Real Live SuperWomen: Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler (Photo credit: lifescript)

How does one person get a billion to rise in the face of violence and oppression?

It’s not as simple as that — the force that organized this year’s One Billion Rising on V-Day was orchestrated by thousands of people, but it was all because of the vision of one woman.

Today is a very special post, SuperFolks. While most of this month, you’ll be hearing from our founders about why this site is important, why we decided to start it, I had to take this opportunity to share an experience with you. Friday night, at a little place in DC on 14th and V St (which is also Langston Hughes), there’s an oasis of diversity and tolerance called Busboys and Poets. I saw a tweet that led me there that night, a night I was rather serendipitously off work.

On this blog, you’ll see us talking geekdom a lot. Every facet and aspect of the geek world that we love — that you love. But sometimes we’ll come down hard in the real world to show you women who have changed it for the better. I can’t think of a better first post in the Real Live SuperWomen series than to introduce you to Eve Ensler. As the owner of Busboys and Poets introduced her last night, you might know her as The Vagina Lady. I’m here to tell you why she’s my hero.

This isn’t so much a snapshot as a story. Forgive the length. I hope you’ll stay with me.

My Body, Your Body: Mussels and Vaginas

I picked up her book on the way, so I could read it on the train. Her newest memoir is called In the Body of the World. As my husband peeled out of Target on the way to the metro station, I kicked off the silver heels I’d planned to wear, exchanged them for an old pair of silver flipflops, and considered how eating rose-flavored Turkish Delight made my breath smell like flowers. I itched to open the book. I ran my fingers over the embossed gold V on the cover and felt it calling to me. As soon as I got on the train, I opened it.

It didn’t take long for the power of the book to overcome me.

After some chapters, I sat, one hand palm down on the page as if I could hold the words back, back where they struggled against my skin and pulled, pulled like magnets on the tears in my eyes that hovered on the edge of the cliff of my eyelids. Tears awaiting one crumbling eyelash to splash onto the maroon seat of the red line Metro.

Why such power? Part of it is the words she wrote about the Congo, about the horrific atrocities of rape and violence and torture. One sentence of hers flashes a picture in front of your eyes, a picture that won’t leave, a picture that takes something distant and shoves it in front of your face. Part of it is knowing that this book is also about the cancer that almost stole her away from us, that invaded her body and infected her. I hate cancer. It’s stolen too many people from me already.

I looked up from my hand on the page and saw with perfect clarity the Russian man across from me smushing an empty water bottle against his face, heard clearly the crinkle of flimsy plastic. A silly moment, an odd picture.

And I knew.

Everyone alive should read this book.

There are words in there that people don’t want to hear, but they’re words we need to hear.

Less than 24 hours before that moment of certainty, I sat in front of my husband, my body crumpled with sobs as I again gave voice to the words that tie my fate to Eve’s. Sobs and tears and dripping snot remind me that no number of push-ups, no 5K time of 20 minutes, not having abs like Sam Winchester — none of it will erase the memory of the day I was evicted from my body.

So I sat on the train and wondered how I’d be able to stand in front of this woman who has long been my Hero and do anything at all but break down at her feet and cry.

I thought of the tissues I’d left at home and how the entire box just might not have been enough anyway.

When I got off the train, I stopped at Rite Aid and bought three travel packs for thirty-five cents each and a pack of Extra that cost as much as all three together.

I arrived at Busboys and Poets two and a half hours early. I sat down at the bar with my whole milk chai tea latte and tried to read more.

Each time I felt the tears well up, I made myself look left at the colorful mosaic of vibrant donor names on the wall who made that oasis possible. Or at piles of coffee beans visible in their grinders. Beans that start out green and get roasted black with fire, but beans that in the process gain flavor and richness and warmth and aroma that even milling them into dust can’t diminish.

I wondered if perhaps reading Eve’s book in public wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had.

A few chapters later, I wiped my fingers with a lemon-scented towelette and thought about mussels and vaginas. Gazing at the empty shells, my brain made an odd comparison. Mussels, I decided, were rather like vaginas. When they are open, they yield pleasure and sustenance. When closed, they are hard edges and full of poison. It’s not an analogy I’d make often, but knowing and reading Eve’s words is to see how we are all a part of the earth.

Her cancer was that poison, the poison that comes from forcing a way into something closed. The poison that touched and infected women around the world and manifested itself as a reaching, grasping tumor in my hero’s body.

Busboys and Poets, DC, inspiration

The meeting room at Busboys and Poets.

Light, Bright, Excitement, and Tears

I was waiting in the queue to enter the meeting room when a woman beside me bounced up and down and said, “I’m so excited!”

I smiled, but felt rather flustered. When we went into the room, it buzzed with excitement. I saw bright faces beaming with joy.

I couldn’t feel that buzz.

What I felt was the sting behind my eyes, listening to the mic check and reaching down to touch Pack of Tissues #1 in my bag.

Sure, we were waiting to see a celebrity. People know who Eve Ensler is. But from where I sat in the second row, a clear, direct path between me and where she would sit, I thought she would look…like a woman on the same kind of bar stool upon which I’d planted myself for two and a half hours to wait for her.

And yet somehow, she is all women.

Sitting there, I couldn’t help but feel that. It doesn’t matter that her skin is as pale as mine. This woman has felt the life and rain and sun of sixty countries. She writes of the lush blue-green-birdsong mornings of the Congo. It’s there where her first impulse told her to go after her monstrous diagnosis. In many ways, she’s tapped into Africa, the mother of us all.

So I waited, hushed and still near-tearful. Maybe I ought to have been excited, bouncing in my chair. But through my adult life, before my rape and after, Eve has been there. A powerful, passionate, poignant voice that has been a lifeline, feeding me with every word the knowledge that I am not alone.

The room was full of women. Black women. White women. Bronze women. Brown women. Women laughing talking texting shining glowing sitting silent.

She was all of us.

She is like Mother Teresa was to the Catholics. What Martin Luther King Junior was to the civil rights movement. Does that sound overdramatic? It shouldn’t. She is the woman who got a billion people to shake the earth with dance because women should no longer have to fear violence.


The stage.

At First Sight

My first sight of her was like seeing the warm golden flame of a lantern in a dark room. Her smile was bright, bright, beautiful and real.

She gives this smile generously, delightedly, with the sparkle of sunlight on rippling waves.

I wanted to take a picture, to capture that smile for you. To have it to look at as a reminder that even in the blackness, light can bloom.

The room overflowed like her smile.

Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World, author, reading, event, Busboys and Poets

Eve Ensler reading from In the Body of the World

In The Body of the World

And so she began.

The girl next to me, who had squeezed past me minutes before Eve began, sniffled just as I did. I held out my thirty-five cent tissues and offered her one. She didn’t speak, just took one, smiled, and dabbed her eyes.

She, like me I think, was there out of need rather than excitement.

Eve read from her book. I’m glad I’d already read those first passages she chose, because had I not, I might have needed more tissues than I used. The owner of Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal, wiped away his own tears. He’d already declared Eve in his top three favorite authors to visit Busboys and Poets, something which she’d joyously accepted as one of her most prized accolades (and she’s got a lot).

She told us how her cancer had spread from her uterus and into other parts of her body. How it had fistulaed, just like the women in the Congo experienced from tortuous rape. How she had to get the same surgery Dr. Denis Mukwege had performed countless times on women with broken bodies. She wondered aloud and in writing if rape cancer was a thing. Could she have it? Could there be any worse kind of irony than her body manifesting something so close to the horror stories she’d listened to for so many years?

And more, how the day of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, she’d contracted a horrific infection that spilled pus into her body even as the rigs pumped crude oil into the blue waters of the Gulf.

Somehow her body has borne the decay of the world, and she has beaten it back.

Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World

Eve reading.

Her readings spanned from her treatment, her reconciliation with her sister, how she called Mama C in the Congo every day even after her surgery. She told us about City of Joy, a safe haven created and run by Congolese women and funded by VDay.

The room was hushed and packed to the brim. People sat on the stage, behind Eve, on the floor, crowded into booths and on chairs and in doorways. It was that I saw her react to when she first walked in, how her smile lit up with genuine joy to see us.

Only Eve could make us cry telling a story about a woman called Cindy who she dubbed the Fart Deliverer. When she was recovering from her surgery and having her bags removed, this woman had to help her learn how to fart again. We roared with laughter and dripped tears when Eve told us that Cindy was a volunteer. She came to the hospital every day to help people in recovery. She worked the Fart Floor and saw it as her mission to make sure these people would regain the full use of their digestive systems. A volunteer, who as Eve told us, said that farts were “music to her ears.”

Down to Earth

When it was over, I hopped up and got in line, pulled out my book and wondered what on earth I would say to this woman. I don’t throw the word “hero” around lightly or in jest. She changed my life and has worked to save millions of others. She said herself that she’s seen something shift from, “I’ve seen your play” to “I’ve been in your play” as she travels around this world. She’s someone half the world knows because of the good she’s done.

In my head as I waited, I could only think to say, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Those simple words. I didn’t just mean “here” in DC or “here” at Busboys and Poets. I didn’t even mean “here” in front of me. I meant here, alive. Because when I heard of her cancer, my heart tightened in my chest like someone had sucked it into a vacuum. I said it before — I loathe cancer. It steals away light that belongs here, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it stealing away hers.

But it didn’t. She’s still in remission.

When I did get to the table, I told her I was Emmie spelt with an “I-E” and then crouched in front of her. I stuttered a bit as I said, “I wanted…I wanted to tell you….that I read The Vagina Monologues in college before I was raped –” and before I could go on, her face changed, crumpled, and her bright blue eyes focused in on me. I continued, “– and after, it was your words, it was VDay, it was your passion for the women in the Congo and around the world that got me through.” She reached out to me, took my hand, held it in hers.

“Are you okay?”

I was embarrassed, but in spite of the tears dripping from my eyes I looked right at her and said that I was fine. I put my hand on top of hers and said,  “You are, quite honestly, my hero.”

She told me to stay connected with VDay. She told me that this year would be even bigger. That something huge is coming. She signed my book, squeezed my hand, and I left.

It’s how she reaches out that makes her something more than an activist or a feminist or a survivor.

It’s how she doesn’t hesitate to feel the pain of others.

It’s how her face changed when she heard what I said.

It’s how after hearing thousands and thousands and thousands of stories from women about their vaginas and their rapes and their experiences that she’s still shocked by violence.

It’s how she talks of making a better world.

This is why she’s a hero. This is why she’s changed the world.