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For a long time, there was me, and my body. Me was composed of stories, of cravings, of strivings, of desires of the future. Me was trying not to be an outcome of my violent past, but the separation that had already occurred between me and my body was a pretty significant outcome. Me was always trying to become something, somebody. Me only existed in the trying. My body was often in the way.
Me was a floating head. For years, I actually only wore hats. It was a way of keeping my head attached. It was a way of locating myself. I worried that [if] I took my hat off I wouldn't be here anymore. I actually had a therapist who once said to me, "Eve, you've been coming here for two years, and, to be honest, it never occurred to me that you had a body." All this time I lived in the city because, to be honest, I was afraid of trees. I never had babies because heads cannot give birth. Babies actually don't come out of your mouth.
As I had no reference point for my body, I began to ask other women about their bodies -- in particular, their vaginas, because I thought vaginas were kind of important. This led to me writing "The Vagina Monologues," which led to me obsessively and incessantly talking about vaginas everywhere I could. I did this in front of many strangers. One night on stage, I actually entered my vagina. It was an ecstatic experience. It scared me, it energized me, and then I became a driven person, a driven vagina.
I began to see my body like a thing, a thing that could move fast, like a thing that could accomplish other things, many things, all at once. I began to see my body like an iPad or a car. I would drive it and demand things from it. It had no limits. It was invincible. It was to be conquered and mastered like the Earth herself. I didn't heed it; no, I organized it and I directed it. I didn't have patience for my body; I snapped it into shape. I was greedy. I took more than my body had to offer. If I was tired, I drank more espressos. If I was afraid, I went to more dangerous places.
Oh sure, sure, I had moments of appreciation of my body, the way an abusive parent can sometimes have a moment of kindness. My father was really kind to me on my 16th birthday, for example. I heard people murmur from time to time that I should love my body, so I learned how to do this. I was a vegetarian, I was sober, I didn't smoke. But all that was just a more sophisticated way to manipulate my body -- a further disassociation, like planting a vegetable field on a freeway.
As a result of me talking so much about my vagina, many women started to tell me about theirs -- their stories about their bodies. Actually, these stories compelled me around the world, and I've been to over 60 countries. I heard thousands of stories, and I have to tell you, there was always this moment where the women shared with me that particular moment when she separated from her body -- when she left home. I heard about women being molested in their beds, flogged in their burqas, left for dead in parking lots, acid burned in their kitchens. Some women became quiet and disappeared. Other women became mad, driven machines like me.
In the middle of my traveling, I turned 40 and I began to hate my body, which was actually progress, because at least my body existed enough to hate it. Well my stomach -- it was my stomach I hated. It was proof that I had not measured up, that I was old and not fabulous and not perfect or able to fit into the predetermined corporate image in shape. My stomach was proof that I had failed, that it had failed me, that it was broken. My life became about getting rid of it and obsessing about getting rid of it. In fact, it became so extreme I wrote a play about it. But the more I talked about it, the more objectified and fragmented my body became. It became entertainment; it became a new kind of commodity, something I was selling.
Then I went somewhere else. I went outside what I thought I knew. I went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. And I heard stories that shattered all the other stories. I heard stories that got inside my body. I heard about a little girl who couldn't stop peeing on herself because so many grown soldiers had shoved themselves inside her. I heard an 80-year-old woman whose legs were broken and pulled out of her sockets and twisted up on her head as the soldiers raped her like that. There are thousands of these stories, and many of the women had holes in their bodies -- holes, fistula -- that were the violation of war -- holes in the fabric of their souls. These stories saturated my cells and nerves, and to be honest, I stopped sleeping for three years.
All the stories began to bleed together. The raping of the Earth, the pillaging of minerals, the destruction of vaginas -- none of these were separate anymore from each other or me. Militias were raping six-month-old babies so that countries far away could get access to gold and coltan for their iPhones and computers. My body had not only become a driven machine, but it was responsible now for destroying other women's bodies in its mad quest to make more machines to support the speed and efficiency of my machine.
Then I got cancer -- or I found out I had cancer. It arrived like a speeding bird smashing into a windowpane. Suddenly, I had a body, a body that was pricked and poked and punctured, a body that was cut wide open, a body that had organs removed and transported and rearranged and reconstructed, a body that was scanned and had tubes shoved down it, a body that was burning from chemicals. Cancer exploded the wall of my disconnection. I suddenly understood that the crisis in my body was the crisis in the world, and it wasn't happening later, it was happening now.
Suddenly, my cancer was a cancer that was everywhere, the cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed, the cancer that gets inside people who live down the streets from chemical plants -- and they're usually poor -- the cancer inside the coal miner's lungs, the cancer of stress for not achieving enough, the cancer of buried trauma, the cancer in caged chickens and polluted fish, the cancer in women's uteruses from being raped, the cancer that is everywhere from our carelessness.
In his new and visionary book, "New Self, New World," the writer Philip Shepherd says, "If you are divided from your body, you are also divided from the body of the world, which then appears to be other than you or separate from you, rather than the living continuum to which you belong." Before cancer, the world was something other. It was as if I was living in a stagnant pool and cancer dynamited the boulder that was separating me from the larger sea. Now I am swimming in it. Now I lay down in the grass and I rub my body in it, and I love the mud on my legs and feet. Now I make a daily pilgrimage to visit a particular weeping willow by the Seine, and I hunger for the green fields in the bush outside Bukavu. And when it rains hard rain, I scream and I run in circles.
I know that everything is connected, and the scar that runs the length of my torso is the markings of the earthquake. And I am there with the three million in the streets of Port-au-Prince. And the fire that burned in me on day three through six of chemo is the fire that is burning in the forests of the world. I know that the abscess that grew around my wound after the operation, the 16 ounces of puss, is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico, and there were oil-drenched pelicans inside me and dead floating fish. And the catheters they shoved into me without proper medication made me scream out the way the Earth cries out from the drilling.
In my second chemo, my mother got very sick and I went to see her. And in the name of connectedness, the only thing she wanted before she died was to be brought home by her beloved Gulf of Mexico. So we brought her home, and I prayed that the oil wouldn't wash up on her beach before she died. And gratefully, it didn't. And she died quietly in her favorite place.
And a few weeks later, I was in New Orleans, and this beautiful, spiritual friend told me she wanted to do a healing for me. And I was honored. And I went to her house, and it was morning, and the morning New Orleans sun was filtering through the curtains. And my friend was preparing this big bowl, and I said, "What is it?" And she said, "It's for you. The flowers make it beautiful, and the honey makes it sweet." And I said, "But what's the water part?" And in the name of connectedness, she said, "Oh, it's the Gulf of Mexico." And I said, "Of course it is." And the other women arrived and they sat in a circle, and Michaela bathed my head with the sacred water. And she sang -- I mean her whole body sang. And the other women sang and they prayed for me and my mother.
And as the warm Gulf washed over my naked head, I realized that it held the best and the worst of us. It was the greed and recklessness that led to the drilling explosion. It was all the lies that got told before and after. It was the honey in the water that made it sweet, it was the oil that made it sick. It was my head that was bald -- and comfortable now without a hat. It was my whole self melting into Michaela's lap. It was the tears that were indistinguishable from the Gulf that were falling down my cheek. It was finally being in my body. It was the sorrow that's taken so long. It was finding my place and the huge responsibility that comes with connection. It was the continuing devastating war in the Congo and the indifference of the world. It was the Congolese women who are now rising up. It was my mother leaving, just at the moment that I was being born. It was the realization that I had come very close to dying -- in the same way that the Earth, our mother, is barely holding on, in the same way that 75 percent of the planet are hardly scraping by, in the same way that there is a recipe for survival.
What I learned is it has to do with attention and resources that everybody deserves. It was advocating friends and a doting sister. It was wise doctors and advanced medicine and surgeons who knew what to do with their hands. It was underpaid and really loving nurses. It was magic healers and aromatic oils. It was people who came with spells and rituals. It was having a vision of the future and something to fight for, because I know this struggle isn't my own. It was a million prayers. It was a thousand hallelujahs and a million oms. It was a lot of anger, insane humor, a lot of attention, outrage. It was energy, love and joy. It was all these things. It was all these things. It was all these things in the water, in the world, in my body.
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Poet, writer, activist Eve Ensler lived in her head. In this powerful talk from TEDWomen, she talks about her lifelong disconnection from her body -- and how two shocking events helped her to connect with the reality, the physicality of being human.
Eve Ensler created the ground-breaking "Vagina Monologues," whose success propelled her to found V-Day -- a movement to end violence against women and girls everywhere. Full bio »