Playwright, author and activist Eve Ensler is not someone who appears to get easily daunted by large challenges. After all, only just a few months ago, Eve and her organization V-Day launched One Billion Rising, which became the largest global action campaign in history aimed at ending violence against women and girls. However, in 2009, Eve faced a health crisis that took her by surprise and deeply challenged her on many levels when she discovered she had stage III/IV uterine cancer -- a diagnosis which triggered a cataclysmic personal upheaval and a healing reconnection to her body. She documents this journey of transformation in her inspiring and courageously candid new memoir out this week, In The Body of the World. I have known and admired Eve for many years, and was so privileged to speak to her about this powerful and profound book.
Marianne Schnall: What made you decide, at this point in time, to write your memoir?
Eve Ensler: You know, it wrote me. I joke about it, but this book was so unusual. It just started to come out. I really feel like it came straight from my body. I think it was both an expression of what I had gone through, but also it just felt like everything had come together in my body and it needed to tell that story.
MS: This was one of the most personal books I've ever read in my life.
EE: Yes, I know. [laughs]
MS: In that personal sharing, was it purposeful that you did not hold anything back? Was it important to the book to be able to be that revealing?
EE: I felt like if I was going to write this book, I had to write it, tell the truth. And everything about cancer is so graphic and so specific, that it's almost unavoidable to say what it is. And I think so much of the time we don't have guides for these experiences, because nobody tell us what really happens.
MS: Why is the book called In the Body of the World?
EE: I think what the book is really about is how we can be forced to leave our bodies at a young age, how exiled we are from our bodies, due to whatever the circumstances are. In my case, it was enormous abuse and violation. But I think many "leave home." For me, so much of my life has been this attempt to find my way back into my body. I tried various forms, from promiscuity, to eating disorders, to performance art. And I think it wasn't until I got cancer, where I was suddenly being pricked and ported and chemoed and operated on, that I suddenly just became body. I was just a body. And it was in that, in that finally landing in myself that I really discovered the world in my body. That world where we are connected. It was like that moment when the Gulf oil spill happened, when I had that horrible infection in my gut and I had days where I just couldn't separate the drilling in the Gulf and the explosion, from the horrible infection and tubes in my gut. I became porous, no separation.
MS: You talked so movingly in the book about going through cancer at the same time as building City of Joy and how sustaining it was to stay connected to the women that you were working with in the Congo. We don't often hear a lot about this aspect of activist's work, the soul rewards that come back at you; how the work that you are doing that serves others, also serves you. Can you talk a little bit about that?
EE: I don't know how my life would have been had I not been building City of Joy at that moment. I think so much of what I was living for was to see that happen, so it gave me enormous motivation to keep going. And because I felt so deeply connected to the women of Congo, they were in me through that whole process. And I think they really were the reason I survived.
MS: V-Day has this campaign, Turning Pain to Power, which to me, is connected to what this book is about, the overriding message. You couldn't have gone through anything more seemingly scary, painful, devastating, confronting death and yet there was this tremendous gift of transformation and healing as a result. How do you view that looking at it objectively, the symbolism of the journey of having cancer?
EE: As I say about cancer, it was the most terrifying, arduous, painful thing, but it was also a profound gift in the sense that I was holding so much in my body for so many years that was dark and terrifying which was preventing my coming back into myself. During my treatment, there was so much love around me and so much care, but also really incredible guides who allowed me to see, for example, that the chemo wasn't for me, it was the cancer, and for all the perpetrators in my body that needed to die off and all the things that needed to die away -- I was able to frame the experience of chemo as a shamanic experience which could burn away things inside of me that needed to go. And it actually worked. So much of life is the frame, how we see things. It was amazing to sit there each time I got my five hours of chemo in my port and think, OK, everything that's in me that needs to go, is burning away. And to visualize that and to imagine that and to work on that. And by the time I got done with chemo, it was gone. What if we called chemo transformation juice [laughs] and we went through the treatment with that frame of mind? It would absolutely impact how chemo influenced us or changed us.
MS: What is your biggest hope that people come away with after reading this book?
EE: You know I think so many of us live outside our bodies. My dream is that people will find a way back home, into their bodies, to connect with the earth, to connect with each other, to connect with the poor, to connect with the broken, to connect with the needy, to connect with people calling out all around us, to connect with the beauty, poetry, the wildness.
MS: One of the things that I always think about your writing, even before this book, but this book especially -- you always write so truthfully and evocatively not only about your own pain, but also about the suffering of women, or just humanity in general -- of things we prefer not to think about or to bury away. Whether it's with just what happened in Boston or horrific stories of rapes -- all the stories of suffering or violence in the world -- it's really painful to hear about, so we often, as a society, tend to only take it in on the surface, as a news story, go into a form of denial about it, rather than to go into it and feel it, connect to our humanity so we can honestly reflect and heal ourselves and change it. Do you think that that's something that increasingly is going to be called upon for us to do?
EE: I think the greatest illusion we have is that denial protects us. It's actually the biggest distortion and lie. In fact, staying asleep is what's killing us. And I think what I've learned is that every time I say something I'm not supposed to say and every time I'm willing to look at something or feel something, there's an incredible freedom that comes -- even if there's sorrow attached to it. Even if there's despair attached to it, even if there's responsibility attached to it, there's an enormous freedom. How we do we invite people out of this somnolence? It's the big question. How do we say Wake UP and make awakening a beautiful thing? I hope this book does that.
MS: You use cancer as an analogy many times in the book referring to the cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, of buried trauma. Do you see an unspoken cancer in the world right now that affects us all that we don't talk about?
EE: Cancer essentially lives in us and becomes activated at some point and then cells begin to psychotically divide. Initially, the cancer cell looks like other cells and the body invites it in. Then it's starts dividing and subdividing and eventually, it takes over. I think there's a kind of greed that creates cancer, taking more than your share that creates cancer, and a rape culture that creates cancer. And I think trauma is at the core of cancer and traumas always, it seems to me, is about people being taken or violated or occupied or hurt against their will.
MS: Do you have any answers?
EE: Connection. If you're feeling what the river is feeling, it's hard to pollute the river. If you are feeling what a child is feeling, it's hard to rape the child. If you are connected to your own internal being, it is very hard to be screwing and destroying and hurting another human being, because you'll be feeling what they're feeling. If you're separated, it's not a hard thing to do at all.
MS: I know the issue of self-care can be a challenge for all of us -- and I know that for you especially, you travel across the world, you work endlessly on behalf of V-Day and the causes you care about. Did this experience change how you live your life? How you look at your life and how you actually go about your life?
EE: It has. It has deeply. I can talk about the things I do to take care of myself, whether it's yoga, eating well -- but I think more importantly, it's about priorities and the energy driving my life. I think before there was a whip at my back. Having to always prove myself. I was a kind of machine. And I don't feel that anymore. Now I feel I can do what I can do and I'll do what I can do, but I have nothing to prove. I'm not driven. It's coming from a much gentler place.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, In Style, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's forthcoming book, "What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power" will be published by Seal Press in Fall 2013. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.