In The Body of the World: A Memoir by Eve Ensler (2013).
“I suddenly understood joy. It’s big, bigger than any one of us. It’s uncontrollable and it’s fierce. It’s more generous than anger and has the ability to make revolution because its tentacles and fire are infinite and it feels good.”
March 6, 2013 letter by Eve Ensler from the Congo
Circuitously, this memoir is about joy. But how can devastation of the women and land of the Congo and cancer equate with joy? It would be Ensler, the mother of The Vagina Monologues, who clarifies this. According to the-first-of-its-kind report on the pandemic of violence against women around the world, the World Health Organization states that one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime (“WHO Finds Violence Against Women Is ‘Shockingly’ Common” by Michaeleen Doucleff and Rhitu Chatterjee, on NPR or CNN’s Madison Park, June 20, 2013). This is a pandemic with no foreseeable vaccine, funding for medical research, or political protest. But it has Eve Ensler. She has been at the forefront for decades — educating, raising funds for facilities, jeeps, and supplies and listening to women around the world in trim suburbia, war shattered towns, or rainforest villages tell their stories. She has persisted through the prevailing global silence and dismissal of the extreme damage being done to women.
Ensler meets the women of this pandemic face to face, listens, supports them as they write and then perform their stories. This memoir is her own telling, revelations after years of working around the globe with others’ stories, of her cancer diagnosis, childhood with an abusive and incestuous father, her badass teen years drinking and having a lot of sex, her sobriety, travels to worn torn nations and her perennial sense of not being good enough or smart enough. The not-good-enough legacy of her upbringing prevailed despite her fame, and voice she gave to millions of women. Even though she had heard stories for decades of battering, incest, rape, war, men’s rage, revenge and greed, Ensler was not prepared for the extra extreme devastation of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Or her own cancer.
Indeed, the stories are entwined. Every tear shed, every tale Ensler heard through her travels seems to have entered her body until the horrors tangled up inside her. The tumor wrapped around her organs much like a vine climbs a tree as it reaches for the light. Ensler found motivation for healing from the Congo, especially the intense determination of the women there to overcome the harm and sadistic atrocities done to their bodies. They became Ensler’s sun, something to reach for through the months of her illness, recovery, illness, and healing.
Ensler’s writing style evokes full-blown images of the women whose bodies are torn by the true weapons of mass destruction—men gone more than mad, beyond insane, with greed and war. She carefully describes the extraordinary brutality the women experience—she never over or under states the terror. The Congolese women’s fistulas leak bodily fluids, and Ensler likens these to the holes in the ozone. Yet the women dance as soon as their bodies are able. She knows her own body is fighting to survive, and she takes heart from all the women of the Congo and the world.
Still, Ensler won’t spare us. Femicide, Ensler explains, is a weapon used extensively in the Congo. It is the systematic destruction of women’s bodies, hearts and souls. The destroyers too have lost their hearts and souls in the acts of raping and murdering grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, nieces and daughters. She writes of the torn vaginas, rectums, fistulas, slash scars, and broken spirits of raped women. The girls and women of the Congo are tortured, raped and destroyed for corporate and military purposes just as the landscape is gouged and decimated for minerals. After her surgery Eve developed a severe infection at the same time news of the BP oil spill broke. The synchronicity would seem trite if it were not so sobering; Ensler makes clear throughout the book that the links between our bodies and the environment are irrevocably intertwined. The leap from the destruction of natural habitat to the devastation of bodies by violence, war and disease isn’t so great in Ensler’s worldview.
Changing the world—and this is what Ensler’s life is about—requires tremendous organization and education. Ensler worked for several years to coordinate leadership in the Congo with leaders in world organizations to make the City of Joy a reality in Bukavu. It is a campus where the women can be physically and emotionally repaired, revived, and trained to survive and thrive and become leaders. She also teaches the reader a lot about the Congo and the people of this nation.
The pandemic of violence against women is a pandemic against us all. The devastation of natural landscapes is equal to the devastation of the incredible resources of the women of many cultures. It is an enormous lesson, a huge leap of faith to be joyful. It is a huge effort in a land that is so besieged by violence to find a way to stop the violence. Ensler and the women of the Congo welcome us to join them in dance. Ensler’s irrepressible spirit and her inner transformation make this little memoir—so packed with scenes of pain and love—irresistible.
My admiration for Eve Ensler is profound. I quip that some people want to run away with the circus, I’d like to run away with Ensler. The fantasy and whim of the idea vanishes once the grueling schedule and relentless work of the circus comes to mind. The magic from the audience’s point of view is exactly that—magic. Sweat, tears, dust, and sheer force and love of the work is what it is all about. Ensler makes the work of changing the world look magical. But we know the price is high — but it is even higher if we don’t keep going. One woman at a time…..let them rise and let them know joy. We each must continue to do what we do to change the world.
Thanks Eve Ensler. I gotta go. I have to get ready to teach a class. One student at a time. Most joyfully!