From “The Vagina Monologues” to “Reckoning”
The Evolution of a Feminist Writer
It’s been nearly three decades since the off-Broadway, one-woman-play The Vagina Monologues became a celebrity-filled international phenomenon. “No recent hour of theatre has had a greater impact worldwide,” the New York Times wrote about the sensational play, which was ultimately performed in 48 languages and in more than 140 countries.
In the meantime, its playwright and original performer, V – formerly known as Eve Ensler – has become an unstoppable feminist champion and activist for V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. V has also penned countless poems and monologues, biting political essays (in The Guardian, she famously called Donald Trump the “Predator-in-Chief”) and soul-spilling memoirs. Her latest, Reckoning, is a little bit of all of the above, collecting everything from vintage diary entries to published essays to new works. From her home upstate New York, V tells Zoomer about her evolving feminist ideologies, why she chose the new moniker and why Eve was right to eat that apple in the Garden of Eden.
Rosemary Counter: Lovely to meet you! Where are you in the world?
V: I’m at my home in upstate New York, in the woods, surrounded by snow.
RC: Sounds like a good place to spend a pandemic writing. I plugged the word “reckoning” into Google just for fun and got the definitions “an opinion or judgment” and “a summing up or appraisal.” Why did you call your book Reckoning and what does it mean to you?
V: This book started during COVID-19, where those us fortunate enough not to be on front lines were, of course, staying home. It was really hard for me to be locked in with my thoughts, my memories, my past – all the things that I had no time for before because I was always so busy and on the move. I think this was true for the whole world, actually, because suddenly we were really looking at issues like the death of George Floyd and the genocide of Indigenous people and mass incarceration and climate change with fires burning. As a country, there were so many levels of reckoning happening. For me, as a writer, it was the time to look back at my own life and work.
RC: How did this book come together?
V: My wonderful sister and co-troublemaker Paula decided we were going to sit down and go through everything I’ve ever written together. She helped pick out themes that I didn’t know were there – walls, for example. She has an amazing eye for what’s good and what’s … not.
RC: I highlighted this: “I’d be lying if I did not confess how often I have reread something I have written and felt the desire to mutilate every ounce of my own flesh.” I have a dozen teenage diaries I can’t bear to even open, so how do you push through that awful feeling?
V: I’d say first of all you’ve got to love that girl, and also forgive her. Just because you wrote it once doesn’t make it sacrament. You have to know that there was a lot you didn’t know then. And I didn’t go to a prestigious writing school, I didn’t have a mentor, I was just making it up. So, a lot of it is sh-t, but there are a few little gems in there too. There’s a certain mercy in ignorance, a brashness or courage. I think that the more you write, the more you realize how hard it is to write, and how much you just didn’t know before.
RC: Your author’s note is about women and inclusivity. Since The Vagina Monologues, the landscape has certainly changed in terms of how we think about identity and language. If you could go back, would you do anything differently?
V: It was later that I came to interview and include trans women, although it was long before other people – except for trans people, obviously – were having that conversation. I never said in The Vagina Monologues that to be a woman you had to have a vagina, though it was an examination of people who did have vaginas. I still believe this is a worthy examination, and until we get to a point that women are safe and free, we need to be talking about women’s bodies and their stories. There’s kind of a renaissance of productions of the play happening now, because the pushback to women’s rights is so great. The thing about patriarchy is that it’s retractable and stubborn, and until we dismantle it as a paradigm, it’s one one-off battle followed by another.
RC: Lots of people know your work as Eve Ensler, but you’ve actually since changed your name to V. Why?
V: It grew out another one of my books, [2019’s] The Apology. After years and years, when my father was alive, of waiting for an apology for physically and sexually abusing me – actually many more years, even after he died, of fantasies that I’d one day somehow receive a letter in the mail from another realm – it occurred to me that I’d never get an apology. Ever. In fact, I haven’t heard or read one man called out by #MeToo who had owned their actions and made a sincere apology for sexual violence. So, I made this decision that I would write the apology myself, I would say the things I needed to hear, and I would heal. It was a gruelling and painful process, but by the end, I freed him and me, too. By that point, I didn’t want his name and I didn’t want to be Eve anymore either, which is such a loaded, patriarchal name.
RC: Possibly the most loaded name there is, really.
V: She’s the first woman, the bringer of pain and sin. It’s a burden to be six years old and be called Eve. But then I started thinking more about Eve, and about the apple, and the one tree that you’re not allowed to eat. I believe Eve had the knowledge, and very generously offered to share it with Adam, who said, “No thanks, I’m with that guy. I’m already into this patriarchy.” Women have this life-affirming knowledge outside of patriarchy, but it would rather us not. That’s why Eve was right to eat the apple. I always tell women, “Eat the f–king apple.” Eat it and let it connect you to your deeper self. If they tell you not to do it, that’s the thing you know you should be doing.