Jun 06

Eve Ensler On True Embodiment

Recently I was able to see Eve Ensler‘s wonderful one-woman play In the Body of the World.

Courtesy of BroadwayWorld.com, some important background:

Ensler was diagnosed with stage III/IV uterine cancer in 2007, just as she began her work with rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rather than temporarily retreat from the horrors she was fighting there in order to concentrate on her own healing, she spoke with her contacts daily. Together they worked to help each other. They transformed their pain into power and chose to live and not merely survive…

One of Eve Ensler’s first points in the play is about somatization. How she defined it in her 2013 book of the same title:

Somatize: how the body defends itself against too much stress, manifesting psychological distress as physical symptoms in the stomach or nerves or uterus or vagina…It turns out that somatization is related to hysteria, which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus…Uterus = hysteria. Hysteria –a word to make women feel insane for knowing what they know…

Ensler flinches at the misguided notion that hysteria is not an appropriate response to such phenomena as the high incidence of violence against women across the world.

Or to her own history of trauma. For 10 years Eve Ensler saw therapists in New York who didn’t seem to adequately validate the effects of childhood sexual abuse by her father. When one finally did, it made all the difference.

And when Ensler was afraid to undergo the intrusion of chemotherapy against her body, this same female therapist offered a different way of looking at it. The following are her words (taken from the book):

‘The chemo is not for you, It is for the cancer, for all the past crimes, it’s for your father, it’s for the rapists, it’s for the perpetrators.  You’re going to poison them now and they are never coming back. Chemo will purge the badness that was projected onto you but was never yours. I have total faith in your resilience and the magical capacities of your body and soul for healing…Welcome the chemo as empathetic warrior.’

Whether or not this is something that would work for you or me, it’s exactly what Eve Ensler needed to hear in order to proceed. (Note: In the theater piece Ensler implies that this therapist had become her “friend,” but without further info I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether any boundaries were broken.)

Part of Ensler’s process post-diagnosis was ruminating over the many possible reasons she could have gotten cancer. Among them: having an abortion, marital failures, bad reviews—even good reviews. And lots and lots of the diet drink Tab, she added, drawing hearty laughs of recognition (as many of the play’s other lines did as well, by the way).

But, as Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian, reports, a different conclusion is reached: “Ensler believes she got cancer because her body became literally sick of the compulsion to keep proving herself. ‘I had to prove I wasn’t stupid, I had to prove that I was somebody, I had to prove that I could do it all on my own. And I think I had gone as far as I could go. I thought, what is the point of this – am I going to do this for ever? Am I going to prove myself to death?'”

When the play was going into its initial production in Cambridge, MA, Lisa Mullins, All Things Considered (WBUR), spoke with the playwright, now six years cancer-free and equally proud that City of Joy in the Congo also thrives. Eve Ensler’s words of appreciation follow:

…I am grateful that cancer stripped away what had to be stripped away in me. So I am living now with so much more peace, with so much more happiness, with so much more connectedness to people, with so much more openness. And that is as good as it gets here. If, in fact, we are here to learn how to love, which I think is what we’re here to do, to learn how to truly, truly, deeply love and really give ourselves and serve and be generous and be connected, cancer was the best teacher I ever had.

Aug 14

“Call Me Lucky”: A Stand-Up Comedian For the Vulnerable

Suffering is hard, but trying to be a good person when you know what the world is capable of doing to the weakest within it is one of the few things that might be harder, especially when you were one of those people at one time. This is a pretty universal truth, and it’s one to which comedian Barry Crimmins can provide real, hard-lived testimony. Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, Consequence of Sound, about Call Me Lucky

Stand-up comedian Barry Crimmins was mentor to many others back in the day, including Bobcat Goldthwait in the 1980’s. Like Crimmins, Goldthwait has since turned away from the kind of comedy he once performed and toward roles that feel truer to himself. He’s now, in fact, made a documentary about Crimmins, Call Me Lucky.

Dennis Harvey, Variety, has called it “a terrifically engaging surprise.” An intro:

‘Call Me Lucky’ immediately establishes its subject as a simultaneously nurturing, courageous, intimidating and angry figure who walked away from a degree of national success more than two decades ago. The reasons for that prove very complex…

Vintage performance clips reveal the man himself to have been hilarious but challenging by contemporary standards: Where sensations of the day like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay celebrated the frequently misogynist, homophobic rude ’n’ crude, Crimmins’ higher-minded ‘political and social satire’ was fueled by an acute awareness of injustice.

Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter: “Crimmins’ comedy was fueled by anger: His two most hated institutions were the U.S. government, particularly the Reagan and Nixon administrations, and the Catholic Church, which he dismissed as being based on ‘fear and real estate’.”

Why the sensitivity to injustice?

Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com: “Goldthwait doesn’t telegraph the terrifying turn ‘Call Me Lucky’ eventually takes. If you are unfamiliar with Crimmins’ activism, as I was, this turn is one hell of a blindside. It’s as unexpected as the actual revelation was to Crimmins’ audience on the night he bared his soul and his secrets in 1992.”

That surprising disclosure during the ’92 monologue: “he’d once been a victim of horrific, ongoing abuse” (Variety).

And the follow-up? Enraged upon learning about internet-related child abuse, he started to channel his activist streak into protecting vulnerable kids.

More from Henderson:

The film’s final moments achieve a sort of grace. Before the last few minutes of Crimmins’ latest stage performance, ‘Call Me Lucky’ revisits the basement where the sexual assaults took place. The way this scene is shot, and Crimmins’ reaction to returning there, are both surprisingly understated and extremely inspiring. Goldthwait focuses on the room, leaving his subject off-screen for his most private moments. ‘I don’t see myself as a victim,’ Crimmins says after the visit. ‘I’m not a victim. Well not anymore. I’m a witness.’

‘It’s not like it killed me,’ he continues. ‘It almost killed me, but I’m still here. So you can call me lucky.’

In an interview with Terry Gross, NPR, Crimmins admits feeling suicidal before coming to terms with his childhood trauma (which he reportedly did with the help of therapy), and he refers to having PTSD.

The trailer below offers additional glimpses into the man:

Drew McWeeny, Hitfix: “…(W)hat struck me most about ‘Call Me Lucky’ is how deeply, powerfully felt it is. It’s the kind of film you can’t just shake off when you walk out of the theater. There are images and ideas here that I won’t forget, and I found myself laughing, crying, and just plain amazed as the story unfolded.”

Jan 16

“Pee-Shy”: A Memoir by Dr. Frank Spinelli, Victim of Childhood Sex Abuse

Pee-Shy. We’ve heard the term—though not necessarily its clinical equivalent, paruresis.

The International Paruresis Association (IPA) provides the following info:

YOU ARE NOT ALONE. In fact, recent studies show that about seven percent (7%) of the public, or 21 million people, may suffer from this social anxiety disorder. Often referred to as Pee-Shy, Shy-Bladder, Bashful Bladder, etc., avoidant paruresis is nothing to be ashamed of, and you have made an important step simply by coming to this website.

Indeed, go to the site and you’ll find various helpful resources.

Physician Frank Spinelli traces his own condition to his troubled and traumatic childhood. At the age of 11 Spinelli was molested by a Boy Scout leader, a guy who was also a respected cop in the community.

Below is a brief intro to his memoir, Pee-Shy, a book that began for him as a type of journalling therapy:

Publishers Weekly capsulizes the book in its review:

…(E)arly chapters document the daily life of a driven, lonely, extremely neurotic gay doctor in upscale Chelsea (Spinelli, an internist, is also the author of The Advocate Guide to Gay Men’s Health and Wellness). Yet Spinelli remains very much the child of working-class Italian parents, and as he begins his quest, and falls in love with a fellow doctor, his prose gains depth and grows less mannered. Spinelli deftly portrays his years as a chubby, awkward adolescent and the complexity of his reaction to the molestation. Spinelli’s refreshing honesty as a protagonist make this memoir an important testament to a reality that is too often concealed by shame or fear.

A synopsis and review by Angel Curtis (OutSmart) reveals further important details:

Once he told the truth about the abuse, every person in his life betrayed him—both the adults he trusted and the peers he depended on. This left him often depressed, sometimes distanced, and painfully pee-shy. After he had become a doctor living in Manhattan, Spinelli was told his abuser had died. Seeking closure, he went online to find the obituary. What he found was not only that his abuser was still alive, but that he had written a book detailing his adoption of 15 boys. Pee-Shy details Spinelli’s work to make sure his abuser was charged, convicted, and sent to prison. This is a beautiful story, well told, that I hope will give abuse victims some comfort that, even after many years, justice can still happen.

Adds Adrian Brooks, Lambda Literary, about this important memoir: “It’s part therapy, part rescue mission, for, as he confronts his past, old guilts are exposed and his relationship with his partner undergoes strain as he faces his demons and grapples with his need to heal.”

Jun 05

“She Left Me the Gun”: Memoir By Emma Brockes

What’s it like to be the only child of a mother who’s endured terrible trauma in her childhood and tried to leave it all behind? British writer Emma Brockes has had such an experience, and she’s written about it in She Left Me the Gun. The publisher describes the “she” in question:

A mystery to her friends and family, Paula was clearly a strong, self-invented woman; glamorous, no-nonsense, and frequently out of place in their quaint English village. In awe of Paula’s larger-than-life personality, Brockes never asked why her mother emigrated to England or why she never returned to South Africa; never questioned the source of her mother’s strange fears or tremendous strengths.

Paula dies of cancer when Brockes is only 27. When Brockes decides to then dig into her mom’s past, she finds out that Paula’s father “was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years,” states the publisher. A court case against him by Paula et al. went nowhere. “…(T)his crushing defeat left Paula with a choice: take her own life, or promise herself never to be intimidated or unhappy again. Ultimately she chooses life and happiness by booking one-way passage to London—but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula’s first triumph in her new life.”

As Brockes later recounts to an Amazon interviewer, it was amazing to learn that her mom, “the world’s worst keeper of secrets,” had been able to hide this from her. In the same interview the author explains some of the effects on her own development:

She managed to put a positive spin on problematic impulses; so, when I was a kid, she was convinced I was going to get kidnapped and murdered, but instead of scaring the bejesus out of me, she managed to turn it into a comedy routine that assuaged her fears (a little) and didn’t traumatize me. She was so bonkers about my exposure to risk, it has probably made me blasé; it’s a great luxury, to have someone else do all your worrying for you.

After my mother’s death, when I found out exactly what she’d been withholding, it struck me that she had made a moral, practical and aesthetic choice to be a certain way in relation to her past and I have definitely been influenced by the example she set. It’s mainly a good thing; I don’t see the point in going on about everything all of the time; although I probably tolerate discomfort longer than I should. (That might just be a British thing.)

Dwight Garner, reviewing She Left Me the Gun for The New York Times, quibbles a bit about the title—but is pleased otherwise with the read:

Paula did bring a gun with her to England, one that Ms. Brockes describes this way: ‘It was smaller than I’d imagined, silver with a pearl handle, like something a highwayman might proffer through a frilly sleeve during a slightly fey holdup.’ But her mother didn’t leave it to Ms. Brockes. She turned it in to authorities during a gun amnesty program.

This is just about the only thing about ‘She Left Me the Gun’ that’s unsatisfying, however. This is a grim story, but it’s also a love story.

Viv Groskop, Telegraph: “As a narrator of an uncomfortable tale, Brockes treads with a reassuring lightness. This is the best possible tribute to her mother. There’s no self-pity and no mawkishness, just an inspiring sense of compassion and humanity. As soon as I finished reading it, I turned back to the first page and started again.”

May 01

“In the Body of the World”: Eve Ensler Reconnects With Herself

“When you rape, beat, maim, mutilate, burn, bury, and terrorize women, you destroy the essential life energy on the planet.” Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, and author of new memoir In the Body of the World

Eve Ensler knew a lot about women’s bodies and their connection to the world when…

  • …she wrote The Vagina Monologues.
  • …she wrote The Good Bodyas well as other plays and books.
  • …she advocated for so many women and girls all over the world who’ve suffered various forms of physical and sexual victimization.

But Ensler remained disconnected from her own body. Why? In large part because of being sexually abused by her father in childhood.

A couple years ago, Ensler offered in her TED Talk this tidbit about that past self: “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 have a body.'”

Now Ensler, in her new memoir In the Body of the Worldfills us in on a recent and significant personal change. Getting diagnosed with uterine cancer a few years ago has forced her into an awareness of her body she’d never had before.

Furthermore, her publisher states, “As she connects her own illness to the devastation of the earth, her life force to the resilience of humanity, she is finally, fully—and gratefully—joined to the body of the world.”

Publishers Weekly, in its In the Body of the World review, provides more details related to this transition:

At the age of 57, she was blindsided when she discovered that her own health emergency mimicked the ones that women were enduring in the developing countries she had visited: ‘the cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed… the cancer of buried trauma.’ Her narrative, she writes, is like a CAT scan, ‘a roving examination—capturing images,’ recording in minute, raw detail the ordeals she underwent over seven months. These include her crazed, ‘hysterical’ response to the diagnosis and her treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as well as extensive surgery, chemo, radiation, and caring by a ‘posse’ of companions in misery, like her estranged sister, Lu, and far-flung friends such as Mama C, the head of the City of Joy women’s center in the Congo. Her anatomy of the invasion of women’s bodies is often difficult to read; the lesson she learns is that in order to heal, she has to submit her body to a renewed source of love and joy.

Ensler explains to interviewer Marianne SchnallThe Huffington Post, that her own story is a variation on a theme common to many who “leave home” for various reasons and who try any number of ways to reconcile this:

I think what the book is really about is how we can be forced to leave our bodies at a young age, how exiled we are from our bodies, due to whatever the circumstances are. In my case, it was enormous abuse and violation. But I think many ‘leave home.’ For me, so much of my life has been this attempt to find my way back into my body. I tried various forms, from promiscuity, to eating disorders, to performance art. And I think it wasn’t until I got cancer, where I was suddenly being pricked and ported and chemoed and operated on, that I suddenly just became body. I was just a body. And it was in that, in that finally landing in myself that I really discovered the world in my body. That world where we are connected.

Below the author puts a face to what her memoir is all about:

From an interview by clinical social worker Jean Fain, The Huffington Post: “Whatever happens, if I wake up tomorrow and the cancer’s back, I’m grateful because I will die in my body. That means I will die connected to the earth and other people.”