Shocked by her cancer diagnosis out of the dynamic Manhattan/Paris life of a writer/activist, Eve Ensler was not so far gone that she could not recognize the irony: The playwright who had made a name for herself with The Vagina Monologues had lost part of her own vagina (along with her uterus, ovaries, cervix, fallopian tubes, rectum and sections of her colon) to uterine cancer.
But along the way to recovery – and it was a wretched uphill crawl of a journey – she found more than she had lost, in particular a connection to her own body that was severed very early in life, when her father began to sexually abuse her.
Ensler's fight with cancer is detailed with breathtaking candour in her new book In the Body of the World. More than a cancer memoir, it's a call to action: for readers to connect to their own bodies, and to do something for the world – before it's too late (for us as individual humans, and for humanity).
"I had no interest really in writing a personal story about me that isn't connected to the body of the world," Ensler said during an interview this week. "What interested me about this journey is how it brought me deeper into the world and how it connected me deeper to the world. And this isn't a try-it-at-home kit. Everybody doesn't have to go get catastrophic cancer in order to get in their body."
Ensler is on the phone from her home in New York, just back from a TV interview with talk-show host Joy Behar and preparing for a book launch that night at the Union Square Barnes & Noble bookstore. She's wearing her headset so she can move around and do heaven-knows-what while we talk. The cancer ordeal doesn't appear to have slowed her down. But it has changed her in a profound way, as detailed in the unblinking memoir. She calls it her cancer conversion.
"Something happened to me that was in some ways quite amazing, in that cancer brought me into my body and it brought me to myself and it brought me the world. And I wanted to communicate that, because so many people have cancer, so many people are going through this, and we can use it as a tool for transformation as opposed to this dreaded end of the world."
Ensler, 59, premiered The Vagina Monologues in 1996, after interviewing more than 200 women about sexuality, relationships and violence against women. The play went from a one-woman off-Broadway show to a celebrity-performed juggernaut, translated into more than 48 languages and performed in more than 140 countries. Ensler spun the theatrical success into her V-Day movement (the "V" stands for victory, Valentine and vagina), which has raised over $90-million (U.S.) to end violence against women and girls – in large part through charitable performances of the work. Most recently, much of Ensler's attention has been devoted to the V-Day-supported City of Joy, a facility that serves as a refuge and leadership-training facility for abused girls and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ensler was working on getting the facility opened when she received the diagnosis: cancer, Stage III or IV (doctors at different hospitals disagreed).
"The minute someone tells you you have cancer, it's kind of like you die. You really do die. It's like you get that you're mortal," she says. "It's undeniable. There's nothing like it: It's kind of like the ship is sinking or the plane is crashing. It's happening ... Whatever security you thought you had or however you felt like you were protected, it's gone. And I think for many people that is both a terror and a freedom, because you suddenly become profoundly grateful about being alive. You realize that life is short and you have to do whatever you can and to make meaning and to be useful."
What followed was the kind of medical nightmare with which too many people are familiar. She got through it thanks to the best medical help money and connections can buy, and the support of good friends (which in her case, you find out reading the acknowledgments, include the likes of actresses Jane Fonda and Glenn Close, fashion designer Donna Karan and author/activist Naomi Klein – who shows up with pyjamas and Bolivian quinoa) and family, including her son, the actor Dylan McDermott (she adopted him when he was 15 and she was 23 and married to his father).
Recovering from her last surgery, Ensler began to write about it – much of it in longhand.
"To some degree, I think this book wrote me," she says. "I feel it was a part of the whole cancer conversion: There was the diagnosis, there was the treatment and there was the book. I somehow feel they're a whole. And the book was so physical. It feels like my body wrote it. It feels like a language fever that just pulsed through me, you know? I've never had an experience like this. It was gruelling, too. There were moments literally when I was on the floor."
Even if she emerged healthy and changed for the better, Ensler does not whitewash the hell of cancer. She details the most invasive of procedures and does not shy away from the most personal of details: the enema waters leaking out of her, the incontinence.
"The point of this book was to tell the truth. And the truth is really scary and the truth is really humbling and the truth is really vulnerable-making. And I feel deeply exposed, but I don't. It's a weird thing about the truth: It protects you. What really makes you vulnerable is when you're lying because you're going to get caught. When you tell the truth, there's a strange relief that comes."
In the book, Ensler admits to being almost embarrassed by the level of care she was able to access while there is such widespread devastation elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Congo. There's one story she tells about an assault on a pregnant woman and her fetus so horrific that I found myself instinctively shielding my eyes, as if I were watching a horror movie. Along with the excellent care – and, let's face it, the luck of the draw – sticking around so she could continue the fight to end these unspeakable crimes is what you suspect has kept Ensler alive.
She has a theory about what may have made her sick: The sexual abuse she suffered as a child, as well as the countless stories of horror she has heard over the years, may have contributed. So she has made a decision: She'll still listen to those stories as she signs books or meets people at fundraisers, but she is not seeking those stories out any more.
"I just can't. I have to protect myself," she says. "I feel like I spent 15 years absorbing the stories. And I'm committed. I signed up. I don't need to be convinced any more."
At City of Joy, she and the facility's director – Mama C in the book – have made a decision to leave that to the social workers they employ, while they tend to other matters – mostly, for Ensler, fundraising. The centre is a miracle, she says, glorious, the most remarkable place she has ever been.
She's still spending a lot of time on City of Joy, still driven to tour and promote this book, maybe more determined than ever to do what she can to stop the madness and heal the earth, before it's time to say goodbye.
"I feel energized," she says. "But I feel oddly like my energy's a very different energy now. I feel good, but I don't feel like, 'Oh my God if I don't do this, I'll die.' I don't feel like I'm being driven by this need to please any more. I feel like I'm doing what I do because I care deeply and I feel deeply committed to the transformation of human consciousness so that we can save humanity, but not for approval. Those feelings are gone. They really are. And bless cancer. Who knew?"