Eve Ensler tells the story of how her father physically, sexually, and emotionally abused her and how these experiences shaped her world view in Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security Obsessed World. The central premise of her book is that striving for security does not, in fact, protect us. We must rescue ourselves. Peace will come from securing basic human rights and from making our end goals compassion and honoring all people.
Ms. Ensler’s Vagina Monologues have given millions of women at the grassroots level the courage and community to speak out against violence and abuse. She explains why the theater venue allows this to happen:
Theater demands that we truly be where we are. By being there together, we are able to confront the seemingly impossible, we are able to feel that which we fear might destroy us ~ and we are educated and transformed.
Theater. . .encourages us, as a community of strangers, to go someplace together and face the issues and realities we simply cannot face alone. Alone, we are powerless, translating our suffering and struggle into our own private narcissistic injuries. When we become a group, these issues become social or political concerns, responsibilities, a reason for being here together. (Page 75)
After the first performances of The Vagina Monologues, Ms. Ensler heard many painful stories of date rape, incest, and humiliation from the women in the audience. She admits she didn’t want to see the truth because it was too close to her own truth:
The door that blew open was the door to the dark story, the buried story, the untold story of violence, of betrayal. I knew there was violence toward women, but I had no idea there was a worldwide epidemic. . .one out of every three women will be beaten or raped. . .how violence against women determined women’s ability to think and remember and hold facts and organize information. I had no idea how it made them afraid to be touched. . .made their body someone else’s damaged property ~ dirty, unsafe. . .tainted pleasure and perverted mystery. . .made women shy and mute. . .strangers to people they loved. . .permanently homeless, emotional refugees. . .led to fatal diseases like AIDS. . .heart disease and cancer. . .afraid and bitter and hateful. . .jealous and overly protective and angry. . .brought women to prisons and homeless shelters. . .how lonely it made women, how full of shame and self-hatred. . .spurred alcoholism and drug addiction and overeating and starving and compulsive sex. I had no idea. (pages 79-80)
V-Day’s motto is until the violence stops. Her V-Day Network gives us all a safe place to meet and raised more than $50 million to open safe houses, change laws, and save lives. She affectionately calls her followers Vagina Warriors. The way she describes these fearless women causes me to want to be one:
. . .these warriors are fostering a new paradigm. . .fierce, obsessed, and can’t be stopped. . .love to dance. . .citizens of the world. . .wicked sense of humor. . .Vagina Warriors are done being victims. They know no one is coming to rescue them. They would not want to be rescued. They have experienced their rage, depression, desire for revenge, and they have transformed them through grieving and service. They have confronted the depth of their darkness. . .They give what they need the most, and by giving this they heal and activate the wounded part inside. (pages 84-5)
Ms. Ensler’s own wounds lead to issues with drugs and alcohol as well as setting the standard for romantic relationships very low allowing anyone into her life who didn’t torment or hit her. Bouts of depression have reduced her to tears for long periods of time. Writing has been her salvation.
While Ms. Ensler’s white picket world may have appeared idyllic from the street, she compared life inside her home to an “atom bomb that annihilated my self, my worth, my confidence, and my identity.” Her father ruled: “It was my father’s money and he created reality. . .our house. . .was his empire. I was his subject. Or his tortured prisoner.” He was an alcoholic prone to anger and rages with brutal indifference and without remorse:
The fact that he had beaten me or choked me or almost murdered me the night before was so much less disturbing to me than the idea of undoing my father. . .crushing my father’s idea of himself. . .inevitably I sacrificed my wholeness. . .for his security. . .I knew, even at that young age, how fragile his identity was. . .I was stronger than my father. . .My father could crumble and break. . .
I had to protect myself from his weakness. . .I needed him to be strong. So I invented him. I made him up. . .Rather than removing them or firing them or calling them out, we make excuses for them. . .I did not tell myself my father was weak. I told myself he was sensitive. . .he was indifferent to me. . .he was the person making me unsafe. . .It was my fault. . .my father. . .had an agenda. . .knew what he was doing. . .numb to me and only out for himself. . .selfish and narcissistic. . .I made my father a lonely, sorrowful man rather than a violent perpetrator. (pages 132-5)
During her painful childhood years, she invented Mr. Alligator to serve as her guardian angel. He could “easily devour the scariest corporate daddy.” Only she had access to Mr. Alligator’s private phone number: “My father and my family would know that Mr. Alligator was on the phone, know there was someone out there listening, watching, witnessing.” Waiting for him to come became her form of defiance. But, Mr. Alligator didn’t come.
Like many children who experience abuse, she didn’t dare to dream of having children for fear she would repeat family dynamics. She became a nomadic citizen of the world. If someone didn’t torment her, she considered herself lucky in love. To prevent the things that most terrify her from controlling her, she confronts them head-on with a “guerrilla-girl” attitude toward her activist work. In so doing, she has learned:
Until you have gone back and retraced and experienced and purged and transformed that initial violation, it is impossible not to keep being attracted to what you are trying to escape. . .you have several options. . .You can shut down completely. . .pretend it didn’t happen. . .become violent yourself, or you can create situations that mirror your initial situation in an attempt to understand and master it. . .My life has been a journey. . .to make sense of violence and terror and make peace with insecurity. (page xviii)
Throughout the book, Ms. Ensler describes incidents where she was healed by helping others. In 1993, for example, a Newsday cover story prompted her to travel to Bosnia to “save” 22,000 women who had been raped. What she saw broke her heart and transformed her approach: “I began to see these encounters as sacred social contracts.” While visiting a V-Day Safe House that sheltered young girls from genital mutilation, the joy of the girls greeting her was so infectious that she found herself singing, dancing, crying, and laughing. Mr. Alligator had finally come, and Ms. Ensler had a Wizard of Oz moment: “We get rescued by giving what we need the most. What we are waiting for has always lived inside us.” In 2004, witnessing the devastation of the tsunami in Sri Lanka helped her to surrender to the grief associated with the end of a long-term romantic relationship.
In 2008, V-Day celebrated its 10th anniversary in New Orleans with survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Because of Ms. Ensler’s work, the United Nations has committed to ending global violence against women.
I have chosen to tell Ms. Ensler’s story largely in her own words because they are so poetic, passionate, and powerful. When she was in Seattle on a book tour, I had the pleasure of meeting her. She is petite, beautiful, and absolutely enchanting. Her generosity and accessibility are humbling. I hope her candid story has inspired you as much as it has motivated me to leverage my own talents to try to make a difference. Ms. Ensler eloquently explains her commitment and why we must work together to break down the wall of silence and become an army of activists to lobby for and demand change:
In addition to Insecure at Last, Ms. Ensler has written The Vagina Monologues, The Good Body, and Necessary Targets: A Story of Women and War. V-Day, 2009 is dedicated to rape victims in the Congo.
Click here to watch the video of NY1’s Budd Mishkin’s “One on 1” interview of Ms. Ensler.