Violence is front and centre in Eve Ensler’s new book, In the Body of the World. It’s a memoir, but you will soon realize that it’s not the usual kind. Yes, there will be a journey recounted and a personal awakening as a result, but there will be no soft stories told, no fond memories to be found within its pages. Neither will there be a trim storyline or lyrical prose because what Ensler has written is raw and difficult. It’s about cancer and it’s about violence and, like both, it’s messy, even ugly.
Throughout this short work with its quirkily titled chapters, Ensler’s writing is engaging, passionate, present and, at times, funny. But mainly it’s as brutally direct in its delivery as is its subject matter. And, of course, it would be, considering that the writer is the author of the Vagina Monologues, the phenomenally successful play of the late 1990s that celebrated female sexuality. She is also the feminist activist responsible for V-Day, the worldwide movement to stop the violence against girls and woman.
Ensler was estranged from her body, she tells us, and – surprisingly, given who she is – estranged from the world. Cancer provided her the means to return to both.
This body/world estrangement – she also refers to it as “exile” – began in her childhood with the years-long rape and physical abuse she endured from her father, and from the indifference and coldness of her mother who did nothing to intervene. The lack of maternal protection was especially damaging. “A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place,” she writes. “The absence of a body against my body created a gap, a hole, a hunger. This hunger determined my life.”
Later on, her estrangement took the form of a life of constant movement, “of leaving and falling,” of drinking and ceaseless sex. She became a “breathless, rapacious machine programmed for striving and accomplishment.”
Because she “could not inhabit her own body” and therefore had no reference for it in the world, she began questioning other women about theirs in an attempt to understand her own disassociation. This “incessant and obsessive” questioning led to her writing The Vagina Monologues.
Ensler’s submerged rage found an even wider public face when she awakened to the situation of women in the Congo. This is where “the stories [of rape] saturated my cells and nerves. I stopped sleeping. All the stories began to bleed together.” All the stories, in essence, became her story. She began to see the future as – “a monstrous vision of global greed” that “allowed and encouraged the eradication of the female species in pursuit of minerals and wealth.”
Then in May, 2010, after having created V-Day as a result of this “vision,” she received the diagnosis of cancer. The site of her cancer had particular resonance. Celebrator of the vagina, champion of raped and oppressed women everywhere, she first had “a huge tumour in her uterus.”
Then came cancer of the liver, then of the colon. “Cancer,” she writes, “threw me through the window of my dissociation into the centre of my body’s crisis.” What results, she tells us, is a book that is “like a CAT scan.” It’s “a roving examination capturing images, experiences, ideas and memories, all of which began in my body.”
Against the background, then, of personal abuse and worldwide violence against women, Ensler confronts her cancer, and over the course of her treatment becomes a grounded and grateful inhabitant of her own skin. It’s is an agonizing journey, to be sure, but one enlivened with passion, and even laughter. In the chapter, “How’d I Get It?” she asks, “Was it tofu?” “Was it Three Mile Island?” “Was it Froot Loops?” “Canned chop suey?” “Was it in my blood?” “Was it already decided?”
Doctors, caregivers, procedures, chemotherapy, stoma bags, rallying friends, inspiration from unlikely places – a tree, a poem, “a shrink” – are recounted, often in blunt detail, her cancer eventually becoming, for her, a metaphor: “The cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, the cancer from the stress of not achieving enough, the cancer of buried trauma.”
Yet it was cancer, she says, that allowed her to re-inhabit a body that “was no longer an abstraction,” that repaired her former exiled self so that she could become whole, stronger, even more single-minded in her mission. For Ensler, cancer was the “alchemist, the agent of [her] change.”
But while Ensler may have written a cancer memoir, her book is more than that. It’s a howling manifesto, a call to action. “The world burns in my veins, just like chemo did only a few months ago,” she writes. “I dare you to stop counting [the atrocities against women, humanity, the planet] and start acting.”
It’s time, she says, to wake up from “the terrifying sleep of denial … the underlying belief that we as a species are not worth it.”
Fighting fire with fire, In the Body of the World is a double-barrelled shotgun of a book.
M.A.C. Farrant’s latest book is The Strange Truth About Us – A Novel of Absence (Talonbooks), a Globe and Mail Best Book for 2012.