Eve Ensler is a Tony Award winning playwright, performer, activist, and the author of The Vagina Monologues, which has been translated into 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries. Her experience performing The Vagina Monologues inspired her to create V-Day, a global activist movement to stop violence against women and girls. She has devoted her life to envisioning a planet in which women and girls will be free to thrive rather than merely survive, and to date, the V-Day movement has raised over $100 million.
Eve Ensler appeared at a conference called Awakened Woman in Bali in late 2016. I was lucky enough to be there (and to be able to ask a question). Eve performed a new piece of one-woman theatre on sex and the body that was so brilliant and affecting I was trembling by the end. Why? Because it seemed to me that Eve had performed it with every part of her being: the performance was powerfully verbal but it was also powerfully physical. It was about way more than the words.
It became clear to me how experiential it is for a live audience when a performer’s body and mind come together into a state of almost incandescent presence. And I wondered if Eve’s obsession with the body equips her to be such a strongly affecting performer – and whether she feels she is accessing the stories of the body when she writes. Because her subject is the body. In her art, as in her activism.
Eve, it seems to me that some women experience freedom in the mind but not the body; and others have freedom in the body but not the mind. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and on your own personal experience of how words, both written and spoken, are connected to the body.[abbreviated] Great question. You know what’s funny about the mind-body split, is I think the body has a mind. I think there is a mind in the body. And it has a logic and it has instincts and it has wisdom, and I think we’re so disconnected from it, through patriarchy, through abuse, through ongoing oppression.
The more we come into our body, the more we come into our mind. I think they’re directly connected. We can think the way patriarchy has taught us to think, which is a particular way of thinking which has to do with hierarchies, which has to do with a certain kind of logic. But when you come into your body, you start thinking. I know that because for me, it took years, because I was abused and raped by my father regularly. I was massively separated from my body. And I would have told you when I was younger – because I was really insanely promiscuous, having tons of sex – that I was in my body, but I was not in my body. I wasn’t in my mind either. I was out of my mind and out of my body.
It was only when I wrote The Vagina Monologues… and believe me, that play was far ahead of me; it took me years to catch up with what I’d written. (I’m still catching up with it to some degree, you know? Because I think the unconscious has no time, it’s eternal and you write from this kind of collective pool that’s connected to many lifetimes and many stories.) But when I started to perform The Vagina Monologues, that’s when everything started to change, because I couldn’t say those words and be disconnected from my body. It was, like, fraudulent.
I remember the night when I was on West 42nd and 33rd Street, in the theatre, and I remember when I came into my body. I landed. It was like a spaceship landing.
And that doesn’t mean I stayed there, but I had the feeling of what that could feel like.
That was 20 years ago when I wrote The Vagina Monologues. It’s taken me 20 years. Because if you’ve been violated… and who here hasn’t? If you’re living in patriarchy you’ve been violated, even if you haven’t been raped or beaten, you’ve witnessed it happening, and we know that witnessing it is as powerful as a control mechanism as having it happen to you.
Eve Ensler and attendees at the Awakened Woman conference, Bali.
Then seven years ago I was diagnosed with stage three uterine cancer. Talk about radical awakening. I had a tumour the size of an avocado in my uterus. It had broken through the walls and everything. But it was amazing. It was amazing because I had nine-hour surgery, and I woke up with tubes, catheters coming out of me, my colon had been flipped outside my body, there was a bag… it was like, ‘I am a body. I am a body’. That’s all I was. And as scary as it was, it was one of the most mystical experiences of my life. I was just body: I was shit, I was pus, I was piss, I was body. And that for me was the next stage of my evolution in the body.
We have to really be excavators, pioneers who are willing to come into this body, to sit in the pain, to sit with the memories, sit with the grief, sit with all that is keeping us from inhabiting ourselves. And writing for me has been the way back in. I have written myself into my body.
But everybody has their own way in: some people act, some people dance, some people paint, some people sing, some people nurse! Everybody has a different pathway.
Eve Ensler & Catriona Mitchell