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PHOTO: Eve Ensler in Congo, during her recovery from cancer.
Eve Ensler has never been subtle, yet she has always been gently bold in the way in which she has laid out the modern feminine condition. Ensler details her gruesome battle with cancer while simultaneously working to open a center for rape victims in the Congo. Through the grieving process for her own life and through all the graphic details of her battle with uterine cancer, she explores our relationship with the world and other women in it.
Ensler also discusses her marijuana use during cancer treatment, not just the physical relief it provided from the symptoms of chemotherapy but the mental journey it unleashed towards her full recovery both from the cancer and the mental hang ups which had shaped her and ultimately plagued her throughout her life—her detachment from her own body as a rape victim and her detachment from nature.
In 1996 when she wrote the Vagina Monologues, she set out to do something society had not yet allowed women to do—talk about the female condition worldwide, particularly rape, as well as many other issues affecting women worldwide.
The play has evolved into an international campaign, One Billion Rising, predicated on the statistic that one in three women worldwide, or one billion people on the entire planet, are victims of sexual abuse. Her original script is a collection of interviews she has conducted worldwide:
“I crisscrossed the Earth in planes, trains and jeeps. I was hungry for the stories of other women who had experienced violence and suffering. These women and girls had also become exiled from their bodies and they, too, were desperate for a way home. I went to over sixty countries. I heard about women being molested in their beds, flogged in their burqas, acid-burned in their kitchens, left for dead in parking lots.
I went to Jalalabad, Sarajevo, Alabama, Port-au-Prince, Peshawar and Pristina. I spent time in refugee camps, in burned-out buildings and backyards, in dark rooms where women whispered their stories by flashlight. Women showed me their ankle lashes and melted faces, the scars on their bodies from knives and burning cigarettes. Some could no longer walk or have sex. Some became quiet and disappeared. Others became driven machines like me.”
–In the Body of the World
The play is indirectly interactive, by asking the audience to listen to monologues of other women they inadvertently are asked to listen to their own inner dialogues and to acknowledge maybe they too had never looked at their own vagina out of shame, had never experienced an orgasm, had been told they weren’t real women because of the sexual organs they were born with or stories of sexual abuse and rape.
At the end of every performance, audience members who have been victims of sexual abuse are encouraged to stand (hence “one billion rising”) and identify themselves, but only if they are ready. The goal is to raise awareness and create activists out of the audience, who will pledge to work for change.
It is in this legacy that Ensler began her work in the war-torn Congo where women of all ages have become the greatest casualties of the ongoing war to control valuable resources, minerals like diamonds, copper and gold, that grow exponentially in demand as technology continues to evolve. Five million people have died in the Congo and the bodies of the Congolese women have become the front lines of the war.
Ensler dedicated herself to help these women—80-year-old women who had been gang raped, young girls so brutally raped they had fistulas torn between their bladders and rectums, rendering them incontinent. At the same time she was suffering cancer that required the removal of parts of her colon, rectum, vagina and all of her reproductive organs. Ultimately she couldn’t help these women until she helped herself.
In graphic detail she lays out her surgeries, the bag of poop on her hip, the drugs and the vomiting in juxtaposition to the brutal rape of an entire nation of women, seemingly insurmountable and gruesome realities. Her re-discovery of marijuana marked a turning point in her treatment. She ultimately recovered from the cancer and went on to build the “City of Joy,” a refuge for the women of the Congo.
“One cannot underestimate the importance of pot,” she states.