Jennifer Gilbert was just 22 years old when she was followed off the subway in New York City and viciously attacked. She was stabbed 37 times with a screwdriver by a stranger. That was 21 years ago, but she can still tell you exactly what she was wearing on the horrible day. “Black flats, a tan linen wraparound skirt from Ann Taylor, and a black T-shirt.”
For decades, Gilbert tried to piece herself back together, suffering in silence (she never told anyone about the attack). But it was her two-year-old son’s own health struggle that opened the floodgates on her trauma.
We spoke with the mother of three about that day in May 21 years ago and her new memoir about finding her way back to life, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag.
Q: You’ve probably been asked this 100 times, but what made you decide to write the book now — over 20 years after the attack?
Jennifer Gilbert: I never wanted “victim” and my name to appear in the same sentence or to capitalize on the attack to draw attention to me or my business. So I never said a word to anyone, and kept building my business, Save the Date®. But when my son Grey developed alopecia (total hair loss) at two years old, I started writing my thoughts down. I was feeling so angry, vulnerable and out of control. The last time I felt like this was 20 years prior when my attack happened. I started journaling to sort my feelings out because from experience I know people don’t know how to deal with someone else’s sorrow, they tend to “at least” it away.
Once I started writing and remembering and understanding what my lessons had been and how my life had been built on those years of heart ache and overcoming them, I realized that I’d been treating his trauma the same way my parents had treated mine — with denial and silence that led me to years of shame and feeling unworthy. That was the light bulb; if I don’t do this, I’ve learned nothing.
That was the turning point for me in writing the book. Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, I decided it was time to open up the shutters and let the light in. I thought OK, I’m ready to share now, in fact, have to share what I have learned … in hopes it inspires people to share their feelings and to help others with their grieving.
Q: How difficult was it for you to go back to that horrible time and relive it all for this book?
JG: The hardest job I’ve ever had in my life was writing this memoir. I wrote draft after draft as one big long run-on sentence, a stream of consciousness, just to get those feelings and memories out of my head. There was so much I forgot. I had to interview my own family to jog my memory and to remember times that I simply blocked out. But, like removing your finger to block the hole in the dam, they [memories] would explode and all rush out.
There are parts in my book that are so “in that moment” for me, that I can’t reread them, even now. I start to cry. This book is really not meant to be about my story, it was just the starting point, but reliving my time-line and exposing myself was probably the final piece in healing me.
Q: What message do you hope parents come away with after reading your story?
JG: Our children’s only point of reality is ours, and if we make it OK for them, well, then it’s OK. Something has happened to everyone in our own unique way, whether it’s illness, divorce, losing a loved one, unemployment, or just feeling unworthy in our own bodies — we all carry something around. Our painful memories are the “stories” we have told ourselves for years, and we repeat every day from habit, but if we step out of that same groove and choose a different path, we can change everything.
We have a choice in life. We can choose to do it better, or differently than it was done to us. That while we cannot control WHAT happens to us or to our kids in life, we can control and decide who we want to be afterwards. This is very simple to say but the hardest paradigm to shift. That letting go, of the anger, the sadness, the resentments or expectations and just deciding to be different is really very simple when I understood that I was standing in my own way … and that was slowing shaping the way I was reacting to my kids.
Q: Do you think the attack — and, moreover, the 21 years of silence afterwards — shaped who you are as a woman, as a mother?
JG: The label of “victim” — someone to whom bad things happen — penetrates every facet of who you are. To this day the very thought of being pitied makes my stomach turn in revulsion. More than anything, my desire to rise above the label of “victim” is what propelled me forward past those scary dark days. So instead of looking at that gloomy horizon, I decided to stop looking back.
As shattered as I was on the inside, I polished up my outside and decided to start Save the Date®. My mission became to surround myself with other peoples joy and happiness. I started to shed some pain, and feel less broken inside. I began to start to hope again. And each new lesson of forgiveness or acceptance forged me forward to the life I wanted.
It took decades for me to realize the power comes from the surrender. It wasn’t until I LET GO of the illusion of control that I found my real power to heal and move on. I am better woman, mother, and person because I understand this now.
Q: You write about your fertility issues and also about suffering a devastating loss when you were six months pregnant. Was there a lesson in that harrowing experience?
JG: I still mourn the loss of that baby. If there is a lesson in it, it’s that at the end of the day you have no control over what happens. I spent YEARS trying to control every event after my attack, every detail for a party, every morsel of food I ate, so I could force everything to be OK in the hopes that nothing bad would ever happen to me again. But of course, that’s not the way life goes.
Everything in my life has taught me this; instead of worrying about my life and what it has in store for me, or worrying about my children’s future, all I can really do is throw my hands in the air and enjoy the ride.
We have this one life, we better make it count.
We’re giving away a copy of Jennifer Gilbert’s book! A little something for your “goodie bag.” Just leave a comment below on the interview, the power of hope or anything that’s on your mind, and you’ll be in the running to win.