There are some stories that get under your skin and into your psyche and they change everything. For Eve Ensler, activist and playwright best known for The Vagina Monologues, one such story caused her to lose faith in humanity. It marked the beginning of her journey into the world of cancer. How you interpret Eve Ensler's new memoir, In the Body of the World, depends on how much power you think stories have. Did Ensler's uterine cancer come from hearing so many stories of rape and violence, stories that inhabited her body, got under her skin? Did it come from the environment?
A chapter titled "How'd I Get It?" broadens this question and collapses it in humor:
Was it turquoise Popsicles?
Was it Epstein-Barr?
Was it in my blood?
Was it already decided?
Was it deet?
Was it that I didn't cry enough?
Or cried too much?
Was it promiscuous sex?
All those arrests at nuclear power plants?
Sleeping in radioactive dust?
Was it my IUD?
Was it birth control pills?
Was it not enough boundaries?
Was it too many walls?
In the Body of the World is an intriguing meditation on illness and the power of stories, itself artfully wrapped around the thirteen-year-old conflict of one country -- the Democratic Republic of Congo -- and her persecuted women. In the introduction of this book Ensler describes how her father's sexual abuse caused her to become disassociated from her body, and how this exile made her hunger for other women's stories (stories about abuse and endurance), because she saw these stories as a way back home to her body. That is how Ensler finds herself in the Congo, where the atrocities committed against women do not bring her home, but rather cause despair.
It is cancer, actually, that reveals a way home: "Cancer," she writes, "threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body's crisis. The Congo threw me deep into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced the disease and what I felt was the beginning of the end."
This memoir is written in brief chapters called "scans", as Ensler scrutinizes several moments from her illness and the process of building City of Joy -- a UNICEF-supported place for female victims of gender violence in the Congo. Ensler wrote the "scans" while submitting her body to CAT scans. Actually, many things in this book hold parallels with Eve Ensler's body -- humankind denying climate change and Ensler denying the signs of cancer in her body; the BP oil spill poisoning the Gulf Coast at the same time an internal abscess spilled pus into Ensler's body; Congolese women suffering from damaged sexual organs because of rape and Ensler's sexual organs suffering the same damage because of cancer. Even the doctors are surprised at that last one.
Ensler explains, "Cells of endometrial (uterine) cancer had created a tumor between the vagina and the bowel and had 'fistulated' the rectum. Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo." One of Ensler's doctors e-mails another saying he had been unable to sleep because of the mystery of what they had found. He wrote, "These findings are not medical, they are not science. They are spiritual."
Ensler's cleverness shines in these leaping parallels, which gather profundity as the narrative builds. There is a sense of Ensler directly speaking to the reader, a trait that can be either effective or obstructive. At the moment of finding out there are tumors in her uterus, colon, and rectum, for example, the writing is flat and matter of fact: "It is bad news. The worst news. This is the worst day of my life. This is the day I am told I am going to die. My heart is racing." But a few paragraphs below the writing gathers a lucid patina of grief, "Then a calm comes over me, the same calm that used to descend as I approached a beating by my father. I am calm. I am not panicked. I am going to die. This is the beginning of the end."
Although the writing is times uneven, Ensler's compassionate view into the Congo and the prowess of her poetic mind carry this book to surprising conclusions. Reading the book is like taking a journey alongside Ensler to near-death and back. Along the way, Ensler's capacity for poetry never disappoints. To Ensler, her tumor is not a tumor but a flesh monument. "Huge and round," she writes. "A taut ball of cellular yarn spun out of the stories of women, made of tears, silent screams, rocking torsos, and the particular loneliness of violence. A flesh creature birthed out of the secrets of brutality, each blood vessel a ribbon of story. My body has been sculpting this tumor for years, molding the pieces of pain, the clay residue of memories."
Eve Ensler will be reading from In the Body of the World on May 20, 7:30pm at First Congregational Church in Oakland, and on May 21, 7:00pm, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. For more information visit Pegasus Books and Books Inc.In the Body of the World is on sale now.