Eve Ensler on fighting cancer and writing her new memoir, In the Body of the World

Activist and author Eve Ensler will be in town on Wednesday, May 8.
Activist and author Eve Ensler will be in town on Wednesday, May 8.
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

"How to describe Rochester, Minnesota?" Eve Ensler asks in one chapter of her new memoir, In the Body of the World. "It is essentially cancer town."

Cancer is what brought Ensler, founder of V-Day and One Billion Rising and author of The Vagina Monologues, to Rochester. Hers struck in an ironic place for an internationally renowned feminist activist: her uterus.

Ensler says that prior to her diagnosis her body was a nuisance, something that required upkeep so that she could do her work. But as she fought cancer and infection, endured nine-hour surgery, lost weight, and shaved her head, Ensler reconnected with the physical. "By the end of chemo," she writes in In the Body of the World, "I felt like the darkness I had carried around most of my life had lifted."

Ensler will speak about her book and her work at Macalester College on Wednesday in an event co-sponsored by Common Good Books and the Minnesota Women's Press. We talked with Ensler the day that In the Body of the World hit shelves.

Dressing Room: Your writing doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions of what cancer does to the body. You've said elsewhere that one of the reasons you wanted to be so personal in this book is that "we don't have guides for these experiences." What were the ways in which this disease surprised you, and do you see your memoir as a tool that could perhaps ease some of those surprises for others?

Eve Ensler: I hope that the book gives support in a lot of different ways, but one of them is that I think I was most surprised by how much in my body I was. Just how physical it was. How my body became the thing I had to focus on in every respect, in a good way and a bad way, and all the things that happen with waking up after a nine-hour surgery with tubes in every direction, and not being able to move for days, and being in the hospital for a month. And then the infection, which was horrible and completely debilitating.

I think all those things that are so physical nobody really talks about. I had books that I could read, and I read tons of books about cancer and cancer journals, but none of them really talked about it. The "it" of it. When I was writing it I just thought, "I can't do this without writing about that." Because I feel like that's the story I want to tell, but also because I think so much of what the book is about is returning into my body. So many of us have left our bodies, and when you come back into your body it's very graphic.

What do you mean when you write that you, and so many others, were exiled from your body at a young age?

I would venture to say -- and this may be a big statement -- that we have a fairly disembodied world culture. We have a culture as a planet that's very separate from itself. We have all been traumatized across the world to some degree -- some in a very first-hand way, some in a secondary way. But I think that whenever you are mistreated, or violated, or hurt, or abused, or raped, or battered, you leave yourself, because it's too painful there. And that disassociation -- I talk about it in the chapter called "Somnolence" -- leads to this kind of half-asleep, half-awake state that the world is pretty much living in right now, as far as I can tell. Because if we were awake, we would hear about a prisoner who's on a hunger strike at Guantanamo and we would feel outraged. We hear about a five-year-old girl who dies in India from being raped, and the world would be outraged.

Why are we so passive? Because we're disassociated. We're not in our bodies, we're not in ourselves. I think when you come into your body, and you're suddenly in it, the world is very different. You can't not feel what people are feeling. It's impossible. You can't walk by a homeless person on the street. Because that person is connected to you.

You are someone who was obviously so connected to the world through advocacy even prior to this experience. How did this uniquely physical event -- cancer -- help you connect even more?

I'm not sure cancer alone would have gotten me back to my body, but I think I've been on this journey my whole life to get back, and I think what cancer did is it just smashed through the walls of my separateness. It just kind of went, "You're here! Welcome. Wake up." It was shocking. It was disturbing, but it was also the place I wanted to be and I've been trying to be my whole life. The only way I can describe that experience is like the Gulf Spill. When that was happening, I couldn't find a way to separate myself from that spill. It was in my body. For weeks, I just felt like there was oil inside me.

You describe your tumor as a "flesh monument" made up of all the stories of women you've experienced. How did the metaphorical power of the cancer strike you?

This is what I think. I think that none of us know what makes cancer. I can't presume why I have cancer, why you get it. But I will venture to say in a big way that trauma's connected to it. I absolutely wouldn't be surprised if in 20 years we're calling cancer trauma, on some level. I think, being someone who suffered enormous trauma as a child, and then was drawn to the stories of trauma to try to master and understand it and make sense of what had happened to me, that I have lived in trauma, with trauma, absorbing trauma all of my existence.

When I was flying to the Mayo, I closed my eyes and just saw this huge taut ball of yarn wrapped around this huge tumor, and it was just stories and stories of women that lived inside me. I trust those things. I think if we are porous, people get inside us and stories get inside us, and events somatize in ourselves. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. I think we have to pay attention to how we take care of ourselves, and release those toxins if we're working in fields of trauma. I also think we have to look at how we release the personal trauma that happened when we were children, because I think if we don't, they break, they calcify, and become energetic forms of disease.

You've said you couldn't have dreamed or put together One Billion Rising if you had not had cancer. What do you mean by that?

What cancer did for me and what I think it can do, especially if you have really bad cancer, is it kind of is a bottom line. I joke about this at the end of the book, but I feel in some ways as though I'm already dead. Like it happened, and now I get to do what my heart tells me to do without the fear or without holding back the way I might have used to.

Maybe before cancer I would have said, "One Million Rising." But it's so clear to me now in my body how urgent the stakes are on the planet. How many women are being tortured and raped and violated. How many people are living in insane poverty. Just look at the Bangladesh collapse of that building, and how many people were in that building who were young women who were forced to go to work; it was like corporate murder. I think it has allowed me to be braver and to go for it. What are we holding back for? What are we waiting for?

There are some big plans in the works for next year, right?

There's huge plans for next year, bigger plans. We're going bigger. Because we did it! We got a billion! Now we've got to go to the next place, and we've got to end violence. The whole point of these actions is to stop the violence, and to really look at how we're treating women on the planet, and at the intersections of issues. How violence against women is affected by economic injustice and poverty and climate change and racism and homophobia and everything else. We had this amazing event [in February], we had the largest global mass action in human history. So we know that there are many people out there ready to go, and leading in their own countries. We just had a meeting with all the One Billion Rising coordinators, a lot of them in New York, and we strategized and we've come up with an amazing action that we're going to announce on June 12.

You're on tour right now. What have the first stops been like, and what can readers look forward to when you're here at Macalester?

I did a stop at Indiana University, then I went to Santa Fe, tonight's Brooklyn, and then we're off. It's been amazing. I am just so moved. In Indiana, it was so fantastic to see how many people came up afterwards crying and talking about how much they wanted to get back into their bodies, how they've been trying their whole lives, and who shared both weight and cancer stories. Also people who talked about understanding the disconnect, and understanding the desire to wake up and not knowing how. I think one of the things I want to say is that you don't have to have catastrophic cancer, you don't have to get raped, you don't have to be destroyed in order to get into your body. There are lots of ways back home without those extremes, and that's why I wrote the book, so people don't have to do that.

For more on Ensler before Wednesday night, check out this TED Talk she gave in December 2010, while she was in recovery from cancer and beginning to formulate In the Body of the World.


Eve Ensler
7 p.m. Wednesday, May 8
Kagin Commons at Macalester College
1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul

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Macalester College

1600 Grand Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55105


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