A New Yorker who turned a play into an international movement is continuing her life's mission one chapter at a time. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
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If not for Eve Ensler, a certain word might still be scarce on television.
"When we started doing the play 15 or 16, you couldn't say vagina on television. You could say penis, but you couldn't say vagina. Now I turn on the television, it's just 'vagina, vagina' everywhere," says Ensler.
The play is "The Vagina Monologues," a series of stories first staged by Ensler in 1996 in small venues Downtown. It's become an international phenomenon, performed in dozens of languages around the world.
"If you had told me 16 years ago that I would write this little play, way, way downtown New York and that this season there would be 5,000 productions in 900 places around the planet? No way!" says Ensler.
The success of "The Vagina Monologues," including an Obie award in 1997 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1999, led to the creation of V Day, a global organization aimed at stopping violence against women and girls. Ensler has spent much of the last 15 years traveling, hearing their stories.
"Being in Narok, Kenya where we have a safehouse where girls run away and they prevent themselves from having their clitoris cut off and they get to go to school and they aren't forced into marriage," says Ensler.
Since the success of "The Vagina Monologues," Ensler has written several plays, including "The Good Body," written in prose, and led a writing group at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, a group portrayed in the documentary "What I Want My Words To Do To You."
Her latest work is "I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World." It's a series of writings based on the stories told to Ensler during her global travels, using a format similar to "The Vagina Monologues." So how does one avoid the trap of repeating their most famous work?
"To try to replicate that? I wouldn't even know where to begin, because I don't really feel like I had much to do with it in the first place," explains Ensler.
Ensler says that V Day is a grassroots movement, involving thousands in 130 countries. V Day and "The Vagina Monologues" have attracted the participation of actresses like Rosario Dawson, Selma Hayek and Rosie Perez -- attention which has helped raise more than $60 million for programs around the world. Her work often requires transitioning between two very different worlds -- the despair she sees and hears about on the road, and the calm of her Manhattan apartment.
Budd Mishkin: Does it ever create moments where you feel guilty about enjoying a nice meal?
Eve Ensler: Always, always. You can't go and spend a month in the Congo and come back and not feel terrible. There's no way. There's no way. How do we live with both worlds at the same time?
Eve Ensler has made her name by telling others' stories. But the passion to fight violence against women stems from her own story.
"There is something about breaking your own silence and breaking your own taboos and breaking your own insidious connection to your past that's crucial in getting on to the next stages of your life," says Ensler.
Ensler says she was sexually and physically abused by her father when she was a child. Her father died in the early 90s. She says she now has compassion for him.
"I look at my father, and I think, now, 'What happened to him, that he was so angry? What happened to him, that he could beat up and be so cruel to his own child?' Like, 'How? How do you do that? That is much more interesting to me, now, than me being his forever victim. I don't feel like anyone's victim anymore," says Ensler.
Growing up in Scarsdale, Eve Ensler drew inspiration from several writers. But the biggest pedestal was reserved for a musician -- the Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick.
Ensler has made a career out of speaking what was previously unspoken. But when she had a chance to talk to her hero while working on a television show years ago, she froze.
"I was sitting here, and Grace Slick was sitting there. And I was just like 'Oh my God. That is Grace Slick.' Immobilized. Nothing," recalls Ensler.
But there was nothing funny about Ensler's early years, which she says included abusive relationships, drugs and alcohol.
"I was in such a destructive course in my life. The fact that it turned around, the fact that I got to be here, the fact that I have any life at all, is such a miracle," says Ensler.
Ensler came to New York in the mid 1970s to write. She also engaged in a lot of political activism, once dressing up as a nuclear bomb at an anti-nuke rally.
Budd Mishkin: So you're going up to the library to be a nuclear bomb. Subway? Taxi? Get dressed there?
Eve Ensler: I think it was subways and we put it on there.
Her focus was on politics and writing and volunteering at a homeless shelter. But as for family...
"I never wanted to be a mother. I never wanted to be a biological mother. I just never hungered for that. It just didn't interest me," says Ensler.
But in 1978, she married Richard McDermott, and officially adopted his son, actor Dylan McDermott, who was only eight years younger than Ensler.
"The best experience of my life. I mean, raising Dylan and being Dylan's mother. I mean, Dylan really taught me how to love," says Ensler.
Ensler says she doesn't regret anything about those early years in New York as a struggling writer. But her life clearly changed when she wrote "The Vagina Monologues," and not just professionally.
"Often when you've been abused, you separate from your body and you separate from your sexuality and you separate from your power. And you're very disassociated from it. And I think the process of 'The Vagina Monologues' allowed me to re-associate with myself," says Ensler.
The play connected with women on an intensely personal level, through serious monologues and comedy, like the recitation of pet names for the vagina.
"The Vagina Monologues" was staged around the world. But it was criticized for having little or nothing positive to say about men or heterosexual relationships.
"It's not just a piece about bad men. On the other hand, I will say that I interviewed hundreds of women. The fabulous stories about men were not pouring through the door, or I would have written that," explains Ensler.
But the monologue that received the most criticism involved a line from a woman fondly recalling a sexual encounter she had as a girl with an older woman.
"I was suddenly in this position where I had a woman saying, 'If it was a rape, it was a good rape.' Which was so politically at odds with this movement to end violence," recalls Ensler. "So I went through this enormous struggle in my two selves, between my art self and my activist self, and really debated it for two years, and finally made the decision to change it."
Eve Ensler has made a life out of listening to the stories and struggles of women from Harlem to Islamabad. And her own struggle is never far removed.
"My life was such a difficult life at the beginning. It was so difficult, everything about it. Then to get to have this life in the same life feels completely crazy," says Ensler. "To watch women on this planet who are in the face of poverty and who are in the face of suffering and who are in the face of so much violence, creating paths for other people, making life better for somebody else. To know those people? Doesn't get better than that."
This past weekend, Ensler announced that she was recently diagnosed with uterine cancer and is now recovering from surgery and months of chemotherapy.
The article she wrote announcing her cancer contrasted her situation, which she calls arbitrary, with the rape and murder of women in the Congo, which she calls "systematic, strategic and intentional."