The longtime activist and Tony-winning playwright—of Vagina Monologue fame—explains the motivation for her latest text, In the Body of the World.
Playwright-activist Eve Ensler
Tavis: For decades, Eve Ensler has championed the rights of women and girls around the globe, shining a much-needed spotlight on atrocities in war-torn regions such as Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war.
She’s documented those experiences, of course, as well as those of women and girls throughout the world in a series of powerful plays that serve as a catalyst for positive change.
Always honest about herself, she’s now written a very personal book about her own recent struggles and challenges, including battling cancer, in a new tome titled, “In the Body of the World.” Eve, always good to have you on this program.
Eve Ensler: Thank you. I love coming here.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. You’ve said a couple things about this text that struck me as interesting, before I get too deep into it. One is that this book wrote you as much as you wrote it. What’d you mean by that?
Ensler: Well, I feel like this book really came from my body, and there was kind of the diagnosis of cancer, there was the treatment of cancer, and then there was the book, and they kind of feel like they were of one.
So much of this body – this book – see, I can’t even tell the difference, body/book, was so physical it feels like it was like a language of fever; it just kind of pulsed through me. When it was over, it was over, but it really, it was a very intense experience writing this book.
Tavis: Speaking of intense experience writing the book, the book itself is intense. There’s a lot of funny in there. We’ll come to the funny in a little bit. It wouldn’t be a book that you had written if it hadn’t had some funny in it.
Ensler: Thank you.
Tavis: So Eve Ensler has some funny, and so we’ll get to that. But it’s intense, and by intense I mean it is graphic, it is detailed. If one has not battled cancer or hasn’t have a family member who’s had to battle it, reading this gives you a pretty good sense of what it’s like to hold the hand of someone who’s going through this. Which is a long way of asking why so detailed?
Ensler: I didn’t know how to tell the story without telling the details. It would have been coy, it would have been – this was a book about the body. It was a book about – when I got diagnosed I read a lot of books about cancer. I read everybody.
But nobody told me really what was going to happen, what it was going to be like, and I think so much of the journey of the book is a journey to get back into my body, because I left at a young age due to lots of violence, violence from my father, enormous sexual violence, then incredible physical violence.
So there was this incredible desire my whole life to get back in, to reinhabit. I think all my work’s been about how do women get back into our bodies, how do men get back. We’re all disassociated.
I think to tell this story it had to be specific. It had to be real in order to really get back in, because otherwise it would have remained abstract.
Tavis: You mentioned your work a moment ago and I referenced it, of course, at the top of this conversation, and I want to be careful in how I ask this, but I do want to get to this.
Not that you are entitled to anything, but you have done so much good in the world, I wonder if you ever felt like this diagnosis was unfair to you, where you ever said, “My God, my God, why me? I’ve tried to use my life to help women in war-torn areas of the world, this ‘Vagina Monologues’ has empowered women the globe over.”
You are humanitarian, a lover of the highest order, and yet you get stricken with this. There’s that whole notion of why bad things happen to good people. Did you ever wallow in that at all?
Ensler: I had a few moments of it, but to be honest with you, I feel like life has been so hard in so many ways, beginning at the beginning, and I think you have stories like you tell yourself, like okay, the first 15 years of my life I got beat up, I got raped, so the rest is – and then the next 20 happen, no, those were hard too. Then you get the – so it wasn’t like -
Tavis: And then you get cancer.
Ensler: Yeah, and then you get cancer, so you’re not that okay.
Tavis: Yeah, right.
Ensler: Life is hard. Life is hard. So I think I also have to say that I have been spending so much time in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they don’t have a diagnosis of cancer because nobody even says the word. People just die. They don’t have any CAT scan machine in all of eastern Congo. I think maybe one in all of Congo.
The privilege of being sick and having insurance – now, everybody in this country doesn’t have that privilege, which is a travesty, I’d like to add. But to have insurance and have a diagnosis and to have doctors, I just felt it would be immoral on some level to complain.
I had my days in the middle of chemo where I’d be burning or months of infections or nine-hour operation, but I didn’t dwell there a lot because I think I learned a while ago when I was young if you dwell there, you die there.
It was more – and also, to be honest with you, there was so much love around me, whether it was the activists in the world who were sending me cards and emails, or the people, my family, my dear (unintelligible) took care of me, my sister, all the incredible people who showed up in my life at the exact moment when I couldn’t get through something to help me get through. It would have been hard to feel sorry for myself.
Tavis: I want to talk about those polar opposite situations now, fear and love, and let me start with the fear part. So what was – and this may be an impossible question, so you can take it anywhere you want to take it – what was, for you, the most dreadful, the most fearful part of this cancer battle?
Ensler: I think it was chemotherapy.
Ensler: I got to a nine-hour surgery, I lost lots of body parts and rearranged, I got really months of infection that I lost 30 pounds. But the idea of pumping poison into my bloodstream just – I couldn’t, I couldn’t.
Then this amazing thing happened where this woman who had been my former therapist showed up one day just as a gift, and she said, “I’m going to sit on your couch once a week as my gift to V-Day, and I’m going to help you get through.”
I said, “Well, you don’t have to, because I’m not doing chemotherapy, because it’s not,” and she was like, “No, you’re doing it.” I was like, “No I’m not.” Then she just gave me what I call a Sue. She took that experience and she said, “Look, the chemo’s not for you, it’s for your cancer. It’s for the perpetrators. It’s for your father who raped you. It’s for all that projected badness and all those things that happened to you. You’re going to poison them now, and they’re never coming back.”
Ensler: And I’ll tell you, that frame – she said, “See the chemo as an empathetic warrior that has come to return your innocence and to return peace.” I couldn’t wait to get to chemo after that. It was like -
Tavis: She flipped the script on that.
Ensler: She just flipped it. (Laughter) I was like, “Okay.”
Tavis: What is her name and number?
Ensler: No, really.
Tavis: I got some stuff she can flip for me if she can do that.
Ensler: No, she’s a genius.
Tavis: Obviously she’s a genius. If she can flip chemo, she can do anything, yeah.
Ensler: I know.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Ensler: And I’ll tell you something – it really worked. So each time I had five hours of that poison going into me, I just pictured everything that needed to be burned away.
I pictured wars, I pictured the things my father had done to me, I pictured brutality, and when it was over, I’m telling you, I am light. I am light.
Ensler: So I really do think how we frame things determines so much of our experience, and I’ve been talking to a lot of oncologists, like, why don’t we call them transformation suites and give people transformation juice and have guides that support people when they’re going through chemo so you could actually burn away what needs to be burned away, as opposed to this dread, terror, horror, which is a very different experience.
Tavis: Before I talk about the love part, while we’re on it, you speculate – my word, not yours – you speculate in this book in humorous fashion, but also, I think, somewhat seriously, as I read it, at least, you speculate in this book about what brought the cancer on. What’s the value in doing that?
Ensler: I don’t even know if there’s a value. You just try to make sense out of it. So I had lists. I’d be like, “I drank Tab.”
Tavis: Go ahead. (Laughter) Was to Fruit Loops?
Ensler: Fruit Loops, Fruit Loops were on there. Having a miscarriage. I just – bad reviews, good reviews, any reviews. But one of the things that really did get clear to me is that there is a connection between trauma and cancer and trauma and disease.
It may not be hooked up yet in terms of all the medical knowledge, but I know, I know as sure as I know anything, that what I went through as a child, then listening to all the stories of women around the world for the last 15 years connected, had a lot to do with what got into my cells, what – trauma lives in us.
It lives in us. What happens when someone throws you against a wall or tells you you’re a jackass or puts you down or calls you bad names? It goes into your body. We hold it in our body. If we don’t have a way to let that go and release that, it becomes sickness eventually.
I really want to do work now where we really look at how many women are getting ovarian and breast and uterine cancers who have been raped, who have been violated, and begin to look at not only what causes it but how we treat it in a way where we’re releasing the trauma and releasing what’s going on in our body so we get well. Because I think they’re very connected.
Tavis: I promise I’ll get to the love in just a second that I promised that I wanted to talk about, but I wonder if I can detour very quickly here. What do you hope, believe, will be the reward of people like you – I’m talking about well-known personalities?
Certainly in this environment you are a well-known personality. Angelina Jolie, certainly a well-known personality. What’s your sense of, what’s your hope of the benefit, the value – there’s that word again – of such well-known personalities at least putting this conversation on the table and being, again, so detailed as you have been, as Ms. Jolie was, has been, about her own ordeal?
Ensler: Well for me I think there’s two things. One, I think – and you know this more than anyone – that we’re in the state of somnolence, this world. We’re asleep at the wheel.
That sleep and that neither being in this world or that, or that denial or that disassociation or that disembodiment is allowing so much bad. I think whether it’s what we’re doing to the climate, whether what we’re doing to poor people, whether what we’re doing to women in terms of rape and violation, whether you know something’s going on to your daughter in the house but you’re not really paying attention to it.
We’ve got to wake up. This book for me is a wake-up call. It’s saying this cancer in me became an awareness of the cancer that is everywhere. The cancer of cruelty, the cancer of carelessness, the cancer of greed.
Just looking at Congo, okay, where I spent a lot of my life, and I am so proud of what everyone has done there. Like, those women built City of Joy; they are running City of Joy. It’s now three graduating classes later. Those girls are rocking.
But we are looking at a country where the economic war, the pillaging of minerals by the superpowers and by the industrial, by the corporate state, is destroying people, destroying people. Eight million dead, hundreds of thousands of women’s bodies tortured.
Where are we in all this? We get the coltan from there in our cell phones, our PlayStations, our computers. We’ve got to wake up to ourselves, to our bodies, and when we get in here, then all of a sudden you’re hooked up to everybody else, and you get – you’re not separate from people’s pain, you’re not separate from the building collapsing in Bangladesh.
You’re wearing those clothes that those workers got paid nothing to go into a building that they knew was damaged, and a thousand people are dead. We’re the beneficiaries of that, of that corporate murder, which is what it is.
So I think this book is really saying let’s be really specific about what it’s going to take to wake up. I don’t think everybody has to get catastrophic cancer. This is not a do-it-at-home manual, right?
This is I’m sharing this so that other people don’t have to go to these lengths, we don’t have to destroy this environment that eventually kicks people off the Earth. We can wake up before then. But this is a time to wake up. It’s serious. We’re in a serious time.
Tavis: I’m not sure I can flip the script as well as your therapist did, (laughter) but I do want to flip from the fear to the love that I said we’d get to. I was sitting here thinking when you talked about the love the song – I’m a music lover, as you know – the song popped in my head, a wonderful artist who’s been so underrated over the years.
For those of us who love him, we love him, a guy named DJ Rogers.
DJ Rogers has a song called “Love Brought Me Back.” That was one of his big hits. You know that song, Brian? “Love Brought Me Back.” And I thought about that song, “Love Brought Me Back,” as you were talking. So tell me how the love brought you back.
Ensler: Wow, it sure did. I think my whole life I was looking for the big love, the ultimate love, that big, sweeping off your feet love, and I just failed at it. I have not done well with that big luck.
Ensler: It’s just not, it has not worked out. (Laughter) But what happened to me in the middle of my chemo one day when I was just going through the despair and mourning all the relationships and the heartbreak and none of those people had shown up, none of those men had shown up during my bad days, and I was getting little one-line emails and a card.
Then all of a sudden it hit me – there were people who were making me soft-boiled eggs at 5:00 in the morning. There were people who were shaving my head with a pink Bic razor. There were people who were coming by to bring me quinoa and pajamas, and there were people bringing me CDs and sitting and coming and demanding to rub my feet. I went, “Wait a minute, wait a minute – I got the love.”
Ensler: The love is right here. The love is all around us. I made a life of love. Now it wasn’t that love, that constructed love, that romantic, I don’t know, it feels very patriarchal and it feels, it all sort of feels very corporatized, that love, like that big thing that’s going to happen.
But the real love – and the other piece of this was caregivers. I fell in love with nurses. All the people we honor and worship in this country, the people who steal our money, the people who are on the front lines every day in hospitals, nurses, the people who are running clinics, the people who are taking care of your children, those are the people who are the lovers of the world, are the good of the world.
I think for me, I would be in – I came out of the nine-hour surgery and I had tubes in every direction, and those nurses at the Mayo Clinic, I could cry for four days at the kindness of those nurses. The care, the detail of the care, the attention that just never wavered, never complained. The love.
It just made me, I just walk around lately and I just look at people, just people, people who are doing the good work, people who it doesn’t matter where they are. We’ve got to become a nation that says those are the people we honor, those are the people we make sure have healthcare, those are the people we take – because those are the people who sustain the world and hold up the world.
I think that reversal in my own life, where I stopped looking out there for the future, reaching for the big love, has changed everything so that I get wow, it’s all here. It’s all here. Paradise is here.
Tavis: You mentioned nurses. My mind’s working again. This is maybe a conversation for another show one night, but to my mind, at least, one of the groups in this country that is most progressive and most aggressive, most courageous at pushing back on the Wall Street banksters that you referenced earlier, is a group called the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Association, Rose Ann DeMoro.
Ensler: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Wonderful leader of that organization.
Tavis: Love Rose Ann DeMoro.
Tavis: They’ve been pushing this thing called the Robin Hood Tax, which is – again, I’ll explain it another night at another time, but a Robin Hood Tax that would be levied on these deals that are done, certain deals that are done by Wall Street that would raise billions of dollars if we put a Robin Hood Tax on those deals.
Ensler: Yeah, which would be amazing.
Tavis: The billions it would raise to then do what needs to be done. It’s a wonderful idea, and they’re pushing it. This Robin Hood Tax is starting to gain steam. There are a number of Republican – I mean a number of senators and House members who are starting to sign on to this idea.
Who knows where it’s going to go, but I love the creativity of the idea and the fact that these nurses are the ones who are – the caregivers who are the ones in the street marching, going to Capitol Hill, going to Wall Street, raising the Cain that got to be raised to get this issue heard.
Tavis: So it’s not just what they do inside these facilities.
Ensler: No, it’s what they do everywhere.
Tavis: But they’re engaging the body politic.
Ensler: Absolutely. Teachers, nurses, the people who are literally creating our futures and keeping us alive are the most disrespected and underpaid and unseen, and I think for me, it was funny, I went back to the Mayo last week and I read the book, and my nurses were there and my surgeons were there and my doctors were there. It was just such a glorious moment just to be able to give back the love.
Tavis: Oh, you did a book event at the clinic.
Ensler: I did. Yeah, I did.
Tavis: So how was it?
Ensler: It was amazing. It was amazing. The doctors from the Mayo Clinic who operated on me came back with me to Congo and they worked with Dr. Mukwege at Panze Hospital and they operated on the women. My surgeon operated on the women in Congo. So it was an amazing trip to go back.
Tavis: I know why that happened. Because while you were in the hospital, you were talking about the Congo every day.
Ensler: Exactly. (Laughter) That’s right.
Tavis: “I’ve got to get well so I can get back to my work in the Congo. By the way, you should come with me.”
Ensler: That’s exactly -
Tavis: You can’t talk to Eve Ensler for five minutes without being invited to the Congo. (Laughter) It’s a beautiful thing.
Ensler: I’m trying to get you there.
Tavis: I’m coming; I promise I’m going to come as soon as I get this foot together. But it is amazing to talk to you, I mean that seriously. The passion about this work that you’ve been doing for so many years now, you can’t, again, have a five-minute conversation without it coming out of you.
Ensler: Well you know what, I feel like I got a second life, I got a second wind, and to some degree I kind of feel like I died already. When someone says to you, “You have stage three/four cancer,” you go, “I’m dead.” Then everything after that, wow, I’m dead. They can’t touch me now. We can be dangerous now.”
Last year – I know you know this – we did One Billion Rising, where we put out a call to a billion women and men on the planet to rise and dance on February 14th.
Tavis: Yeah, we had on this show when that happened, Thandie Newton.
Ensler: Yes. Thandie was -
Tavis: In that very chair, and she talked about, for the whole show talked about it.
Ensler: She’s awesome. She’s on our board. She is amazing. She got all Britain to rise, I swear.
Tavis: She talked about it on the show, yeah.
Ensler: Yeah, and we got – I think we got close to a billion people to rise, and if you look at the videos of people dancing around the world, it is so exciting. Talk about music – you’ve got women in Bhutan with butter lamps on their head, you’ve got women in Somalia for the first time in the streets of Mogadishu, women with chadors and red short skirts.
I danced with members of the European Parliament in the Parliament. We had a flashmob in the European Parliament. We have seen things, and look, at this point, I am so grateful to be alive. It’s ridiculous to be alive. It’s ridiculous. I know that.
So now we’ve just got to go the distance. What’s there to fear? It already happened.
Tavis: It’s one thing to be grateful to be alive, and when I said when you walked on I was glad to see you. I really meant that I was glad to see you. (Laughter) It’s one thing to be alive. It’s quite another to be hopeful.
I get the sense that you’re not just alive, very much so, but you’re just as hopeful as ever, and sometimes I even ask myself in conversations, after conversations with you how Eve can be so hopeful given what she has seen and what she does.
Ensler: I feel hopeful.
Tavis: Every time I see you I end up getting a charge from you.
Ensler: Well, it’s like that Becket thing – I can’t go on, I must go on. But the other side of this is look, I was in Bukavu in February and we have 90 girls from 15 to 30 graduating, okay?
These girls arrive, they have bullet wounds, they have missing body parts, they have nightmares every night, they have left children for six months to take care of themselves who are products of rape who they’ve come to learn how to love.
These girls leave and they are fierce, beautiful, passionate, alive, ready. They’re changing their – and I just sit and I think anything’s possible.
We just have to – what’s – look, we’re going to be disappointed if the world ends either way, right? I would rather have gone the distance with my whole heart, doing everything we can to turn this around, rather than being – I feel so joyful to be in the presence of people who are fighting for transformation and revolution and change.
Tavis: To that point now, you had discovered this before the cancer invaded your body. There are so many other persons who I have interviewed and know, and you know, I suspect, who don’t have that revelation about awaking from the sleepwalking until they have that moment. That’s just human nature. You oftentimes sleepwalk until it happens to you.
Tavis: Then you wake up and then you want to save the world and you’re glad to be alive, et cetera, et cetera. Short of that near-death experience, how do we awake fellow citizens who are sleepwalking about the issues, political, social, economic, and cultural?
How do we wake them up without them having to have one of these types of experiences?
Ensler: I think the big thing is this – we’ve been sold a bill of goods that denial is protecting us.
Right? It’s a lie. Everything you deny is actually killing you on some level. You see something, you feel something wrong with your body, you pretend it’s not happening, it goes on, it grows, it gets worse.
Tavis: So denial is death.
Ensler: Denial is really death, and I want to say something. People think that when you’re connected with other people it’s more painful. The opposite is true. When you’re connected to the river you have despair, but you also have joy, and there’s a flow in the river.
When you’re disconnected from the river you’re alone and you’re stuck in one particular feeling. When I’m in Congo and I’m dancing with the women or I’m listening to the women or I’m with the women, even if it’s the worst moments, we’re in a community of transformation together, and that allows for any bad feeling to become another feeling fast.
But when you’re not in that, I know for me before, I was just stuck in depression. I was just low. I was just low and alone. People are so lonely in America. Everywhere I’ve traveled on this book tour, people are coming up to me in the space to sign their book to say, “This is my story.”
I said to an audience the other night, I said, “Why do you tell me these stories? You all live here. Why don’t you tell each other your stories? Why aren’t we talking to each other for real about the real details of our lives, not the performative I’ve got my stuff together, but really what’s going on with people?”
People are sad. People are broke. People are worried about money, people are worried that they’re not enough and not amounting to anything and they don’t feel good about themselves. People have rough times, and everybody’s pretending it’s not true and we need to break that veneer.
We need to come in here and connect here. I think that is the way we turn the world around.
Tavis: I’m glad we connected once again -
Ensler: Me too.
Tavis: – on this program. Eve Ensler’s new book is called “In the Body of the World: A Memoir.” She is, of course, the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” but this is the memoir about a life well lived and still, thankfully, ongoing. Eve, good to have you back.
Ensler: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Please join us on Friday night as we celebrate 10 years on PBS, and get this – our 2,000th show Friday night.
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