Eve Ensler is most famous for her 1996 play, The Vagina Monologues. Since then, the play has become a staple on college campuses and in women's groups and collectives across the world.
Ensler speaks at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark, on Friday, May 10, 7 p.m. Purchase of her book from Women & Children First Bookstore guarantees a free ticket to the event.
Annual "V-day" readings of The Vagina Monologues, with all its sexual details, sometimes upstage the more conventionally romantic celebrations of Valentine's Day. The Vagina Monologues is also the center of a non-profit named V-Day, which Ensler founded to launch a series of programs and initiatives that work on the issue of violence against women.
But The Vagina Monologues is not Ensler's only work, and she has since gone on to produce a long list of works and projects which have acquired almost as much fame. These include the 2006 A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer, an anthology of writings about violence against women the 2003 What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices From Inside a Women's Maximum Security Prison.
Violence against women has been a central theme in all of Ensler's work. She has spoken and written about her father's sexual abuse of her, and her work has explored both the internal and political effects of gendered political violence. It's safe to say that there are few women with quite her success and influence, and Ensler has used both to initiate, through V-Day, several global activist projects aimed at ending violence against women.
In 2011 she opened City of Joy, a $1 million center for women, with money raised by V-day and supplemented by UNICEF. City of Joy is located in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has witnessed some of the most stark instances of violence against women. The center, run and populated entirely by women, is aimed at providing both therapy and leadership training to women battered by the war.
Feb. 14, 2013 saw the first of One Billion Rising, intended to be the first of an international campaign which asks women to join together and dance in public in a show of solidarity against gendered violence.
Ensler's projects are characterized by this kind of audaciously expansive, global ambition, where the issue of violence is not only located in and on individual bodies but within an international set of bodies. She has traveled extensively and worked with women's groups across the world, including RAWA, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and has worked on the slayings of women in Juarez, in addition to her ongoing work in DRC.
It's the same global reach that has also prompted many to criticize her for what they point to as a tendency to universalize and to think of gendered violence in terms that ignore the specifics of history and politics. Yet, Ensler has also taken pointed and sometimes controversial positions on politics: In 2008, she refused to support Hillary Clinton because of her support for the war in Iraq. More recently, she wrote, with Monique Wilson, One Billion Rising Director about the fatal factory collapse in Bangladesh, about workers' rights and the "consequence of a long line of exploitative systems in place that put profit and money over the value of human lives."
In 2010, Ensler was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Now, after a few years of successful treatment, she has produced a memoir, In the Body of the World, about the experience. In the book, she connects what her body went through to what women experience in places like DRC. In the process, she also returns to her earlier incest, her faltering relationship with her mother, who died of lung cancer while Ensler was going through her own treatment, her beef with monogamy, and her theme of violence against women.
Windy City Times spoke with the New York City-based author on the phone about the new book and more.
Windy City Times: You've written about your father's sexual abuse of you before, but this time around your retelling of your relationship to him seems grounded in your experience with cancer. What was different for you in writing about him this time?
Eve Ensler: I think the difference is the relationship I had with my body in this whole experience. I think when we go through really serious trauma when we're younger, that thing that Sue [her friend and former therapist, who appears in the memoir] talks about that projected badness that kind of goes into you, then begins to contaminate your body.
As much as I have forgiven my father or released my father, the hurdle I encountered with this book, with cancer, was where he still remained in my cells and DNA, and that projection of badness that's within me. In a way, it got to the bones, it got to the cells. Sue [gave] me that vision of what chemotherapy could be, of purging that projected badness, and burning down, melting away, and poisoning the perpetrator.
What's so interesting about trauma is that it's so layered: it's psychological and spiritual, but it's really cellular.
WCT: I know you're not saying that everyone should get radiated, but how do you think others should work on expunging trauma? We tend to deal with trauma through therapy and other means.
Eve Ensler: We need to think how, in a deep way, we're going to help people on a physical, cellular level purge trauma. There's this amazing therapy that's very physical. It involves dance, singing, screaming, releasing. I can only say that, for me, that's been the most successful kind of work. Because the thing about mental therapy is that it can give you a frame, but until you get to that physical level, [trauma] still controls you. And I think there are many ways to get through/to it, and I think dance is a huge way.
Being aware of how you're disconnected and where you're disconnected and being aware of your body and honoring your body and respecting the intelligence of one's own body . The body's gotten such a bad rap. We treat it the way we treat the earth, with such disdain. We take from it, we rob from it, we abuse it, we exploit it, we don't cherish it, we don't listen to it, we don't heed it.
WCT: This book is also about health care. You write that you had a terrible experience at Sloan Kettering, before you moved to Beth Israel, despite your celebrity, with careless doctors and staff. And you point out the inequality of medical resources around the world. What else became evident to you about this inequality?
Eve Ensler: Sloan-Kettering was hell on earth for me. Everybody told me, "You have to go to Sloan-Kettering." And I have to tell you, if that's the treatment they gave me, imagine the treatment they're giving everyone else. I'm on a campaign right now, and I'm really going to launch it soon, to get a CAT-scan in every country in the world. Because it's so important. In Bukavu, for instance, there's literally no CAT-scan there. When people get cancer in the Congo, they don't even use the word because there's no treatment for it. And you think how is it possible we're living in the same world in 2013? In this country, let's get real, how many people [have health care]?
I have insurance, I was incredibly lucky. How many people could get the kind of care I got? Very few people. And why, why, why is that? Because we're spending trillions of dollars making bombs, making things to blow people up and not putting money into things [like healthcare]. And why don't we value nurses? Why don't we value the people who take care of people? When they are the people who are literally keeping us alive? That's such a huge thing that became clear to me during my sickness: Who were the people who were keeping me alive?
WCT: You've traveled extensively across the world and have bonds with a great many people, including survivors of trauma. So it's perhaps not surprising that as you think about your illness, you also think about about friends in Congo and other places, people you've met who seem to become part of your memory and bodily experience.
One of the criticisms of your work has been that it tends to universalize people and experiences. There does, in the book, seem to be a complicated tension between your own experience and that of others. Could you discuss that in relation to some of the critiques?
Eve Ensler: In terms of being criticized for the universalizing: I hope that I have portrayed people in specific. individual ways, but the fact that I see universal themes is absolutely true. And to be honest with you, One Billion Rising was the manifestation of that. I do believe that violence against women is a rampant epidemic throughout the planet, for example, and I believe patriarchy is the underpinnings of it. And I think the cultural manifestations of that violence are obviously different in every different culture, but I do think that patriarchy is pretty much the same.
It's fascinating to me, to see how quickly One Billion Rising spread and how quickly it was owned by people everywhere, and how we got a billion people to rise on the 14th of March, indicating to me the universality of violence against women. So I'm more than happy to embrace that criticism. [Laughs] I think people are a little afraid of subsuming their identities or feel their identities will be lost through connection rather than found.
Each culture was so particular in the way they brought about One Billion Rising in that country, whether it was women dancing with butter lamps in Bhutan, or belly dancing, or aboriginal women calling up the sun in Australia.
WCT: How might patriarchy also connect to very specific political conditions and issues?
Eve Ensler: I've been fighting those different political conditions everywhere for years. The perfect example is the piece I put on the V-day blog, on Bangladesh and workers and the fact that it was essentially a corporate murder that happened. I never really get where these criticisms come from, I wonder if people really read what I write,sometimes. Because I feel like I've been fighting political conditions, whether it's the Iraq war or or Guantanamo.
WCT: You've initiated a number of different projects, including Vagina Monologues and City of Joy. They're all in many ways connected to you, and your name. Are you in any way concerned about your projects sustaining themselves without and after your presence?
Eve Ensler: V-day is now in its 15th year. This year, there were 5,500 events in 1,800 places, with plays and pieces, a lot of them were Vagina Monologues, some were from A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer, the anthology of writings about violence against women which I edited. But I don't exist in any of those. Those go on because of the play. And each of those places where the play is performed, it is done to raise some consciousness, to create dialogue, to change laws, to raise money for those individual communities, where that money stays in that community. In the last 15 years, we've raised about $100 million, and most of that has stayed in individual communities. So it doesn't rely on me at all. The plays and the work and the activists and the mechanism, the tools are there on the website.
With something like One Billion Rising, I'm really proud of it. We made the decision not to brand One Billion Rising, to let it be in the world, to let it be an energy that people just took and used the way they wanted. 270 countries adopted it and made it theirs. This year we're preparing an even bigger action that's going to be announced in June. I actually have to say that I think I'm slowly disappearing [laughs] and becoming air, becoming loving air that will circulate. But my job, my mission is to become irrelevant. And I think it's happening. The thing with leadership, I think, is how do you lead, be the wind on people's backs and get out of the way.
You have to connect with yourself enough so that you can be of service and you're not spending all your time finding your way back home rather than being home and allowing yourself to be of service to the world. And I hope that people get that from the book. and that people who've had cancer can see it as a tool of transformation and not just this dreaded, fearful, terrible thing.