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Conversation with Eve Ensler

eve ensler
Eve Ensler is an internationally acclaimed playwright whose works for the stage include Floating Rhonda and the Glue Man, Lemonade, Necessary Targets, The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body. In October 2006 she released her first major work written exclusively for the printed page, INSECURE AT LAST: Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World. Ensler is the founder and artistic director of V-Day (www.vday.org), the global movement to end violence against women and girls that was inspired by The Vagina Monologues. In eight years V-Day has raised more than $40 million for grassroots groups around the world. Eve Ensler lives in New York City.

INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (10/3/06)

Marianne Schnall: Congratulations on this amazing book. It was so gripping that I could not put it down. It is such an important book, and has so many truths in it that people need to hear, and it was beautifully written. I think I read the whole thing in 3 nights. What inspired you to write “Insecure at Last”? And what is at the heart of the message of the book?

Eve Ensler: Well, I think this country has become, since 9/11, so much about, “security.” I think the word gets used more often than any word: ‘security checks,’ ‘security watch,’ ‘security this,’ ‘security that.’ And I started thinking, with all this focus on security, why do I feel so much more insecure? Why do I feel more terrified than I have ever been in this country? So I started with that examination - what is security? Why have we as a country become so obsessed with security as the point of our lives? When did this happen? Why did this happen?

I began with myself. I started thinking about my own life, where I’ve come from. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was told on a regular basis that I was secure – you know, upper middle class, white neighborhood – I even had a white picket fence. And yet inside that house, I was being beaten and molested on a regular basis. This became a split in consciousness - what was being named as security and what was really going on. I began to be suspicious and very distrustful of security.

Much of my life until recently has been guided by this attempt to find logic and security. It drove me around the world, particularly in the last 10 years. I have been to over 40 countries. And in the process, I ended up dissolving any notions I ever had of security. And in a way, I got free. I don’t mean “free” in the sense that there’s no pain and no suffering, and no hardship – but I’m free of the illusion of security. That’s the journey I am documenting in the book.

MS: It was also so amazing to see the span of all the many places you have traveled - and actually your interest has always been global. How important is it that we begin to see our world as a global community and feel our interconnectedness on all of these issues?

EE: We are so much a globe at this point that the idea that we are still live as nations seems utterly absurd to me. Because it’s so clear -- if you look at global warming, if you look at 9/11, if you look at anything that’s going on, whether it’s Palestine, or Lebanon, or Iran – that everything is completely interconnected and interdependent. I think part of the problem we have in this country is that Americans don’t see themselves as connected to the rest of the world. And I think part of that comes from this fear that got induced after 9/11, which really encouraged people to shut down, isolate, close up the borders, close up their minds, close up their families, narrow their identities, close up their thinking. The book is a cry, really, to open up those borders.

MS: Given all these many difficult issues that the world faces today, what area do you think is the most important for change?

EE: There are two levels to consider. I think on one level, on an abstract level, I think we have to re-conceive the dream. We have to say: is it security we’re after, or is it care? Is it security we’re after or is it peace? You know? Is it creating and building military democracies? In this country $390 billion dollars a year is spent towards defending ourselves. No other country has a military budget like that. Or is our intention and money going to be spent in building a humane democracy based on feeding people, educating people, stopping global warming, getting rid of diseases, providing health care, and building an infrastructure where people are guaranteed their basic human rights? It’s a real decision we have to make, as a country that has an enormous impact on the rest of the world.

MS: Do you feel hopeful when you look out at the world that such change can happen?

EE: You know, it’s an interesting question. I think part of what the book is talking about is the capacity to hold opposites at the same time, the capacity to live in ambiguity. In the chapter where I speak of going into the prison to work with the women there, I said I thought I would be afraid of the barbed wire, or the doors slamming shut, or women who had committed terrible crimes. In fact what was most terrifying was falling in love with the women. I think part of the difficulty of this time we’re living in is that there are always these opposite thoughts existing simultaneously: I love this woman and she committed a terrifying crime. When you’re in a state of fear you shut out one, to avoid the confusion of feeling both at the same time. You shut out one and you just stay in this state of delusion and denial.

My hope is rooted in feeling both. I am wildly hopeful, and I’m wildly afraid. I’m wildly hopeful and at the same time I’m in great despair over where we are. I see a worldwide movement called V-Day working to stop violence against women and girls in just about every country in the world, and I see a government that is ruining this country, dominating the world, absolutely destroying the planet. A government that has birthed a mentality of occupation, invasion, domination, that has literally bombed the heart out of Iraq in the name of security, and escalated terrorism triple-fold.

MS: How is the oppression and violence against women connected to all of this?

EE: Well, patriarchy is a mentality that is based on the principles of dominance, control, and hierarchy. Once you create that hierarchy, you always have to have power over someone. I think when a government is practicing (on national and international levels) policies of dominance and using mechanisms of violence to control people, of course that will be mirrored and matched on the domestic levels. And of course it will encourage men to bully, to dominate, and to control their women, just as we are controlling other countries, as we are controlling nations, as we are controlling whoever it is we’re controlling. It gives license to hierarchy and violence on all levels.

MS: It’s funny – people can often sign on to feeling outraged and wanting to do something about the atrocities that are happening to women around the world, but when it comes to women defining themselves as “feminists,” many women today seem so reluctant somehow to do that, even though when you explain the dictionary definition, of course, even most women - and men - would support that. Why do you think so many women are reluctant to call themselves “feminists” and what does feminism mean to you?

EE: Well, I think most people don’t know what feminism means. And I think everybody has a different definition of it, frankly. You know, I talk a lot to people and some believe that feminism is simply moving women into power. That isn’t what I think feminism is. There are a lot of people who think just getting women equal rights and equal pay is feminism.

I don’t know what the word is anymore, Marianne, to be perfectly honest. I don’t know if that word is helping us anymore, or not helping us. Of course, I am a feminist and I’ve been a feminist. But now I’m seeing there is a new way, the third way. It’s not left or right. It’s not Democrat or Republican. It’s a third way. And the third way to me is a shift in these principles where dominance, occupation, invasion and violence are the tools on which the whole planet turns and operates. The new tools would be cooperation, invitation, dialogue, and care. Care would be fundamental to the principles of the world.

We are really talking about moving that $390 billion dollars a year that is being spent on military defense, and working to end terrorism by ending the fertile ground in which it is birthed – which is violence, which is invasion, which is poverty, which is disease, which is people feeling completely impoverished in 90% of the world.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Robert Pape’s book on suicide bombers, but this whole take that the Bush administration has had that suicide bombers are fundamentalists and they hate our way of life – well, it’s just not true. The majority of suicide bombers are not fundamentalists. They are actually people who are responding to other people who have invaded their lands. Whether it’s Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq or any other part of the world, some foreign people have occupied their homeland. And what does this bring up in them? Humiliation and shame, and powerlessness. And so they find a way to resist. If you really understand this it seems to me logical that you might recognize that invasion and occupation are not tactics that end terrorism! Maybe honoring people, and supporting people, and providing resources would do that.

I can share from my own experience with Agnes, for example, in Africa. Agnes was walking through the fields to end female genital mutilation. She knew how to do it, she knew the practice she was doing, she had a beautiful method to educate people. She didn’t need me to come and tell her what to do. She didn’t need me to occupy her town in Africa and move in, and spread my knowledge all over her. What she needed was resources to do what she already knew how to do. And once she got those resources, she built a house, she changed her community, she became deputy mayor, she began to bring her way of thinking and her way of doing things, inside her own tradition, into being.

MS: When I look out at the world right now and I talk to people, everybody is just turning on the news and feeling, first of all – overwhelmed by their own lives, and then overwhelmed by everything happening in the world. One of the things I think was so empowering about your book, at least for me, was that you share your own personal experience, and your vulnerabilities, your healing, your ongoing growth – how you’re making connections between how your inner work corresponds to your outer involvement in the world – it’s so important to be sharing some of that inner stuff, because we’re all having it, and I think it’s related to the problem, because we’re all kind of hiding in all of that, and it can make us feel really helpless and confused. Why did you feel it was important to share your own story, and what do you hope your readers will gain from that?

EE: What patriarchy has done more than anything I think is divide the mind and the heart, the body and the soul. It’s made this huge split that allows people to do all kinds of terrible practices and be highly disassociated from what they’re doing. It seems to me, until you connect your personal life experience, history, feelings with the world, the world does not change. And I think the more people stay away from what they know, what they feel, what they see – the more powerless they become. That’s what fear does, doesn’t it? It robs you of your instincts, it robs you of your knowledge, it robs you of your voice, and so that you become more and more powerless in a system, which then begins to spin madly out of control.

To me, I’ve always trusted that my personal experience is connected to the larger story. What you know inside your own story is a reflection of the larger world. I grew up in, as I said, a really beautiful, so-called upper middle class environment, where everyone was telling me I was secure. There was a huge disconnect going on – my father was a corporate president, my father was beating me, my father was molesting me. I was told not to believe that it was true even while it was happening to me. So I learned how to dissociate and disconnect for a long, long time. When I started putting it together I understood: father = empire, father = family, father = having all the control, father = determining the way the family thinks, father = president = having all the control = determining what the country thinks. You start to make these associations – they begin somewhere.

It’s not accidental that we grow up and don’t question the President. It’s not accidental we grow up and we don’t question doctors. It’s not accidental that we grow up and we don’t question the media. We’ve been taught to relinquish our authority from a very young age. And in many circumstances we’ve been forced to because of violence.

MS: One of the things that makes your story so inspiring is that somehow you managed to take your personal experience of violence from your childhood and turn it into this amazing source of strength and power. How is it that you were able to do that? And what advice do you give to women who you see all over the world who have experienced varied forms of violence – what is the healing process for that?

EE: I think of women and men across the planet, who have been through terrible violence, terrible pain, and rather than getting an AK-47 or retaliating or becoming avengers or revengers, they actually grieve what happened to them, they experience what happened to them, and in doing that something transforms them and they then commit their lives to making sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. We call these people “Vagina Warriors.” In the “Waiting for Mr. Alligator” chapter of the book I speak about how I waited my whole life for somebody to rescue me. I waited for someone to make it better. Waiting was better than killing someone! And I created this character named Mr. Alligator who I thought would come and rescue me. I would wait for him all the time as a kid. He didn’t come. But years later, V-Day went to Africa and we found Agnes and we were able to give her the resources to build a safe house for girls. I went to the opening of the house and in the midst of the celebration I found myself walking down this path. Suddenly it was the path of my childhood. In that moment I realized that I was no longer waiting. Mr. Alligator had finally come. Here was this beautiful safe house we had opened for girls to escape Female Genital Mutilation. In giving that I had healed the broken part inside myself. When you give what you need the most, you heal whatever is broken. What we are waiting for has always lived inside us.

I think what I would say to anyone is - stop waiting. Stop retaliating. Stop living your life as if you’re going to be rescued, and give what you need the most. And you will heal and you will transform whatever pain is inside you.

MS: Many people look at the world today and want to be a part of creating positive change or a more hopeful future for humanity, but often times, really, they honestly don’t even know where to start, or can’t imagine that they themselves can make a difference. When I look at, you know, having known you since the beginning of V-Day, and now, $40 million dollars later, and all this work that you’re doing, and all this amazing art that you’ve created - what advice do you have for people who are feeling powerless and helpless in terms of just getting started?

EE: What I would say is this: discover your fantasy of what you need the most, what you would want someone to do for you the most, and then go out and give it to someone else. I would say to give voice to what you know to be true, and not be afraid of being disliked or exiled. Because I think that’s the hard work of standing up for what you see.

MS: How do you keep from burning out or becoming discouraged? Or even giving in to anger given all the injustices you’ve witnessed, and the fact that sometimes it probably can feel like an uphill ride.

EE: Some days I feel awful! I think being ‘insecure at last’ means you’re actually where you are, you feel what you feel. Some days I just get in bed and cry all day.

Some days I am utterly furious at the state of the world. When I get a bad review it hurts. When I get a good review it’s too aggrandizing. And part of being in a state of insecurity is being truthful, saying, ‘OK, this is where I am today. How do I go with this?’ as opposed to pretending I’m not where I am. There are times when I am with people who have been terribly abused and damaged, and then I can’t function for two days. And so I don’t function for two days. And then there are times that are glorious when I look at this V-Day movement spreading across the planet and I have never felt more hopeful and more thrilled. And there are times when I look at this current administration unwriting habeas corpus and giving up our central liberties, and I think - we’re done! And there are times when I think, ‘oh my god, we’re just beginning!’ And all those things live in me all the time. And I don’t pretend they’re not there. And I think the way to survival is to just honor whatever is inside you, and to keep letting it go through you, as opposed to getting caught in any one identity that is false. Because all those things are true all the time.

MS: If you could speak to all of the leaders of the world today, what would you want to say to them?

EE: I think I would ask people to look at the path we’re on. To really, really think deeply about whether they are, first of all, interested in the continuation of the human species or amassing their own power, and position and wealth. And if the answer was that they were interested in the human species going on, I would then say we all need to sit down and talk about how we are going to shift from a military and violent paradigm into a humane paradigm. Because I don’t think there is any other way now. For example, although there may be some minor distinctions, the Democrats and Republicans are both managers of the same empire. They are both fed by the same dominant principles of aggression and violence. They are supported by the same corporations. Wealth puts people in office and the elected officials then serve the wealthy when they are in office. And until we offer a third way, I don’t see that it’s going to shift.

MS: What is your vision and prayer for the future? What would you like to see?

EE: Oh, I would like to see a V Party. I would like to see a party that’s founded on ending violence across the board – the violence of poverty, the violence of oppression, the violence of rape, the violence of what we’re doing to the Earth, the violence of health care deprivation. And I would like to see us construct a new way, a new party, a new vision internationally, that is about bringing equity to the world, balance to the world, so that you don’t have 90% of the world totally impoverished, and 2% of the world owning everything. You don’t have corporations where the shareholders have everything and the workers have less than they have ever had in the history of their life. You don’t have a country that’s sacrificing the future of the environment and the globe to immediate needs and greed. You don’t have people promoting policies that end up getting women raped and dishonored and sold. I would like to see a new paradigm where holding women’s bodies’ sacred and honoring women’s lives become a priority. And that honoring the Earth - because you know it is what sustains you - is a priority. And all of us really getting that care, the principle of caring, is an extraordinarily deep value. Right now we don’t value caring – it isn’t even on the charts.

MS: What is consuming your focus and thoughts now? I read that you are going to be working on a book that focusing on the experiences of young girls?

EE: The next piece I am working on is about teenage girls. I have been interviewing girls and I am going to do some kind of theater piece musical, and a book. And I may be doing this piece for HBO about love and relationships.

MS: I can’t remember who said that you were a force of nature, but you do seem to exude so much energy into everything you do – and you have this amazing will and capability to get these very ambitious things done – what do you think is the source of all that energy in you?

EE: You know, it’s hard to say. I mean, I think that I have a profound desire to undo what was done to me. And to make sure it isn’t done to anyone else. And I think I have a profound desire to really see if it’s possible for us to evolve out of a violent paradigm, and out of a violent mentality, and to actually know what the world would be like if we weren’t living in that. I’m very curious about it. So I think the idea that we are murdering and dropping bombs on people in Iraq and Lebanon, the idea that there are women across this planet who have no rights, and cannot live their lives even a quarter of the way they should be living, the idea that there are people starving and living in dust, the idea that people have no voice and no life – and that this is the only life we get – gets me up and gets me going every day.

MS: The reason why I think this is the perfect time for your book is that – it seems like we are going to this place right now where things seem almost overwhelmingly chaotic and bad in so many different areas in the world, that it’s almost makes me hopeful that perhaps it will wake us up and will become apparent how wrongly off-course we are, in terms of human evolution, that it may shift us back. That’s actually what I would like to think is happening – that we’re going through a shift in consciousness.

EE: I agree with you. Part of becoming ‘insecure at last’ is to give up the need for “security” – and I’m talking about the idea of a security where you are untouched by change, untouched by death (which, by the way, you’re never going to be, because all life is change.) But were you to give up that impossible idea and focus on freedom, on connection, on compassion – I tell you, it’s a glorious life! It’s a glorious life. It is amazing here in vulnerable land. It just occurred to me; it’s another “v” word – “vulnerable land.” You know? It’s beautiful here in vulnerable land.

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For more on Eve Ensler and V-Day visit www.vday.org or visit Eve's web site at www.eveensler.org.

Turning Pain to Power
Women and girls in eastern Congo suffer sexual atrocities that are tactics of war in the region. Playwright Eve Ensler has joined with Dr. Denis Mukwege to ask us to imagine the unimaginable, to empathize and join together to end the terror.
by Marianne Schnall (The Women's Media Center)

Interview with Eve Ensler on Violence Against Women in the Congo

From Superdome to SUPERLOVE — V-Day at 10 by Marianne Schnall (The Women's Media Center)

V-Day Column at Feminist.com: Until the Violence Stops

Other Eve Ensler writings at Feminist.com:

V to the Tenth

Excerpt from Insecure at Last

Excerpt from The Good Body

The Real Meaning of Security (from Ode Magazine )

Other Recent Articles by Eve Ensler:
Women left for dead—and the man who’s saving them
In the Congo, where tens of thousands of women are brutally raped every year, Dr. Denis Mukwege repairs their broken bodies and souls. Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, visits him and finds hope amid the horror. (Glamour Magazine).

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Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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