Change your name, change your identity. Or, in the case of V—the playwright, author, and activist formerly known as Eve Ensler—claim your true identity.
The Tony and Obie award-winning, New York Times best-selling writer gave us plays The Vagina Monologues and In the Body of the World and books including The Apology and I am an Emotional Creature. As an activist, V is co-founder, with Christine Schuler Deschyrver and Dr. Denis Mukwege, of the City of Joy, a center created to educate and empower women survivors of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And this year marks the 25th anniversary of V-Day, a global grassroots movement V founded to eliminate violence against the planet and against all women and girls (including cisgender, transgender, gender fluid, and nonbinary people). In 2012, One Billion Rising was launched as an extension of V-Day to specifically end rape and sexual violence. Every February, the annual V-Day event follows a topical theme. In 2023, it was “Rise for Freedom,” held in over 200 countries.
It would be reasonable to assume that given the achievements, national attention (V has been named one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Changed the World” and The Guardian’s “100 Most Influential Women”), and with a 70th birthday just around the corner on May 25, V would slow down and pass the baton of responsibility to the next generation. But she’s marching onwards, harboring no misconceptions that misogyny, violence, oppression and other evils directed against women and girls that she has for decades targeted for resistance is behind us.
Which is why in 2023 her new book, Reckoning, a memoir composed of essays, poetry, letters, and journal entries drawn from more than four decades of her life could easily be called a cage-rattling read. Taken from her encounters in the Unites States, the Congo, Bosnia, Berlin, her childhood and adolescent homes, and other locations, V touches on families and abuse, rape, domestic violence, incarceration, homelessness, love, failure… Most vigorously, she issues a call for reckoning, for embracing, admitting, announcing, and apologizing for our country’s and our own personal flawed, fraught histories.
The searing book slays and might leave a reader yowling, so vivid is V’s personal pain and the world horrors described. If it were not for Reckoning’s epilogue, the burn would not be abated. But the final chapter presents a portrait of hope, a dreamed-of portal through pain to freedom, a space she writes is up to us to create and will result in the “bliss of the ever expanding” and result in a “joy of existence” as we learn “how to serve each person’s emotional and physical particularities.”
In advance of a Bay Area Book Festival appearance at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Sun/7, V spoke in an exclusive, broad-ranging interview with 48 Hills about the new book, her work as an activist, the impact of COVID on women, and her thoughts on contemporary times and the current political and planetary environment.
48 HILLS While reading Reckoning, I couldn’t help wondering if you, as an aware, informed person, are still surprised when you come upon true awfulness in people, or in the world?
V I’m never not shocked by the cruelty of humanity. It doesn’t matter how many stories I hear. When you grow up in a very violent family as I did, you create this idea there’s a world outside of those rooms, that house, that bedroom. A place where people will be different, kind, and treat people well. I had such a story created about the world. That’s still living in me. I’m still waiting to find it; to find those people. If I ever become inured to trauma, if it ever seems normal to me, I’ll stop. If it ever doesn’t upset me, make me cry, make me outraged, there’ll be no reason to do this work.
48 HILLS You write in one story of wartime atrocity, “Rachel’s Bed,” about the bifurcated response you allow yourself when hearing women’s stories: listening both as journalist-playwright and as humanist-emotional being. Does that approach define your writing choices and how you approach the people whose stories you tell?
V Feeling them and letting them in and being emotional and connected to them, is that what you’re saying? Ever since that Bosnian experience (an essay in the book describes it), I stopped being objective. I come much more from a place of the heart than from objective journalism, which I don’t think is true anyway. My work is to listen, to let myself feel whatever I am feeling, to let them know they’re not alone while they are telling it, to not intervene with my idea of what they need, (such as) to be rescued or saved. Most people know what to do to take care of themselves, but what they need is someone to listen to them and to hear them, to be present, to feel something for them.
48 HILLS Do you ever stop and say no, I can’t listen anymore, it’s too much?
V In the Congo, where I have spent many years, I don’t listen to stories anymore. I did it for many, many, many years and I got sick. You have to be very careful when you are listening to stories of great atrocity because they move into your body. It wasn’t just the Congo, it was listening to women’s stories in Bosnia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and all over the world. I didn’t have a way to process those stories so they would lodge in me. I am judicious now about listening to stories. In terms of violence against women, I’m fully convinced we need to do more about educating ourselves. There are things one can do to protect one’s self; there are things women can do to process the stories, do body work and breathe, move, yell, or dance it out.
48 HILLS At the book tour events you’ve had, what parts or themes of Reckoning are receiving attention, or alternatively, are not?
V What’s grabbing people? It depends on where I am. One thing a lot of people are resonating with is that we live in this country that has never reckoned. We’re literally sitting on land that was stollen out from underneath people. Indigenous people who we poisoned and murdered to get that land. And then it follows on to slavery and years of Jim Crow. People know we have a kind of refusal to look at our past. COVID was beginning to let that happen. It catalyzed that happening, particularly with George Floyd. And now, we’re in the midst of this insane pushback.
A lot of people resonate with the stuff about my mother. This feeling of her not taking care of me but also understanding where she was in the whole dynamic. She was not a person who had skills or the ability to have a career, so where was she going? How could she take three children and have no money and leave my father? That complicated relationship, a lot of people relate to that too.
A third big thing is the idea of touch. COVID has changed the world for so many people. Touch is so much harder. People are living their lives carefully, isolated, nervously in proximity because COVID is still present. It’s impacting mental heath, their sense of safety, security, and community. And then obviously all the stuff I’ve written about violence against women. When you put it all together in one book, it’s a devastating account. What’s really devastating is that it hasn’t stopped and is in fact escalating in the times we’re living in. The pushback against women’s rights and abortion and our bodily autonomy—the fact that our bodies are always under threat, under siege, about to be eviscerated, raped, hurt, hit—means we’re constantly living in that state.
48 HILLS Do you still think of your interviews as “sacred social contacts” from which people should get something from you? And if so, what is the return for what they give?
V That’s a really good question. No matter where I’ve gone, like in Bosnia where I spent time at a center with Bosnian war victims, I became devoted to them. When I first put on the play The Vagina Monologues where there was that Bosnian monologue, we raised money to support that center. In Congo, we built the City of Joy, this amazing sanctuary and revolutionary center that has now graduated 1,800 women who have been healed and returned to their communities as leaders. In Afghanistan, I spent years supporting an organization and we had an incredible (City of Joy) school running for 10 years that the Taliban just shut down. Most places I have been, I try to find out what women need and then try to find ways to facilitate that and support them.
48 HILLS The whole chapter on “Falling” made me think about choice: choosing, inviting, or resisting falling and the necessity of giving in to literal and metaphoric gravity.
V I started to think so much about, “What is falling?” I was writing the book during a period of time when I was literally falling all the time. It’s such a profound thing. If we’re not afraid to fall, we open ourselves to a liminal reality. (Choreographer) Elizabeth Streb says it’s the only thing we’re really doing. It’s so what we’re all afraid of. Yet in so many aspects of our lives, we need to fall and we need moments when we need to resist it and protect ourselves.
48 HILLS Moving to apologies and the process of not just writing one for your father, but reckoning with our relationship with the planet Earth. What have you discovered?
V I’m obsessed with apology now. I’m writing about it, teaching classes about it. I believe the non-apology is one of the columns holding up patriarchy. Men are taught from a very young age never to be wrong, never to humble themselves, never to admit they screwed up, never to admit responsibility. I’m preparing for four classes I will teach about apology so I’m really thinking about how critical it is.
You know, we teach meditation and prayer. But not a practice of apology as a significant thing, a commitment, something done on a regular basis that involves your totality. It involves looking at your history. What in my family, upbringing, culture allowed me to do this or that? Then it’s looking at what you do in detail. People make these apologies and they don’t even know what they are apologizing for. There’s no “I did this and I see how it hurt you.” People who never truly apologize or are never apologized to never feel the relief; the alchemy where someone truly apologizes on a psychic level where they really get to the hurt, there is a release that occurs. We haven’t taught people how to do that.
In fact, we’ve taught people to do the opposite: to have other people apologize for them, like press people, to make statements, to diffuse, gaslight, ignore, and deny. We’re living in the karmic sludge of so much un-apologized-for behavior in the world. If we’re going to survive as a species and not destroy the earth, that work is so critical.
48 HILLS Why critical?
V Because it releases bad energy, distrust, bad relationships, and repetition of the past. When you begin to reckon, you know there are reparations and actions you need to do to heal those things. We are all deeply flawed, shadowed, have selves we are trying to make better. Trying to remove our egos, envy, selfishness, anger and resentment. We’re all in that boat and the one thing we have is apology. If we don’t know how to do it, we’re stuck. We’re totally divided, everyone’s polarized.
Part of that is we haven’t addressed our history, haven’t dealt with what continues to happen here. Until we do that, we’ll be a place that shuts down books and ideas that remind us of the past. I read a horrible thing this week about a school that was doing mock slavery auctions. The children were being taught it was a fun thing and no one was held for long. Complete lies. That is creating the most damage. When a family has a terrible secret like rape by a family member and everyone is denying it, everything in that family begins to grow around that central poisonous spot. Unless you purge it and make apologies, it will control the next generation and the next after that. It’s so critical that we apologize and reckon.
The idea that we can’t deal with it, that it’s too hard? My experience is that the wound is the portal through which reconciliation lies. Otherwise, you just get pushed back in that same negative, repeating story.
48 HILLS Where does forgiveness fit into the schematic of apologies?
V I have a different take on forgiveness than other people. When someone really does the work of thinking about themselves, being detailed about what they’ve done, looking at the impact it’s had on your life, feeling what you’ve been through, something happens in your psyche, being, and spirit where that harm, that rancor literally gets released and dissolves. That’s as close as we come to forgiveness. I don’t believe in this idea that it’s up to me to forgive you. You have to work on your own stuff. The Church uses it as a cudgel with survivors, like, “You need to get over this and forgive and let it go.” I don’t believe it ever works, because it’s not authentic. Pain lodges itself in our bodies but when somebody truly apologizes, it reaches that place in your body and gets released.
Writing The Apology, the book for my father; going deep, deep, deep, and learning about his past and who he was, I was not justify his life, but understanding it. It was knowing how he was abused and reacted to that by learning to be a charmer, it told me it had nothing to do with me. I was just the person in the way of that. I wasn’t bad—that was my father. At the end of that book I wrote the line “old man be gone,” and I had a feeling he was gone. I had gone far in, got him to say the things I needed him to say, look at the things he was responsible for, and you know what? It didn’t matter that he didn’t write it.
When we’re violated by someone in our family, they enter us. They live in us. My father lived in me more strongly than he lived in his own person after he abused me. When I wrote that apology, I rearranged who he was in me. I expurgated him. It really worked. It was a release. For me, if people want to call that forgiveness, it’s as close as I can come, but I didn’t set out to do that. If you can’t get an apology from someone whose hurt you, writing it can be just as effective.
48 HILLS In light of what is happening in 2023, what are your thoughts about the overturning of Roe V. Wade?
V I keep seeing this as a temporary state and we’re going to get back those rights. The fact that Democrats did so well in the last election has everything to do with that. As we build towards the next election, women are getting angrier and angrier. The more recent ruling that came down from SCOTUS where they can’t deny women access to (reproductive care) is a very good thing. There are signs that although we lost a basic right, we will get the rights to our bodies back. We just need to get the courts back; have the right people in office. Women will regain the right to have autonomy, to have a child or not and with who they want. Honestly, the right wing would take away every right a woman has if given the choice. They would create a world that, while it’s not the Taliban, has all the makings of it.
48 HILLS What did you experience while writing the section on V, the epilogue and your dream describing a vastly different world?
What I really feel a lot lately is that I have spent so much of my life fighting against patriarchy. Resisting it, marching against it, singing against it. I’m about to turn 70 and I want the next years of my life to be about imagining and creating the world we want to live in.
If we don’t have an image of it, we can’t make it happen. While at the same time still fighting the mad men, we also have to be saying what would it look like if it wasn’t a world of hierarchy, dominance extraction, and rape. When I changed my name, it was like the V key to the new world. Let’s see what we can envision a life would be. Let’s create it now: bring in an embodied way of living into our communities, families, love. Let’s not wait until patriarchy collapses. If we make something so inclusive and expansive and beautiful, people will want to be a part of that world. That essay was my attempt to dream into what it could be like and to have the audacity to dream it.
Years ago, on V Day, we gave all the groups involved an exercise to write about what the world would be like without violence. People couldn’t even do it. They couldn’t imagine what it would like to be free. Until we can imagine that space, we can’t go anywhere. There’s nothing to follow.
48 HILLS Going there is like another falling: laying bare something scary to even dream of, right?
V Exactly. When you open those doors, you can be seriously disappointed, you can fall. On the other hand, create a day where we all begin to live—I’m imagining my birthday May 25—where I can be with people who imagine what I want. We can engage in exercises in loving, caring, instead of always marching against and resisting and in some ways taking on the energy (of patriarchy). We can be tasting and knowing the energy of the love we want to evolve.
48 HILLS Is there anything you’d like to add about the City of Joy and observations you have coming out of COVID?
V The “Disaster Patriarchy” essay I wrote looks at the impact COVID had on so many things having to do with women. Whether it was women locked in their houses unable to escape husbands or boyfriends who were violent, undermined women’s education, women taken out of the workforce, or people’s mental health, especially that of young girls. There’s been a real rash of suicide happening. At the same time, we’re seeing so many young girls empowering themselves, beginning to demonstrate, speaking out, and doing utterly brilliant, creative, inventive things. Both of those things are happening.
Reckoning is available from Bloomsbury Publishing. V appears in conversation Sun/7 at the Bay Area Book Fest, more info here.