Writer, activist and performer Eve Ensler has spent much of her life devoted to the mission of stopping violence against the world’s women and girls.
Annual V-Day performances of her best-known play, The Vagina Monologues, have raised more than $90 million for groups and activists focused on such work, and the movement has grown to a worldwide Valentine’s Day event called One Billion Rising.
But in 2010, Ensler’s globetrotting life on behalf of her fellow women came to an abrupt halt. After ignoring increasingly obvious symptoms, she was diagnosed with Stage IIIB/Stage IV cancer, cancer that began as a tumor in her uterus and spread to her colon and rectum. In nine hours of surgery, she would lose her rectum, sections of her colon, her uterus, her ovaries, her cervix, her fallopian tubes, part of her vagina and 70 lymph nodes. Her treatment lasted seven months but she lived. And on May 25, she celebrated her 60th birthday.
In her new memoir, In the Body of the World, Ensler looks at her cancer battle with the same unflinching, warrior curiosity she has applied to fighting for the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, she played a key role in the creation of City of Joy, a center aimed at helping women who are recovering from horrific rapes and unimaginable violence become leaders in their communities. The similarities between what violence had done to their bodies and what cancer did to hers wasn’t lost on Ensler.
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For a woman who had never felt at home in her body, a driven woman haunted by the sexual and physical and emotional violence her father subjected her to as a child, her life-and-death cancer struggle proved transformative. As she writes in her memoir, “Cancer, a disease of pathologically dividing cells, burned away the walls of my separateness and landed me in my body, just as the Congo landed me in the body of the world.”
At 6 p.m. Saturday at Coral Gables Congregational Church, Ensler will read from In the Body of the World. She spoke about her book and her journey recently:
Q. How long before your cancer was diagnosed did you suspect something was seriously wrong?
I suspected for probably a year but didn’t do anything. I thought there were more important things to do.
Q. What connection do you think your developing cancer might have had to the thousands of tragic stories you have heard and helped to chronicle?
We never know what creates cancer. Maybe it was listening to all these stories all these years. Maybe it was the escalation of violence in Congo. I didn’t know if I wanted to be alive any more.
Q. Will the doctors say now that you are cured or in remission?
Going into surgery, I didn’t know if I was going to wake up. It’s even scarier now, by the way. You get the diagnosis, the treatment, then write the book. Stage four is the book tour. You’re in the meta part of it. When you’re going through it, you’re in a state of emergency, so you just do it.
Q. You give credit by name to all the doctors who helped you. How did you resist naming the ones who drained your abscess without responding to the agony you went through?
The book isn’t about attacking anyone. It’s about looking at what good care is and what bad care is.
Q. How much did the love and caring of your son [actor Dylan McDermott] and granddaughters [Coco and Charlotte] help you through this ordeal?
My son is the most tender, loving being. But he’s also so irreverent and ironical and crazy and fun. That’s what I needed. My granddaughters are my heart. Coco is going to be 17 soon, and I was afraid I’d be the person who brought sickness and sorrow and death into her life. But she took such beautiful care of me. She was so loving.
Q. Much of what you write about in your memoir is really frank: not just the physical manifestations of cancer and its aftermath, but the ways you tried to lose yourself and numb your pain as a younger woman. Was it freeing to be so honest and curious? Do you feel less concerned now about how others see you?
It’s hard to describe the experience of this. It really came out of my body — the book wrote me. It went to the ground in me. When I started, it was 200 pages longer. There was no way not to tell the specifics or the truth in order to go wherever I needed to go. It’s only now that I feel that I have anything to say again. It is like a rebirth.
I started traveling pretty soon. I went to Congo two weeks after [ending treatment]. I wanted to be there for the opening of City of Joy. I don’t feel driven at all any more. I don’t feel my body’s a machine. I feel very connected to my body. In the last year, when I was tired, I slept. I eat well. I do yoga. I’m moving with my body instead of against it.
Q. How often do you travel to City of Joy? Can you see the difference it is making in women’s lives in Congo?
I was at City of Joy in February, and I’ll go back in August. I stay for a month each time. It’s owned and run by the women of Congo. It’s so incredible to witness how young women come in. How they’re trying to learn to love the children they have at home. It’s such a beautiful place, with bouganvilla and roses and goats and bunnies. We graduate 90 girls every six months.
Q. What continues to fuel your passion for activism on behalf of the world’s women in the face of the enormity of the work to be done?
Look at One Billion Rising. We put out a video call to action, and it happened, in 207 countries!
Q. Do you feel you know more about the meaning of love and caring than you did before?
Our notions of love are based on this patriarchal capitalist structure. I realize that I have this amazing life of love, and it’s really up to me to value that and cherish that. I feel this gratitude I don’t know how to express. My friends and I have each other’s back. We take care of each other, we push each other. If another romantic love came around, I wouldn’t say no. But when you come this close to dying and you survive, something happens. Every day is a bonus. I don’t feel afraid the way I used to. Every day, I get what a gift it is and what a privilege it is.