The playwright discusses her latest work called In the Body of the World.
Playwright and Activist Eve Ensler
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight a conversation with playwright, Eve Ensler. More than 20 years ago, she unlocked an outpouring from women around the world when she started performing her play, “The Vagina Monologues”. She joins us tonight to discuss the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse and harassment by men in power and how to move forward from a tidal wave of telling to transformation, and the new play based on her memoir.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Eve Ensler in just a moment.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Eve Ensler back to this program. More than 20 years ago, her play, “The Vagina Monologues”, broke the longstanding silence of women’s experiences with sex and sexual abuse. Her new play opens in New York in January. It’s based on her memoir, “In the Body of the World”. I am honored to have Eve Ensler back on this program. How are you?
Eve Ensler: I’m good as good can be [laugh].
Tavis: Every time I see you, when I say I’m happy to see you, I mean that literally. Because I thought a few years ago when that cancer scare happened that you might not be on this set ever again.
Ensler: Well, that’s why I’m good because, every day, I shouldn’t be here. There’s no reason for me to be here in the seven years now that I am here. So I have a lot of gratitude, a lot of gratitude.
Tavis: I hear the gratitude. How to the extent that it has — and I assume it has in some ways — how did having that death scare fundamentally change your life, your work? It’s a strange question to ask you because you are doing high-quality work anyway. But what does that mean, though?
Ensler: I think what I like to think of it is it’s kind of a cancer conversion. It kind of changed everything. I think a lot of what — first of all, the idea of being in your body, right? Everything that’s going on right now in terms of sexual abuse and women being harassed, women have just left their bodies because of the landscape of so much terror, so much pain, so much humiliation.
And I think what cancer did, you know, I woke up after nine hours of surgery, seven organs gone, 70 nodes, I was in my body. I had tubes and catheters and machines, but it was the first time I was in my body, like my body was real.
And that really began this journey over nine months where every day I was reconnecting to things in the world that I hadn’t been connected to, particularly nature. I’d been living in the city for so many years. I feared trees, you know [laugh]. I was one of those people. I now live in the country. I live in the woods.
But I think really what happened is a lot of pain, a lot of memories, a lot I reckoned with, got burned away by the chemo. It got burned away by the experience, you know. I believe in so much about the time we’re in reign now how everything is hinged to our unexamined past, right? Everything, right?
Everything’s predicated on genocide of indigenous people, slavery, Jim Crow, hatred of women, economic inequality, and we’re here now, right? We’re at our reckoning. We’re at our cancer. We’re at our virus point, you know.
So I think I’m grateful to cancer. I’m grateful to the amazing doctors and nurses who saved my life, but I’m grateful to whatever that chemical change was in me that kind of stripped away everything that needed to go and allowed me to arrive more deeply in this being, in this body.
Tavis: So I take your point about this unexamined past that we have to reckon with. But I guess the question for you, Dr. Ensler [laugh], is beyond the diagnosis you’ve just offered for America and what’s wrong with us, what is the prognosis?
Ensler: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, you know, so much of what’s happening right now, I think we’re all in a state of trauma. I don’t know about you, but I’m traumatized every minute of every day for people of color…
Tavis: Every time my phone beeps with an alert, I get traumatized.
Ensler: Me too, me too.
Tavis: Like what now [laugh]?
Ensler: We have a whole country waiting for the indictment, right? Waiting for this person to fall, right? To get closer to that moment. I think what we have to do is really go into our deepest imaginations right now and say, “What is the world we want? And what’s it gonna be predicated on?”
It can’t be the kind of violent amnesia that we live in in this country where all the harms done to all kinds of people over centuries and centuries have never happened, right? We don’t teach any of that. So part of it is knowing where we come from, knowing what our history is, knowing what brought us here and what people have suffered for years and years and years that have led us here.
And the other thing is, I mean, look what’s going on with women right now. You know, we’ve been working for how many years now, 20 years, every hour every day. How many insane stories in my inbox for 20 years? There’s a kind of explosion happening, a kind of tsunami of telling.
But we have to make that into something, right? That tsunami of telling has to translate into institutional change. It has to translate into education of boys and girls about what is a healthy masculinity, what it means to have rights over your body, what does workplace safety mean?
I have to say it’s got to be about men. Men have really got to own this issue and say, “Violence against women is our issue.” It’s kind of like racism became Black peoples’ issue. No, actually, it’s a white person’s issue, right?
And it’s the same thing with violence against women. Men are the people who are committing these acts of violence. When are men going to wake up and say, “This is our issue”?, and I’m gonna give myself to this the way I give myself to anything that matters to me, you know.
Tavis: So Gretchen Carlson, formerly of Fox News, who went after Roger Ailes and started this whole tsunami about 18 months ago, I guess, she was here in that very chair some days ago. She described this moment as a watershed moment. We went back and forth about that for a couple of minutes. I knew what she meant, but I wasn’t taking the bait.
What I said to Gretchen was that, if I had a dime for everything that I thought was gonna be a watershed moment with regard to race relations, since you mentioned race, I thought Trayvon was a watershed moment. Michael Brown was a watershed moment. You know, Philando Castile was a watershed moment. Rodney King, a watershed moment…
Ensler: Sandra Bland.
Tavis: Sandra Bland. None of these things happened in terms of making it the watershed moment I thought it might become. So what gives you reason to believe, if you agree with Gretchen, that this is a watershed moment?
Ensler: I said a potentially watershed moment.
Tavis: That’s what I’m asking, yeah. That’s what I’m asking you. Unpack that for me.
Ensler: Well, here’s what I think. Because we’ve been here before, right?
Ensler: We’ve been here when…
Tavis: Anita Hill? I could run the same list, yeah.
Ensler: Anita Hill, Ted Kennedy, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby? We can just go down the list.
Tavis: Same list, yeah.
Ensler: This is only gonna be a watershed moment if we actually marshal our forces in every single way. If we look at education, if we look at legislation, if we look at activating laws, if we look at ending NDAs, if we look at stopping statute of limitations, if we look at men owning this issue.
It will not be that if we do not galvanize our forces and really focus on actionable steps. Because we have been here before, 20 years of women telling their stories.
I think, in a way, I feel like — and I know you feel the same way with racism — it’s stubborn, it’s persistent, it’s intractable, it’s in the DNA. I feel the same way about patriarchy and I think sometimes they’re one and the same. They come from the same domination, power over, making somebody weaker and less than you.
It’s the same mentality. We have to do a much more deeper, philosophical, emotional, psychological investigation, and self–interrogation of ourselves. How is it we elected a predator in chief who was an open white supremacist and bragged about grabbing women’s genitals?
Tavis: And a bunch of women voted for him.
Ensler: Exactly. How is that possible? So part of it is looking at what is in this culture, like in the bottom layer of the culture, that is allowing this to happen? I’m gonna go back to family. You know, I think that we don’t reckon with — like I look at Donald Trump and I think to myself, “Why are people responding to this person as if he’s sane?”
If you grow up in a family where you have a bully as a father, a narcissist as a father, a person who’s dominating every hour of your day, you’re terrified of him because you’re always tiptoeing around for fear, that becomes normal to you, right?
I think there’s many people who have Donald Trump as their father, who understand that they have to kind of live in this awe and terror of this authority figure. So part of it is are we willing as a society to separate ourselves from that father figure who appears to be comfortable and comforting because he’s familiar, and lose that and achieve our dignity and achieve integrity?
Tavis: The thing that’s tricky about that, though, Eve, as you well know, there’s an old adage that you can choose your friends, but not your family. Put another way, you can choose your president, but not your family. So I hear the parallel that you’re making, but I didn’t choose my mom or my dad, but we chose Donald Trump.
Ensler: Yeah, but we choose things that are familiar to us, right? We choose things that remind us of where we come from. And I’m not saying that’s the only reason. I mean, look…
Tavis: I got you.
Ensler: We know there are many, many seeds to white supremacy and sexism, but I also think there is a familiarity in this country with that bullying father figure who has dominated and continues to dominate us in every respect. And part of it is like what are we willing to do as a people in this country?
He’s our reckoning. This is a reckoning moment. I don’t know where we go after this if we don’t turn this around. I mean, it gets bleaker by the minute.
Tavis: Let me ask you another question. It might be politically incorrect, but let me ask it anyway. It would seem to me — I’ll get some backlash for this. Let me ask anyway. It would seem to me that, if anybody is poised to talk to white men, it’s white women.
Why, then, hasn’t that conversation happened? Why after all these years are white men not hearing it from white women or not getting it from the white women who are saying it to them? Does that make sense? Is that a fair question?
Ensler: It is, and I want to say it’s not all white men because there are some…
Tavis: No, I don’t mean all. I mean…
Ensler: It’s a really good question. You know, last night I was giving a talk and at the end of my conversation, I read this piece. I just said, “Where are you, white men? Where are you? Why aren’t you standing up?” What is it that is keeping men — this has been across the board — but particularly white men because they are the ones with most privilege and power, what is keeping men?
Well, the answer is power. Of course, it’s power. It’s privilege. If you have that power and privilege, you don’t know what it feels like to have someone stick your hand up your skirt and humiliate you with a job, or rape you which destroys and shatters your soul and being for the rest of your life.
You don’t know what it feels like when someone degrades you and puts you down in front of other people, and how that rips you apart not for days, but for years. When you’re in privilege, you can’t…
Tavis: But these men — and, to your point, let me broaden this out — you understand my question about white men and white supremacy and white power.
Tavis: So these white men and, for that matter, men in general, we may not know what that feels like, but we have wives. We have sisters. We have daughters. These same men that you’re talking about would kill if you did that to their wife, to their daughter, to their aunt, to their mother.
So what it is that allows us to be so disconnected from the plight of other women when, if it happened to somebody in our universe, we’d be…
Ensler: I wish I had a real answer for that question. Because I still can’t figure out why white women voted for Donald Trump. Believe me, that for me was the most shocking thing and the most depressing thing.
I can only believe that these women who haven’t awoken to a consciousness where they are connected to women in the struggle and understand that having a predator in chief at the top is saying to the entire world and an entire country that this is legitimate behavior, right?
They are not connected in that struggle or they have not been empowered in their own lives and ways where they feel they can stand up to such a predator or to their husbands.
Tavis: I’ve met a bunch of Black people. I ain’t gonna call no names. Don’t get scared. I know a bunch of Black people and everybody Black person knows some other Black people who are self-loathing. Just gonna be honest about it. Politically incorrect, but it’s the truth.
They really ain’t crazy about being Black. They don’t want to be Black. There’s a whole pathology behind that. I’m going back to this because you said race and I know this story better than most, certainly as well as others.
So there’s some people who are Black who are just self-loathing. Is that the same case with women? That women are harder on themselves, loath themselves, loath — I’m just trying to figure out why it is that you would vote for some guy who you know…
Ensler: Actually, it has to be based on self-hatred. Look, we’re all brought up in patriarchy, right?
Ensler: How many of those women grew up in violent families? How many of those women had suffered sexual abuse that has not been examined? And when we don’t examine things, we keep perpetuating it and we keep staying in line. How many of those women would be hard-pressed to find their voices in the face of a perpetrator? Because they didn’t find their voices in the face of a perpetrator.
And I think looking at my own journey, I had to go through a lot to excavate the violence and the sexual violence that was done to me, right? For years, I kept bringing it on myself more and more and more.
But I look at families, for example, where one person in that family was sexually abused and they come out and speak about it. And the others members of the family gather and they turn against that person for talking about their father in that way because they are still allied with that father.
They can’t give up that kind of delusional idea that this father loved them and was wonderful. So they alienate the person who’s come out. That is self-loathing, but it’s also fear of losing this one thing that was familiar to you, which is your father, even though your father was abusive.
I can only say like I travel around, like last night, okay? Lines of women. Out of that line, 90% of them came up to tell me they had been raped or abused. We’re talking about a crisis that is gender — I mean, it’s destroying our gender. It’s destroying our gender.
There’s very few women I’d be hard-pressed who has not been sexually harassed. You know, I think it’d be easier to find who hasn’t been sexually abused. So what is keeping us as women from an all-out uprising, right? What’s keeping us clamped down where we keep waiting and waiting?
It’s the fact that we’ve been trained and we’ve been conditioned in this system of patriarchy which has absolutely kept a lid on our rage, on our sense of a right to what we know, a right to tell, our fear that if we tell, we’ll be destroyed by the world and it will backlash on us. And I think all those things factor in and I’m not justifying it. Because, believe me, I’ve been trying to figure it out since the election.
Tavis: One of the things that I’m still wrestling with, Dr. King said more than once that he understood that you could not legislate morality. You can’t legislate morality. And what we have here is an awkward intersection in this moment of morality and politics, morality and economics. You follow me?
Tavis: I don’t know how we navigate through this intersection without there being a huge accident, and maybe the accident’s already happened, but there are some serious crisscrossing here of politics and morality and how we address these moral issues of the maltreatment, the misogyny and the patriarchy toward women, but that’s got to be done from a political platform, laws, etc., etc. What do you make of that intersection? How we gonna navigate this?
Ensler: It’s the critical question, because you can have all the laws in the world, but if people don’t change their inner cultural reality, those laws will never be applied. And part of it is we aren’t a country of deep self-examination. We aren’t a country of great reflection in looking at history. We’re a country of fast sound bites, moving forward.
One of the reasons I love your show is you have conversations. It’s not assault TV where you’re jammed into one second and firing an answer. We are used to Twitter now. We’re used to — what we need now is deep time to reflect and think about who are we as a people, right?
This is on a spiritual level. This is on a moral level. This is on a philosophical level. Who, what, is America? We had this idea, this dream that’s been holding space that nobody’s ever really gotten to see and it’s been this kind of illusion that we’re all kind of crusted under.
But really what we’ve got to ask ourselves now is what is this country? What is our story? Who do we want to be? That requires time. That requires gathering. That requires places where people can deeply reflect and go into themselves, and that’s not going to happen like overnight.
Tavis: It also requires — it sounds like you and I were giving the same talk in two different places [laugh] because I raised those same questions. I said, “Who are we really? Who are we really? Not the ideals that we profess, but the ideas that are being advanced. How do you juxtapose?” So I’m asking the same questions you’re asking in my talks. “Who are we really as a nation?”
And the issue that I raised the other night in a talk that I offered — I want to get your take on this — is to your point about us being lost. Every empire in the history of the world — my read of history suggests — that every empire eventually has a reckoning. Every empire eventually falters. At some point, they fail. Read your history. Every empire has its day.
So you’re asking some tough questions now about who we are as Americans. How much of our unwillingness to even be introspective in that way, to be Socratic in that way, how much of our unwillingness to do that has to do with the fact that we don’t want to even consider how close to the edge our country could be?
Ensler: Oh, I think we’re one step away from empire fall. I don’t know if that’s a terrible thing, by the way, because I’m not really happy if that would…
Tavis: Well, they’ll call you tomorrow. You’ll be called anti-American for saying that.
Ensler: Yeah [laugh]. I mean, I’ve never loved the empiric reality of this country. But I think, you know, I’m working on this new piece that I just finished. It’s a fable about Trump. At the end, like every person has a take on who this orange virus is and how we’re gonna fix the orange virus.
Then there’s all the exiles and the people over here and the artists and the sexual explorers and the people who were never part of that system. And because they’re nearing their end, they finally get to do what they wanted to do all along, right?
They begin to feed each other and tell stories and make amends and make reparations and massage each other, put oil on each other and dance. And I think, in a way, that, okay, I go each way every day. It’s the end of the world, it’s the beginning of the world, it’s the end of the world, you know.
It’s like inside emergency. It’s the word emerge, right? So, okay, are we emerging or are we ending? But I think, in a way, like we have an opportunity now because everything has been revealed.
Like it is up. Like there’s no way you can deny white supremacy now. There’s no way you can deny horrible sexism. There’s no way you can deny that capitalism has failed. These things are evidenced, so we have an opportunity now to begin to say, “What do we want this world to be? And how are we gonna make that world happen?”
I think it’s a time of imagination as well as a time of crash. I look around and I see a lot of people who are really beginning to do introspection, to think how are we gonna live with the planet that we’ve destroyed? What are we gonna do?
As we have this madman who is systematically destroying salmon and destroying every aspect of our earth that we live on, how are we as a people going to make a decision that the need to compete and the need to strive and the need to win and the need for more and more and more cannot be what is driving us anymore?
That the need to connect and the need to feel and the need to share and the need to build up everyone around us is the point of our existence, and it is a moral leap out of the individualistic, selfish, post-Reagan drive towards self-centeredness.
That is the leap we have to make, I think. Now how we do that, I think we do it person to person, day–to–day. Sometimes I’m very optimistic and sometimes I’m not optimistic at all.
Tavis: That just makes you human [laugh] in this moment. I don’t know how we do that either, but I know that one of the ways that we can find our way there, one of the GPS systems that we can use, is art. I don’t believe that art is the end all-be all, but I can’t imagine that we’re gonna find our way there if our artists remain silent in this period of suffering.
So you’ve never been quiet, as we said at the top of the show, 20 years now almost since “Vagina Monologues” started. And you got a new one coming out in January, so tell me about the new production.
Ensler: I’m very excited about the new piece. It’s based on the memoir that I did, “In the Body of the World”, and I worked really hard to really transcribe it into and make it into a dramatic piece. And I think the piece, it’s interesting because it feels really timely right now.
I think, more than anything, we need to be sitting in a theater where we’re connecting and feeling because so much of us don’t have any space or time where we can feel because it’s so scary to feel. I think the piece is really about how do we come into our bodies, how do we come into a place in ourselves where we are connecting with each other, we’re connecting with the earth, where we’re opening our hearts.
But it’s also looking at Congo where I’ve spent the last 10 years and how the systematic destruction of that country is based on imperialism, racism, stealing peoples’ resources that belong to the Congolese for the outside world and using proxy wars that rape thousands of women and murder millions of people to get those resources.
I mean, everything is there in the Congo. It’s kind of the state of the world. But also looking at how nothing is separate, right? All that culting that lives in the Congo goes into our PlayStations and our computers and our iPhones, so we are all connected up with everything.
And part of what capitalism does, I think, is it fragments everything. It doesn’t get you to see how you’re connected to every resource that’s being obliterated and used and taken from indigenous people.
But it also doesn’t get you to see how you’re connected to each other because it’s constantly telling you that Muslims are the problem or women are the problem or, you know, Mexicans are the problem when, in fact, we are all under the same system that is questioning us, you know.
And I think the play is funny. I hope it’s funny. I think it’s kind of a wild journey through cancer, which doesn’t sound funny, but it actually is because I think you know as well as I do that you don’t survive anything without…
Tavis: Without laughing, yeah.
Ensler: Yeah, exactly [laugh]. And I’m hoping after the show is that we’re gonna be able to do — maybe you’ll come do one — we’re gonna do talkbacks about…
Tavis: I’ll come, I’ll come.
Ensler: I would love you to. Just like what the show is bringing up, we’re gonna have nurses come and we’re gonna have trauma people come and we’re gonna have people from the Congo come, and we’re gonna have people come and talk about all different things.
Look, I believe in the theater and I believe in art. I think culture does absolutely impact our DNA. It’s the one thing that gets inside of us and actually makes change. It can make change and I think it’s a kind of holy church, you know. It’s a holy place where you’re in the dark with strangers in a really intimate way and you and those strangers are creating with the people on the stage what that is.
Tavis: Eve’s new work, “In the Body of the World”, starting in January in New York City.
Ensler: Yeah, Manhattan Theatre.
Tavis: Manhattan Theatre, you have it. 20 years since “The Vagina Monologues” and people are still talking about that one. So you’ll want to check out the new one when it hits in January. Eve, good to see you.
Ensler: You too.
Tavis: Great talking to you, as always.
Ensler: Yeah, always.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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