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.

Jan 25

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Dr. Atul Gawande‘s Being Mortal, about the role of medicine when a patient is facing death, was a top nonfiction seller last year. Now USA Today calls Dr. Paul Kalanithi‘s similar-in-category and posthumously published When Breath Becomes Air “(t)he first big breakout book of 2016.”

Kalanithi was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in his 30’s. The following info is from his publisher:

One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student ‘possessed,’ as he wrote, ‘by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life’ into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

From Stanford University’s 2015 obituary for Kalanithi, some important background that led to an editor encouraging him to write When Breath Becomes Air:

Kalanithi’s essays, “How Long Have I Got Left?” for The New York Times and “Before I Go” for Stanford Medicine, reflected his insights on grappling with mortality, his changing perception of time and the meaning he continued to experience despite his illness.

One oft-cited passage about his struggles is from the first of the above essays (2014):

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ I took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ And then, at some point, I was through.

“What makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay?” is one of the main questions Kalanithi wanted to answer in When Breath Becomes Air. Apparently, though, to those who knew him this kind of wondering was a notable part of his style.

Lucy Kalanithi, an internist, recently penned an op-ed, “My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow,” which describes not only her bereavement process but also her ongoing connection to her husband. “The commitment and loyalty, my desire to do right by him, especially as I raise our daughter, will never end.”

Meet Paul below in the book trailer:

Maria Popova, Brainpickings: “What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of ‘us’ when that possibility is suddenly snipped?”