Through her cancer journey, playwright Eve Ensler comes back into connections with her body – and the earth.
EveEnsler, photograph by Brigitte Lacombe
Eve Ensler is the playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” and the founder of V-Day. Her work inspired “One Billion Rising,” the largest mass global action to end violence against women and girls, held on Feb. 14, 2013.
She is no stranger to violence and sexual abuse, having grown up with that experience in her family, but when she first visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, she found sexual violence used as a weapon of war. It shattered her. Shortly afterward, her diagnosis of uterine cancer and treatment brought her to a new awareness of her body. Her most recent book, “In the Body of the World,” connects her own illness to the devastation of the earth and her life force to the resilience of humanity.
Ensler spoke with the Women’s Press when she was in Minnesota in May.
Minnesota Women’s Press: What does the title, “In the Body of the World” mean to you?
Eve Ensler: Due to my father’s violence, I felt exiled from my body for such a long time, and to some degree from the world, from nature, from being connected in my heart and in my body to what was going on around me.
When you come into your body, you come into the world. You are connected. You are embodied. And I think the journey of cancer, in this oddly ironic way, was the thing that brought me home.
There are many paradoxes in the book, like a place called City of Joy in the midst of so much suffering in the Congo.
We live in paradox. What we don’t want to do is be in the heart of the paradox – in the heart of suffering and the heart of joy. With the City of Joy, it was probably preposterous to think that we were going to build this city in the middle of a zone of war – in a place where people have no food, no water, no electricity. And yet that was the women’s dream, so we built it. These women are graduating as beautiful, fierce, passionate, loving, smart women who are transforming their communities and lifting up the people around them.
In one week there can be so much love coming at me and there is so much horrible suffering coming at me and we hold both of those things. While I was fighting for my life [with cancer], I was also fighting off this desire to die. That was part of fighting for my life.
When you were wearing a colostomy bag from your cancer surgery and a bag of pus as drainage from your infection, you compared those to the earth. How is that?
This was at the same time as the BP oil spill [in the Gulf of Mexico]. I suddenly had no ability to distinguish what was going on inside me from what was going on inside the earth. It felt like an infection from carelessness, from being cut open, from not heeding what nature tells us. There was no longer separation. The bags became such a metaphor. There it was. My shit was revealed. It was on the outside. It was impossible to avoid my own messiness, my own humanity.
How we treat our bodies, how we are diassociated from our bodies, dissociated from ourselves, determines so much of what we do in the world and allow to be done in our name and in our denial.
Because I feel more connected with my body now, I want to look much more deeply at what we are doing to the earth. Where we are drilling, what we are drilling, why we are drilling – fracking and cutting off mountain tops. How we don’t see the earth as this living organism just like our bodies. Everything that was happening in my body with the cancer reminded me of the carelessness with which we treat the earth, treat life, treat bodies, treat ourselves – the dishonoring.
You told the stories of women being raped in the public square, of women watching as their sons and husbands were marched away. You wrote of needing to find the invisible underlying story that connected everything. What is that and did you find it?
There is a story of disconnectedness that runs through the planet, the lack of living in our bodies that allows us to continue living in a dis-compassionate way, that allows us to not feel the suffering of other people. We bring so many people up to disconnect in their hearts. We do that to boys much earlier than we do to girls. The lack of value of the heart, the lack of respect for the heart. What allows people to rape a woman who is screaming, “stop, stop, stop”? What allows us to separate loved ones from screaming people? There is a level of disassociation and compassion that has to operate for that to happen. That is a massive story throughout the planet. It doesn’t matter where I go, I see this same phenomenon.
How do we hear more of that story, spread that story?
We have to encourage women, particularly, to tell their stories, to trust their stories – to write their stories, to sing their stories, to dance their stories, to write plays about their stories, to do films about their stories. And to trust their narrative. To trust the way they see the world. And to trust what they know. I think we know so much more than we are trusting. I think we have knowledge and empathies and intuitions that we discount or we erase or we don’t listen to because we’ve been told we are crazy. We need to create platforms and create dialogues about where people really are, where we really are.
Where do you find hope?
I am very hopeful right now. I survived stage 3/4 cancer and I am three years cancer free and I am alive. I have no complaints. There is enormous gratitude that rules my life. And also I am witnessing the horrors on this planet. I am also witnessing amazing things. We saw a billion women rise up on the planet last year to stand up to say no to violence. There were 5500 events this year in 1800 places with women doing the [“Vagina Monologues”] play and telling their own stories. Women are standing up and changing laws and fighting for their rights and transforming things. At City of Joy, we’ve had three graduating classes. That’s hopeful-making. Does that mean things are good in the Congo? No, things are terrible in the Congo. There is insane violence. But there is also this other current rising up and I choose to focus on that. I’m here. I’m going to focus on where we can move forward and where we can transform things.