Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues” and ardent activist for girls’ and women’s rights around the world, is not immune to the irony of her own diagnosis of uterine cancer at age 56. At one point, the woman who brought the V-word back into vogue wonders if one of her multiple oncologists might be missing this fine point; especially when he brings up the possibility of radiating her vagina.
“Radiate my vagina,” she writes. “I feel like a character in a futuristic sequel to ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ Radiate my vagina. … Do you know who I am? Do you have any irony?”
If there is one woman who can write with passion and without reservations about the brutal emotional and physical pain of living through uterine cancer — agonizing surgeries, organ removal, chemotherapy and other invasive procedures — it is Ensler.
By her own admission, her style of writing this memoir is nontraditional. “This book is like a CAT scan. … Being cut open, catheterized, chemofied, drugged, pricked, punctured, probed, and ported made a traditional narrative impossible.” Some chapters are merely lists of questions or ideas; others focus on her experience working with women in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo; and a large portion of the book focuses on her warped relationship with her parents, the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered as a child, and the process of healing her relationship with her younger sister.
In 2010, Ensler was deeply involved with her latest project in the Congo, the City of Joy, when her doctor discovered a large tumor in her uterus. Ensler returned to the United States for treatment of what she called “a flesh monument” inside of her that was made up of all of the “stories of women” she’s experienced. “My body has been sculpting this tumor for years, molding the pieces of pain, the clay residue of memories. It is a huge work and has taken everything.”
The reader, like Ensler, is not spared a moment’s reprieve, whether it is from the humiliation of the constant rejection by her parents or from the fear that her ileostomy bag, filled with her excrement, might spontaneously explode as she stops on the street to speak with a friend. Nevertheless, Ensler is also quick to emphasize that in the Congo, and in many other countries, she would have probably died before she was treated due to the lack of health care options available to most women.
As Ensler is repeatedly told, if anyone can make it through this trauma it is her. And she does … with the scars to prove it.
Meganne Fabrega is a writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.