By Stacey Gualandi/July 17, 2012
Jennifer Gilbert is the “chief visionary officer” of Save the Date , the in-demand New York-based event planning business. But in her new best-selling memoir, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, this married mother of three reveals how she overcame a horrible event from her past, one that she had shared with only a handful of people…until now.
“While you can’t control what happens to you in life or your daily experience, you can decide who you want to be once it happens.” Jennifer Gilbert
At 22, Jennifer was savagely beaten and left for dead after walking from a New York City subway to visit a friend. She tells an incredible story about the ordeal and how she survived.
I enjoyed her book so much, I wanted to learn more about her journey of healing, overcoming fear, and moving forward to become a successful wife, mother and entrepreneur. Here’s an excerpt of her interview with me on The Women’s Eye Radio Show…
STACEY: I’m not surprised that the Huffington Post said, “This is one of the ten books you need to read right now.” So that’s got to feel pretty good, right?
JENNIFER: It was amazing. I was shocked. They asked me to write a little article, and all of a sudden it appeared on Huffington Post, which is one of my go-tos, so it was a really big honor.
STACEY: This was obviously a labor of love. Why did you want to be so open in a book about your life and what you went through several years ago?
JENNIFER: I never thought I was going to ever talk about what happened to me and my story. It was a long time ago; I was 22-years-old. I’m 43 now, and I just thought this attack and that part of me would be private pretty much forever until about two years ago when my son was about two-and-a-half years old.
He had been diagnosed with Alopecia, which is when you lose all of your hair. They think it’s an autoimmune condition as there’s nothing wrong with you health-wise or medically. It’s just your hair.
It came back, and it fell out. It came back, and then it just fell out for good. I realized while I was going through this with him, it was bringing up all of these feelings in me about control and about parenting and about anger at the universe of why things happen and how you can’t control them and how you need to be in order to get what you want.
STACEY: And you ask, “Why does this have to happen to me?”
JENNIFER: Exactly. And I just started to journal. While I was writing it out, I realized a lot of life lessons. When I realized the biggest one about how I was parenting and how to be different for my son and what had happened to me, that’s when I put it into a book.
I thought, all right, this is no longer about me and my story. Everybody has a story.
STACEY: Who were you, Jennifer, before that brutal attack?
JENNIFER: I was a really happy-go-lucky 22-year-old. I had moved after going to college in Vermont to London. I worked there with all my best friends. I had backpacked with my savings with the Eurail pass all the way back then. I came back and I had visions of wearing a Donna Karan suit and hitting New York…
STACEY: Take the city by storm!
JENNIFER: Exactly! I was going to be like “that girl.” I was home for a week, and I took the subway into New York City for probably the first time in my life because I was living with my parents in Westchester. I was followed off the subway, and I was stabbed and beaten and…
STACEY: …and left for dead. Unbelievable. It’s amazing that you even have any memory of it because I can see where you would want to just suppress this. But what was going through your mind, or is there anything going through your mind and this person is trying to kill you?
JENNIFER: It’s very strange because I remember every single minute of the actual attack, but very few memories afterwards and what I looked like. I think there were about 37 different stab wounds. There were 45 different stitches all over.
“But when I wrote it in my book, I was sobbing. I still haven’t been able to read that chapter…”
STACEY: You were stabbed with a screwdriver?
JENNIFER: Yes. It’s very surreal because even when I talk to you about it now, I don’t feel emotionally connected to it. But when I wrote it in my book, I was sobbing. I still have not been able to read that chapter because I was in the moment when I was writing it.
My adrenaline started to go, and I started to get sweaty just writing it. But I felt while I was in that moment this bottomless urge to fight. I was screaming and kicking and fighting and thinking the whole time.
STACEY: You didn’t give up.
JENNIFER: I honestly thought this man is going to kill me. I’m dead. He followed me from the street into the hallway of the building and then from the hallway of the building into my girlfriend’s apartment. And she closed the door and left me and I —
STACEY: It’s tough because I read that and I want to just shake this girl…she didn’t do anything. There were other people in her apartment, too. Here you are being just savagely beaten and nobody seemed to come to your rescue. So thank goodness you were there for yourself.
JENNIFER: Yes, and I think nobody knows, and I would never have known, what I would have done in that situation. It was like an instinct that just took over. But it forever separated my life into before and after.
STACEY: Now, you’re in the business of planning things, but this was certainly not something you could ever plan for. Never in a million years would you ever think that something like this would happen. It was a truly random act, right?
JENNIFER: It was. He was a man who was on parole for murder and just skipped his parole and chose me. And afterwards, you know you ask a lot of questions: why, why, why? I just could not even wrap my arms around this. And then one day, I literally snapped myself out of it.
I said, okay, that girl is gone and so is that life. So I am going to choose who I’m going to be. If I allowed him to take me away from what I wanted and from the city that I loved and halted my life, then he might as well have killed me. I said I need to make a decision here, and I’m going to choose onward.
STACEY: There were very few people who knew about what happened to you. In fact, when there was a subsequent trial of this person, you wanted your identity completely concealed.
JENNIFER: Right. I started my company Save the Date. I’ve won Entrepreneur of the Year. I’ve been on a reality show. I have been all over the news, and I’ve been acclaimed for the awards that I’ve won. All the while, nobody ever knew that I was that victim. And this was all over the papers.
They kept my name out of it. And luckily, this was the days before Google and before the internet so I was able to remain anonymous.
“Maybe I can have it. Maybe I can allow myself to dream it.”
STACEY: So now that you have told the world, are you glad you made that decision to talk about it so that everyone who has ever met you and worked with you now knows this painful part of your past?
JENNIFER: It’s been a really interesting sort of metamorphosis because I am an event planner, and I have been with people through their life’s events. My book is obviously about the darkness that happens but also about these completely hilarious calamities that happen in that moment of trying to control things.
So here I went the opposite way. I wanted to be around joy, but I also happened to find the occupation where you are in control of all your surroundings. I mean if there was a bad petal on a flower, I’d pick it out. If my bride’s petticoat was gone underneath her dress, I’d sew a new one. I was the master of the calm under pressure.
STACEY: You wrote that you felt you personally couldn’t have that joy, but you got to feel it through someone else’s experience?
JENNIFER: Absolutely! Every wedding that I did and every corporate event where people were laughing and drinking and celebrating something. It was almost like osmosis. I got pleasure through them, for them, because of them. I would sit at a wedding, and I would cry for the bride as if I had done this with her.
All of a sudden, over the years, I started to feel that I didn’t know if this was enough for me. How sad that it was always me on the other side of it. That’s when things started to shift a little bit in my life. Maybe I can have it. Maybe I can allow myself to dream it.
STACEY: It’s just a fantastic transformation. I also want to point out the two words you hate the most: AT LEAST.
JENNIFER: I think that AT LEAST is one of those things that automatically comes out of people’s mouths when they don’t know what to do, and they don’t know what to say.
I know it is a well-meaning comment and a way of making people feel better. After my attack, people would say to me: “Well, at least you’re alive.” “At least he didn’t get your face.” “At least you weren’t raped.”
STACEY: Yes, at least it was a screwdriver.
JENNIFER: I didn’t feel that there was anything better about my situation. Yes, things could have been worse. But in that moment, I just wanted somebody to hug me. I just wanted somebody to say, “I’m here for you and that sucks.” Sometimes people just want to feel that you are there, and it’s okay to not know what to say.
STACEY: I love the title of your book, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag. Having worked on award shows in the past, I know exactly what you’re talking about. People can attend the most lavish ceremonies and parties, and be fed to the nines and treated wonderfully, but if there isn’t that goodie bag at the end of the night, all hell breaks loose. Right?
JENNIFER: You can’t help yourself. Just the mere phrase “goodie bag” makes people smile, which is why we picked it. When I was even saying it to Harper Collins, my publishing house, they were laughing.
It’s a funny word and it brings up beautiful pink tissue paper and something really pretty to take home. So everybody loves a goodie bag and you see all these people who are saying, “Where’s my goodie bag?”
STACEY: Grown adults are acting like little kids….
JENNIFER: Yes! There’s a line in my book: “You think you’ve seen the worst of humanity at a Prada sample sale.” You’ve seen nothing when you have the VIP goodie bags and the regular goodie bags.
I swear people will like elbow their grandmother out of the way to get the VIP goodie bag. And I laugh. Half the time I see the bags on the floor outside afterwards.
STACEY: With all of your experience with weddings, you have some good news to report, right?
JENNIFER: I do. As a matter of fact, I am now the wedding expert on the Bed, Bath and Beyond bridal registry page!
STACEY: Fantastic! Well, if there’s anybody who knows the do’s and don’ts and everything in between with planning a wedding, you are the one. After having written the book, and after having lived the life that you’ve led, what should we learn about what you’ve gone through, Jennifer?
JENNIFER: I think if there’s a life lesson, it’s that while you can’t control what happens to you in life or your daily experience, you can decide who you want to be once it happens. Everybody has the choice to go forward and let it go and move on, or stay with that bad story that happened.
It’s up to us to decide who we want to be after it happened. I think that is what I’ve learned through the years and that was reinforced with my son. I had the choice to be better and to be a great mom and to make this okay for him regardless of whether he has hair or he doesn’t. This is his little life.
STACEY: Thank you so much. I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is a great book. Congrats with all your success!
Jennifer Gilbert is the founder of Save the Date, a successful event planning business (in NYC). But in her new best-selling memoir, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, she reveals how she overcame a horrible event from her past…More
Jennifer’s courage in the face of her horrid memories teaches us so much about the tenacity of our human will to live. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, it certainly does, especially when you allow yourself to open the door just a crack to the possibility of hope and joy.