Thursday, May 16, 2013

In the Body of the World: A Memoir, by Eve Ensler

One might think that Eve Ensler, best known as the author of The Vagina Monologues and founder of V-Day, a campaign to end violence against women, would be acutely attuned to her own body. Yet her memoir reveals that, until she was diagnosed with cancer, she was completely detached from not only her physical self, but much of her life experience, including sexual and physical abuse by her father (and her subsequent attraction to abusive men) . But learning that she had advanced uterine cancer and going through the grueling treatment for this disease--and she does not spare the reader the details of her surgery, her post-surgical infection, chemotherapy, and other aspects of recovery--pushed her to more fully inhabit her life.

During her illness, Ensler also began to make connections between her life and the larger world. She sees her cancer as, at least in part, related to the trauma she experienced--not only in childhood, but also in her life as an activist against violence. Recent travels to Congo, where women lined up to tell her their mind-boggling stories of being gang raped, forced to watch their husbands and children murdered, and subjected to other assaults too hideous to describe, had had an especially enervating effect on Ensler. Her denial of her cancer symptoms she likens to denial of global warming, the pus flowing from her horrible abdominal abscess to the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the BP Deep Horizon incident.

Cancer also made Ensler aware of her own emotions in a way she had not previously allowed herself to feel before. Reconnecting with her sister and experiencing the care of a network of wonderful friends and family members prompted her to reevaluate what it means to be loved. This section of the book is quite moving, so I quote it at some length here: "I was always reaching for love, but it turns out love doesn't involve reaching. I was always dreaming of the big love, the ultimate love, the love that would sweep me off my feet or 'break open the hard shell of my lesser self' (Daisaku Ikeda). The love that would bring on my surrender. The love that would inspire me to give everything. As I lay there, it occurred to me that while I had been dreaming of this big love, this ultimate love, I had, without realizing it, been giving and receiving love for most of my life. As with the trees that were right in front of me, I had been unable to value what sustained me, fed me, and gave me pleasure. And, as with the trees, I was so busy waiting for and imagining and reaching and dreaming and preparing for this huge big love that I had totally missed the beauty and perfection of the soft-boiled eggs and Bolivian quinoa [dishes her friends cooked her when she was sick]."

Ensler's prose is by turns gracefully moving and frankly stomach-churning. While I sometimes find her connections between her life and "outside" events a stretch, I am still in awe of her ability to make metaphor of experience (for me, this is the mark of a serious memoirist, as opposed to someone self-centered enough to find themselves terribly interesting). And I feel elevated from having read of her struggle, a fitting emotional response to a book that ends "Be transparent as wind, be as possible and relentless and dangerous, be what moves things forward without needing to leave a mark, be part of this collection of molecules that begins somewhere unknown and can't help but keep rising. Rising.Rising. Rising."

Favorite passages:
We have been taught for so long to expect our doctors to be distant and untouchable. The distance implies a certain training, a certain professionalism. They won't get lost in the mess of your bloody body or get drawn into your neurotic obsessing. We have been trained to believe this bifurcation of heart and head is necessary, something that will protect us, that embedded in this detachment is some magical shield that will keep us from the void. I know now that the opposite is true.

Hysteria--a word to make women feel insane for knowing what they know.

There are many things that mean the same thing as stupid: unwise, thoughtless, ill-advised, rash, reckless, injudicious. None of them feel bad really. None of them hurt like stupid hurts.. . . Stupid is a word that gets into you, into your blood and your being. It gets into your cells. It is a violent word, a catastrophic word, a stigma, a scarlet letter S. . .

There will be joy here. Joy--happiness, delight, pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, elation, thrill, exultation, rapture. . . . You will touch this joy and you will suddenly know it is what you were looking for your whole life, but you were afraid to even acknowledge the absence because the hunger for it was so encompassing.

The only salvation is kindness. The only way out is care.

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