V (formerly Eve Esner), author of the Vagina Monologues, discusses bodily autonomy, dismantling the patriarchy, and the pursuit of a better world.
Reckoning is an act of doing. It’s what V (formerly Eve Ensler), the author, activist, and playwright started doing during the quiet times of Covid. The result is her new best-selling memoir. Reckoning is a collection of poetry, prose, polemic, and play excerpts dating back to the 1980s. She calls “reckoning” the antidote to fascism, and it’s ultimately not something we can each of us do alone. V is a Tony and Obie Award–winning phenomenon. Her play, The Vagina Monologues, has been performed in more than 140 countries and sparked a movement to stop violence, V-Day, which turns 25 this year.
Laura Flanders: We’re talking with so much to reckon with at this moment. Catastrophic earthquake hitting Syria after 12 years of war and brutal sanctions in Turkey. Ongoing assaults on women in Iran, Afghanistan. Ongoing war in Congo and of course the war in Europe. What or who is on your mind?
V (Formerly Eve Ensler): You just began to cover the basis, and didn’t even mention the pushback against educating people in this country about our African American history and the notions that people need to be familiar with in order to reckon with the story of this country, so we don’t keep repeating the misery, and white supremacy, and ongoing suffering of African Americans. There’s so many things we need to be reckoning with and so many directions where the lack of reckoning is ensuring the repetition of those terrible things that have occurred in the past.
LF: Our histories, yours and mine, include a lot of work against militarism and for nuclear disarmament, and some of it together. Today, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is fueling military budgets around the world. How do we reckon with our efforts, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what we need to do now?
V: I think we knew then exactly what we know now. That the escalation of war and war apparatchik and building and creating more weapons of war will be the destruction of the human race. It’s like we’ve destroyed the earth in the pursuit of these bombs. We’ve destroyed people’s ability to be fed, to be nurtured, to be housed, to have education, to have health care. And all we are doing now is building our armaments and building our ability to hurt and destroy.
LF: In this book you talk about your own abortion. You describe it not as the tragic event that abortions are often described as but rather as a liberatory act. In fact, you say it was the first truly autonomous decision you made about your own body. Can you talk about your decision to write about that and include it in this book?
V: I’m really glad you’re asking me about that. It’s funny it took me so long to write that story. Having grown up in a very violent family where my body was never mine, it was invaded early on by my father sexually and then beaten and thrown around. I left my body and never felt like I had any rights to say no, because that choice had been robbed so early on. When I got pregnant, I realized I didn’t want a baby. I couldn’t possibly support a baby. I was a drug addict, I was an alcoholic, I was lost. I was living in a halfway house. There was no way I could bring up a child and that child would’ve been destroyed. And I realized that I could make a decision not to have that child. And that was literally the first time in my life that I made a choice about my own body and said, “I do not want this.” And that choice changed my life. It taught me that I had a right, I had bodily autonomy. A woman has a right to her own body. To determine what happens to her body. Whatever the case is, it’s a human right, it’s a basic right. Eighty-five percent of the people in this country support abortion rights. It is a fringe minority who has gotten hold of the microphone and gotten hold of the power and the courts. But it is not all of us, and it is not the majority of us. And all of that majority needs to understand how much power we have in turning this back around.
LF: So how do we reckon? How do we reckon with the fact that this stealing of bodily autonomy from women continues in the 21st century? How do we respond?
V: I have to go back to patriarchy. We are living in a patriarchal paradigm, but it wasn’t always here. It wasn’t before and there can be a time when it isn’t after. It requires imagination for all of us to say, “Is this the paradigm, this racist, patriarchal paradigm, the paradigm we choose to live in for eternity? Or do we want to live in a different paradigm and are we going to struggle to dismantle it?” Because if we don’t dismantle it we will get abortion rights and we will lose abortion rights. We will stop violence against women, and there’ll be endless violence against women. Because we’re still living in a framework that perpetuates those things.
LF: Your book takes the journey from naming all the problems to imagining alternatives. We need to imagine what it would look like to actually invest as much globally in peace as we do in war. We need to imagine a new relationship to the earth and actually permit ourselves to feel it. Now you’re talking about, we need to imagine a new relationship amongst people, across genders, and in celebration of our individuality but also our collectivity.
V: For V-Day we asked everybody to imagine a world without violence and to write pieces about it. It was really amazing how hard it was for people. I was in prison working in my writing group, and I put this idea out to the women in my group. One of the women just broke down crying and she said, “I can’t do it. I can’t even imagine it. I don’t want to imagine it. It’s too painful to imagine it. Just to open my heart and be so disappointed by it not happening.” I feel like sometimes we are spending all our energy resisting patriarchy rather than opening our hearts. Opening our imaginations, opening our spirits, opening our genius artistic senses to the possibility of another way of living. Even if it doesn’t happen, even if we might suffer disappointment, to take the risk of saying, “What if we live like this? What if we could live in a world where we weren’t hierarchical, where we understood that every single person on this planet possessed their own specific genius that we absolutely need?” These are the things we need to imagine. These are the things we really need to assert in ourselves so that we can create pathways for those things to happen. Because what we cannot see cannot unfold. It’s impossible. And I sometimes think we should be really developing this other world over here that’s so juicy, and so sexy, and so alive that everyone’s like, well I don’t want this, I want that. I’m going over there. Because if I look at City of Joy, for example, our amazing sanctuary of healing, and our revolutionary center in the Congo, when you walk into that place the energy is so high. The vibration is so high, you know you are in a holy, magical, beautiful world that you never want to leave. Believing that women can turn their pain to power, can turn their lives in a new direction, we can do that everywhere. We can create City of Joys everywhere we go, if we make a decision to do that. Not spend all our time either collapsed and depressed, and giving up or reacting with the same energy to the perpetrators, but instead building this other world, building this other reality.
LF: That takes me back to your meditation on the biblical Eve and your retelling of that story in which Eve is a fairly brave character standing up for everything you’ve just described. And again, I think of the women in Afghanistan, Iran, and around the world today. Do you have anything to send us off with about the state of the reckoning, the state of the rising in our world?
V: The women in Iran, and the women of Afghanistan, women in Congo, women in Palestine, lead me, teach me, inspire me every day to be braver, to be bolder, to not get out of the way and stand for what I believe. I never liked the name Eve. But you know, I remember when I first saw this image of Adam and Eve, it was a 13th-century painting and they were wrapped around a mushroom tree. The tree of knowledge was a mushroom tree. And the reason God said not to eat of it was that they would be like him, because they would realize they were divine and had powers like him. What Eve knew deep in her soul, because she had been in another garden before the meme of the patriarchal garden, is that there was someplace to get back to. I think what she knew and what we all know as women, trans people, nonbinary people, because we’re out on the outside, we know in our souls that there was another time before this time. And there are ways to get back there. One way to get back is to be part of groups where you are actively involved in changing the story. Support and love people every day, and go beyond your comfort zone being more generous than you ever thought you could. The other way is to ingest plant medicines and psychedelics so that you open those portals so you begin to remember those states of mind and consciousness. At the end of that piece, I feel like that so-called apple was the greatest offering we had. So we all have to eat the apple. In the end it’s all about love. It’s all about how we connect with each other in a way that is caring, and generous, and restorative, and healing, and be there for each other in this world.