As creator of The Vagina Monologues, she changed the way the world regards women’s bodies. Then she started a global movement to stop violence against women. Now, Eve Ensler tells Lindsay Kyte about the long journey of coming home to her own body. Trigger warning: sexual violence.
Famed for her fearless work as an activist, author, and theatre artist, Eve Ensler has found peace in a quiet country home where a statue of Tara sits in the stillness of the pond in her yard. “Tara has been for me a beacon of the way, being the mother of all the buddhas,” she tells me. “As the first feminist buddha, she is a powerful force of guidance and inspiration. She has to do with compassion, wisdom, and connection, and that is essential to my life here in the country.”
A quiet life in the country would have been unfathomable to the younger Eve Ensler, who used to view the earth as her enemy. “I have been afraid of trees,” she writes in her memoir In the Body of the World. “I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the paces of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the earth.”
More than that, she viewed her own body as an enemy. “My body was a burden,” she writes. “I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs.”
The sharing of stories is an energetic transformation.
Yet it was trying to understand this enemy of a body that set Ensler on her path to changing the way the world regards women’s bodies—through her plays, books, activism, and the candor with which she describes the experience of being in a body that never felt like home.
Somnolence is a word Ensler uses to talk about her childhood growing up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the 1960s in Scarsdale, New York. She defines it as “a self-produced narcotic state triggered by extreme danger, a kind of splintering of self, a partial leaving of one world with one foot or semiconsciousness in another.”
Young Eve had to find such ways to leave her body when her father committed horrific acts to it. “In this semi-sleep,” she writes, “I did not have to unravel the madness of what it meant that the person I loved the most in the world was exploiting me, raping me, abusing me.”
As Ensler grew into early adulthood and attended college in Vermont, she sought to feel something, anything, in this numbed-out prison her body had become, while also silencing what she didn’t want to feel. She turned to drugs, alcohol, sex, and abusive men. “At one point I couldn’t stop drinking and fucking,” she writes. “When you hold me down or lift me up, when you lie on top of me and I can feel your weight, I exist. I am here.”
Ensler explored many forms of spirituality at that time, including Buddhism, “the principles of which I still practice daily,” she says. But using spirituality to transcend or bypass trauma was never a possibility for her. “So much of what happened to me at a young age made me so anxious that I had to do real work on the spot,” Ensler says. “It forced me to deal with what was happening in myself. And you can’t skip anything, really.”
Ensler knew she’d hit rock bottom when she woke up in a parking lot after being beaten by her boyfriend, and suddenly saw she was squandering her talents, gifts, and opportunities. “I got on my knees and swore to a God I didn’t believe in,” she writes, “that if I were granted the return of my mind, I would change.”
At twenty-three, Ensler got clean. She married actor Richard McDermott and adopted her husband’s teenage son. Without the fog of intoxicants, she was dealing head-on with crippling anxiety, and needed to find ways to understand and express her trauma.
Ensler turned to writing plays, and the intensity with which she had lived her drug-fueled life translated into the highs and lows of the artist–activist life. She was, as the New York Times describes her in this period, “a fairly obscure downtown playwright, ambitious but thwarted, anguished by bad reviews and tortured by injustices personal and global.” Yet Ensler’s play Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man garnered media attention, and her Necessary Targets boasted public readings by Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, and Glenn Close.
Ensler’s life would change forever in her mid-forties. Because she had no reference point for her own body, she began to ask other women about their bodies, in particular their vaginas. “Our stories are often a kind of private, shameful secret we keep to ourselves, particularly people who have been oppressed or abused or hurt,” she says. “When you open up your story to the world, it says to other people, ‘This is who I am, this is what happened to me,’ and you suddenly realize other people have had that experience, other people feel for you, and then they begin to share their stories. The sharing of stories is an energetic transformation.”
Listening to other women’s stories led Ensler to write The Vagina Monologues, an episodic play that explores topics like consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, and sex trafficking. The play is voiced by women of many different identities, including, as Ensler’s website states, “a six-year-old girl, a septuagenarian New Yorker, a vagina workshop participant, a woman who witnesses the birth of her granddaughter, a Bosnian survivor of rape, and a feminist happy to have found a man who ‘liked to look at it.’”
First performed in a basement in the late 1990s, The Vagina Monologues has now been translated into forty-eight languages and performed in more than 140 countries. Its casts have featured celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey. Ensler won the Obie Award in 1996 for “Best New Play” and in 1999 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship Award in Playwriting.
Ensler, her hair in her iconic jet-black bob, was now world-famous, as people both celebrated and tore down posters with the word “vagina” on them. As a young theatre student, I witnessed someone angrily ripping up a poster and uttering, “Disgusting.” I was delighted. At least we were now talking about women’s bodies. The silence had been worse, as Ensler wrote in The Vagina Monologues: “I was worried. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them.”
Ensler began to talk obsessively about vaginas, and out of this arose V-Day, a global activist movement she founded to end violence against women and girls. It features creative events to increase awareness, raise money, and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations. Through V-Day campaigns, thousands of people around the world have produced annual benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues and A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer, a collection of essays edited by Ensler.
As part of this groundbreaking work, Ensler started to travel the world, sixty countries in all, in search of stories of women who had experienced violence and suffering, who had become exiled from their bodies, and who were looking for a way home. “I heard about women being molested in their beds, flogged in their burqas, acid-burned in their kitchens, left for dead in parking lots,” she writes.
Ensler landed in the Congo in 2007, where she heard stories that shattered all the other stories, stories that got inside her body and caused her to stop sleeping. “The Congo was where I witnessed the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world,” she writes. “Genocide, the systemic rape, torture, and destruction of women and girls, was being employed as a military–corporate tactic to secure minerals.”
Ensler says that it was here in the Congo that the reality of interconnectedness, a key Buddhist teaching, began to reverberate strongly for her. “Separateness is such a delusional idea,” she says. “What many of us try to work toward now is understanding that our bodies are not separate from ourselves, our bodies are not separate from the earth, and they are not separate from each other. There is this sense of binaries, of division, of brokenness. People are not understanding that they are part of the same human family.
“What I am finding in my work as an artist is the realization that we’re all inside each other’s struggle. If you look at my birth story, or poverty or what is happening to immigrants or what’s happening to the earth, we’re all in this web. It’s the same in your body. You wouldn’t separate out your liver and say, ‘Oh, my liver is really great, but I don’t like my heart.’”
But Ensler also witnessed an unrelenting hope and strength in those whose stories she was hearing in the Congo. The women had conceived of an imaginary place they called “The City of Joy,” a sanctuary where they would be safe, could heal, come together, and release their pain and trauma. “When you’re in community, you begin to not be separate,” Ensler says. “You begin to be your right size. You’re not too small and you’re not too big. You’re just the right size within that community. When you’re alone, you’re either terribly diminished or utterly grandiose, you know?”
Ensler decided to make The City of Joy a reality, and worked with her resources at V-Day and with UNICEF to build and sustain it. After delays, discouragement, and deceptions, The City of Joy was scheduled to open in May 2010. But in March, doctors discovered a huge tumor in Ensler’s uterus. The woman who had sought other people’s stories about their bodies came face-to-face with her own body.
Eve Ensler now lived in the world of cancer—hospitals, doctors, disease, suffering. “My body was no longer an abstraction,” she writes. “There were men cutting into it and tubes coming out of it and bags and catheters draining it and needles bruising it and making it bleed. I was blood and poop and pee and puss. I was burning and nauseous and feverish and weak. I was of the body, in the body. I was body. Body. Body. Body. Cancer, a disease of pathologically dividing cells, burned away the walls of my separateness and landed me in my body, just as the Congo landed me in the body of the world.”
Ensler says that throughout her treatments she needed to find ways to become someone other than just a cancer patient. One person who helped was Mama C, Ensler’s translator and guide in the Congo. She met Ensler’s phone calls with talk about the joy of a perfect mango, or about corruption in the City of Joy preparations, hiding nothing. Mama C brought the energy of life back to Ensler’s small world of hospital rooms and machines.
Another way Ensler sought herself within cancer was to let go of her self. “The I of me had run out,” she writes. To help her navigate this new world of no self, Ensler turned to Buddhism. The day before her chemo started, she built an altar with a Tara statue, set down offerings of a pink shawl and trinkets, and repeated the mantra, “I need you now, Tara.”
In June 2011, The City of Joy opened, to much celebration. Ensler, her hair now shorn, was there, three weeks after her last surgery, dancing as this dream of a place for women’s bodies to heal stood on solid ground.
Fortified by this success and her continued work with V-Day, in 2012 Ensler helped found One Billion Rising. It’s described on its website as “the biggest mass action to end violence against women (cisgender, transgender, and those who hold fluid identities that are subject to gender-based violence) in human history. The campaign began as a call to action based on the staggering statistic that one in three women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. With the world population at seven billion, this adds up to more than one billion women or girls.”
Our body is what connects us to everything.
One Billion Rising, among its many activities, calls out to women across the world to participate in mass dances as a way to get into their bodies to move and love them.
“Dance is a profoundly divine expression of human being,” Ensler says. “It is how we express the music of our fears, of something beyond us, and express ourselves not with words but through the energy moving through us. You’re actually showing people what that energy looks like when it is manifested through your body.
“When people dance together, they are able to express emotions and feelings that don’t create binaries. They create openness and invitation. Everybody gets to do it.” Millions of activists in 200 countries have participated in One Billion Rising activities, and its website is resplendent with videos of joyous people dancing together across the world.
Today, at sixty-five and cancer-free, Eve Ensler has a whole different concept of “body.”
“Our body is what connects us to everything,” she says. “We have to fully occupy our bodies. I was floating up here in my head and I was disconnected from nature, my feelings, my memories. When you’re disconnected from your body, you’re not in higher consciousness; you’re in no consciousness. You’re fragmented. In my journey back to my body, the deeper in I get, the more it suddenly gets here. In a good way. In a way in which you get to experience oneness.”
Ensler now attends to her body with care and love. “I meditate, I do yoga, I exercise,” she says. “I do a lot of body work because I hold everything in my body. I have my own practices and rituals that I do before and after I go into dark spaces or difficult things so I can clean it out.”
Ensler continues her work as an author, activist, and theatre artist from the country home where she moved four years ago. Her new book, The Apology, is her way of trying to understand her father’s abuse by writing, from her father’s point of view, the words she always longed to hear from him. “When we’re older and have some sense of balance in ourselves,” Ensler says, “it’s absolutely critical that we go back to the wounds and go through them so we can release them.”
Her sense of spirituality has changed over the years, and has now expanded to include the earth itself. “So much of my practice now is about how do I serve this world, this earth, this nature, this mother,” Ensler says. “We’ve already destroyed so many species and so many of the things that she gave us to appreciate.”
Ensler is interested in working toward a spirituality that doesn’t bypass social reality. “How do we create a spirituality that doesn’t skip over our responsibility to be involved in protecting the earth, making sure we have a free press, not allowing families to be separated at the border, and insisting Black people aren’t shot by the police?” she asks.
At the same time, she says, “What happens inside of us is critical to what happens outside of us. We can’t skip the inside work. So often people do the inside work without going outside, or do the outside work without going inside. I think the real work of our times now is ‘inside–outside.’ You are working on yourself so that your behavior doesn’t mirror what you are fighting internally, and you’re using the transformations in your spiritual nature from meditation to make the world better.”
Ensler has a name for the type of spirituality she wants to practice. “I call it ‘fierce love,’” she tells me. “Fierce love is loving, but it also has bite to it. It has a fight to it. It’s not just, ‘We love this world.’ We are responsible for this world. We are responsible for the direction we go in. That’s the spirituality I’m interested in.”
That’s Eve Ensler—a force of fierce love, now at home in her own body, and in the body of the world.