What Cancer Taught Eve Ensler about Love

Posted on May 10 2013 - 3:41pm by Katelyn Connor


    Critically acclaimed playwright, author, and activist, Eve Ensler, released her newest book “In the Body of the World” last Wednesday. Her book tells the story of her battle with cancer, her movement in the Congo, and most importantly her renewal into her body that she before had not inhabited. In honor of the release of “In the Body of the World,” Ensler made an appearance at the Barnes and Noble on 14th street in Union Square for a presentation entitled “Eve Ensler in Conversation with Mark Matouesk.” I was lucky enough to be in the audience of the presentation, and because of it I was rendered speechless. The conversation was moving and riveting as Eve spoke candidly about her raw and emotional experience with uterine cancer and read excerpts from her book. For the entire hour, I was in awe as she told stories of her in-body and out-of-body experiences from the Congo to chemotherapy. Her honesty and her passion for her movement to end violence against women has permanently inhabited her body, and will definitely inhabit the bodies who read her new book. She calls each reader to come into “the body of the world,” and readers cannot help but follow that calling.

    Eve Ensler is an award-winning playwright and bestselling author for her works The Vagina Monologues, Necessary Targets, and I Am an Emotional Creature. She is the founder of the V-Day Movement, a global movement to end violence against women, which raised over $90 million for groups and activists, including funding for City of Joy. City of Joy is a rehabilitation center in the Congo for women who were victims of rape, brutality, and genital mutilation. She also inspired the global movement “One Billion Rising,” which works in tandem with V-Day to end violence against women and girls.

    Dressed in a bright pink and beaded shirt and pink high heeled boots, Eve approached the stage with Mark Matouesk in front of an audience of about three hundred fans, friends, and supporters. Before she could even begin the interview, she personally thanked about ten people in the room for their amazing support throughout her battle with cancer all the way up to the publishing of her book. This included her doctors, her friends who showed their love and support during her time recovering at home, and fellow political activist Kate Clinton.

    Mark Matouesk began the conversation asking Ensler to take the audience back to when she first found out that she had cancer. Before she did that however, she aptly observed that where people get cancer is very indicative of their life experiences. Uterine cancer for her was more than just ironic. With that, she took us back to two months before City of Joy was scheduled to open, to when she went in for a colonoscopy and within 24 hours she knew that she had uterine cancer. Three days later she was in the Mayo Clinic awaiting surgery.

To give the audience a fuller picture of her emotions during this time, she read a few excerpts from her book. She described her initial reaction, which was to go to the Congo and die with the women she was trying to save in order to avoid the uncertainty of treatment. She described how degraded she felt, waiting for the doctor to give an examination. She described how that doctor gave her dignity back, as well as some comfort, as he shook her hand and thanked her for the work she was doing for women, before he began to examine the tumor. Her overall experience however, was of her reentering her body. Her entire life she lived outside her body in order to escape the pain of the earth: beginning with being sexually abused by her father and ending with the diagnosis. Stopping her life and fully facing her body and the pain that came with it was the most terrifying thing. She had to re-learn how to stay in her body and embrace the physical, emotional, and psychological pain that came with all her experiences she either claimed as her own or absorbed into her heart in the Congo. Through this, she began to associate the tumor with the tragedies of the Congo. The tumor was a ball of yarn tangled with the stories of the women from the Congo along with her own stories of her father’s abuse. Everything was connected, and she had to face it and purge it.

With this confession and reading there was tremendous applause. Matouesk asks if she considered this experience a “mystic death and awakening,” or as St. John describes, overcoming the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Ensler agreed, and then went into describing how she would meditate on the tree outside her window at the hospital. She spent hours watching the tree and coming to love the tree, after a life of avoiding nature in the city. As she began to understand the tree, she began to understand Mother Nature and in turn her place in the world. She then read an excerpt of her book that described the significance of the tree during her awakening, from the tree in her hospital window to the trees she sat under in the Congo.

Next, Mark and Eve touched on her experience with chemotherapy. For Ensler, chemo was extremely hard to deal with. She could not get past the poison going into her system. It was terrifying. However, she was very lucky to have a therapist named Sue, who was in the audience, who gave her a new perspective on chemotherapy. She said to her:

“Eve, the chemo is not for you. It’s for the cancer. It’s for all the past crimes. It’s for your father, it’s for the rapists, it’s for the perpetrators. You are going to poison them now, and they are never coming back. Chemo will purge the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours. I have total faith in your resilience and the magical capacities of your body and soul for healing. Your job is to welcome the chemo as an empathetic warrior, who is coming in to rescuing your innocence by killing off the perpetrator who got inside you. You have many bodies, new ones will be born out of this transformational time of love and care. When you feel nauseous or terrible, just imagine how hard the chemo is fighting on your behalf, and on behalf of all women’s bodies restoring wholeness, innocence, peace. Welcome the chemo as an empathetic warrior.”

As the audience applauded again, Eve began to get emotional herself as she spoke about how much this vision transformed her thoughts on treatment and ultimately saved her life.

After speaking of how much love she felt from Sue’s support, she spoke candidly on her thoughts of love. She said that before her cancer she had a fear of love. She didn’t know how to handle it. She thought there was such thing as this “big love” that she had to win or lose, or succeed or fail at. While she was sitting sick at home, she realized that during her life, she was so busy waiting for this “big love” that she had missed love completely. She began to discover it in the small gifts her friends would send to her, in the cups of tea that were made for her, and in the people who came to visit her. The love of the world was in the small things, and she was able to fall into the true ecstasy of the love that was poured out to her in her most dire time of need. She then called out to at least ten women in the audience who had shown her love through their acts of generosity and kindness, and again the audience was overwhelmed with emotion.
 As a conclusion, Ensler expressed how awesome her “second wind” is. Her message to all women was to “Keep Rising,” even during times of uncertainty. It was during her darkest time when she found reconciliation and love. She advised that when you finally lose everything, that is where the true adventure begins. She comforted, saying that you will know who to bring when the time comes. Eve Ensler danced pain into power, and now she is back and even more influential than ever. Her conversation was witty, honest, moving, and as passionate as her book, “In the Body of the World.”


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