In 1991, 22-year-old Jennifer Gilbert was brutally attacked and nearly stabbed to death with a screwdriver by a stranger while visiting friends in New York City. Desperate to find a way to escape dealing with the emotional scars left by the attack, she started a job with a small event-planning firm just three months later, and found that the challenges of planning an event helped her avoid dwelling on her terrifying memories—but also ultimately led her down the road to recovery.
In 1993, Gilbert founded her award-winning corporate- and social-event planning company, Save the Date, which most recently planned the 2012 FiFi Awards on Monday. Here is an excerpt from her book, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, released this month by Harper, which details her attack and how a career in event planning eventually helped her find a reason to celebrate again.
“So, we have a little situation.”
I was holding the bride’s hand, looking up into her big brown eyes. She was standing on a stool so that her wedding dress could extend down to the floor, awaiting the massive tulle petticoat that would inflate all that satin to full-on princess proportions. The bride knew something was wrong, and I could feel her fingernails digging into my palm. I smiled. “The first thing you need to know is that I will fix everything,” I said to her. The bride nodded. I had explained this to her before, just like I did with all my brides: things went wrong with weddings sometimes, and when they did, it was my job as the event planner to make everything right again. I always feel like I should wear a t-shirt that reads, “Chief Damage Control Officer.”
I continued. “The second thing you need to know is that your tulle petticoat got caught in the trunk of the groomsmen’s limo.” The bride kept nodding, and then I added the kicker: “The limo drove away.” The bride was nodding more fiercely now, and there was a strangled sound in the back of her throat. The truth was, the last time I’d seen the bride’s tulle, I was running down the streets of Miami, screaming at the limo driver while I watched the tulle being dragged and torn like the last sad piece of tissue in the bottom of my purse. But I didn’t think painting that particular picture for the bride would be very productive at the moment. Now the bridesmaids were getting in on the action. There was a collective gasp in the room, and one of them shrieked. The mother of the groom gripped my arm. Mrs. Lopez had survived Castro, but she looked like this might kill her. “Where is it? Are they bringing it back?” Once again I recalled that tulle, dragged and ripped beyond repair through the streets of Miami. “Oh, honey.” I sighed. “The tulle’s not coming back.”
Looking back on that day when I’d frantically chased down the doomed petticoat, I had an epiphany: while I was fixing things for other people, I didn’t have to think twice about myself. Obsessing over every tiny detail of other people’s most important events was what I did best. It was the perfect way to avoid thinking about the dark, scary void inside me.
I’d done a pretty good job of paving over that void with numbness, but every once in a while, on one of my bad days, the sorrow crept in, and I’d have to run and run to get away from it. So I welcomed other people’s situations—their crises small and large. In fact no problem was too small for me to throw myself into fixing it. Like when the bride at another wedding insisted that we individually wrap hundreds of Sweet’N Low packets in their own little white envelopes because she didn’t want to see any pink on her all-white tables. Or when we spent $50,000 on centerpieces for a corporate event—tall, gorgeous tree branches—only to find out an hour before the event that our speaker was less than five feet tall, and the audience would never be able to see him over all those branches. So we cut down every one of them using whatever knives we could swipe from the kitchen. Or when five hundred more people showed up for an event than the client had calculated, so I became a coat-check girl for the night. I did whatever it took to make a perfect event.
I was a master of the small stuff, but I really shone in the face of true disaster. That’s when I got calm. When the party boat crashed into the dock, or the venue burned down two days before the event, I became the definition of grace under pressure. And when the bride’s wedding dress was hanging a little (a lot) low, because her underskirt was currently taking a ride down South Dixie Highway? Whatever. It was all in a day’s work.
When I woke up the morning of the tulle bride’s wedding, it was one of my bad days. I could feel it even before my eyes opened—it was a familiar sense of dread, a physical ache of anxiety and fear coupled with a suffocating heaviness that filled the spot where my soul used to be. On a day like that, a runaway petticoat was just the jolt I needed. As I was skittering down the streets of Miami after the limo, I was the closest to happy that I could feel at that point in my life. I was in high-gear emergency mode, and all I thought about—all I cared about—was fixing this problem so beautifully that no one would ever know the wedding was anything but perfect. And a brilliant side benefit was that if I could hold this event together, then I could also hold myself together, at least for another day.
It was one of the first events that I had handled completely on my own, back when I was working at a small firm that specialized in wedding planning. The bride was a friend of a friend, and I’d become close to her. She was a little younger than I was, barely twenty-two. Her mother had died of cancer when the bride was just a child, and her father was now very ill. As a wedding planner you get used to acting in the role of family counselor without even thinking about it, and I could tell how unmoored the bride felt, as if she were already an orphan. A redheaded WASP from a non-religious Protestant family, she’d fallen in love with the son of a devoutly Roman Catholic Cuban-American family, and she was embracing her new life with open arms. This was her fresh start, her new family—and they were all there to watch her walk down the aisle of the biggest Catholic church in downtown Miami. The bride wanted everything about the wedding to be perfect, as if it might be a sign or a promise that her life would be perfect forever after as well.
Meanwhile, the dress. I remember walking into the room in the church where the bride was getting ready before the wedding. She’d already had her makeup and hair done, all curled in crimson ringlets. The Vera Wang dress she’d chosen had such full skirts that we lowered it over her head like an art installation while she perched on the stool. Then we did up the hundreds of tiny buttons that ran down the back of her dress. That was when we looked around for the petticoat. In the seconds during which eight pairs of eyes scanned the room for a pile of tulle, I could sense a rising communal panic. Murmurs started to bubble up. (Whose job was it to look after the petticoat? What do you mean she left it in the trunk of the groom’s car?) Then there were louder hisses and the start of accusations, the kind that ruin relationships for years after.
The bride’s older sister and I ran through the church out to the front, where the limos had been parked. Gone. Then we both caught sight of the retreating limo with the godforsaken tulle. I shook off my heels and did a barefoot sprint after the limo, screaming and yelling and waving my hands, but it was no use. The driver didn’t see me, the limo was gone, and the tulle was in shreds—unusable even if we’d been able to get it back.
I hobbled back into the church with the older sister, who was already sweating in the Miami heat, hair sticking to her forehead and foundation starting to run. I gave her strict instructions: after I broke the news, it was her job to calm down the bride and keep her from crying all her makeup off.
My brain had already started to work, the wheels clicking and spinning as they always did when disaster struck. The tulle wasn’t coming back, I knew that. But the bride couldn’t wear the dress without a petticoat. Ergo, I needed to construct a petticoat. I’d been (briefly) a fashion merchandising major in college, and I’d taken one sewing class—who knew it would come in handy? Still, I don’t remember taking any lessons on how to make a tulle petticoat that would hold up a $5,000 dress for a long walk down an aisle. Luckily it was a Saturday and stores were open, and we were in downtown Miami, where you can find pretty much anything. By that point I was sweating, blistered, and feeling a bit nauseated. Miraculously, within minutes I found a fabric store where I bought yards and yards of tulle, sewing needles, and white thread.
When I got back to the church, the bride was still standing on the stool. She hadn’t dared step off and wrinkle the skirt, and there wasn’t time to undo the hundreds of buttons and then do them up again. Now slick with perspiration, I got under the bride’s dress. Swallowed under billows of satin skirt, eye-to-lace with the bride’s Brazilian, I hand-stitched every inch of tulle to her garters, crinkling and bunching it up as I went so it would be dense enough to hold up the dress. It wasn’t the most professional job in the world, but I knew it would work, and she could walk down the aisle with her chin up, and her dress floating around her exactly the way it was supposed to. Luckily, she also had an enormous veil that could camouflage any of the bumpier bits.
Vera Wang might have been horrified at the havoc I’d wrought on her design, but when I watched the bride glide through the church to her groom, a smile on her face and her eyes glistening with happiness—that’s all that mattered. She was beautiful, and she was looking to the future with joy and optimism.
None of those things was true for me, and at that point in my life I believed they never could be. So instead of chasing the impossible, my mission became to surround myself with other people’s joy, happiness, and hopes—that would have to be enough to sustain me. My clients—dreamy brides, loving anniversary couples, proud bar mitzvah parents, and demanding titans of industry—all helped me to carefully conceal the gaping hole inside. It’s not supposed to be good for you to hide your fear and sadness. You’re supposed to confront your problems. But I wouldn’t have known where to begin, and I was terrified of going back to that dark place—the moment when I lost my joy. So for years and years, I survived event to event by burying my secret six feet under and dancing on its grave. For me, there was no other way.
Back then I had no conscious plan—it’s only now, looking back, that I can see the wisdom in the road I took. As broken and shattered as I was on the inside, I polished up my outside and became an event planner. I surrounded myself with other people’s beauty, happiness, and gratitude for life’s milestones. Then something happened to me while I was planning all those happy experiences for other people. It started as a glimmer of longing inside me. Eventually it grew to a tingling, like pins and needles in sleepy limbs. I wouldn’t call it hope, because that would have meant that I believed on some level that happiness could actually happen for me. No, it wasn’t hope. The hope came later. The happiness came after that.
Reprinted from I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memory of a Life Through Events—The Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t by Jennifer Gilbert. Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Gilbert. Used by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.