By Eve Ensler Hardcover $25.00, Kindle $10.67 Metropolitan Books 240 pages April 2013
Having cancer was the moment when I went as far as I could go without being gone, and it was there, dangling on the edge, that I was forced to let go of everything that didn't matter, to release the past and be burned down to essential matter. It was there I found my second wind. The second wind arrives when we think we are finished, when we can't take another step, breathe another breath. And then we do.
Playwright Eve Ensler has been making the personal the political for all of her activist life, and it's fitting that when she got cancer several years ago, her body and the disease that attacked it would become a metaphor to explore the wider global implications. Her humor, rage, denial, evasion, treatment and encounters with the medical establishment all become brewed together with a poetic look backward at her work with women of the Congo overcoming rape and with her own sense of disempowerment that had cropped up throughout her life.
Amazingly, Ensler really does find humor in her cancer fight; the author of the famed Vagina Dialogues jokes of her uterine, cervical, and vaginal cancer, "Live by the vagina, die by the vagina." But there's also anger, disbelief and an underlying resentment of the body that will sound familiar to those who tend to live most of their lives in their head and not in their body. "My body was a burden," she writes of the period before her diagnosis. "I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs." How she began to reconcile the physical and the intellectual (and emotional) can be learned as we continue below the fold.
Part of what contributed to her resentment of her physical body was how it took Ensler away from the work that she felt so invested in—getting the women's leadership training center City of Joy off the ground in the Congo, where victims of sexual violence were trained for six months in a variety of skills and then returned to their home towns to train other women in the same skills.
And of course, there was a painful irony in Ensler's reproductive system being the site of the cancer visitation at the very time she was working on sexual violence; the surgeries and treatments she ends up undergoing (and one of the diagnoses) eerily mirror some of very same physical damage many of the Congolese women bear.
Cancer 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.
Being both an artist and activist, one who processes life through words and politics, leads Ensler to many seemingly unrelated illuminations about disease, our physicality, how we live with each other in the world, how we stifle and undermine ourselves, how we adjust to catastrophes of all kinds and, above all (as a feminist, of course), how women act and react to events in the world.
Tell someone you were raped and they move away. Tell someone you lost your money and they stop calling. Tell someone you have become homeless and you become invisible. Tell someone you've got cancer and they are terrified. They don't call. They don't know what to say. What if our understanding of ourselves were based not on static labels or stages but on our actions and our ability and our willingness to transform ourselves? What if we embraced the messy, evolving, surprising, out-of-control happening that is life and reckoned with its proximity and relationship with death? What if, instead of being afraid of even talking about death, we saw our lives in some ways as preparation for it? What if we were taught to ponder it and reflect on it and talk about it and enter and rehearse it and try it on?
As she moves through the medical system, still staying in touch with the women she's befriended in the Congo, it becomes clear that part of Ensler's lifeline as she's treated is being taken out of herself and into the wider world, thinking of how to shore up her beloved City of Joy, the women who are working through their daily lives half a world away. Illness takes you into a world of its own, with its own sterile and frightening parameters, with a single obsessive focus that is difficult to avoid. One of Ensler's gifts though, is escaping through a larger meaning, even as she examines her own reactions to the cancer prognosis process:
Why didn't I fight for my body? Because in order to fight I would have had to face what was wrong. Because this couldn't be happening to me. Because secretly I didn't think my fighting would make a difference and I was going to die and I might as well die now. Because I was sick of suffering and pain and I wanted to die. Because I was madly attached to life and I simply could not bear the depth of my attachment.
That opening up to the depth of attachment to life, that realization on Ensler's part, is what makes her less a victim of cancer than a witness to it, a reporter on the places where the world and the individual, the personal and the political, overlap. In the Body of the World is not one of those rah-rah "I conquered the demon cancer" books. It doesn't glorify the patient or the disease. You don't necessarily, Ensler intimates, come out the other side of surgery or chemo a better person.
She does come out the other side with less fear of life. But there are a lot of descriptions of the mess of it all—the crying, the pain, the vomit, the (literal) shit of it all.
Her mother, distant and aloof, dies of cancer herself during Ensler's chemo phase, still distant and aloof, an unredeemed relationship. The author does draw strength from and draws closer to her sister, and her relationship with her son, already deep and close, remains deep and close. Perhaps the most "redeeming" part of the work is her coming to terms with her own physicality, accepting the imperfect body as real, substantial and a part of her emotive and thinking processes as well.
And always, she returns in thought and feeling to the women in the City of Joy halfway around the world. She thought she was helping to save them—and, of course, she was—but it wasn't until her illness that she fully realizes and embraces the real interconnectedness with the project itself, the women there and their strength, who pull her through.
The wider world, and the political, come to the aid of the personal. And Ensler, it's clear, wouldn't have it any other way.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.