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Activist Eve Ensler believes women are more than a sum of their parts

If I say Eve Ensler, you probably think about The Vagina Monologues, the sassy play Ensler created about various women’s experiences—er, having vaginas—and all the A-list actresses that performed this brilliant work worldwide. But when I saw Ensler speak last week in support of her new book, In the Body of the World, she wasn’t talking about what it’s like to have various parts of female anatomy, but rather what it’s like to lose them.

The tone at Ensler’s talk was extremely raw, totally scary, and very inspiring.

Her starting point was that just as she was wholeheartedly dedicating herself to improving the current situation of women in the Congo (where, in Eve’s words, the women are “raped and eviscerated,” and where there is mass “femicide” occurring) through her organization V-Day, she herself was diagnosed with uterine cancer. How’s that for not fair at all?

At last week’s event, Ensler posited—or better, wondered out loud—if the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and the thousands of painful, troubling, impossible stories that women have shared with her as she’s worked to halt violence against women and girls somehow crystallized into cancer.

She said she’s stayed up nights wondering if her cancer was a physical incarnation of the evil and negativity she’s heard about, witnessed, and experienced—and concluded that the dehumanizing, eviscerating treatments she had to undergo in order to save herself were actually not so different from the violence and abuse experienced by the women she works so hard to help.

Ensler said that when it came time for her to write about her experiences, this book “came straight from [her] body”; that it was like a “fever of language.”

Well, luckily for us, even a feverish Ensler knows how to wield powerful, stark, lone words to capture her own experiences and universalize them. To wit: this “scan” (meaning a short, impressionistic chapter) titled “Here’s What’s Gone”:

Nine hours.
Sections of colon
Fallopian tubes
Part of my vagina
Seventy nodes

Here’s what’s new:
A rebuilt rectum made out of my colon
A stoma
A temporary ileostomy bag
A catheter in my bladder
My face, the size of two faces
A button I push
Anytime I begin to feel what
Is missing.

Eve also brilliantly captures the hair-splitting, head-beating agony she endured while looking for answers. I mean, who doesn’t ask themselves these exact sorts of questions when trying to figure life out? From another scan called, “How’d I Get It?”:

Was it tofu?
Was it never having babies?
Was it talking too much about vaginas?
Was it worry every day for fifty-seven years that I wasn’t good enough?
Was it the exhaustion of trying to change?
Was it in my blood?
Was it promiscuous sex?
Was it my IUD?
Was it not enough boundaries?
Was it too many walls?

By the time Ensler was through speaking, I was in awe of her. Not because she proselytizes or tries to be a role model, but because she’s so unbelievably honest about how flawed and real she is, even when life is hard. In fact, especially when her life got hard. And though she hasn’t found answers to all her questions, she said, she steadfastly believes, “when terrible things happen, they can do us in—or transform us.”

“Turn pain into power,” Ensler urged the audience in closing. “And make trouble.”

Whether you have a vagina, or not.

Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty.

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