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A model for coping with catastrophic illness

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You would think that the author of the hit play The Vagina Monologues would be skilled at listening to her body. Ironically In the Body of the World, Eve Ensler's latest book, is about the causes and consequences of the author's inability to heed her body's early warning signs.

In this startling memoir the New York playwright, performer and feminist meticulously and graphically charts her journey through uterine cancer. She pulls no punches, but delivers hard knocks in plain language.

And she does it at a breakneck pace. Within the first six pages we learn about her alienation from her own body because of a remote mother and an abusive father, her attempts -- through substances and sex -- to connect with her body.

She describes her fascination with women's bodies that spawned her most celebrated work, The Vagina Monologues. This fascination led her to a group of women in the Congo who had been raped by the agents of armed conflict in a war over control of precious minerals buried deep in the earth.

She then deftly weaves a connection between these rapes and the plundering of the land's resources, between her own disconnection from her body and her disconnection from the earth.

All of this occurs before page seven, where she introduces "Cancer."

Cancer becomes her agent of change, it forces her to finally connect with her own body.

Within this illness she sees not only her own condition, but the cancer of a world that equates uncontrolled growth with prosperity, that values progress at any price.

The book takes us from diagnosis to cure and finally to a call to arms. Ensler's activism is never far below the surface -- even in the throes of her disease, she makes daily contact with Mama C, her colleague in the Congo, to check up on the progress of their work together.

In a bitter twist, the effects of Ensler's uterine cancer are much the same as the effects of brutal rapes of the Congolese women she had been working with. Her cancer gives her the chance to understand viscerally what these women are coping with physically (if not emotionally).

In the Body of the World is brimming with grace. Never lapsing into blame or self-pity, Ensler instead provides a model for coping with catastrophic illness. Painfully aware of her privilege owing to her work in the Congo, Ensler is grateful to the point of apologetic for the care she receives.

The book, while presenting difficult material, is remarkably easy to read. Ensler has broken down the text into short chapters, creating easily manageable bits out of what would otherwise be a daunting enterprise.

Her writing has the easy, familiar feel of a journal, yet it's highly sophisticated in its imagery and metaphors. She presents honest and astute observation in clear and unadorned language.

She is courageous in her candour, not only in describing the processes of her own body, but in welcoming the reader into her most intimate relationships.

With nothing augmented and nothing denied, Ensler has once again created a work of genuine resonance that speaks to us all.


Debbie Patterson is a Winnipeg playwright and performer.

In the Body of the World

By Eve Ensler

Random House Canada, 217 pages, $23

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J7

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