“In the Body of the World: A Memoir”
by Eve Ensler
Metropolitan, 232 pp., $25 (hardcover)
Eve Ensler’s new memoir “In the Body of the World” encapsulates the very physical nature of grieving as experienced through the journey of the author’s transcendent deliverance through cancer. The book convincingly proposes a parallel between the ills that visit our bodies and those that disrupt our planet. The assumption is that there is much suffering, and we must take this pain into ourselves and transform in the process—not just ourselves, but the world around us. That, in the worst of suffering, we can alchemize fear into joy.
The writing is revelatory past mere bareness, deeper than skin, and earns the title of the book beyond the reference to the disease the author faces. This flows harmoniously with the narrative approach, which, as Ensler indicates in the opening pages, is comprised as a series of “scans.” The scans—brief, all-encompassing, spelunking glances—are a perfect medium for the probing, multi-faceted, and acutely personal discourse presented.
One such scan, “Farting for Cindy,” is a paean to the unsung glorious, while another, regarding the careless poisoning of the waters that one swam in as a child, is transportive in its universal accessibility. The “Am I Hysterical?” scan thematically references author Phyllis Chessler’s groundbreaking “Women and Madness”—which analyzed the labels assigned, and the “treatment” given, to women who have difficulty accepting terrible or criminal circumstances—while also tacitly posing the query of “why wouldn’t a person feel concern about what is done to their environment and fellow humans?”
A notable beauty of the book lies not just in its insight and variety, but also in its indefatigable ability to find the humor and humanity in the most soul-annihilating pathos. This mix of vision, truth, humor and compassion reads as an elemental comfort to those women who, having been raised and instructed by society to be unquestioning helpmates, find being so impossible in environments that are dysfunctional to the point of being horrific.
Good companion reading to this work is Carol Shield’s “Unless,” which notes what a woman—and by extension, the entire world—needs to thrive. A similar point is made in the works of military strategist and author Thomas P. M. Barrett, where he avers that world stability and security is contingent upon countries treating their women well, and outlines why.
Stylistically, the book is akin to the writings of Kaye Gibbons, the difference being that Gibbons writes fiction. Ensler’s clear-eyed charm, as she relays unspeakable acts perpetrated upon women and the earth, acts as a saving grace. This demonstrable grace, placed amongst the obscene, provides solace and inspiration. It is as if Ensler dresses the wound as she names it.
In May, Eve Ensler gave a reading at the Brattle Theatre, sponsored by Harvard Books. She spoke first about Boston’s recent wounding, the marathon tragedy. As she affirmed the cost of such dissociative violence, her words were a balm, much in the way that they were in her book.
Ensler has received innumerable awards for her literary and activist works, including a Matrix Award, an Obie Award, a Lion of Judah Award, the OK2BU Humanitarian Award and a Berrilla-Kerr Award, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and honorary doctorates. She should garner even more accolades for this fearless and heartening memoir.
Like the women of the Congo, readers are likely to want to build a City of Joy in the middle of their own cities.