EVE ENSLER: FROM PAIN TO POWER TO JOY


courtesy from Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

By Paul Freeman [May 2013 Interview]

This could well be the most compelling book youíll ever read. Also the most harrowing, horrific... and, ultimately, inspirational.

Eve Enslerís ďIn The Body of the WorldĒ (Holt/Metropolitan) is a truly remarkable work. Itís an achievement not only in terms of reaching a searing level of honesty within oneself, but also in sharing it with strangers, in the form of this book. It allows the reader to learn all about Eve, from her traumatic, childhood abuse to tireless work battling violence against women, to a courageous fight to overcome uterine cancer.

The Tony Award-winning playwright (ďThe Vagina MonologuesĒ), author, performer and activist paused to talk with Pop Culture Classics in the midst of a hectic book promotion tour.

Ensler had endured nine-hour surgery, infection, and chemo. Reached on her cell phone, she was actually at the Mayo Clinic, where she had been treated.

Ensler advocates turning pain into power. Over the course of her nightmarish medical struggle, she found that was she able to let go of her agonizing childhood.

Earlier in her life, Ensler had felt disassociated from her body. Self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and sex didnít help.

In addition to this new connection with her body, Ensler also discovered a sense of how all the elements of her life are in some way connected.

In the midst of an ordeal like the one Ensler suffered through, it can be tempting to just give up. But Ensler has been working in the Congo, trying to stem the widespread rape, torture and mutilation of women. When diagnosed, she was in the process of helping to build City of Joy there, where women can heal emotionally, establish new lives and then return to their communities to lead.

Click here to listen to audio excerpt from Body Of The World book, Courtesy Macmillan Audio.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
ďIn The Body of the WorldĒ is a truly stunning work. The searing honesty you reached within yourself, was it difficult to share that with strangers in the form of this book?

EVE ENSLER:
You know, I donít think I realized it until I started doing the tour, to be honest [Laughs]. Itís not hard in the sense that I wish I didnít do it or anything like that. Itís just hard in that itís so emotional. Do you know? I donít think I was prepared for how emotional this was going to be.

PCC:
Emotional for the readers, as well as yourself?

ENSLER:
Yeah. I have to say, the tourís been very moving, very, very moving. And to see the kind of response people are having - itís just the way people are getting it and what itís bringing up in people, what people are sharing as a result of it, itís so moving.

PCC:
Have you been told that the book has been empowering for some of the readers?

ENSLER:
Very much so. Yes, very much so. Iím actually at the Mayo. I came back here, because they asked me to do a reading here last night and a big lunch/lecture today. And hundreds of women came. And it was incredible, just to see the number of women who came up to me to say, ĎThank you. This is what I needed to hear. And Ií m going to give this to everyone. And I had chemo.í Because this is the place where people come and where people work in the field. So itís been very wonderful.

PCC:
Your voice has been so important in trying to stem the tide of violence against women, across the globe, primarily in the Congo. Was that an important factor in your not giving up throughout the health ordeal?

ENSLER:
I think, to be honest with you, getting City of Joy opened was a huge factor in surviving, because I felt like we had made this promise. And I didnít want to let people down, to leave them without resources. I mean, they were building it and they run it and its theirs, but my commitment was to find the resources and to be there for that. And, in the middle of this, the idea that I wasnít going to show up, it just sucked [Laughs]

PCC:
Having had to battle, in one way or another, all your life, did that strengthen you when you had these excruciating cancer treatments?

Photo credit Paula Allen for V-Day

ENSLER:
I think so. I think because I had been trying for so many years to get back into my body and, when I came out of that surgery, I was suddenly in my body, even though I was very weakened and sick, it was so glorious to be in myself that it began to give me a particular kind of energy that I hadnít had before.

PCC:
In addition to this new connection with your body, did you also get a sense of how all the elements of your life were connected in some way?

ENSLER:
I did. And I think thatís really what the bookís about. Itís just looking at the irony of this dystopically, pathologically dividing, cell-dividing disease, that was reuniting me with nature, was reuniting me with my sister. It was making me see connections I had never understood before, like that abscess infection, the oil in my body, and the Gulf spill. And all the ways cancer gets made and what is cancer and the carelessness of cancer. Cancer is everywhere from our carelessness. And violence. And the violence towards my body. And the violence towards the Earth. It all just began to make sense... Or no sense, if you know what I mean.

PCC:
Accepting your body, reconnecting was that something youíd been trying to achieve all your life, and just not knowing how, moving in sometimes ineffective, sometimes self-destructive ways?

ENSLER:
Yes, my whole life. If I look back now on my body of work - body being the operative word - everything Iíve ever written has been this attempt to get back in my body. Beginning with ĎThe Vagina Monologuesí and then ĎThe Good Body.í And I obviously had tried all kinds of bad ideas, to get back into my body, ideas that seemed right at the time, but werenít terribly effective. And I think whatís happening on this tour is Iím meeting so many women who have been desperately trying to get back into their bodies. And part of the dialogue is, what are the ways, besides catastrophic cancer, to get back in? Because this isnít a please-try-this-at-home guide [Laughs].

PCC:
Letting go, releasing the past, that must have been incredibly liberating for you.

ENSLER:
Oh, itís incredible. And to have had the frame for the chemo, which allowed it to burn away at my past and to zap it, so to speak, has been just the biggest liberation in the world. And itís interesting, I was talking about that this morning and so many cancers patients came up to me afterwards with gratitude, because they said it just gave them a whole frame for approaching chemo, as opposed to this kind of useless, painful activity. So it becomes a matter of putting an intention around it and working on it as something that could transform the past.

PCC:
The process of writing the book, did that help you sort out all of the emotions, the changes, the turmoil? Was it cathartic?

ENSLER:
This whole cancer conversion process has been like diagnosis, treatment and the book. But now I think thereís a fourth stage, which is the tour [Laughs], which I hadnít anticipated.

PCC:
What were the keys to your not giving up - other than momentarily - the keys to your being a survivor?

ENSLER:
Once I got this chemo idea, that the chemo could actually help me to get rid of my pain and my sense of badness that Iíve carted around all my life, I think I kind of got excited about it. I know it sounds odd, but I think I began to feel like, maybe this is something that frees me. Even my worst hours, I began to treat it like that. That was a big part of it.

And look, V-Dayís an amazing movement [Art and activism combining to help victims of violence and sexual abuse]. Itís vast. Itís huge. So there was a lot, a lot of love around me. To be honest with you, I said to Toast [her friend] a few times in this process, ĎIf I died, it would be really embarrassing [Laughs] with all this love.í There was a lot to live for. Mainly the City of Joy, but then there were my family and friends. And actually a curiosity, to see if it was really possible to let go of this projection of darkness that had been inside me my whole life. And I think that began to be a huge motivator. Iíve got to tell you, it wasnít easy. It was grueling. Very grueling.

PCC:
During the course of this, you did come across a new understanding of what love is, a new perception of it?

ENSLER:
I did. I truly did. And I think that was one of the biggest revelations, because, as I say in the book, our whole lives, weíre searching for that big love, that sweep-you-off-your-feet love. And then, suddenly, to have this revelation that I was in the middle of this big love, that it was happening all around me very day, and I had never honored my own narrative, I had never appreciated my own life, because I kept waiting for this other thing to arrive, I think that revelation really began to free me. It also just made me relax, realizing that I had the life I wanted and I didnít have to go anywhere or do anything to find it. I was in it. And thatís kind of been maintained. Iím still in that place.

PCC:
So there really are lasting changes in perception following this journey?

ENSLER:
Oh, very much so. I would say like 90 percent of the time now, I am quite happy. Look, when you almost die, when you come so close to that, and you get to live, itís hard not to be grateful every day. Itís hard not to wake up and go, ĎWow! I got to be here!í

I just spent the last two days with my surgeons and doctors and I was hearing, from their perspective, how truly sick I was. And I donít think they had ever really shared it with me, the depth of it before. I was like, ĎOkay, good to know.í [Laughs] So I know I dodged a bullet here. I donít know how to describe the feeling, but, in a way, I feel like Iíve already died and now Iíve got this second wind and now weíve got to do what we have to do. And not apologize and not be afraid.

PCC:
In your activism, how have you been able to overcome the frustrations and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems facing women in places like the Congo.

ENSLER:
You know, there are days when I feel completely overwhelmed. And I feel itís impossible. And there are days when I look at One Billion Rising [the global campaign Ensler created to end violence and to promote justice and equality for women] and the fact that we got a billion people on the planet, that women rose in 207 countries and were completely committed to this and I feel so not overwhelmed. I feel so energized. So I range between the highs and the lows. The possible and whatís not possible.

And I also think, looking at the Congo, weíve got this horrible war that rages, but we just graduated our third class. We already have our fourth class there. And they are doing unbelievably well. Theyíre having a huge impact on their communities. Theyíre changing their world. And theyíre starting cooperatives. Theyíre impacting their families. And theyíre fighting against fate. Itís hard not to keep going when you see that possibility. And, at the same time, the war is raging on. The situation is insane, highly insecure. We donít know whatís going to happen from day to day. No oneís protected. No oneís safe. The poverty is escalating. But we keep going. I guess what Iím learning, more and more, is just to live in the center of the paradox and not expect to land anywhere, to keep going.

PCC:
And you keep going, because you have to fight the good fight, regardless of whether you get the result or not?

ENSLER:
I think we are getting the results in many places. Have we ended violence? No. But this year, we had a billion people rise in 207 countries, dance and speak out against violence, which is impacting legislation, which is bringing coalitions together, which is putting violence against women in the news, and all the media. Itís a mindset shift. And, at the same time, 5,500 events of V-Days in 1,800 places. So the movement goes on. And liberation goes on. And Iím meeting on this tour, so many women who have been impacted, who, in a younger generation, did the ĎVagina Monologuesí and now theyíre changed people. And thatís amazing. And I see theyíre growing up differently and they have different ideas and different beliefs.

PCC:
But with situations like the Congo, as well as global sex trafficking, how do you react to the apathy of so many governments, as well as individuals, that tendency to be in denial?

ENSLER:
Well, I mean, letís join the patriarchal world! How long have we been working on these issues? Governments have just stayed completely apathetic and unengaged and not with us in this struggle. So itís certainly not surprising. But what I do see is a much huger mobilization of activists across the globe. Huge mobilization. And, you know, things do change, when enough people get activated. We know there is change. So I focus on where grass roots movements are growing and where women on the ground are doing extraordinary work, inspiring their communities and shifting consciousness. And we just keep going. Whatís the alternative? Quit and go home? Thatís not an alternative. When enough people get going - and I think weíre close to it beginning to happen - thereís going to be a win. And it will begin to give us more energy. And it will begin to shift things.

You look at the morning-after-pill happening. You look at the fact that we got rid of Todd Akin. And Paul Ryan as Vice-President. Women did that. We did that. So we are having victories. Now, I would like us to be pushing forward, as opposed to defending ourselves against the onslaught. But at least weíre winning those battles.

PCC:
After all youíve experienced, seen heard, do you sometimes just want to shield yourself from the stories of horror, trauma, pain?

ENSLER:
I am not listening to that many stories anymore, to be honest with you. I kind of feel I canít. I feel like, for 15 years, I listened to stories. And now Iím convinced [Laughs]. Iím doing the work every day. But I donít think I can take in the stories the way I did before. I canít.

PCC:
That whole concept of good things out of bad, power out of pain, is that something you have to constantly pursue? Or has it become ingrained in you?

ENSLER:
You know, I think it depends on the day. I was just with the graduating class at City of Joy. I looked at those girls and I had seen them when this group started and I saw how they had arrived. They had bullet wounds. They had missing body parts. They had children they had brought who they were wanting to learn how to love, who were the products of rape. And they were a mess. And I looked at them when they were graduating and these girls were just miracles. They were strong and beautiful and powerful. And they were leaders. And they were sure of themselves. And they were making a commitment to go back to their communities. And theyíre doing it. And, when I see that, I think, ĎWell, anythingís possible.í As Dr. Mukwege says, they are the real story of Congo. And given the resources and given the support, those women will turn the country around. So Iím just living to that.

PCC:
That wonderful concept of City of Joy, can that be expanded, taken to other parts of the world?

ENSLER:
Itís definitely our dream. What we want to do is give it five years, so weíve ironed out all the snags and we look at what succeeds and what doesnít, whatís better and what isnít. And we just have this amazing farm, called V-World, which is this incredible land that will become a farming cooperative for the women in that village, but also for the women graduating from City of Joy. And itís gorgeous. And thereís pig-farming and all kinds of things growing and Itís glorious. Itís first having this setting where women can turn their pain to power and now weíre calling it Ďturning pain to planting.í So itís this eco way of transforming pain into growing. And I think weíll have this beautiful template of a creation that, when we have it right, we will be able to replicate it. Thatís my dream.

PCC:
As far as the readers of the new book, is there one particular thing you want them to walk away with?

ENSLER:
I think what I want them to know is that, weíve been told that our denial is protecting us. But, in fact, if you donít pay attention to a tumor growing in your body or you donít acknowledge climate change or you walk by the poor people around you, in fact, it isnít protecting you. In the end, it will come to get you. And I hope this book is about coming into your body, which is coming into the world and being embodied, so that you feel the world and you feel whatís going on around you, so that you are really propelled to act.

PCC:
With all youíve done, with all youíve gone through, can anything daunt you, at this point?

ENSLER:
Stop me? No. Am I porous and open to people hurting me? Of course. If people are unkind, of course. But I think the only thing that can really get me down is when I see people just walking asleep, indifferent. That can bring me down. But where people are in struggle, fighting back, standing up and fighting off, I always feel energy.

Look at these women in Rochester, Minnesota today, coming up, one after the other, on line. Some were in their 80s, some were in their 20s. And they see the struggle in all their lives. And I see how much they want to be good people and how they all want to do good work. And they just need support to do it. And itís making me hopeful. We just have to give people directions and support and communities, where they can thrive. And not feel like I felt for most of my life, which so many people feel - of no value, that theyíre stupid, that they will never add up to anything. We have to build up peopleís sense of being a part of, sense of value and sense that they can do anything. And thatís the work. Because, we can talk all we want about political change, but until it changes inside you, until you have the self-esteem to stand up and have a voice, it wonít happen. I think thatís why the book is a personal/political book, because I donít see them as separate.

Visit www.eveensler.org.