The Body After Cancer
Eve Ensler is a Tony Award-winning playwright, performer, and activist. She is the author of The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body. Her memoir is In the Body of the World.
March 5, 2015
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
EVE ENSLER: When people would talk to me about, “You’re gonna beat this,” or, “You’re gonna slay cancer,” or, “You’re gonna” — I would say what I’m gonna do, hopefully, is become more of who I was meant to be. And cancer has given me this huge, dramatic, turbulent opportunity to do that.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Eve Ensler has helped women all over the world tell the stories of their lives through the stories of their bodies. Her play, “The Vagina Monologues,” has become a global force in the face of violence against women and girls. But she herself also had a violent childhood. And it turns out that she herself was like so many of us Western women, obsessed by our bodies and yet not inhabiting them — without even knowing we’re not inhabiting them. Until she got cancer.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Eve Ensler is a playwright, performer, and social activist. All of her work and writing revolves in some way around complicated, redemptive female physicality. Her book, The Good Body, includes a funny, touching reflection on her post-40s stomach. “The Vagina Monologues” is also touching and funny in places and has taken Eve Ensler places she never thought she’d go: to help create a transitional, healing refuge for women and girls in the Congo, for example. It’s called “The City of Joy.” And her emotional tie to the Congo played a mysterious role in her journey with cancer, as she describes in her book, In the Body of the World. I spoke with Eve Ensler in 2013.
MS. TIPPETT: I always start by asking whoever I’m speaking with about if there was a religious or spiritual background to their childhood. And I wonder how you think about that and that can obviously be — that can be an intentional religious or spiritual background or it can be the spiritual message that was coming into the fabric of your childhood. I mean, how do you think about that?
MS. ENSLER: Well, it’s interesting because I had a very strange, in a way, religious background. I was brought up in a Jewish community with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but I was brought up to be not Jewish in a Jewish community. So that was really fraught for me and also just strange, you know. And then I was brought up in the Unitarian church which I actually quite liked because it was an exposure to all ways of thinking and all religious thoughts.
And the church was a very political church. I remember there were really great speakers who came, civil rights speakers and, you know, anti-Vietnam speakers. So it was kind of — I got this idea somehow that religion and social activism go together.
But I don’t know that I would call that my spiritual life. It was — they were religious ideas, you know. And I think my spiritual life was so much more through language and through words and through the body. It was always through the body and it was through dancing and it was through — I was a dancer when I was younger. I was a ballerina for years and that was a big part of it. It was finding the life, the spirit, in my body which was a very difficult thing ’cause my body was so kind of muted.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. So how old were you when you first started to collect women’s stories, that whole project that led to “The Vagina Monologues”?
MS. ENSLER: Well, my friend told me, who I grew up with, that I used to do this at camp, that I would get all the girls to sit on the bed to tell me their stories. So I think it began very, very young. I was always obsessed with people stories, always.
And I remember actually in fifth grade, I formed this club of all the unpopular girls because I was seriously unpopular and I brought them all to my house. I made them all tell me their stories about how bad they felt about being unpopular [laughs]. It was sort of like — I think I always longed to know what was going on inside people, just what the secrets were, because I also wanted to know if there was another thing, another way, another story, another example, another path that was possible.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s been really therapeutic for the unpopular girls. I mean, they were so lucky to be in school with you [laughs].
MS. ENSLER: I tried to form a kind of rallying club, but, you know, unpopular girls are unpopular for a reason. We were all really thwarted socially, so the club didn’t really happen because they weren’t that interested. They just wanted to stop being unpopular and grow up and be something else. They didn’t want to be — I remember when I worked for years in a homeless shelter and I would try to rally the homeless women to, like, organize and they were like, but we don’t wanna be identified as homeless women, like this is a very fluid identity. This is not a permanent identity. And I think the unpopular girls felt kind of the same way [laughs].
MS. TIPPETT: And then — so how old were you when “The Vagina Monologues” project started?
MS. ENSLER: Well, “The Vagina Monologues” happened in my late-ish-30s, but there were a lot of stories I was gathering before then. I did a play about homeless women called “Ladies” where I interviewed women for years in a homeless shelter and then put that together. And I did a play about nuclear disarmament where I talked to women who were camping out in peace camps and I put their stories into a play. So I was already — I also think when you grow up in a family where you don’t know really what’s going on inside people, you know, everyone was so untransparent and so unavailable and so far away. And I longed to know what people were thinking. I knew someplace my survival was there.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah. And, I mean, it is a fascinating phenomenon that that play, that project, “The Vagina Monologues,” that it really set this movement in motion where women around the world found a new way in to kind of claiming themselves and healing themselves and loving themselves and each other. So one thing that jumps out at me, and you actually talk about this at some place in your writing, is this power of naming. That really runs all the way through sacred traditions. I don’t think we talk about it very much in this culture, but just naming itself, speaking a word and using words intentionally as something that actually is generative, creative — it brings things into being.
MS. ENSLER: It really does. You know, I used to joke about saying the word vagina, but it’s like if you say it enough, the whole world changes and people change. And that’s definitely been my experience over and over again with various words.
MS. TIPPETT: But also the other thing that came through is when you ask a woman to talk about her vagina, it’s not also just not that part of her body, right? It’s the whole package.
MS. ENSLER: Absolutely. And I remember years ago reading like inside the story of a great autobiography is the story of humanity. And I think that’s what started to hit me when I started to first talk to women. How many secrets, how many clouded memories, how many parts of ourselves were stored there that we had never brought to the surface.
[music: “The Last Survivor” by Keith Kenniff]
MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve been —I mean, you’ve been so many places. You’ve been all over the world with this, but I would like to just kind of hone in on the hold that the Congo has for you. It’s also so striking because that’s one of those places where the stories one hears through the news which are the only stories one would ever hear are so horrific. It’s one of the hardest places ever to identify with in that abstract way. But what did you say once, you know, I was a goner for the Congo. So would you just tell us a little bit about the particular hold it is has?
MS. ENSLER: Well, I think for me — I think who knows what my life would have been like going to the Congo had I not been to so many other places before. I think you get prepared for landings. You get prepared for the moment when someplace enters you. It’s that great Rilke thing. The future enters into us in order to transform us long before it ever happens. And I think the Congo was coming towards me for a long time.
When I got invited to the Congo by Dr. Denis Mukwege who’s this extraordinary surgeon at a fancy hospital, it was one of the things where I just knew in my being like I had to go there and I had to do whatever we could to support his efforts. I think when I got to the Congo — and the place is so beautiful.
In Bukavu, it is just — there’s a paradise of quality to it and a beauty in the land and a beauty in the lake and a beauty in the nature and the fertility and the lushness. Simultaneously, the poverty and the insecurity and the war and the lack of infrastructure and the chaos — it is so living in the center of the story. It is everything escalated to — so it’s completely revealed. Like, there’s no more lies there, there’s no more secrets there. You’re in it. And there’s something both very disturbing about it, but also very relieving because…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s kind of the opposite of that experience you described beforehand growing up in suburban America…
MS. ENSLER: Yes, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: Where everything was below the surface.
MS. ENSLER: Nothing is in front of you. Nothing’s transparent.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So in 2010, you are helping create something called the “City of Joy,” which also just — that language again against the backdrop that you just described is very stunning. And you discover that you have a huge malignant tumor, right? In your uterus? And you had — you said that cancer landed in your body just as Congo had landed you In the Body of the World.
And there’s something in your story, and I know you know this, which is just so iconic for this great contradiction especially of modern women, I think, Western women maybe, how, on the one hand, attentive to our bodies and obsessed by our bodies we can be and yet not inhabit them and not even know that we’re not inhabiting them.
MS. ENSLER: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: And for you [laughs], this crusader going around the world with V-Day to make that discovery is just, you know, it’s remarkable.
MS. ENSLER: Well, you know, I think everything’s in stages and is incremental. I think my whole life, if I look at the body of literature and theater pieces I’ve written, I think it’s been this huge journey and attempt to get back into my body. I mean, every play on some level. But I think…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. The body was always in there…
MS. ENSLER: Always. You know, I look at “The Vagina Monologues,” “The Good Body” — I mean, it’s been a kind of obsession and it’s really an interesting thing, I think. You think you’re in your body and then you get cancer and you wake up after nine hours of surgery with tubes and catheters and all kinds of things coming out of it and you realize that it’s the first time in your life you’ve ever been in your body, like you are a body.
You are pure body and that experience is so — it was just so incredible. It was so incredible to be in my body, to not have this be an abstraction, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m also thinking a lot lately about, you know, how Descartes has so much to answer for. This idea, I think therefore I am, which sounds like a piece of philosophy, but our Western culture is so built around this way overly cerebral disembodied way that we’ve created all of our institutions and we’re so impoverished. We’re so much smaller for it.
MS. ENSLER: So much smaller. You know, it’s so funny that you’re saying that because during my cancer, I used to just chant all the time, I feel therefore I am, you know. And I’m in my body therefore…
MS. TIPPETT: I feel therefore I am?
MS. ENSLER: Yeah. I feel therefore I am. I feel therefore I can feel my existence. I feel my body. I feel the breath. I feel the living, breathing fiber that is humanness, you know. And I think this notion of objectivity as if that were ever possible.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. ENSLER: As if the brain could somehow separate you from your subjective self has created a level of dissociation on the planet. You can get yourself into some mindset which keeps you from opening your heart.
[music: “Les Revenants” by Mogwai]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with playwright and social activist Eve Ensler.
MS. TIPPETT: I was at a gathering a couple of weeks ago and there were neuroscientists there and artists, actually some poets. A poet from Sierra Leone and a poet from Northern Uganda, and a lot of the themes that you speak about were there, and there were contemplatives. And we talked about, again, to language, how the Buddhist word for — it’s heart and mind. Heart and mind are the same thing. And when these Western neuroscientists first started studying the brains of meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks, the monks thought this was so hilarious that they were putting the electrodes on the head [laughs]…
MS. ENSLER: As opposed to the heart.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, yes.
MS. ENSLER: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: But actually, the science is actually also helping us understand that our brain is an organ, right? And that what we experience as feelings lodge in our bodies as well.
MS. ENSLER: And nothing’s separate. Again, everything got separated. But they’re not separate. There’s a direct line that goes from and to and I think that is to me the most exciting thing about being alive right now is rewiring ourselves and reconstituting ourselves to understand that this is all connected not only here, but outside of us, you know. Like that’s the time we’re moving into now, like where we get out of this. You know, you can’t dominate people without separating them from each other and from themselves.
MS. ENSLER: The more people get plugged back into their bodies, each other, the more impossible it will for us to be dominated and occupied. And I think that’s really the work right now. And I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way. I mean like how in our daily lives are we connecting in every single respect with ourselves and everything around us because that’s where transcendence comes from. That’s where real energetic transformation comes from.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. That’s such an interesting idea too. I believe that also, but it almost sounds paradoxical that transcendence comes from being rooted.
MS. ENSLER: Completely.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You had this moment when you had so many things happen with your cancer and infections. I mean, it was a long saga.
MS. ENSLER: Indeed. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: But you had this former therapist who was a friend who said to you at one point that she was so surprised you hadn’t gotten sick up to then, which kind of scared me because I sometimes think am I making myself sick, you know? But you said my body has been sculpting this tumor for years. This kind of brings it back into you, but tell me what you meant by that.
MS. ENSLER: Well, you know, I think ever since I got cancer, I’ve been really looking at trauma, like what is trauma? What are the molecular, you know, particle. You know, what is it? What does it do to us? And I think even as I was very prone to sickness when I was younger, I was always sick. I was always sick because I was being beaten, I was being molested, I was being attacked, I was always under siege, so I was always sick.
I saw myself as a sick person. ‘Cause my body was absolutely metabolizing or attempting to metabolize all that trauma and was having a very difficult time with it. So it did what it did, which is got me sick. And I think we don’t even know yet what the relationship between trauma and disease is and illness is.
You know, I think for me I am surprised that — all the years — first of all, my own abuse and then self-abuse and then traveling the world and listening to story upon story, city after city after city, woman after woman after woman who really needed to share, and where was it going? It was going into this system, and how do we process it? To be honest with you, I didn’t treat my body with mercy because I wasn’t connected to my body.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. There’s also that distinction. You weren’t making that connection.
MS. ENSLER: No.
MS. TIPPETT: You weren’t imagining that connection as real.
MS. ENSLER: Exactly. So where was all that going? What it was doing, it was building itself a little tumor. That’s where it was going. It was just — and I’ve spoken to so many women recently who are working, for example, on the front lines at rape centers or in Panzi Hospital, for example, I heard a story recently of the women who are the intake people who intake the stories. In the last, I think, four years, three of them have gotten cancer.
And I’ve just heard many stories recently, but then, of course, we don’t even know the relationship between reproductive cancers, for example, and the number of women who have been beaten or raped or incest or abused. And since I wrote In the Body of the World, I cannot tell you how many letters I have gotten from women telling me about themselves or their mothers who were survivors of battery, who got cancer. They could directly see the relationship when the battery started, when the cancer happened. I think in years to come we will think of trauma and cancer and they will not be separate. We will be treating them.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I was always intrigued and kind of puzzled by this language. Not puzzled, but I felt like it’s something we don’t pay attention to when we talk about sexual violation in particular. You often will use the term “soul-stealing,” right? I mean, we have this evidence before us that, when that kind of abuse happens, especially to a child, it’s utterly destroying a whole person and it was never just a physical experience.
MS. ENSLER: Never. How many years has it taken me to piece by piece begin to reassemble the tissue of my soul, to reassemble the — you know. And if we just look around the — and I had resources to do that. I came from a middle class family where I had the ability to begin to rebuild that structure. I look as I travel around the world at women who are living in such incredible poverty and in situations where on top of the incredible meager existence they have there is an avalanche of violence. So how are they even beginning to reconstitute those structures, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: And then there was this bizarre aspect of your cancer that it created essentially a fistula which is a very particular, but unfortunately very widespread malady in that part of the world that had so captured you in the Congo.
MS. ENSLER: Particularly for women who have been violated and raped.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, as a result of rape and assault. I mean, it was the doctor at the Mayo Clinic who was amazed. I mean, I don’t know if he used this word in your book, mystery, at the mystery of what they found. He said these findings are not medical, they are spiritual. I don’t know. What was that like?
MS. ENSLER: I don’t know. I was saying last night at an evening we did that I think one of the amazing things about love is that, if you allow people to enter you, they actually change you for better and worse.
If you allow pain into your system — but I also believe that, look, there are so many women’s stories that have been inside me and so much pain that had been inside me and it was what happened and got me sick, but it was also ironically what saved me because it was a longer river. Like that river was a river of connection. So living then to open City of Joy so that the women of Congo could have a place of their dreams was connected to me having gotten fistula which was connected. It was part of the same continuum.
[music: “Days to Come” by Bonobo]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Eve Ensler, and subscribe to our podcast, at onbeing.org.
[music: “Days to Come” by Bonobo]
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up: Eve Ensler on living her second wind, but before that, on chemotherapy as ritual. She writes, “A hard foreign object under the skin separates you from those who remain only flesh. It gives you secret powers and access to a new world, a world where there are no more countries or claimed borders, where life happens and death is near, where the only real harbors are the ones we carry in our chest.”
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Into the Trees” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with “Vagina Monologues” playwright, performer, and social activist Eve Ensler. We’ve been exploring how this woman who spoke the word “vagina” onstage realized she’d never inhabited her body until she had cancer.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to talk about a few other aspects of what you learned going through that experience of your cancer. I wonder if you would just tell the story of, like, beginning to see the tree from your hospital room.
MS. ENSLER: Well, I think when I was younger and went through so much violence, I separated myself from all the things that represented life ’cause life was too painful. Beauty, nature, love, children — none of the things felt possible to me. I felt like I had been exiled from that world. And although I looked at it longingly from time to time, I also looked at it with bitterness and the kind of cynical bad-ass self which was, like, I’m on my way to the city and I’ll never see another tree again.
And I knew someplace it was really distorted and messed up, but that’s where I was. And what happened when I got sick was I got a very, very bad infection after the surgery. And it was like a sea of infection in my gut and I was really sick and I lost 30 pounds. I was disappearing and I went to the hospital and I ended up having this lovely room ’cause it was my birthday. And when I got there, I looked out and the only thing I could see was this really beautiful tree.
And I couldn’t write, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t even watch television. I was just a thing and I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m gonna have to face this tree, and I’m gonna go” — but what happened was that every day, every hour, it was as if the tree began to reveal itself to me. Or I began to see the tree or both those things happened together. And I fell in love with that tree. I loved the bark, I loved the trunk, I loved the branches…
MS. TIPPETT: It felt like a contemplative practice that you entered into with the tree.
MS. ENSLER: It was just unbelievable. And by the end of my stay in the hospital, which was a few weeks, the tree actually blossomed these white blossoms and I felt like I was born back into nature somehow. Like I had been asleep, and I had awakened. And it’s absolutely taken hold. I feel there isn’t a tree I walk past where I feel like one of those people, like, “Whoa, look at these trees.”
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MS. ENSLER: They’re just incredible. I can’t believe how amazing trees are [laughs].
MS. TIPPETT: I want to read — I just want to read this passage ’cause it’s just so beautiful. To this point, I mean, you being very eloquent about what you experienced, really what you — these learnings. It’s kind of long, but I’m gonna read it ’cause I think it’s beautiful.
“What if our lives were precious only up to a point? What if we held them loosely and understood that there were no guarantees? So that when you got sick, you weren’t a stage, but in a process. And cancer, just like having your heart broken or getting a new job or going to school or a teacher? What if rather than being cast out and defined by some terminal category you were identified as someone in the middle of a transformation that could deepen your soul, open your heart and all the while even if and particularly when you were dying, you would be supported by and be part of a community? And what if each of these things were what we are waiting for?” It’s so beautiful.
MS. ENSLER: Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: What if our lives were precious only up to a point? Tell me what you mean by that.
MS. ENSLER: Well, I think this really began during 9/11 in this complete madness and obsession for security which we all know is completely elusive and impossible. And I think the way I feel is I am important and I love being alive and it’s great to be here. But I’m precious up to a point. I’m no more precious than anybody else and my life has its time and its cycle and it will come and it will go.
But my value isn’t more than anybody on this planet. And I think, in the West and particularly in America, when bad things happen here, they’re just so awful. But when they happen other places, they’re anticipated or expected. We just assume things happen like that, as if the people aren’t suffering the same as we’re suffering when the bad things happen here. I remember once when I was in — I think I was in Kathmandu and I was by a river. Was it Kathmandu? I think it was Kathmandu. And there were these boys swimming in the river and literally very close by.
There was a pyre and they were burning a dead body and the ashes were floating and the boys were actually kind of — they actually were kind of swimming past the boys and nobody was alarmed. Nobody was disturbed. Dead and living, the dead and the living. And it gave me this incredible sense of relief. It was like, yeah, the dead, the living. The dead, the living. It’s not so awful. And I think in a way we in this country sometimes believe we’re so important. Our comfort is so meaningful when it’s no more meaningful or less meaningful than anybody else’s comfort. And I think that understanding is very liberating.
[music: “The Humbucking Coil” by Bernard Fleischmann]
MS. TIPPETT: One of the big realizations that you came to was about the nature of love and I really took that in because it’s something I’ve been thinking about also a lot. I mean, maybe at this time of life, in that extreme moment, the loves that we tend to focus on, you know, love with a capital “L,” the romantic love, the marriages, the lovers, that didn’t really come through, that didn’t feel very substantial. And yet you realize that that did not amount to the equation we would often make. Well, you don’t have love in your life, that you were surrounded by love, that you were held by love and that you’d had too small an imagination about that word, that thing.
MS. ENSLER: Well, I think this whole capitalist structure often forms our notion of love as if it were something you acquired, do you know, or you got.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And we’re also just so inundated with…
MS. ENSLER: Totally.
MS. TIPPETT: The love story. The love story is between two people.
MS. ENSLER: Romantic people, absolutely. I think our notion of love is so based on a kind of, I don’t know, it just seems a very unevolved and very unenlightened notion.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. ENSLER: You know, that it’s this one person who you will meet.
MS. TIPPETT: The One.
MS. ENSLER: The One. And, by the way, I’ve yet to meet anybody. Yes, there are people who have good marriages that have lasted long, but I don’t think you will talk to anybody who will tell you this is the panacea, and this is the only person who I’ve ever loved that fulfilled them. Of course not. And I think I just feel so excited now in my life because, now that my notion of love, that has been dispelled, that old notion. And even though you think you’ve dispelled it, it still haunts you and lingers, you know.
How do we get rid of so much of that stuff? It’s like in your cells. You just gotta keep purging. But now I feel there is not a day that has passed since I recovered from cancer where I feel so joyful to be sitting here occupying this space with you, to be in — this summer, I had my friends and we were in Italy and we were dancing and we were swimming and we were talking and we were having amazing evenings. And every moment of that was so dear to me and precious and I think we find our fulfillment where we choose to find our fulfillment. And if you’re told you can only find it here and you don’t look at where it is, which is your life, you keep thinking it’s coming.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MS. ENSLER: You know? Oh, it’ll be here one day. I’ll get the big love. Well, you have the big love. It’s already here.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You talked about the daily, subtle simple gathering of kindnesses. I mean, it was that love you felt. It was also the love you felt from those women in the Congo who were praying for you.
MS. ENSLER: Absolutely. Well, I think it was one of those things where I had one of those bad nights where I was thinking about all my past lovers and husbands and the failure of love in my life.
MS. TIPPETT: With a capital “L.”
MS. ENSLER: I just didn’t get it in my own intimacy issues and blah, blah, blah, blah. And then I suddenly realized, okay, how many beautiful people had shown up for me who were cooking me eggs? Marie Cecil who was cooking me eggs at five in the morning to settle my stomach when I was in chemo or my granddaughter who packed my bags when I went to see my mother for the last time or, you know, my sister who was there every minute on the couch with me putting washcloths on my forehead. And it was just this moment of like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is so rich.’ And I think, again, it’s like there are the trees, there is the love. Everything’s — the paradise is here. Paradise is right in front of us. We are so — I think I’m gonna go back to capitalism because I think what is engineered is longing. It is engineered longing and desire in us for what can be in the future, you know. And so because it’s always about the next product, the next big thing.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re right, right.
MS. ENSLER: You look at clothes and you always see some hot, sexy, fabulous couple wearing those jeans and you’re like, oh, the jeans, i.e., the love. Like everything’s all hooked in to the seduction, do you know? And often, when you wake up and you’re in a shaggy state with your lover, you don’t actually look like that, but it’s delicious in it’s own messy, human way. And I think we’re always comparing the messy, human to that, so whatever this is doesn’t come up right. And to celebrity culture. Come on. The celebrity culture of the couples and the beauty as if…
MS. TIPPETT: Brad and Angelina.
MS. ENSLER: Exactly [laughs], exactly. We know exactly what that is and that is not accidental. What if we actually were content with our lives? What if we actually knew this was paradise, you know? It would be very hard to control us.
MS. TIPPETT: While you had your cancer, your mother also had struggled with cancer and then she had a recurrence, right? And she died? I feel like you said some very stunning things about family. I mean, you learned like your sister, your relationship with your sister, was so repaired through that experience of being sick. But you talk about how you kind of compared the effect of cancer on your body to the effect of like your father’s abuse, that when there’s that kind of disorder, that it creates mutations just like cells mutate in your body that creates mutations in relationships.
I thought that was really interesting. I wonder if you were also really able to be there with your mother when she was dying even though that had been a really hard relationship and to let go of your resentments from all those years. I wonder if you feel like you would have been able to be present to her in that way if you hadn’t gone through that experience of cancer and all the things, all the learning that you’re describing that came with that.
MS. ENSLER: I’m not sure. You know, I think I had done a lot. I had gotten closer. I was at a neutral place with my mother. I wasn’t feeling bitter or hateful to her anymore, but I’m not sure I was feeling all that much love either. I just was neutral. I would go to see her. I would be kind to her. I think cancer made me so open and porous and vulnerable that I was able to really be with her. And I wasn’t just feeling love with her in those last moments. I had a lot of feelings.
MS. TIPPETT: I know you were honest with her.
MS. ENSLER: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But you were honest in a way that in fact was very loving, right? In a really grown-up way?
MS. ENSLER: It felt that way, it felt that way. And I felt when I left my mother that night, I felt like, okay, okay, this is done. This is done and we’re okay, we’re okay. That’s one level of that. But I think when — somebody said to me last night who had read the book, when you don’t get love by your mother, it’s a really hard road. I don’t know that that ever goes away. You know what I mean?
I think, look, I do not feel a victim to it. I don’t feel it, but I watch people with their babies sometimes. And I watch women who have had a relationship with their mothers where they felt connected, where they felt connected to her body, where they felt connected to her being. And that is an absence I will live with forever. It is not to say that the spirit doesn’t fill it up or dance doesn’t fill it up.
MS. TIPPETT: I know, I know.
MS. ENSLER: But it’s just what is. I think you get older and you come to terms with what you’ve been given. This is your story, this is what your thing is. This is — you make do, you know. And you make beauty out of it and you make art out of it and you make life out of it.
I remember once a friend of mine told me that he was interviewing a man who was 99, a great artist, and he was dying and had just a huge level of a body of work and a huge achievement. And all he could talk about as he was dying was the fact that he never had a father. And it really struck me that, at the core, core, core, core, that that relationship is like the fundamental beginning of any growth, any tree. You know, how the tree will grow will be dependent on that. And we become interesting trees as a result of it. Some of us grow that direction. But it’s still there at the core.
[music: “Bar Kokhba” by John Zorn]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with playwright Eve Ensler, on discovering her life through cancer, as described in her memoir, In the Body of the World.
MS. TIPPETT: I mentioned I was at this event recently with the poets from Sierra Leone in northern Uganda and, you know, in places like that, in moments like that, poetry and beauty take on this power and this centrality. I don’t know. I wonder if part of this — if we are evolving as a species, which I agree with you and I think about that a lot and I think I picked that up in my conversations. But if somehow there’s something in there about us not needing to be in such a crisis to find that power in ourselves and sustain it without that kind of crisis, right?
MS. ENSLER: Absolutely. The thing is, we are in crisis in every respect.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean, all the time anyway?
MS. ENSLER: Well, we’re in crisis. The earth is in crisis, you know. Humans are in crisis. We’re talking about a huge percentage of people who are living in dire poverty on the planet. So it would be great to think of us not being in crisis, but in fact we are. But I would love to believe that, when we evolve to the next place, we’re not going to have to utilize crisis as the basis for transformation, but that love might be the basis or connection might be the basis. And I think, by the way, I don’t feel now that I need things to be terrible in order to change. Like that is not my modus operandi anymore.
MS. TIPPETT: No, no.
MS. ENSLER: You know?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I feel this in you, that you can sustain this cathar — like those things that came to you in catharsis are now normalized. They’re part of how you move through the world.
MS. ENSLER: Well, what I long for now is transformation. I think having gone through the cancer experience like I get that there is nothing static, so what I want — all I want to do is go back to school. I want to learn more. I want to grow more. And honestly, I don’t want it to be based on drama, do you know? Like and crisis and horror. I don’t know what motivates people. I fear sometimes that that crisis thing is the driving point. You look at it like a deadline, for example, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and you’re right. Of course you’re right that we are in all kinds of crisis as we speak, as we sit here. But there’s crisis that you can ignore at least for a long time. There’s crisis that we are ignoring collectively and then there are the times you get thrown into the hospital and cut open.
MS. ENSLER: Yeah, exactly. When you get, oh, my God, I’m in crisis and we’re in crisis. Like the whole crisis world, the pit of crisis opens up, you know [laughs].
MS. TIPPETT: But I guess the thing would be, I don’t know, maybe that’s about softening and by a feeling held by each other so that we could be open to that pain.
MS. ENSLER: I think so. I absolutely think so. And I think play is a part of it and being with each other in gentle ways and being with each other in careful ways, you know. I think so often in the same way that we don’t see trees, we don’t see each other. We don’t see how traumatized people are, tender people are.
I think sometimes if one were fully awake, one would do nothing in one’s day except for stop on the road, on the people you meet, because you would see their pain. Do you know? We walk past everyone. Sometimes it just crushes my heart.
MS. TIPPETT: But you’d have to be able to bear that pain too, right? It’s because, if we don’t stop because we couldn’t bear it.
MS. ENSLER: Right. But you would also understand that it’s part of you already, so that when you stop to actually acknowledge it, you’re actually allowing it to move as opposed to be frozen in you, you know.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I was thinking while I was reading you. I’m always a little bit concerned about the language we use, especially about cancer, because, you know, in our lifetime, cancer has gone from being a death sentence to a chronic disease that people survive. But the language is so combative, right? It’s fighting cancer, it’s beating cancer. And I felt like — I mean, you definitely fought, but it was kind of like a hybrid…
MS. ENSLER: I’m so glad you’re saying this.
MS. TIPPETT: Right? I mean, so it was both things.
MS. ENSLER: I don’t feel like I fought cancer.
MS. TIPPETT: No, and I don’t…
MS. ENSLER: I feel like I…
MS. TIPPETT: You wrestled with it, right?
MS. ENSLER: I wrestled — I feel like I was in the churning of cancer. I feel like cancer took me and went, okay.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and you met it head-on, right? You…
MS. ENSLER: Some days. Some days I wasn’t feeling like I wanted to go there. Sometimes I — you know, some days I was brave, some days I stayed under the covers. But I don’t know that it’s something you can fight, do you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Then I wonder if we hurt ourselves with those kinds of metaphors about illness and just these moments where life is not what we thought it would be.
MS. ENSLER: When people would talk to me about, “You’re gonna beat this,” or, “You’re gonna slay cancer,” or, “You’re gonna” — I would say what I’m gonna do hopefully is become more of who I was meant to be. And cancer has given me this huge, dramatic, turbulent opportunity to do that. I did not know at the end of this if I — and I still don’t know. I’m three and a half years cancer-free. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
I feel fantastic that I’ve gotten this time. And I feel very well. And I feel unbelievably lucky to be alive. But I get that cancer afforded me this very extreme opportunity to both release things that needed to go, confront things that needed to be, and to really — you know, I think when things get very, very, very, very extreme, you have an opportunity to go into the deepest parts of yourself, do you know, and really explore…
MS. TIPPETT: Whether you want to or not.
MS. ENSLER: Whether you want to or not. You can resist that, but the door is open. You can go there.
[music: “Distance” by Marconi Union]
MS. ENSLER: So, you know, one of the things I’ve been talking a lot about is chemo as a transformative experience.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, right. That’s where I feel like — I mean, there was some language of purging and battle. What was it you purging the badness that was projected on you, but never yours, right? That was somebody advising you about how to think about the chemo.
MS. ENSLER: Exactly. If it becomes something where you’re gonna slay the cancer, it’s oddly then about you and your success or failure. I don’t know how to slay cancer, don’t have an idea how to do that. I wouldn’t know how to do that. What I do know how to do and can try to do is begin to ride that wave that is pulsing through me and see if I can go where it’s trying to take me. Do you know?
And when the walls come up and I’m resisting it to say, okay, who’s gonna help me? How do I get help to get to the next place where I need to go in my consciousness? That doesn’t mean I’m gonna live, you know, but I know if I had died, if I die today, I will be much happier than if I had died five years ago. There’s no doubt in my mind about it. I’ll die okay today. It’s okay. I would not have felt that had I died five years ago. There was just so much stuff I hadn’t gotten to and gotten clean, gotten rid of.
MS. TIPPETT: You use a lot of language and imagery of like ritual around chemotherapy. Do you know what I mean?
MS. ENSLER: Yeah. I’m big on ritual.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah. But I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anybody talk about chemo that way.
MS. ENSLER: I think, once Sue, you know, my ex-therapist and incredible friend, gave me this framework to say that — God, I was terrified of chemo. But when she said to me, “The chemo’s not for you, it’s for the cancer. It’s for all the rape, all the perpetrators and you’re gonna poison them and they’re never coming back.” And I went, “I wanna go to chemo.” I couldn’t wait to go to chemo. It was like, okay, every time they pump this poison into my body, it will be the medicine.
Because I always believed in that idea of turning poison into medicine. I always loved that phrase, you know, like how do we turn poison into medicine? How do we turn? You know, it’s very much a part of my Buddhist practice, you know, and had been for years. So the idea that I was having literal poison being pumped into me that could become medicine, it really became a ritual and I would literally go and I would sit as it came into me and I would visualize what I wanted to burn away and what I wanted to dissolve and what I wanted to — and it worked. It really did work.
I mean, that’s not to say I don’t have my own mission cause and I have my dark hours. Of course we do. We’re human beings. But am I fraught? Is my daily existence fraught the way it used to be? Not at all, not at all. I’m happy now. I have a great happiness now in my life and I didn’t before. I was always battling.
MS. TIPPETT: This notion of being “people of the second wind” is kind of how you end the book, which really is what you’re just pointing at. Talk about what that means to you.
MS. ENSLER: I love the idea of the second wind. I’ve always loved it like that you’re running and running and running and suddenly you get that next wind and you can keep going. And I’ve always been very curious what lives in that space of second wind. Like, what’s in there? Like, what part of us spiritually, physically? What is it, you know, what are the ingredients of it?
And what it feels like in the second wind and — if you think about the second wind, you don’t do a lot of thinking about it. You know, the second wind comes upon you. You know, you can’t even think up a second wind, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Again, just to go back to where we started, it’s a full body experience. It’s not so much a cerebral experience.
MS. ENSLER: It’s a total body, and I feel to some degree that we’re kind of in our second wind as humanity or could be. This could be our second wind, but it requires a radical re-conjuring and re-conceiving of the story. Like, what’s the story? What are we doing here? And I absolutely believe it’s possible, but enough people have to believe it’s possible and be willing to kind of move with this wind that is trying to come in, trying to pass through us right now.
[music: “Chasing After Shadows” by Hammock]
MS. TIPPETT: Eve Ensler’s plays include “The Good Body,” and “The Vagina Monologues.” Her memoir is In the Body of the World.
[music: “Re:Through Friendly Waters” by Kettel]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this episode at onbeing.org. You can also stream it on your phone through our iPhone and Android apps or on our fabulous new tablet app.
[music: “Re:Through Friendly Waters” by Kettel]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Nicki Oster, and Selena Carlson.
Special thanks this week to the Nantucket Project, where I sat down with Eve Ensler.
Thanks also to John Paul Lederach and the poets and others at the Art of Compassionate Presence gathering at the Fetzer Institute.
[music: “Re:Through Friendly Waters” by Kettel]
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