In the Body of the World | Eve Ensler
Fire to burn the fear
This is the strangest, most compulsive memoir I have read in a long time. It fairly suppurates with all those terrible things: pus, shit, blood, bodily fluids, anger, despair, and an almost macabre humour punctuated by the author’s bouts of self dislike. You keep turning the pages as you read episode after episode of how Eve Ensler discovered and dealt with a terrible cancer.
It is strange because she begins by what seems a wild stratagem of locating the female body at the heart of major geopolitical trends and realities, and you wonder how she is going to pull it off, how she will make these links work without a heavy theoretical apparatus. But by the end of the book you are almost hypnotically making them work yourself.
For by the end you can see that the cancer in Eve’s body that is so resilient and so dangerous, is a mirror of the cancer that is invading our society, that leads to war in Bosnia and death and destruction in Rwanda, to terrible, often self-inflicted violence and incest and abuse in young lives in the US, and to the rape of the earth in the form of its trees and flowers and birds and bees.
It’s also honest and courageous, for turning the mirror on to yourself is not easy, and Ensler is unsparing in her criticism of herself, as she is in that of her abusive, violent and incestuous father. In many ways the illness becomes a way for her to explore herself and her need for love, affection, appreciation—something she craves and something she is often not able to immediately see even though it is all around her, in her wonderful friends and family who stand by her like rocks. They include an adoptive son who is only seven years younger than her, a sister who looks after her and of whom Ensler says that one of the best things to come out of her cancer treatment was that she and her sister found each other and “fell in love”.
It’s also a book that goes much beyond Ensler’s own life and illness, to the difficulties and desperation of the lives of the women she befriends in Rwanda, and elsewhere, to their illnesses, their battles with corrupt officials, their bodies. Perhaps, she thinks in an almost hallucinatory moment, it is their despair and grief, their tragedies that have entered her body in the form of a cancer, so that now she is one with them, and this causes her to celebrate, to feel connected—she is no longer the outsider.
And further, it’s a book that shines an unsparing spotlight on that “other” world, the world of weakened bodies and despairing minds, of total dependence on, and growing resentment of, the very system that you turn to in your search for a cure, the world where the immediacy of death is a constant companion.
At some point in her life, now cancer-free, Ensler is advised that she must go in for chemotherapy—to kill even that single cell that may be lurking somewhere, ready to attack again. She confronts the thought of taking in what is essentially poison and is able to accept it only because she heeds the words of her one-time shrink, now friend, that she see the cancer as something that invaded her body, and the chemo as something that sets out to kill the invader.
Medication, doctors, support, solidarity, feminism—all of these play a role in Ensler’s healing, but in the end there is no euphoria at having beaten the monster, just a sense that life must henceforth be different, but that the priorities remain unchanged.
In the end, Ensler asks, and answers, her own question: What does it mean to have a second wind, a second life? It means screaming fire when there is a fire…a fire that will burn through our fear.
Unsparing and compelling, this book is not a pleasant or comfortable read. But it is well worth reading.
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and feminist publisher.