The Big Idea: Eve Ensler

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As a third-year medical student on my psychiatry rotation, I met a woman who was paralyzed from the waist down. No physical cause for her disability could be identified. When doctors administered a dose of Amytal, otherwise known as “truth serum”—yes, this really exists—the woman rose from her wheelchair and, grinning, did several brisk laps around the ward as staff and the other patients cheered. The Amytal test confirmed the woman’s diagnosis: conversion disorder, or, as Freud and his contemporaries called it, hysteria.

Researching this fascinating condition, I was offended to learn that the term “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, as in “hysterectomy.” I hated the idea of the female reproductive system being blamed for mental illness, as it was for centuries, or even being used as a metaphor for illness. In fact, I hated the idea of women’s bodies as metaphors for anything.

I suspect writer and activist Eve Ensler, best known as the author of The Vagina Monologues, is no more fond than I am of the linguistic origins of “hysteria.” But Ensler is quite comfortable with the uterus as metaphor. In her new memoir, In the Body of the World, the womb—as organ and as symbol—is in peril: women under threat of rape and other forms of violence at home and abroad; women’s bodies under siege by the media and diet industry; the earth in danger from pollution and climate change; Ensler’s own uterus invaded with advanced-stage cancer, diagnosed in 2010.

Ensler pronounces this last occurrence “too fucking ironic.” The uterus, after all, is connected to the vagina. And the vagina has been at the center of Ensler’s life and career for decades now.

Abused physically and sexually by her father when she was a child, Ensler felt separated from her own body until about twenty years ago, when she began talking to other women about their vaginas. These conversations yielded stories—comic and tragic, personal and political—which formed the basis of The Vagina Monologues. Her Obie Award-winning play opened in 1996, and has since been performed in over 140 countries and translated into forty-eight foreign languages. It’s been an HBO special and a staple in community theatres and on college campuses. If you can say “vagina” in public without blushing or stammering, you have Eve Ensler to thank.

But Ensler’s contribution has been broader than that. If you read recent, nearly concurrent accounts of the high incidence of sexual assault in the US military, the refusal of Abercrombie & Fitch to make clothes for women other than those who appear anorexic, and UN reports of rape in the Congo of girls as young as six, and saw some relation between these stories as I did, you have Eve Ensler to thank, in part, for that, too. In addition to the The Vagina Monologues, Ensler has written many essays about women for The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere, as well as several plays, including The Good Body and Necessary Targets, a book about the inner life of girls (I Am An Emotional Creature), and an anthology about violence against girls and women (A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, And A Prayer). Her writing and activism on behalf of women has helped connect the dots between objectification of women in the media, to eating disorders, to the institutionalization of sexual violence at home and abroad. Ensler leads the annual V-Day, an international festival which includes thousands of performances of The Vagina Monologues and other productions to raise money to fight violence against women. And in 2011, Ensler received a special Tony Award for humanitarian contributions made by a member of the theatre community.

Ensler is now on a nineteen-city tour, reading from In the Body of the World. It’s the story of her cancer, but also of her art and her activism and of the project now closest to her heart: City of Joy, a haven and school in the Congo, for women recovering from rape and other trauma.

I caught up with her by phone during her stop in Los Angeles. Ensler had turned sixty just three days earlier, and she’s as funny and fierce as you’d imagine if you saw her years ago in The Vagina Monologues. We talked about cancer, memoir-writing, art, activism, mentorship, and—of course—vaginas.

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The Rumpus: I’m assuming from your tour schedule that you’re feeling pretty good. How are you feeling?

Eve Ensler: I feel great! I’m three years cancer-free and I’ve never felt better.

Rumpus: That’s great. You say that your new book, In the Body of the World, passed through you “like a fever.” Was the experience of writing this book more physical than other writing you’ve done?

Ensler: Absolutely. I feel like my body wrote this book. It’s really interesting, because people ask me if I took notes during my treatment—and I actually didn’t. But my body did.

Rumpus: Tell me what that means.

Ensler: I can only describe it as: the whole experience was imprinted on my body. And when I started to write it, it just came from such a very, very physical…it just came from my body. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. I guess my head was transmitting it. It was a very, very physical experience writing this book. Some days I would get so exhausted, nauseous, in pain—just from going back through things. It’s almost as if I had the experience and then the meta-experience. You know what I mean?

Rumpus: I do. In fact, one thing that fascinated me was that so much of your career has been about making connections between things that aren’t obviously connected—especially the personal and the global. And in this memoir you interweave—sometimes within the same sentence—the Gulf oil spill and the seepage of fluid from your own body during an infection after surgery. I know you didn’t write these things while you were going through treatment, but did you think them?

Ensler: I did. With the Gulf spill, I absolutely merged in the time when I had that infection. I couldn’t get out of the Gulf spill. There were so many similarities: the drains and the siphoning and the tubes. And also in the way the earth was hurt, the ocean was bleeding. Remember the video cams of the oil gushing? I couldn’t stop watching that.

Rumpus: Was the fact that the earth was hurting along with you comforting? Or did it add to your despair?

Ensler: I think it was a realization of this cancer, an understanding of the broader implications of what cancer is. The greed, the ravaging of lands and seas for profit, the taking of things that don’t belong to us; what we’ve done to the environment in this fast-paced, careless hunger. I think all of that was happening in my body.

Rumpus: You have that wonderful chapter where you list, in such a stark way, the many possible causes of your cancer: “failing at marriage…bad reviews…good reviews…having an abortion…Three Mile Island…Froot Loops…” Obviously, these were very much in your mind once you had the diagnosis, but were you thinking about them before the diagnosis? Did you have a sense that, for example, the desecration of the earth would somehow inevitably lead to your own cancer?

Ensler: My relationship to the desecration of the earth was very theoretical and intellectual until I got sick. I could never watch anything about polar bears dying or the death of bees. There were certain things I knew I couldn’t go near because they were too devastating. But I don’t think until I got cancer did I get it in my body, what was happening to the earth. I finally went: “Oh! Earth! Organism!”

Rumpus: Like, “I’m part of that.”

Ensler: I am part of that. What is happening to me is happening to her. These are not separate things.

Rumpus: Have you been reading other narratives of illness? Memoir of a Debulked Woman by feminist scholar Susan Gubar, about her ovarian cancer, for example?

Ensler: I read Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, and Susan Sontag, of course. I read [The Emperor of All Maladies] by Siddhartha Mukherjee. But I have not read Debulked Woman.

Rumpus: The reason I thought of Gubar’s book is that there’s an unsparing honesty about your memoir, a willingness to look at “what must not be looked at” and to “say what must not be said,” from the “fart floor” [an area where post-surgical patients are encouraged to pass gas] to the body fluids, etc. that reminded me of Gubar’s book—but also, of course, of The Vagina Monologues. In writing this memoir, were you saying, “Hey, cancer is a physical experience, and let’s put that on the page in no uncertain terms”?

Ensler: I don’t know that I was conscious in that way, but I will say this: there was no way to tell this story without being specific about the physical. There was no way. Because the experience was so raw. So specific. It would have been coy, in some ways, to pull that punch. You know what I mean? But my body was telling its story. I have read a lot of stuff about cancer. I needed this book. I wish I’d had this book when I had cancer. I wanted someone to be talking to me about “fart floors.” I wanted somebody telling me what it was like to have a [colostomy] bag. I felt so alone. And if you’re a person who’s been traumatized [by past abuse], it’s so potentially re-traumatizing. You slip right into “oh my god, this is the only person this has happened to before” mentality: “I’m especially bad and I have especially bad cancer…”

Rumpus: On your tour, have you gotten feedback from people who felt validated by the book?

Ensler: Absolutely. And that they didn’t feel so much shame around it and that they didn’t feel so much humiliation around it. And the other thing that people have given me a lot of feedback about—something I’m very excited about—is all the stuff around chemo as an “empathetic warrior.” I really believe that is helping people. I’ve been talking to oncologists about how we can re-frame and re-think the chemo process, so it becomes a much more spiritual, psychological journey. Where people really could burn away what needs to be burned away. It’s happening anyway. Why not frame it in a psychological way where it can serve as a transformation?

Rumpus: What would that re-framing look like? How would you change the process?

Ensler: Well, I’d stop calling it “chemotherapy.” I’d call it “transformational juice.” Infusion suites would become “transformational suites” or “journey rooms.”

Rumpus: If Susan Sontag [who argued against the “metaphorizing” of cancer in Illness as Metaphor] were listening to this…

Ensler: She’d hate it!

Rumpus: Yes, and I’ve wondered if she suffered because of her resistance to making meaning of her own illness.

Ensler: I can’t speak for her experience, but I can tell you that I know as surely as I know anything, that my trauma and the trauma that is constantly being rendered on the earth, the trauma that was rendered on my own being and body…

Rumpus: In your childhood?

Ensler: Yes. And then, for the last fifteen years, sitting day after day after day, hearing rape story after rape story after rape story after incest story after genital mutilation…I mean, if one looks in my inbox on any day, it’s traumatizing. So I know as surely as I know anything, that if we keep these things separate from illness—from both the prevention of illness and the cure—we will do ourselves a huge disservice. I read this very brilliant article this week about Angelina Jolie’s mastectomies. What I loved about this article was that what they were saying was, “Why aren’t we looking at the causes of breast cancer? Why aren’t we spending our energy on looking at what we’re doing to the earth? On the pollutants we’re putting into the earth? And the pesticides we’re putting into the earth? What we’re releasing into the air? Instead, we just cut off more organs!” That’s where metaphor comes into it—not even metaphor as much as reality.

Rumpus: The way I think of it—and you’d be amazed at how much resistance there is to this, even within my medical world—is the way in which physical illness enters a life story. It’s never something that occurs in isolation, out of context.

Ensler: Yes.

Rumpus: I want to ask about how your career evolved, about the separation you felt from your own body, and how that ultimately led you to ask women about their vaginas, which ultimately led to The Vagina Monologues. First, though, a question about something you’ve said: that in trying to re-join your body, you made “unsuccessful attempts,” including with anorexia, promiscuity, and performance art. I’m reminded of that Sesame Street song: “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.” How is performance art like anorexia and promiscuity?

Ensler: All of those things were, to some degree, very physical things, right? Anorexia was my attempt to have control over my body and manipulate my body and starve my body and shape my body. It was not a very good relationship. It was the sort of relationship my father had to my body. It was a tyrannical, “you’ll do what I tell you” relationship. Then there was sex, which, for me, was such a need. When I was younger, I had a need to have sex with everyone. I don’t know where that was coming from, but there was such a need to connect physically—obviously, for me to connect physically to myself. There were times, like I say in the book, where you lay on top of me, when you push me down, when you’re inside me…

Rumpus: “I exist.”

Ensler: Yes. I exist. And The Vagina Monologues, or other pieces that I did early on, were performative, but they were ways for me to suddenly feel myself in my body. I remember doing The Vagina Monologues one night when I actually came into my vagina. I thought, Oh my god! I just landed in my vagina!

Rumpus: I definitely feel that in watching your performance [recorded for HBO in 2002], that it was a very visceral experience. And it surprised me that you found that to be “unsuccessful” as a way of connecting to your body. Or maybe you mean “partially successful”?

Ensler: I think it was temporary. There were momentary visitations. I was a visitor, not an inhabitant. I think I say that at the beginning of the book: “I have made visits to the earth in my body, but it’s always been as a visitor.”

Look, you do everything in stages, right? I don’t think everything happens at once. There are so many layers we are constantly chipping away at, down and down and down, closer and closer to what would be the body. I think what happened with cancer, was that I woke up out of nine hours of surgery and I was body. I was just body.

Rumpus: I guess it would be silly to think that once you started doing The Vagina Monologues, that everything was resolved for you overnight, even though, in retrospect, these things always sound so neat, so linear.

Ensler: And they’re never that way, right? You have visits, then you have disappearances. You enter, then you exit. You come, you go. It would be so great if you could just get to human enlightenment on a linear path.

Rumpus: You’ve said that you’ve lived exactly the life you wanted. You mentor so many young women. What would you tell them—given how un-linear life is—about how to reach age sixty, as you have just done, and be able to say that?

Ensler: So many young women have been coming on this tour across the country, and it’s been so moving to me to hear how many girls perform The Vagina Monologues and are reporting that they came into their bodies doing that show. That performance was the performance where they entered their bodies. It turns out that they didn’t need sixty years! Either they didn’t have those experiences [of abuse], or they got it younger, or there was consciousness around them. What I would say is this—and maybe this is too monolithic, and I don’t want to universalize to that point—I think we’re all, each one of us, after something. And I don’t know if it has to do with an initial wound, or just being human. But there’s some search that we’re on, some quest that we’re on. And I think that what we don’t do is heed that search. We get off track. Capitalism takes us off track. You get off the “real” and get on the “wheel.” The “wheel” becomes the winning and losing, the succeeding and failing, the “I will achieve.” All that stuff becomes so preoccupying, particularly if you’re born with low self-esteem, or no sense of yourself, or even if you’re just born in the consumer culture. It’s very powerful.

What I would say to young women is: Pay attention to the real. Pay attention to what you’re really thirsting for. What do you really want? And I think that’s much harder to decipher in a culture that has no interest in it. What interests me is, are we going to wake in time? Are human beings going to wake up to ourselves, to the incredible poverty that’s on this planet, to what we’re doing to the earth, to what we’re doing to women, to what we’re doing to boys? That’s what’s important.

If you listen to the real in you, that part that’s pulsing and has questions and is trying to figure something out, it will shape your life in a way where, when you get to be sixty, you’ll succeed. You’ll be happy about your life.

Rumpus: A couple of questions about that ambient culture: my twenty-five-year-old daughter and I recently watched a DVD of your 2002 performance of The Vagina Monologues together…

Ensler: That’s so sweet!

Rumpus: …and she and I were commenting that it didn’t seem at all dated…

Ensler: I wish it was!

Rumpus: Right! And I found myself thinking that you must have been pulling your hair out during the 2012 presidential campaign, between the attacks on Sandra Fluke and the comments about rape by Todd Akin… Were you sitting there thinking, Wow, I thought we were farther along than this?

Ensler: Oh my god, yes. I don’t know if you read my Todd Akin piece…I have to say, I was not only horrified…but one of the things I say to my [V-Day] team every year is, “You know, this will probably be the last year, guys.” And they go, “No it’s not.” And I go,” Yeah! It’ll be the last year! It’s been almost twenty years!” And this year? There were 5,500 productions in 2,400 places. This is 2000-and-what year?! And I think to myself, What does it take to deconstruct patriarchy? How many years are we going to have to keep doing this?

Look, I think we have made progress. There’s no doubt about it, we have moved forward. But there’s some essential, core thing that has not been deconstructed. And I’m telling you, it’s connected to the body. I know it is.

Rumpus: Tell me more about that. And related to that, you, very early, connected the dots that other people have not connected: between body image issues—that form of oppression—and rape and threats against reproductive rights, etc. I feel these connections have to do with that elemental thing you feel we are not getting at.

Ensler: I was a young feminist in the ’70s. Feminism saved my life. It gave me a life. But I saw how so much of what people were saying was not matching up with what they were doing. For example, we were talking about sister solidarity, and women were putting each other down. We were talking about standing up for our rights, and women weren’t leaving abusive relationships with men. There were just so many disconnects. It really occurred to me at a certain point: women have not been embodied. Feminism has not been embodied. It hasn’t gotten into us in a way where it is so undeniable that there is nothing to prove. Do you know what I mean? That we are so in our feminist skin, so to speak, that we are that world now.

If the theatre has taught me anything, it’s that when things change in the body, in the body politic, in the body of the world, in the body of the earth, in the body of the person, there’s change. You never go back.

I have to tell you, what happened to me in the cancer conversion process…it’s done. I’m a changed person.

Rumpus: Have you been able to say, either about yourself or others, in situations that weren’t cancer or illness-related, “Yes, that’s what embodiment of feminism looks like!”

Ensler: Absolutely. I’ve seen that in singers. I’ve seen that in dancers. I’ve seen that in mystics. I’ve seen that in poets. I’ve seen it, actually, in very grassroots women who are activists fighting on the ground for human rights.

Rumpus: Do you see it in the Congo?

Ensler: I do.

Rumpus: How are things at City of Joy?

Ensler: City of Joy is absolutely wonderful. I’m just so proud of the women, of what we’re doing. We’ve graduated three classes, 222 girls. They are doing incredibly well. They go through therapy, group therapy, dance, theater…really wonderful healing from trauma.They learn life skills, they learn agriculture, they learn computer technology, they learn literacy training, they learn their rights. The place is so beautiful. I can’t even tell you how gorgeous it is. It’s the happiest place on the planet for me. I never feel happier than when I’m there. There’s just so much joy. I don’t actually think I knew joy until I went there. What joy was. The expression of joy. The power of joy.

We now have our fourth class. The war is still going on. But these girls are leading. They are transforming their communities. They’re starting cooperatives. They’re talking back to the government. They’re changing the traditions in their families. They’re speaking out. They’re amazing. And when they leave, it’s embodied in them. You can feel it in their presence, that they have changed. All the way through them.

Rumpus: Do they tell you that they feel they have recovered or are recovering from their trauma?

Ensler: Oh, yeah. Many of these women come with bullet wounds. They have missing organs. They have babies that their families are taking care of for six months because they’re the product of rape and they don’t know how to love them—and they come to learn to love them. They come with nightmares. They come with night terrors. And I tell you, the way they are after six months is just something I’ve never seen.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that the coltan and other metals that are used in the iPhones and other products we buy make us complicit in rape, which is employed in the Congo as a military and corporate strategy to amass these materials. Is it challenging for you, as it is for many activists, to live in the world you’re trying to change? To use a smartphone, for example?

Ensler: Absolutely. I live with that contradiction daily. It is a constant struggle. I struggle very deeply. I don’t think I’ve said this to anyone, but I’ve wondered if I just want to give up this world and live in the Congo and just be there. But I don’t think that’s what they need from me.

It was so sweet. Dr. Mukwege—who runs the hospital and is just the most amazing human being, besides the woman who directs City of Joy—he told me a few days ago that he read my book. He said, “Eve, it’s our book.” I thought, I’m  done. I don’t really need anything else. Nobody has to say anything else to me.

But what he feels I should be doing is what I’m doing, which is raising money and advocating for them. That’s what I do—well. And that’s what I can do. The women of the Congo own City of Joy. They run City of Joy. It’s theirs. What I can do is keep finding the resources so they can do what they do. Which means I need to bridge these worlds and live with those contradictions. And who doesn’t live with contradictions? Life is so fraught with contradiction and paradox and irony.

Rumpus: Has your cancer experience inspired you towards new directions for your art or your activism?

Ensler: It’s inspired me creatively, because there’s a lot of creative juices that are beginning to flow right now. I have to tell you, it’s made me very aware of health care and the lack of health care. I feel really passionate about the fact that every single person needs affordable health care.

I feel passionate about nurses. I would do anything for nurses. Anything.

And I feel very passionate that we need CAT scanners in every country in the world. There’s not a CAT scanner in all of eastern Congo. People don’t use the word “cancer” because they don’t get diagnosed. They just die.

If I had a dream it would be to think, What would it be like for everybody to have the kind of health care I had? What would that feel like? How would that be, to live in that world? Because I’ll tell you, to be really, really sick, and to not have money. That is terrifying. And in my opinion, a travesty.

Rumpus: You will always be known—whether you cure cancer, or fly to the moon and back—as “the woman who wrote The Vagina Monologues.” How do you feel about that?

Ensler: I feel wonderful about that. What a thing to be known for! Vaginas! My god, it’s where we all come from. It’s so sacred. It’s so beautiful. And you know what? I feel that every time some young woman falls in love with her vagina and gets how sacred it is and how special it is and how it’s hers and how much power she has—not the power “over” but the power of  love, the power of life in her being.

C’mon! What’s better than that? What better thing to be doing? I can’t even imagine.

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“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.

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Featured image of Eve Ensler © by Brigette Lacombe.
Second image of Ensler © by Martin Argles.
Third image of Ensler © by Robbie Jack.
Fifth image of Ensler © by Suzanne DeChillo.