[Book Review] In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler

Playwright, author, and activist Eve Ensler has devoted her life to the female body—how to talk about it, how to protect and value it. Yet she spent much of her life disassociated from her own body—a disconnection brought on by her father’s sexual abuse and her mother’s remoteness.

Note: this book and review contain discussions of domestic abuse, mental health, malpractice, and trauma

Eve Ensler, known for The Vagina Monologues, writes about her struggles with cancer and her tentative relationship with her own body. Raised in an abusive home where she was sexually assaulted by her father, Ensler has spent much of her life separating herself from her own body. In fact, The Vagina Monologues came about largely because of Ensler’s obsession with her own vagina and her desire to understand it, which led her to seek out and interview as many women as she could about their own experiences with their vaginas.

As a memoir, In the Body of the World is unflinchingly honest about the human body and its many blemishes, failures, and upsetting side effects. Ensler is diagnosed with uterine cancer, and she is forced to endure hospital after hospital, surgery after surgery, recovery after recovery. Some of the doctors she encounters are incredibly kind and respectful, while others treat her with a brute force that triggers memories of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father.

Although the experience is largely negative, and Ensler does not gloss over the suffering she endures but finds the moments of inspiration and seeming divine justice of her situation.

I make good things out of bad. I always have. It’s a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In th end it probably is a failure of character: unable to face the utterly miserable heartless state of existence.

In the Body of the World, page 183

I never used to be a big fan of cancer fiction, largely because I read The Fault in Our Stars, and, while showing honest depictions of cancer, the book largely seemed to romanticize sickness. But I’ve since found books, largely nonfiction, that are more honest and realistic in discussing living with an illness or a disability. What draws me to these narratives is not exactly the illness or disability itself, but the accounts–from women, largely–of dealing with medical professionals. Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm is an informative read and a great book, and I’m currently reading Alice Wong’s edited collection, Disability Visibility, which I am also loving. Both of these works of nonfiction are packed with narratives from people who don’t shy away from their disabilities. It’s not about understanding what’s wrong with you, it’s about figuring out how to live your best life despite the fact that others are always putting you down or trying to make you feel like you deserve or will live a lesser life because of your illness. Doctors can be especially dismissive of patients with chronic pain or other illnesses that cannot be seen with the naked eye, and this dismissiveness can further alienate patients who desperately need to be understood.

Enlser’s book, while honest and inspirational, ultimately ends with the narrative of “I’m better and stronger now. I battled my illness and I won.” This is a heartwarming sentiment, but it’s not a great narrative for those who will live with their illness or disability for the rest of their lives, those who have chronic illness or a terminal disease or who were born with an autoimmune disease or are neurodivergent. Ensler’s narrative of “winning the fight” cannot be the narrative for others. That’s my largest complaint about her memoir; however, as I have mentioned, Ensler does not romanticize her condition. She is just fiercely positive, and that’s a perfectly acceptable personality trait and method of coping.

Did I enjoy this book? Yes, I did, but there are other memoirs and works of nonfiction on dealing with cancer and other illnesses, and Ensler’s should be one of many books you read on the subject.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Metropolitan Books, April 28, 2013, 217 pages

CATEGORY: memoir, feminist lit.

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