Photo Courtesy of Paula Allen

Release Date

November 24th, 2021

Share

Listen on

With power, humility, and clarity, author, playwright, and activist V (formerly Eve Ensler) reveals how deep empathy creates great art (The Vagina Monologues, The Apology), why she will never stand for injustice, and what she has learned from surviving cancer and sexual abuse.

“One of the great things about getting older is that you suddenly stop caring so much about what people think about you, and that is a great gift of aging, and you suddenly go ‘this is who I am.’”

INSPIRATION

TRANSCRIPT

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Redefined is hosted by me, Zainab Salbi, and brought to you by FindCenter, a search engine for your soul. Part library, part temple, FindCenter presents a world of wisdom, organized. Check it out today at www.findcenter.com, and please subscribe to Redefined for free on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

[introductory piano music]

What’s most important about life? What is the essence of life? Is it what we do? How much we earn? How many social media followers we have? Or is it, do we live our lives in kindness to ourselves and to others? Do we live our lives in love to ourselves and to others? In nearly losing my life, I was confronted with these questions, and it led me to the conversations that make up Redefined, about how we throw our inner maps and the pursuit of meaningful, personal change.

My guest this time is the playwright, author, performer, and activist V, formally known as Eve Ensler. V has inspired so many women, including myself, for decades. She exudes power and bravery in her intellectual provocations, her activism, her plays, and most definitely in her books. Starting with her iconic play The Vagina Monologues to her latest book, The Apology, she’s constantly asking us to rethink our social conditioning as it relates to our bodies, to men, to women, to the planet, to our oppressors, and to our lovers.

She’s always gone about her work with a combination of fierceness and joy. This can be seen throughout all of her efforts from V-Day and One Billion Rising—global campaigns to end violence against women, girls, and the planet—to the City of Joy, a local effort in the Democratic Republic of Congo that provides safe spaces, healthcare, and wellness to support female survivors of violence.

Often, inspirational public figures with powerful voices like V are seen for their strength and resilience. While such strength is real, it is often not devoid of struggles, trauma, fears, and worries. That’s where we go in this conversation at Redefined. We talk about disease and recovery, about ego and collaboration, about hanging on and letting go, and about harnessing the energy it takes to move forward with love and with purpose. Join me for what I assure you is a very inspiring conversation.

[end of piano music]

I wanted to start with a thank you really, and I’m getting emotional just saying it, because oftentimes, we are in the fight and in the trenches and we look down and we don’t take a moment to lift our head from the trenches and just see who’s there. I feel like I haven’t said the “thank you” enough, and on so many levels, not only as a sister in a comrade in the fight for women’s rights and equity and equality, but also honestly, you don’t know that about your impact on me personally, is the first time I met you where we were guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And that was September, 2000.

At that point I was this young Iraqi immigrant. My mom had just died, I’ve already gone through abuse and divorce and displacement and poverty, and I still was like a deer caught in a . . . what do you call, bright light. I’m on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which I also didn’t know Oprah, and the magic of that at that moment, I was just this young immigrant. I see this woman talking vaginas on stage. I mean, I grew up in a culture that even though I grew up with a mom who was open and was a biologist, so she did talk about sex and sexuality in a healthy and beautiful way, it’s still a private space from the culture I come from. I am like, “Oh wow! She’s talking vagina,” and all the other acronyms on it that it took me a life just to say it, by the way, all the other words for it, but I’m still working on getting there.

So thank you, also not as a comrade, if you may, not as a compatriot, not as a sister only, but also as a woman and I mean that most sincerely and emotionally, for really taking the private into the public and taking the taboo into the public space, and helping not only the millions of women, that I hope you know that you helped, but me personally into even going to that space of exploring my healthy relationship with my own body and with my own sexuality, coming from a culture that even though I come from an open liberal-minded family, the culture was overriding, bigger than that. It’s conservative and it’s still a work in progress to own that part of me and you had been the champion that held the torch for that, so thank you.

V:

Well, thank you. Oh, I remember that Oprah show and I just remember thinking how brave you were and feisty you were and strong you were, I was just like, “Wow, who is this woman?” But every culture’s the same. There isn’t any culture that welcomed me and the vagina storm, we came to town, really. I mean, I can’t think of one place that was ready to say the word “vagina.” Every culture has their own way of not doing it. But every culture is in some way shutting down women’s body parts, not allowing us to see them, know them, talk about them, feel good about them. It’s always funny because every person that always says, “Well, in my culture, in my culture we don’t talk about it.” I wish I had a tape recorder of every single person who said that to me, because it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Deep South, or Indiana, or if you’re in India, or if you’re in . . . women’s body parts don’t exist, essentially.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Interesting.

V:

And certainly not twenty-five years ago.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I mean, still as you know, in a lot of it, but you really have changed that trajectory of that discussion, and I would say single-handedly. Of course, there are other women, but you single-handedly were a force in changing that trajectory of that discussion, and thank you. On that, let’s just stay on that for a second, it’s courageous. I mean, this is not your only courageous act. You have a lot of courageous acts, you have done. Actually as a matter of fact, your life has been huge moments of courage. Do you ever think that this is courage? Do you ever go through insecurities and fear? Do you go through that and how do you deal with that?

V:

I think when you grow up in a family, in a situation where you’re constantly denigrated and constantly abused and constantly devalued, you have very low self-esteem. I always say some people got concrete floors, I got bamboo shoots and when it rains all the floor washes away. So, I think I’ve had to really deal with and pursue a way, a life, of building up a strong enough self that can survive who I am. You know what I mean? I always was a person who refused to say it’s okay when someone was beating me up or I was the person in my family who spoke out against my father and then got beaten worse, because I was going to go down fighting. That’s my nature but that doesn’t mean there’s a part of me that wasn’t destroyed, annihilated, so that I’m constantly going back and forth between my real nature and what was done to me, the insecurities and the self-hatred and the self-doubts that grew from being the daughter of my particular father and then me being a person who has always just railed against injustice and inequality and unfairness and since I was little, I just couldn’t tolerate it.

But I think when you get older, one of the great things about getting older is that you suddenly stop caring so much about what people think about you. That is just a great gift of aging and you suddenly go, “This is who I am. It’s not changing, it’s pretty much . . .” Yeah, hopefully you continue to grow and expand and lose more of your ego and disentangle yourself from all those petty things that you thought were once important. But I think you also get to this place where you’re like, “I’m okay with me now. I’m okay with what this is.” I find that so relieving for so many years of feeling like such an outlier, feeling like I was always on the outside of everything, and now I feel like I’ve made a home here.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I’m not sure if it’s age, I don’t know. What I do know about my own experience is that you do, of course, I have all the doubt and worry and fear and insecurities. What changed for me was actually came from hours and hours and hours of working on myself. At one point, I call it, I arrived to my heart’s center. There was an experience, you know?

V:

Mm-hmm. [affirmative]

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I feel like a ship docked into its space. In that space, it was so magnificent, it was just home, but I know not everyone who’s aging is arriving there. So, I’m curious about your own journey of that arrival.

V:

Well, like yourself, obviously I spent many years in therapy, in groups, in recovery from incest groups, recovery from sexual abuse groups, just doing breathwork, doing spiritual work, doing endless work. But really, I think there were two main things that changed me. One was getting stage three/four cancer almost thirteen years ago, which was mind-blowing and heart-shattering experience, and [a] very shamanic experience. I feel like I was taken down to the bottom of some deep, deep, dark, dark well, and I was forced to confront so much of what I thought I had confronted, to be honest with you, but had not confronted on the level it needed to be confronted. I think everything at that point in my life changed, everything. I came into my body for the first time, even though my body was literally being . . . nine organs were removed and seventy nodes. I came through my body and being in my body. I connected with the earth for the first time, since I was young and had been separated.

I realized I couldn’t live in the city anymore, that I had to live with trees, and I had to be surrounded by water and birds and bears and coyotes. I realized that I couldn’t live the way I was living any longer, compelled by the capitalist, racist patriarchy, proving that I mattered, that I would add up to something, that I wasn’t stupid, that I wasn’t a failure, that I wasn’t, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah—all that just . . . because I realized that was a level of stress that was . . . I mean, I really think one day we’re just going to say stress instead of cancer. I think cancer is stress, stress is cancer, there is no separation.

I think that turning, that moment, was so profound in my life. I moved here to this amazing place called Lotus Pond Farm, where I live now in the daily embrace of the Mother. I feel like I am at Her whim. I am in service to Her, and I feel like She directs me and I’m very happy to be directed by whatever this amazing life force is around me.

I think the other thing that really changed me was plant medicines. I think that verbal therapy and different kinds of therapy were really good, but where I was caught was on a much, much deeper level, much more cellular, psychic level, that was beyond words and doing plant medicine, I untangled and I released and I let go of, and I purged a lot of what was keeping me on a certain trajectory in terms of relationships, in terms of self-hatred, in terms of . . . and that’s not to say it’s all gone, but what feels different today is, where before I feel like my ichinen, that’s what they call in Buddhism that I used to practice, my life force, was always susceptible to the currents of circumstance and change where if something came towards me, it would wash me away.

Now I feel like my ichinen is much more solid and much more connected to the Mother, to Her, so that it doesn’t get as rocked as easily. That’s not to say I’m impervious to cruelty, or unkindness, or rejection, of course not, but I’m not at the whim of it. I’m not at the whim of it.

So, that’s given me a peace that I never had before. Just a way of being in rightness with myself and in my heart. I also feel like I, for many years of my life, forced myself almost to stay in relationships where I was going to make them work. I was going to work my . . . I was going to work overtime to change people and get people to see . . . And I don’t feel like I need or want to do that anymore. That has changed. I will love people, but I know today it’s not my job to change people, it’s not my job to fix people or save people. It’s my job to love people, and that’s a very different action.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That’s beautiful. It seems that what I learned when I’m hearing is that the illness and the cancer have taught you to surrender in a way to Earth. Does that resonate?

V:

Absolutely, absolutely. And be okay in my own skin, to live in my own body. I really believe the cancer was what brought me back into my body, and it feels very good to be in here, and I’m so grateful to my body. I mean, it’s ludicrous that I’m alive after that kind of cancer and to feel well, to feel healthy all these years later just feels like an unbelievable gift.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

The reason I’m doing these conversations in this podcast, I think I alluded to it in one of our conversation, is because I almost died two years ago and thought I was having my last breath at the ICU. And it sort of took me to the same route that—it’s interesting that I had to move out of the city, that I needed to be in touch with nature, and I was like “Wow!” and the childlike—that all the things that mattered for me no longer mattered and that connection with nature, with myself, with my friends and family, and honestly with the Divine became what’s profound experiences that filled me and the others are all frivolous. But I worry, I see myself slipping between now and then into the material. I go to the city and I have these glimpses of the pressure around and people are like, “Buy this and get this,” and for moments, I see myself slipping and I have to remind myself, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, go back. Do you ever slip? And what do you do when you slip?

V:

Well, I think we’re living in this very, very powerful capitalist culture that is so seductive and so ongoing and it never ceases. It’s always telling you, you could be better if you were this. I mean, all these social media systems are set up to make people feel like a better life is happening someplace else and if you were only good enough, smart enough, hip enough, cool enough, beautiful enough, skinny enough, blah, blah, blah, you would be having that life. So I don’t think any of us are impervious or can ever be completely impervious to that. I think by building this self, that self that is not standing on the ground of capitalist evolution, but is instead burrowed into the earth and getting deeper all the time in that burrowing process. I think what’s happening for me . . .

I’ll give you an example. I’m right in the middle of a new show right now and we’re in rehearsals and I just love nothing more than the rehearsal process. It’s the most glorious, magnificent time of creation, collaboration, community, inspiration. If I could live there forever and just never put the show up in front of the audience, I’d be really happy because it’s just so amazing to be creating. But there’s also this voice that’s always there, which is, “Oh, how will people react? How will the critics react? How will this react?” And where before that would’ve wound me really tight, right now, I feel like yes, that’s there, but what is more there is my own intention, my own desire for what I want this piece to do and the impact I want this piece to have in the world and how joyful I feel that all these actors, that all these directors, musicians, songwriters, stage managers, producers have all . . . There were like eighty people in the room two days ago.

All of us just focused on making this the best, most magical, most effective piece of art we can possibly make. And when I’m there, I’m in heaven. When I step out and I start worrying about the gatekeepers of the culture and who’s going to sanction me, it’s always a disaster because it’s always been done in my business and what I’ve learned is when The Vagina Monologues came out, half the people crucified it, half the people loved it. And what I know now is it didn’t matter. The play had its own life. People made it its own life. People took it where they needed to take it and I trust people. I trust that people will come and feel and know what the show is. And part of my work is to stay connected to that. To stay connected to that and not get into what is this gonna be in terms of the marketplace and what will this be in terms of making money because all that is just not why I’m doing this. It’s just not, and that’s what everybody comes and puts on it, as opposed to allowing themselves, often, to be vulnerable to what the work is actually calling up in them.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Can you tell us what the play [is] about? It’s too early to share?

V:

Well, I can just say that it’s a musical that I’ve written with Justin Tranter and Caroline Pennell, both who are amazing pop songwriters, and Idina Menzel has been part of our collaboration, and a wonderful man named Aaron Catada, and Diane Paulus directing it at A.R.T. and it starts December 5th. It’s called Wild and it’s really a musical about a small farming town that’s having a really hard time surviving. And what happens when these outside forces come to offer it a solution that could destroy the land, but could also feed the people. And the teenagers of the town basically are so upset that they develop supernatural powers.

And it’s a fable. And I love fables because I think they just give us a very good way of talking about where we are now without being right on the head. And I think just having been in rehearsal this last week, it’s a piece about community and it’s a piece about how we really can’t fight to save the earth, fight to save if we don’t have so much love in our life that we want to be alive. They’re all connected. Do you know what I mean? You’re not going to fight for life unless you enjoy your life. So how do we create communities where people are so loved and so appreciated and so valued that they want to fight for each other and the planet and the earth?

And I think the music is so beautiful and I wrote lyrics and I wrote the book and I’ve never done this before. And it just feels like I really stepped out of my comfort zone to create something new and I’m learning as I go, but I’m just having the time of my life. I’m in bliss. It’s so much fun.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

The one common theme I’ve had with conversations across the different guests I’ve had was when people are doing the thing they love, they are in bliss. That’s bliss, and when they are in that bliss, they don’t care if it succeeds or fails, they don’t put labels on it. And they thrive usually, when someone [who] is doing is in that bliss.

V:

Yeah, don’t worry about outcomes. Don’t worry about the story of the marketplace. Follow what’s calling you, follow the voices, the stories that you need to tell. Trust that, because those are the most interesting stories, not the ones that try to double guess or figure out what will sell or what will make it. That to me is never interesting. What’s interesting is what is a story that is passionately driving through somebody that they have to tell, because if they don’t tell that story, they will not survive. They have to tell that story or we won’t survive.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Have you ever done that and it failed? And how did that feel?

V:

Well, failure’s an interesting thing isn’t it? I have done plays before where I don’t feel like the play got realized either due to actors being wrong or direction not being right or the people not getting the style, but I’ve never felt that sense of failure because I feel like every project has . . . First of all, I’ve just loved the process and I love being in it. And every project has taught me something, even if it wasn’t The Vagina Monologues. It taught me, you could do this better or you could learn this, or that doesn’t work but if you do this, this will work. So I think one of the sad things about this country in many countries, but particularly this country, is that we don’t value artists. We don’t understand that art is in a time when religion has so deeply failed people and is so compromised and corrupt in so many ways, the one thing we have is art.

The one thing we have to raise our consciousness and get under binaries and under dualities and wrestle with characters who are different than ourselves and put out ideas that are hard, we have art and it moves us and it has the capacity to open our hearts and break our hearts and has the capacity for us to feel for people we might not feel for. And I think it’s just sad to me that we don’t have a country that supports artists. So that, for example, you have a career as an artist, you write some really amazing plays and you write experimental plays and you write plays that you want to try something out that they may not be commercial plays, but they may reach people on a different kind of level. And we don’t have any kind of financial or even cultural support.

Our culture is really about “got you.” It’s like, okay, well, done with that play, right? I think about Tennessee Williams and how he was so loved and loved, and then he was just destroyed by the critics and attacked by the critics. And it was like everything before that was erased until after he had died. And I think rather than going, “Okay, well they’re trying this and we’re trying this,” why is it about devastating people and annihilating people, as opposed to understanding that art takes a long, long time. I’ve been working already three years on this musical, and I’m sure I’ll be working another two or three years before it gets where it’s going. And so for people to come and just crash something or crush something without the regard or respect for that process, I find very upsetting and very capitalist as opposed to seeing our artists as storytellers and people who are bringing ideas and richness and possibility and hope and grief and expressions of grief into the culture.

How do you tell young people come on, come out with your voice and come out and try, when everything about the culture is about smashing you and judging you and annihilating you as opposed to lifting up our artists and loving them?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

One of my seven rules for a happy day I have after my illness was one of them is to be in the arts every day. Do something in the art, whether I retaught myself the piano or do something, it doesn’t matter, but do something in the art for your soul, basically, for my soul. I’ve been dying to ask you really the question that I really been waiting. I wanted to start with that because it’s been haunting me which is, I read your last piece of work, The Apology, a book that you wrote tapping into your father’s voice basically, in your father’s voice. And it was to say the least a very powerful book, and I’ve read and heard you speak about it as much as I could and I heard you saying why, why you needed to write that book.

And ultimately, as I understand it, it’s because you needed to liberate yourself from the burden and the pain of the abuse that he had imposed on you as a child. The question I have is how did you get there? I mean, because that’s the magnificent and the unique work that I don’t know any who has done that. There’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of writing about why we need to release ourselves from the pain. Perhaps there’s less work on the necessity for reconciliation and proper and heartfelt apology. But there is none that I know of that taps into what you have done is get into your abuser’s voice and mind and heart, and write an apology which feels sincere and respectful of the integrity of that voice, the voice of the abuser. So how did you get there? How did you do it?

V:

I think there’s so many things that contributed to this journey there, but what comes to mind when you ask that question is I had the honor and privilege of working at Bedford Hill’s correctional facility for eight years. And I worked with a group of inmates, women who were there for violent crimes, most of them were there for murder. And we did a writing group for eight years and much of the writing group, most of it was me giving them prompts and writing exercises, which forced them or encouraged them, or allowed them to go into their crimes and to look at why they had committed those crimes, what they had actually done, who were they, that they would do that? What was the impact of what they had done to really feel it, to really know it? I spent eight years with the most amazing group of women—brave, deeply sensitive. All of them had done a terrible thing or a few terrible things in their lifetime.

And what I gradually came to know is that nobody is one thing. Nobody is just their mistake. Nobody is just their one horrible deed. People are many things. That is not to say that they’re not responsible, or culpable, or that what they have done is not horrible because of course it is. But what I saw was women who had life move towards them, the wheel of move over them, over them, over them, over them for so many years without feeling like they had any choice in anything. Then one day there was just boom, this action that grew out of that, in most cases—some cases some women had different stories—but that was the majority of it.

Whether it was growing up poor and in violent situations, or growing up in racist situations, and being poor or growing up . . . There was a mechanism that was . . . So what I learned is that . . . Okay, I’ll tell you this story. I think this is where it really got me. I was doing this group at the very beginning where I would sit with women and I would have them go around the circle. I would say, “Okay, talk about from one to five, what were the big incidents?” And they go around the circle. There was one woman in the group who just gave me the creeps. I just didn’t like her, her vibe, her look, everything about her, scared me to death. I just hoped she wouldn’t talk.

The second session she sat down next to me and I was like, “Oh God, she’s sitting next to me. I can’t handle this.” So we went around the circle and we got to her and she told her story. Her story was that her mother and her father were essentially pimps. They basically were bringing in children and abusing them and having sex with them and selling them out to neighbors. When she was very, very young, she was basically treated like a dildo and was just given to people to have sex with, and was chained to beds, and horrible things happened to her. Then her mother died when she was twelve and her father or stepfather, I guess it was her stepfather married her, and then forced him to be his accomplice, where she then began to bring children in for him. Then one day one of the children died and she ended up in prison.

And she said, when she came to prison, she had no idea why she was there. Because there had never been any relative point to her upbringing, like nobody had ever told her that what was happening to her wasn’t normal, that it was bad, that it was wrong. She didn’t have any other experience but that experience. So she had no idea what she had done wrong, except that someone had died and she knew that was bad, but she didn’t mean for that person to die. She said it took her five years in prison to begin to understand what the world was and how horrible it was. Then she began to cut herself and try to kill herself because she realized . . . And she actually said at the end of her talk, please never let me out of prison because I don’t trust who I am.

I sat there, Zainab, and I literally, my life changed. My life changed. I just said, “You don’t know anyone. You don’t know anyone. You don’t know what they’ve been through. You don’t know what led them to do what they do. You don’t know what experience broke their heart, or decimated their character, or changed them. You don’t know anything. So you just need to shut up and listen, and you need to hear and ask and try to understand what makes people . . .” I think that was really the beginning of me . . . not at that point, by no means—it took me years to want to, to be able to write this book about my father, because I had so much rage, and I had so much justified anger. I was righteous. All that did was keep me attached to him, and all that did was keep me his victim. All that did was keep me in this really S&M dance with him that was just completely controlling my life.

As you and I know we’ve been in this movement to end violence against women a long time, and we see the next iterations. When #MeToo happened as the next iteration, I started seeing all these men being called out and none of them were apologizing. None of them were taking responsibility for what they had done. So I started to think, how many years did I wait while my father was alive for that apology? Then thirty-one years into his death, I’m still waiting for my father to apologize. I finally just said, well, you know what, what if I wrote it? What if I wrote what I needed to hear? What if I allowed myself to climb inside my father—who I know better than anybody in the world, because we know our perpetrators better than anyone in the world, because we have to, right? Particularly, if its ongoing perpetration—and I just see if I could write his apology and write into . . . And it was the most excruciating experience I’ve ever had because to know somebody, to really let yourself know somebody who’s hurt you, feels almost unbearable. Do you know what I mean? Because there’s part of you that as you’re seeing their pain you are on some level having compassion for them, which you don’t want to be having, because they’ve hurt you, so you’re in that struggle.

I will say that art is so mystical. Like the minute I started to write this, my father showed up. He was here. He was absolutely present from another world through the entire writing of that book. He would literally wake me up at four in the morning and say, “Go to your office. I have a story to tell you.” I would get up and I’d go to the office and I’d write this thing and I’d be like . . . What started to happen was that I began to understand who my father was, and what had happened to him and why he had become, and how he had become, a person who was capable of doing what he had done to me. Although it did not justify it, although it did not . . . it actually made me understand it, and understanding is liberation. Understanding is liberation. It is just, “Oh, it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t me being a horrible, awful person. It wasn’t that I was damaged. My father was damaged. This was the outcome of his damage.”

And by being able to see that for the first time in my life, I felt free of this horrible burden I had carried around, of both feeling like something was intrinsically bad about me and wrong about me—and that’s why he had to do what he did—but also that, you know what? I didn’t get turned into what my father got turned into. He had gone through this, and this, and this, and had become that and I went a different route with what he had done to me. I said, “I’m never going to do this to anybody else. I’m going to go and have a life where I change me.” I didn’t have children because I didn’t trust who I was. I eventually adopted a son who I felt by that point in my life, I could help, and I could love, and he taught me how to love, to be honest.

But it’s like that journey with the book taught me two things, so much about this culture is “avoid the pain, avoid the pain, avoid the pain.” The pain is the liberation. Walking through the pain is the doorway. You can’t sit on the side of it. You can’t negotiate with it. You have to actually walk into it. You have to walk through it. You have to actually go to the place you don’t want to go and that will be where you get free.

The second thing is that there is a human mandala, and we are all somehow aspects of ourselves—the best and the worst are part of that mandala. All of us have a shadow. All of us have the potential to do terrible things. I heard Anthony Hopkins the other day. Somebody asked him if he regretted anything in his life? He said, “Actually, no.” He said, “I know that I’m a sinner. I know that I’ve done terrible things. I know that I have the capacity to do terrible things, but I also know I’ve worked really hard to do good things. I’m on this trajectory of evolution and as a human being.”

So I’m doing the best that I can. I think what I realized about my father is my father grew up in a time where people didn’t have the consciousness—patriarchal reality was just a given. He had all the power, which was a very unfortunate thing because he wasn’t capable of holding that much power without it becoming psychotic, and cruel, and violent. I have to tell you that at the end of the book, there’s a line which is, “Oh, man, be gone.” The last line of the book and I don’t know who said it, my father or I, I really don’t know who wrote that line, but there was this feeling the minute I wrote it down where like Tinkerbell at the end of Peter Pan, my father just went, shoo! He literally disappeared into the aethers and he’s never been back. I think I do believe that my father is in a better place. I actually know my father’s in a better place.

I think we don’t realize how much the dead need us, that they are around us all the time, and a lot of times they’re stuck because they haven’t worked out stuff in this lifetime, and they’re just trying to get out of certain zones and realms that they’re stuck in. I think this process we went through, my father and I, freed him. I do believe he’s in another zone, but it definitely freed me. I decided soon after that to change my name, because I have no more rancor towards my father. I have no more anger towards him. I have nothing. There’s nothing.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Do you have love towards him? Can you have love towards him?

V:

I have what I would call acceptance. Do you know what I mean? I love certain things that my father gave me. My father was very much about honesty. My father had a very beautiful relationship to money. He didn’t think you should have more than you needed. He gave me values that I really . . . There were things about my father that I really appreciate, that he brought us up in a Unitarian Church, so we learned about all religions and we’d always be open-minded. There were things he gave me that I’m really grateful for today. So in that sense, yes, there is love. But I no longer wanted to be in his story. It was over. I knew I didn’t want his name, and I didn’t want the name he gave me. I wanted to name myself and I wanted the next part of this existence here on Earth to be my story and the story I was creating. So I released that name and I’m so happy to be V, as I say I’m down to a letter, soon I’ll be nothing. It feels really good.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

I mean, it’s amazing what you just shared. It’s a journey of a woman who has arrived to her heart’s center, to the foundation of who you are to your soul. Body, mind, and soul meet in ourselves. It seems that it’s a journey of arrival. You talked about one time at one point plant medicine helps you. It’s something . . . It has helped me a great extent. There was in one experience, I put all my stories in a canoe, all of it, and the pain and the abuse and all of that. I just pushed it out. I completely agree we have to go, go through the pain. We have to go through the pain, there is no numbing it, there is no psychic healing, there is no energetic healing. People’s like, “But I’ve gone to this healer and this healer.” It’s like, “No, they can’t help you. You have to go through the pain itself. Look at it in the eyes and you shall, you shall go the other way.”

V:

Totally. I’m very excited just to say that in this spring, we’re going to do a play version of The Apology.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Wow.

V:

Yeah. In New York with two men playing a younger and older version of my father. So I’m really, really excited. I think women will pay a lot of money to come hear men apologize. [laughs]

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Wow.

V:

Seeing that we’ve never heard it. Right?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, it could be a modeling also for the men who do need to apologize. I don’t know if they don’t know or they [are] afraid, or lawyers are advising them not to do, or they can’t acknowledge the abuse or or or . . . But it could be. And until that happens we cannot reconcile.

V:

No we can’t. We can’t.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Yeah, yeah. Until that, the apology is very much needed. So is a reconciliation, but one has to come before the other. You talk about love. You talk about your son teaching your love, your adopted son teaching you love. I have two questions on that is, how has your relationship with men changed over time? Your last TED Talk, you said you spent a lifetime calling men out, and now you’re calling men in.

V:

There’s been so many amazing steps on this journey. I mean, I think obviously my son. . . and he was fifteen when I adopted him and I was twenty-three. I had no idea how to love. I had no idea how to function, but I had to. Because he was a mess. I had to figure out how to stand up and make him feel safe, and make him feel seen, and make him feel valued and be there for him. That was just an amazing gift because it forced me to get my shit together and forced me to figure out how to do for him what I wished others had done for me. So, that was a big part of it. And I think there’s been wonderful things along the way, like meeting Dr. Mukwege in Congo was a huge piece of my story because, when I met him, many years ago now, and I interviewed him in New York at NYU, I just was absolutely taken by what an extraordinary human being he was. And then he invited me to come to Congo to help him.

And meeting him and seeing this man who was devoted to ending sexual violence. It was like, what? There’s a man like this? There’s the possibility of this creature in the world? And getting close to him and working with him was just an amazing thing.

And then I think just seeing how many men over these years, have been part of our movement, have been part of supporting us, have been part of putting on actions and doing things and just to say, like it’s just interesting. I was sitting in rehearsal the other day, and I realized how much of this new musical is really about what patriarchy has done to boys and men and how, if we don’t heal that, we will never ever heal the planet. They are one and the same. Our desecration of the earth is no different than the desecration of women’s bodies. And how we feel about life force. Right? And how men feel about the feminine life force is very much connected to patriarchy and dominance and occupation, and all of those things that men are trained to be.

So, I feel . . . Look, there’s always a part in me that doesn’t understand how men don’t just rise up and say, “We will not tolerate a world where women are raped and beaten and incested and cut and burned and violated.” I just still don’t understand it. Even though I understand it intellectually, I don’t understand it in my heart. Where are you guys? Where are you? Why aren’t you with us? Why isn’t ending violence against women and girls your issue? We’re not doing it. We generously took that on. There is still a part that doesn’t understand how men do not understand that patriarchy is going to destroy us if we do not shift it.

And because I’ve never had that kind of power, I don’t understand an attachment to that kind of power. Right? Because women and Black people, people of color, LGBTQ, trans people, none of us have known that kind of power. Right? Transgender people have never known that kind of power. So it’s like, I don’t understand why men—primarily, because men and white men still primarily have this power—don’t see, and don’t have the wisdom to understand what this power is doing to everything. Right? Whether it’s inequality of wealth, whether it’s . . .

I was just thinking about Afghanistan today, and the fact that 23 million people may starve. Right? What are we talking about? There are people who have trillions of dollars on this planet right now, who could literally find a way to get relief to all those Afghan people. And it would not really touch into their wealth. Right? So, I don’t understand this. I still . . . There’s still part of me that has a very, maybe I call it, naive, or I’m just in disbelief constantly.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And I want to just before we go on further, Dr. Mukwege is from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Eastern Congo. And he is a gynecologist who treats women who have been literally ruptured. Their body is ruptured from mass rape. And he has this clinic in Eastern Congo that he heals them. And that’s what V was referring to. And I believe he won the Nobel Peace Prize as well.

V:

He did, yes, two years ago.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

And one of the kindest men indeed. And I remember, talking about men. I remember you wrote a piece at HuffPost, I think, that you were upset with the “good man.” The bad man, the one who’s raping, is one thing, but it’s the good man. Where are the good men, and why are they not speaking up? And it’s what you were just talking about. Where are they? Why are you not speaking up? And why do you think?

V:

I think Tony Porter talks about it a lot, when he talks about the “man box.” That I think men have been so culturated to be with each other in the story of patriarchy in that man box. That they are very afraid to speak out against each other, to stand up, to break that code, to break that story, to end that narrative. And I think in the same way that feminists, in the early days, stood up to break that story, there have to be more and more men who come forward.

And I think it is happening. I’m seeing it in our movements. I’m seeing it in One Billion Rising. I’m seeing it. There are more and more men coming and younger men, really of this young generation, who are just like, “No. No. We’re not going to behave like that. We don’t accept this as the way of the world.” I think that’s got to happen at a much more accelerated pace, if we’re going to get there in time before climate disaster just throws us off.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

It’s all intertwined. It’s all intertwined. I mean, Tony Porter is from A Call to Men, an organization that teaches men about masculinity. And honestly, as I look at their . . . the more I look into their work, I feel like there should be a class. When we were growing up . . . when I was growing up, there’s home economics for girls. I think there should be healthy masculinity for all boys as part of the curriculum for all schools, basically

V:

Oh, absolutely. And every school. Absolutely. They’re doing such wonderful work at A Call to Men. And it’s step by step, but we should scale this up. This should be happening at a mass level everywhere, and immediately. And part of it is, is there’s so much resistance from the right, because there’s. . . so much of the right is hinged on patriarchy. Right? Hinged on . . . Look at who got into the Supreme Court. Look at . . . It’s really about having domination over women’s bodies, domination over women’s rights to work, men . . . The old story of patriarchy is embattled right now with a new story. And it’s a question. Sometimes I think it’s a question of, who’s going to push forward? Which part of this story is going to push forward?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Well, our existence is at stake—

V:

It certainly is.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Humanity. Literally, right now.

V:

Yes. Literally.

Zainab Salbi (Host):

Right? So I mean, I hope and I believe. You can’t be a humanitarian and activist if you don’t believe, I think. I believe in the possibilities of change and in hope and in belief. And I really believe that this century has to become the feminine century with feminine values, which is beyond equality. It’s just how to lead, how to interact, how to exchange with feminine values between each other, as humans, between nations, and definitely between humans and animals and Earth itself. And so, that side has to win. It’s just . . . We are in the middle of the battlefield, as one may say.

I have few last question, which is, you gave a magnificent speech about Eve, literally, Eve in heaven. And you rewrote the story of Eve, the narrative of Eve. It’s a wow. Right? It’s brilliant, which is like, she is . . . Actually, she did not do the . . . She did not pick up the wrong apple. She was . . . It’s brilliant. I highly recommend it for everyone to hear it.

And it takes me to the question, not about Eve, but about God and the Divine. And I say it because I’m curious, always, about that relationship. And if you are taken . . . if you’ve . . . With all, there’s a healer part of you and the spiritual seeker part of you that I see and I’m witnessing here from, yes, the therapy, but all the other healing methodologies that you’ve gone through it. And I’m curious, what did that teach you? Or what did that expose to you about the Divine, whether it is God or whether is God as a wo—How do you see that relationship to be?

V:

Are you talking about the Eve piece, particularly?

Zainab Salbi (Host):

No. I’m talking about your relationship. Yeah. I mean, but it could be. The Eve piece is brilliant because you changed the narrative. But it’s really about your relationship, and how do you see the definition or your relationship with God, or however that is.

V:

I think that moving here to this land to be immersed with these locust trees and weeping willows, and snapping turtles and koi fish. And I feel so connected to something so much bigger, so much more magnificent, so much more radiant. And I get to be my small part of this.

And I remember once when I was young, I had this . . . I went to sleep and I had this hallucination. And I saw my body being pulled out of my head and going up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up, until the universe, until it just disappeared. And I said to this genius, African American woman artist, who was just this brilliant woman, “What was that?” And she went, “Oh, you found your place.” And I was like, “What a beautiful way of putting it!”

And I think . . . It’s taken me many, many, many years to get to the place where, what I want, what my spiritual quest is, is to disappear into that so that I will have my place. Right? To disappear into that, to be able to do everything I do without worrying about leaving a mark, to just be able to be . . . Know my place, be humble in that knowing, be generous in that knowing, not worry if people credit me or see my work or know it’s me. But just to be part of this, part of this . . . I was thinking like, just in working on a musical, because it’s so collaborative, much more than a play, because you’re working with music and you’re working with so many pieces, that you have to constantly, in the process, be willing to go, “Give that up. Great idea, but not working in terms of A, B, C, and D.” How do you work in terms of A, B, C, and D? It’s not about you anymore. It’s about you in service to this creation, which involves a lot of other beings.

And sometimes I can feel that part of me going, “But I’m the writer! But I wrote this and this is my piece of this and you have to respect this.” And then I go, “Whoa. Okay, there’s your ego,” because, you need that ego. You can’t give up the ship entirely. You’ve got to hold your part of the story, because if you don’t hold your part of the story, the script becomes a disaster. At the same time, you have to learn how to hold your part of the story and know when to surrender, know when it needs to open to others.

And to me, that’s the work we’re doing here on the planet, like knowing, what is good leadership? Good leadership, to me, is being able to provide or lift up or inspire and know that we are all making this happen. Facilitating a process where everybody feels important, every voice is heard. Everybody feels like their contribution is valued and that you’re helping facilitate that process or be part of that process. And to me, the closest I feel towards whatever that thing, is when I am no longer here in the sense of like me, me, me, me-ness. But I’m here in the we-ness, in the one pulse of this. And I feel that gorgeous sense of, “Wow! We’re in this. We’re all in this.” We’re just like, “Let’s go!”

[instrumental piano music]

Zainab Salbi (Host):

That was V. You can learn more about all of her extraordinary work at www.vday.org. For transcripts and other resources from this episode, please go to www.findcenter.com/redefined. You can follow V on Instagram @EveEnsler. You can follow Find Center on Instagram @find_center. And you can follow me @ZainabSalbi. And please email me questions about this podcast and your own transformative moments at redefined@findcenter.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back next week for another conversation about life’s turning points and lessons learned. Our guest will be country music icon, Roseanne Cash. Redefined is produced by me, Zainab Salbi, along with Rob Corso, Casey Kahn, and Howie Kahn at FreeTime Media. Our music is by John Palmer. Special thanks to Tony Montenieri, Neal Goldman, Caroline Pincus, and Sherra Johnston. Looking forward to seeing you next time.