even gave copies to friends.
It was so much fun to read, when everyone else was reading it. Only now do I think, hang on, what did that woman (the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert) actually have to complain about?
She starts the book on her knees in the bathroom, desperate not to be married anymore.
Gilbert hadn't been married all that long. She had no children. There weren't likely to be any terrible consequences if she just called the whole thing off.
And what happened when she called it quits, anyway? Gilbert immediately landed a lucrative book deal, enabling her to take a year off to travel to Italy (to eat spaghetti and gelato), India (to pray or, to be more accurate, meditate) and finally to Indonesia (the island paradise of Bali, actually, to fall in love with a handsome Brazilian man who is now her husband).
No wonder so many women feel bad about once liking that book (most will now say they always hated parts of it, and the movie with Julia Roberts even more).
All of which brings me to a new book by the ABC host, Mary-Lou Stephens. It's the perfect antidote to Eat Pray Love, in that it's written by an earthy, Australian woman with a proper set of problems in her background.
Sex, Drugs and Meditation is Mary-Lou's quest to revisit, and to understand, her past, so she might stride into a better future.
She's in her 40s, and although she's already quit smoking and drinking and drugs, there's still quite a bit weighing her down, namely guilt, and bad memories.
Mary-Lou grew up in an evangelical home with a mother who raised her hands and jiggled them at the ceiling, while wailing in tongues. She was made to fall on the floor during church rallies while the evil spirits in her were slayed.
Mary-Lou's response to the strangeness of her childhood won't surprise anyone: she started stealing money from her father's coat pockets, and spending it on forbidden chocolate.
She took up binge-eating, secret eating, compulsive eating. Later, she became a shop-lifter, a drug taker, a drinker. She'd betrayed friends by sleeping with their boyfriends (she'd been so drunk she couldn't even remember doing it). She knew loneliness, neediness, a broken heart, and bad relationships.
Then came bullying at work.
The basis of the book is Mary-Lou's decision to sign up for 10-day retreat that required total silence … and reflection upon the life we've lived. The things we've done to others, and those that others have done to us.
The retreat that Mary-Lou chooses is not glamorous. It's got simple, wooden beds, blankets that aren't warm enough, and the food is simple, often raw, and served in small quantities.
There are moments when she wants to stop. As she says in the book (and on the back cover): "I could get up and walk out the door right now. No one could stop me. But then nothing would change. And everything has to change."
It would give away too much to say how it ends. Suffice to say that Mary-Lou discovers, as so many women do, the pointlessness of living an unexamined life.
Her memories, her guilt, were chains hanging over her emotional development. They had physical weight. It's fascinating to watch her lift them.