This Friday, Eve Ensler—the celebrated activist, feminist and author of The Vagina Monologues, among many other works—kicks off a 19-city tour for her powerful new book, In the Body of the World. At once funny, tragic and uplifting, the book chronicles the joys and sorrows of Ensler's unique life, told through the lens of the people and memories that visit her while she fights for her survival. Ensler, whose book tour will take her from Santa Fe to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and ultimately Miami, talks with SFR about the book and life after cancer. (Above, listen to Ensler herself reading an excerpt from Macmillan's audiobook version.)
Why did you decide to start your book tour in Santa Fe?
Well, it just worked out. I mean, I love Santa Fe, and V-Day and the movement have been happening in Santa Fe for a long time, so I feel like it's one of our strongholds. But I've also done a lot of literary pieces there, from An Emotional Creature to The Vagina Monologues, and it just seemed like a great place to begin.
In the book, you write that after your diagnosis of stage III/IV uterine cancer, your focus was on survival—not about writing a book. How did the book come about?
It started to happen literally during the very, very end. I mean, I was taking little notes and writing a little journal stuff during it, but not much at all. I think it started to happen when I went back to the Congo after everything was done. I think it was a way of like processing and dealing with it and trying to make sense out of it.
Was the writing process difficult?
Yes. It was a very, very emotional and physical experience. I wrote most of the book in Paris, where I live a lot of the time, and I had to always be really alone; I couldn't deal with people, and there were days when I found myself literally on the ground. It was just really—it was a very draining experience.
And once it was done, did you feel a catharsis?
Yes. Since I finished the book, I have felt really good—like, happy! And I think part of it is, it was a deep reckoning. Whatever that fever was that was in my body, both the cancer and the treatments, but also the book—it was part of the fever—when it was over, it was over, you know?
The book functions sort of like a journey: While you're struggling with cancer, a lot of your past experiences—both painful and joyful—return to you, as do many of the significant people from your past and present life.
I've really never thought about it like that, but that's exactly what happened. I think, for much of my life, I've been on this journey—ever since I left my body, to try to get back into it. Having been exiled at a very young age, and having felt really, like, homeless because of it, and orphaned because of it, I think I tried every way to get back in—you know, as I say in the book, beginning with promiscuity and eating disorders and performance art. But in a way, cancer was the thing that landed me in my body. I had to be there. I had no choice. And I think as a result of that, everything that I had avoided in my body, I had to pass through again. And so that involved people and places and things. And I think it was very almost mystical how people just started appearing in my life and things started appearing in my life that were so synchronistically unfolding with what was going on in my body.
That was another interesting aspect of the book: You write about having heard and absorbed so many stories of pain and suffering and violence against women that, at one point, you wonder whether internalizing all this pain has created a cancer inside you.
I'm not a scientist or a biologist, but I can tell you that on a kind of metaphysical, spiritual level, I certainly feel like, when we are open to each other, stories get inside us, and they create things inside us—particularly if we have unprocessed or unexamined or unhealed original trauma, and I think most of us are in that category. So I think we're much more prone to have things somatize in us when we haven't brought things to consciousness.
So, if people who read the book want to gain that same insight without cancer—
Without having a catastrophic experience? I highly recommend it! I think part of it is the hunger for it. I think you have to really ask yourself if you want to be awake—truly, if you're willing to walk through that fire. Now, it is a fire; make no mistake about it. But that doesn't mean it's not a glorious fire. I think, if you want to walk through the fire, there are lots of ways to go back and find out and reconnect with your body. And I think part of it is knowing that there's a reason to do that. I think many people just think, 'Why do I want to go through that pain? What's it going to get me?' And the answer is, it's going to get you freedom. And it's going to connect you with the rest of the world. Because the more we're disconnected from our own stories and our own bodies and our own being, the more we're disconnected from each other. And that's the payoff—which is pretty substantial.
Yeah. But like you said, it's hard to motivate yourself to walk through fire.
Yeah. And I would strongly recommend that walk before your body falls apart, because we don't know how far your body has to go. Like—look, I'm free of cancer today, and I feel very, very blessed, and I have no idea if the cancer's coming back. But what I do know is, if I had waited a little bit longer, that wouldn't have been possible, so I feel like, let's all—like, do we have to wait for the Earth to kick us off before we stop climate change? Do we have to wait until every person on the planet is poor except for 10 people, before we fight for people not to be poor? And the question is, we don't have to wait. I think I wrote this book as a cautionary tale, you know? Like, let's not have seven organs and 70 nodes, you know?
I love how honest this book is, but I can also see people being repulsed by things like the description of your stoma.
Like my sister!
Yeah. Did you ever think, 'I should tone it down a little for the people who aren't ready for this truth'?
Nah. I mean, the book was 400 pages, so I edited out a lot, to be honest with you. It was much more honest. And some of it was just like—it was bad. The book was—writing this book was like a fever. But I wish I had had that book when I was going through it. I just felt like, 'Has anybody had a stoma? What's a stoma? How are people dealing with that?' I had never read a book about cancer that really told me—and I've read a lot of books about cancer—what was going on. So, you know, if people are freaked out by it, it's OK. It's real. What am I going to say? Reality's freaky!
I think my favorite example of that is the chapter "Farting for Cindy," where a crucial part of your recovery involves farting.
And that there's a floor—a fart floor—where people actually go! And people come and wait and sit by your bed, praying for the fart!
Were you able to see that humor at the time?
Yes. Oh my god, yes. It was insane! Taking fart walks, and Cindy coming every day, going for the fart. It's like, 'This is really happening to me? My life has come to this?' it was very humbling, the whole process. Anytime, now, I ever think I'm all that, I just think 'Fart Floor,' and I go, really?!
You write the book as a series of "scans," or short chapters, which really helps break up the past and present vignettes, as well as the humor and seriousness of the subject matter. Did that format just evolve naturally?
Yeah. I mean, it was really strange. I remember I was trying to figure out how I was going to tell this tale. And then I was actually having a CAT scan, and there's something about the CAT scan that is so literally—you just hold your breath, you go in, this photo gets taken. And then I started studying CAT scans and realizing the whole idea that it actually is a picture of all these different pieces, and the machine makes it run. And that's really what literature does. So it just seemed like, 'Wow, so I guess the way to tell this story is to do it in pieces, and collectively, it'll be one.' And I hope that happened.
And again, the book felt like kind of an operation: As I operated deep into the story, all the connections began to reveal themselves, you know? Where other times I've started with a structure, and I say, 'Oh, look, drilling – body; drilling – Gulf; Gulf – my mother.' But as I wrote it, I'd say, 'Oh my god, the Gulf, again. The Gulf, again.' And then it was like a story—a whole story about the Gulf.
That was crazy, that the Deepwater Horizon spill was spreading just as an infection was spreading within your body. Did you make that connection immediately?
During the Gulf spill was when I had the infection, and I really felt like I was the Gulf. I had a period of two weeks where like I just I thought I had oil in me, because I was just deep in the spill and deep in my infection and I was feverish and nauseous and weak. I was really, really sick. I lost like 30 pounds. So I was just deep in the spill—deep in the toxic, poisonous dump of the world.
You write that when someone tells you you're a fighter and you'll be fine, it makes you anxious because maybe it isn't true—maybe you won't survive, you're not as much of a fighter as people think. I think people would be surprised to hear of Eve Ensler thinking that.
Yeah, well, hello!
It reminded me of Sheryl Sandberg, who writes in her book Lean In that she sometimes worries that maybe she's not as smart and talented as everyone thinks, and maybe she's just a fraud. That strikes me as a very female phenomenon—for confident, successful women to suddenly have these serious doubts.
It was also this feeling of—that particular thing was, I was just getting so many letters from people saying, 'Oh, we're not worried about you; you'll pull through.' And then I thought, 'What if I die?' Like, I will have failed everybody's notion of me as a force of nature, you know? And it wasn't so much fraudulent as this feeling of—it's a body. There's a way in which we can fight and fight and fight, but in the end, our bodies determine what happens, you know? And every time anyone would write that, I'd be like, 'Okayyyy…it'd be really sad if this force of nature dies here!'
But you had those times when you felt that death was possible, right?
Oh, god, yes. Oh, absolutely. I mean, I had periods during this whole thing where, you know, first of all, I had stage III/IV cancer—so, you know, that's not good. As you can see, you know, I went back and I was like, 'the cure,' and the doctor was like, 'Uhhh, I don't think we can say "cure," at all.' You don't really know. I don't know now, right? I know that it's gone, and I know that I've got this incredible, amazing life where it's just miraculous to wake up every morning and see the sky and breathe. But you know, somebody said to me, 'Are you in remission?' And I don't really believe in remission. Like, all of us are in remission, you know? Because we have cancer, in theory, in cells in our body and anything can activate them. But you know, I'm really OK with whatever happens now. I really am. I feel like the fact that I got to come back and get this next life is such a miracle, and I just have gratitude now. And however long I get is just amazing.
How will you use that time? What are your hopes and goals?
Well, we got 1 billion people to rise this year [cover story, Feb. 12: "The Rising"], and that was pretty big. I feel like we're going to have a bigger event this year, which we're going to announce in June. And, you know, I'm just going to continue to do the work I do: fighting to end violence against women and working for a planet where we are about transformation and not transaction. We're about people being saved, and wars being ended, and people caring about each other more than things, and freedom over power. And working as much as I can on a day-to-day basis for that, and doing it hopefully with joy and gratitude and just loving as many people as I can love in this world now, connecting in the deepest way possible.
For me, one of the most powerful moments in the book is when you revise your definition of love as something that is "about showing up and not forgetting, about keeping promises, about giving everything and losing everything." You write that while you had an idea of true love, you really already had it in many different ways, with many different people, through all of your friendships and relationships.
Yeah. For me, too, that was the big revelation. Somehow, when you understand you've created the life you wanted, on your terms, and love in the way you wanted, and then suddenly you realize you have it all, you just feel so rich, you know? I just feel rich. I feel rich with the treasures of friendship, and just so many people who I have as sisters in the struggle for a world without violence and friends who are with me on this journey. What better thing is there? My god. I feel so lucky.
Eve Ensler: In the Body of the World
7:30 pm Friday, April 26. $30 (includes book).
The Lensic, 211 W San Francisco St., 988-7050. Tickets here.
Preorder the book at Collected Works.