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Review: Out of body experience

Updated September 01, 2013

GOOD or bad, Eve Ensler is known as the vagina lady. As the playwright of The Vagina Monologues, which she wrote and also performed in 1996 and which continues to be performed around the world, Ensler broke many taboos by raising the issue of sexual violence against women. The proceeds from these performances have benefited organisations working in violence against women and in 1998 Ensler launched a not-for-profit, V-Day Movement, to highlight sexual and domestic violence. This has morphed into the campaign, One Billion Rising, which is based on the statistic that one in three, or one billion people, are victims of sexual abuse. Eve Ensler has put the issue centre stage so it is hugely tragic, and largely ironic, that she was diagnosed with cancer of the vagina, but true to her remarkable spirit she chose to take it on and writes about it in her memoir, In the Body of the World.

Ensler has been a hero to many women around the world since The Vagina Monologues. She has set up remarkable projects in many countries to empower women but has a particular engaging relationship with the women in and of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She writes in her new memoir “… but the Congo was where I witnessed the end of the body, the end of humanity, the end of the world. Femicide, the systematic rape, torture and destruction of women and girls was being employed as a military/corporate tactic to secure minerals. Thousands and thousands of women were not only exiled from their bodies, but their bodies and the functions and futures of their bodies were being rendered obsolete: wombs and vaginas permanently destroyed.”

But she also saw hope and dreams, desires and an unwillingness to be defined by their trauma. So she established the City of Joy, a sanctuary which houses women who have suffered the worst violence imaginable, and here they come to live and rebuild their lives and learn skills which they then pass forward. Ensler is as much their hero as the Congolese women are hers.

It was during her on-going work in Congo in March 2010 that Ensler received the news that doctors had found cancer in her uterus. Ensler was one of the lucky few to have survived, as “deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 13.1 million deaths in 2030,” says the World Health Organisation.

While Ensler is grateful to have survived, she writes with gut-wrenching honesty of her battle against uterine, vaginal and cervical cancer, of the nine-hour operation that saw the removal of her reproductive organs, colon and rectum, of the nine-month recovery process, which includes wearing a ileostomy bag that carries her faeces, of infections, hospital visits and the healing process which includes both physical and spiritual wounds. The cancer made Ensler come to terms with her body, but not like The Vagina Monologues or The Good Body where she delved into her relationship with her stomach post the age of 40 in which she also examined society’s obsession with the pursuit of the flat stomach.

Her new memoir (side note: resist the temptation to call it the cancer memoir) is divided “like a CAT scan. … Being cut open, catheterised, chemofied, drugged, pricked, punctured, probed, and ported made a traditional narrative impossible.” Ensler connects to her own body she admits for the first time. This may come as a surprise because Ensler has always spoken about the female body but she writes that her distant relationship with her mother, along with having been raped by her father at a young age, caused her to disconnect with her own body and the world to which the cancer diagnosis forced her to reconnect with.

This book is by no means an easy read; nothing can prepare you for the brutalities young five-year-old girls and 80-year-old women in Congo have had to endure. And Ensler spares no details when writing about them and her own procedures.

Yet there is humour in her writing. For example, when an oncologist tells her of the possibility of her having to undergo radiation she writes: “I feel like a character in a futuristic sequel to The Vagina Monologues. Radiate my vagina. … Do you know who I am? Do you have any irony?”

Any illness certainly gives a person an opportunity to pause and reflect on their life and Ensler is no different. Anger is just one emotion she — like all patients with a diagnosis trying to understand why me? — experiences; she quit drinking 34 years ago, she quit smoking 20 years ago, she is a vegetarian and an activist yet she still gets cancer. But then, she explains: “Having cancer was the moment when I went as far as I could go without being gone, and it was there, dangling on the edge, that I was forced to let go of everything that didn’t matter, to release the past and be burned down to essential matter. It was there I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can’t take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.”

In the Body of the World By Eve Ensler Macmillan, US ISBN 978-0805095180 240pp.