The artist-activist talks with Michael Klein about surviving cancer, working in the Congo, and how both came together in her latest book, In The Body of the World.
Photo by Brigette Lacombe
Eve Ensler first came to the attention of New York audiences and then of the world as the result of the wild success of The Vagina Monologues. Ensler’s play is ostensibly about a word and people being uncomfortable saying it or hearing it—but of course it’s also a conversation about something Ensler has always been watching in the culture: the refusal to speak about what is really going on with women and their bodies.
That subject led Ensler to the writing of more plays—Necessary Targets, about the treatment of women in Bosnia and The Good Body, a solo performance piece about how women in different cultures look at themselves. This led her to travel to regions of the world where women were in peril. In the Congo, she worked with local Congolese men and women to found City of Joy, a leadership center and sanctuary for women survivors of violence to come put their lives back together through therapy and life skills programming.
Ensler’s new book, In the Body of the World, is her fiercest document to date—a book about her battle with, and eventual triumph over, Stage 3 ovarian cancer. The language is immediate and raw. Just as one can finish reading a book in one sitting, one feels that this book was written the same way: it has the cadence of a locomotive. The book’s true revelation is Ensler’s ability to tell the story of her own cancer and survival alongside the equally powerful story of women on the other side of the world and their struggle to survive a different kind of disease—the epidemic of violence, in which—as she has written in the book, “nearly 8 million people have died and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and tortured. It is an economic war fought over minerals that belong to the Congolese but are pillaged by the world.”
By her own admission, Ensler has always walked the thin line between what it means to be an artist and an activist. She is now involved with the global action One Billion Rising for Justice, an action scheduled for February 14th, 2014, when women will show up at places where they are entitled to justice—courthouses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship—and tell their abuse stories through poetry, or dance, or song or any way they choose.
I spoke with Eve at her loft in New York City. As I had hoped, we spoke of the Congo and of her book. But another surprising revelation came through: that Eve’s activism is rooted not just in anger at injustice, but in what has become a core clarified by her experience with cancer: that miracles aren’t magic; people help to create them.
—Michael Klein for Guernica
Guernica: I’ve always thought of you as an activist who archives stories about women and then turns those stories into art. But in this new book, you’re telling your own story in a much more immediate way. It’s very different than anything else you’ve ever written.
Eve Ensler: After I was diagnosed with cancer and immediately rushed into a 9-hour surgery from which I awakened with tubes and catheters and many missing organs and nodes, I experienced what it felt like to be in my body for the first time in my life. I was pure essence of body: blood, pus, piss. BODY. And so I began this journey of re-entering not only my body, but the body of the world—being with nature and connecting with my distant sister and deepening connections with friends.
In terms of my own writing, this new book felt like part of a trilogy. There was The Vagina Monologues, there was The Good Body (a play) and then, In the Body of the World. The Vagina Monologues was more removed from me in terms of how I wrote it. Then, The Good Body grew out of something that was on the surface more personal, but my contempt for my body created a huge distance. And then, In the Body of the World was the last in the trilogy, my body was really hungry to tell its story and I somehow learned to get out of the way so that could that happen.
Guernica: It’s interesting—that’s almost the reverse of how some writers talk about subject matter as being something where they start with themselves and move out into the world and bigger concerns. You started out the bigger world and then moved into work about you, about your body.
Eve Ensler: It’s about proximity to self. What do we really mean by “self”? I think we keep getting closer and closer to that nugget or that thing that is self, but it’s constantly disappearing at the same time.
Guernica:Oliver Wendell Holmes said that having a chronic disease and taking care of it gives you this incredible awareness about being alive. Was that true for you?
Eve Ensler: I think to some degree everyone on the planet is suffering—whether primary or secondary trauma. One of the reasons women are so cut off from their own wisdom or energy or creativity intuition or sense of self is because they’ve been so traumatized. As a child growing up, there was so much that had clogged the passageway or my ability to connect with myself and other people and nature. Cancer and various treatments burned away much of the residue of trauma. An old therapist appeared at my desperate hour and gave me this directive: “the chemo is not for you, it’s for the cancer. For all the past crimes. For your father. It’s for the rapists. It’s for the perpetrators. You’re going to poison them now and they are never coming back. You’re going to welcome the chemo as an empathetic warrior.”
Guernica: The book reads like you were writing it as it was happening.
Eve Ensler: I did not write it as it was happening. As it was happening, I was busy surviving. So, when I did write it, it all happened again – if that makes sense. I was consciously inside the experience. I went through those months in life and then went through those months as a writer, writing a book. I never had such a physical experience as a writer. There were times when I would be on the floor crawling, wailing, writing.
I don’t even know what kind of tree it was. It was so unexpected—we know the unexpected throws you off kilter and being off kilter allows something to enter you in a very particular way.
Guernica: One of the most beautiful sections in the book is your story about a tree and how you had this blissful moment of experiencing the essence of the tree.
Eve Ensler: It had the quality of a miracle—that tree. I was completely unprepared for it. The story really begins in Vermont in my early twenties—leaving Vermont after years in the countryside and driving into Manhattan and being stoned and drunk and saying, I hope I never see another fucking tree. That’s really who I was. I was broken, cynical, sarcastic. I was that turned away from nature, turned away from life.
During my cancer I was in that hospital room and very sick from the infection and I couldn’t write or watch movies or even speak. And there, in front of me was a tree. The tree possessed me. Those days with the tree—those days when I became tree, when I fell in love with tree, where I merged with tree were just some of the best days of my entire life. And I can remember people coming into the room and me saying, can you go away? I am with tree. Do not interrupt us. I have just found tree. And, of course, the day before I left the hospital, it blossomed. There were these gentle white blossoms. I don’t even know what kind of tree it was. It was so unexpected—we know the unexpected throws you off kilter and being off kilter allows something to enter you in a very particular way. Each day was a new discovery. How had I been living my entire life not seeing this? Not seeing trees, not knowing trees. I think it’s true for many people. We aren’t present to so much.
These were women who had suffered the worst atrocities of war. A war fought for minerals on women’s bodies.
Guernica: There’s another extraordinary chapter in the book, “It Wasn’t a Foreboding” that speaks to the terrible bout of vomiting that you had after seven months of treatment, where you really thought you were going to vomit to death. You wrote: “I was at ground zero, back at the moment when I wanted no more of this world, back at the moment of witnessing what had shattered my psyche”—another instance in the book where your own experience with what’s happening to your body mirrors something happening on the other side of the world, in the body of the Congo. Can you talk more about your time in the Congo?
Eve Ensler: When I first went to the Congo, to Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, there were lines of women wrapped around the hospital waiting to tell me their story. These were women who had suffered the worst atrocities of war. A war fought for minerals on women’s bodies. There was just so much coming into my body and it overwhelmed my nervous system. There was one story, that was just too much. That story—of a woman witnessing another pregnant women whose uterus was cut open by invading soldiers, the woman dying, her baby falling out and then the soldiers boiling the baby and forcing this other woman to eat it—was beyond. And, as she was telling the story, she was on the floor reenacting it. She was fighting them off. She was spitting up the baby. I left the room after and vomited.
The evil of capitalist greed that creates this war for minerals, the collateral damage-rape, destruction of human beings—the cruelty of all that was just too much. I thought in that moment if this is what the world has come to—that we can do this to people through our greed and selfishness—why do I want to be here anymore? At that moment, I sent a signal to my body that we were checking out. That story, coupled with all the trauma I have witnessed and experienced over the years—was just too much. The nervous system blew. All the sockets blew. Fuses blew out in the house and it was dark. I can look back and see that that moment signaled a collapse in my desire to be here or protect myself and so my immune system let down its guard.
Guernica: Apart from everything else, your book really is about that incredible decision of wanting to live. Another connection I felt in the book was the one which, of course, frames your life – the balance or imbalance, maybe, between art and activism. Can you talk about how it feels to embody both?
Eve Ensler: The trajectories of both are so different. As an activist, you have a very particular agenda and you have a specific thing you’re fighting for. Art is very different. Art lives in ambiguity. It’s not supposed to be directive.
When I was younger, it was very difficult for me to ever trust that characters—for instance, in a play—could exist as they really were without me making them a certain way. Or, more broadly, allowing for the organic movement of a particular narrative without me having to direct it. I don’t think I succeeded very well. I was very didactic. The older I get, the more I know that the work that has the most influence on me is work that grows out of ambiguity, layers, complexity. It feels dangerous this work, messy.
Guernica: As playwright you’re always walking that line between rhetoric and the more creative impulses of complexity and ambiguity.
Eve Ensler: And I like that line. I think it’s the most interesting place. I just saw an amazing all-woman production of Julius Caesar, which is brilliant because it’s set in a women’s prison and you have women prisoners who are in power struggles within the prison performing a play about power struggles. History and present time become one thing. And women are playing men so brilliantly that you see men in ways that you never have before. It was fantastic, layers of witnessing, performing within performing.
Guernica: Can you talk about V-Day and how it has sort of morphed into this new action One Billion Rising?
Eve Ensler: We now know that we can’t address violence against women without addressing economic, environmental or racial injustice. So, for example, in many countries now, including the U.S., girls are being sold by their own families as either prostitutes or brides. Or we can look at the increased incidence of rape and sexual assault at fracking or mining sites where outside workers come in and end up raping the local women.
This country loves to point a finger at India, Pakistan and other countries, when in fact—if you look at Steubenville; or the 300, 000 women who are raped and assaulted every year on college campuses or how many women are being raped in the U.S. military—the level of violence we’re talking about in America is off the charts.
There was an amazing report put out last week about the fact that climate change is escalating conflict on the planet. And we know in America where one out of five people are unemployed—that violence is escalating and now as a result of cut backs and austerity measures there are severe cut backs in the most necessary social programs and shelters. We know all these things are interconnected and one of the great things that’s happening with the movement now is that all these forces are coming together to build or tell the bigger story.
V-Day is huge in the U.S. It’s in every state, in hundreds of colleges and communities across the country. We have a huge problem in this country with violence: one out of three women in America will be raped or beaten. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in America and speaking. This country loves to point a finger at India, Pakistan and other countries, when in fact—if you look at Steubenville; or the 300, 000 women who are raped and assaulted every year on college campuses or how many women are being raped in the U.S. Military—the level of violence we’re talking about in America is off the charts.
It turns out violence against women is a world epidemic. There may be acid burning in some country and genital mutilation in another country and selling girls for the price of a cell phone in another and raping girls on college campuses in another, but it’s all the same methodology which keeps patriarchy in its place.
Guernica: Wouldn’t the world be better off with women at the helm? That seems, in a way, to be part of the subtext in your activism.
Eve Ensler: I’m not sure it’s just a matter of women being in power. It’s about the right women being in power. Oftentimes, women who get into power have modeled themselves to a large degree on masculine behavior, sometimes they actually, in proving they are strong and able, outdo men in being more aggressive: conservative, hawkish. What I’m really interested in is not so much moving people into power but changing the paradigm and how we begin to create a transformational world rather than a transactional world.
I interviewed a wonderful man, Joe Orman, recently who coaches boys in sports. He told me he was a transformational coach. He says the difference between transaction and transformation is that the transactional coach teaches boys to win at any cost— whatever they have to do—step over the dead to get to the finish line. But transformational coaches actually create character as boys are learning sports. And, ever since then, I look at everything I do and think, is this transaction or is this transformation? I actually believe that justice—for me—is looking at connection; where we connect with each other; where we connect the issues, where we allow empathy to lead us.
Guernica: Terrence McKenna, the late American philosopher who was a kind of shaman who came into his self awareness through experiments with plant-based hallucinogins and someone who I know you love (Wikipedia calls a “psychonaut”) said, “we’re led by the least among us— the least intelligent, the least noble, the least visionary…” He ends the statement with this great motto—“culture is not your friend.” What do you think?
Eve Ensler: I have a great passion for Terrence McKenna right now. When he talks about culture as not being your friend, he’s talking about this kind of corporate central controlled culture that is being mainlined into us. A toxic culture of consumption and passivity that sustains icons and discourages creativity, originality and resistance. The culture has merged with the consumer corporate modality and they are one—whether it’s product placement in movies or sitting in the back of a taxi cab with an endlessly running video. Everybody is selling something. Consume, consume. What consumer culture does is create this world of isolation and longing that creates an unrequited desire in people so that they amass goods and over consume—the opposite of consuming is connecting.
How do we encourage more people to develop their renegade muscle or energy?
Guernica: I have to wonder why are we not in the streets everyday yelling and screaming and helping bring this other world McKenna talks about to fruition?
Eve Ensler: I wonder that all the time. I wonder why we are not crying out over the destruction of our air and water and food and the murdering of bees and butterflies and birds. Why we are aren’t outraged by the mad poverty and the insane disparity of wealth. I read recently that 300 wealthy people make the same amount as 1 billion people. Occupy Wall Street was an upheaval in consciousness. And recently we were in the streets over Syria—that was a great demonstration in terms of what we were able to do. A lot of us mobilized, a lot of us marched and protested. We had a victory. And with One Billion Rising we saw one billion people rise up and dance on the planet to end violence against women and girls and it looks like this year will be even bigger. People are ready for change, for revolution. They know it’s time. And there are thousands of activists on this planet who are doing incredible work. I think it’s hard for people who have become successful to put themselves on the line because they worry they will lose what they’ve gained. How do we encourage more people to develop their renegade muscle or energy? There’s enormous loneliness in this culture. What we need to do is find the ways to build community. One of the ways of building community is encouraging people to tell their stories and to tell the truth. When we tell the truth it opens the door for others to do the same and that connects us more deeply.
I can’t tell you how often people come up to me and say, I feel everything you’re talking about but I’m too scared to say it. You see someone like Snowden who ends up being exiled in Russia or Chelsea Manning getting put in prison for the rest of her life. Often people who tell the truth, give voice to the secret story—they’re shunned, ridiculed attacked, arrested. So, it doesn’t really inspire one to step out and take a risk. We need networks of support, circles of allies who have our back. All of us need to have a posse when we’re speaking out and when we’re putting ourselves on the line.
I don’t know why it took cancer to fully break through my own numbness and denial, but it did and it brought me back into my body.
Guernica: Getting the word out and bringing the stories of what really happens to women into the light of day—this has always been your cause; articulating the worst thing that happens to women. And what I find so striking about your cancer story is how it’s the story of your own body doing its worst thing to you. How do you make the connection between your body and the world body as a way of recovering? What does it mean to be in the body of the world?
Eve Ensler: I think I’m getting more clarity about that now. What this whole world has been about up to now is separations. We’re all in our silos. Women’s bodies are seen the same way as the earth—as something we need to tame, something we need to control, something we need to use, dominate. But we don’t see them as something as connected to us. I don’t know why it took cancer to fully break through my own numbness and denial, but it did and it brought me back into my body. I am not anti-intellectual by any means, but I think we’ve worshipped the brain at the expense of the heart and the body and the spirit. As a result, a terrible separation and split has happened. Our work now is to embody intelligence. To make us whole and the world whole.
Eve Ensler: That is the next step and I think there are people who resist that because, even though they won’t say it, they see the body as something that is lowly, animalistic and they see the earth that way, too. I spent time with indigenous women on a reserve in Canada last week and this visionary medicine woman in her prayers kept repeating “Everyone and everything is equal. Everyone and everything is equal.” It’s really quite an astounding idea if you think about it deeply. You and the river, you and the stone, you and the banker, you and the movie star, everyone and everything is equal.
Guernica: In preparing for this interview, you told me that you wanted to talk about miracles.
Eve Ensler: People think of miracles as magic and they’re not magic. We can help instigate a miracle—“an amazing moment, a phenomenon.” The first miracle in my life was The Vagina Monologues. It was absurd on some level—that writing this play about vaginas and performing it in a little theater way downtown would ultimately give birth to a world movement to end violence against women and girls. It was a miracle. Miracles somehow leap over logical progression or prediction. I have been thinking a lot what can provoke or initiate a miracle. I know audacity is involved and breaking taboos or silences. I know vision is part of it and faith in the unseen.
One Billion Rising was a miracle, too. I think we need lots of miracles, extraordinary moments that surprise us and cause leaps of consciousness and action. Miracles that expand the capacity of our imaginations and push through our fear and old stories. I don’t think logic is going to take us there.
Guernica: Does going forward involve merely telling somebody else about it?
Eve Ensler: I think it’s going to happen through the arts – dance, poetry, theater. I think its about tricksters and surprise and the spirit and love. Of course, love. Love is central to what happens next. I think it’s going to happen through creative protests and by people acknowledging openly what they see and what they know and not being afraid of to voice it and rise. It’s an amazing time to be alive right now— the stakes are so extreme and obvious—the creative possibilities are astounding and the possibilities for darkness are astounding, too.
Michael Klein is a poet and writer who teaches at Goddard College. His latest book is The Talking Day, and he has new work in the 2014 annual issue of Little Star, which has just been published. He also reviews poetry for both The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Rumpus.