27 Years After the Vagina Monologues

The writer V—formerly Eve Ensler—on what’s changed for her and the world.

February 3, 2023

It’s been a quarter century since the performer Eve Ensler—who now goes by V—created the culture-changing play The Vagina Monologues and, shortly thereafter, the anti-violence organization V-Day. Times have changed—we now have more inclusive definitions of gender—but V’s gift as a writer has not. Her new book, Reckoning, touches on many topics but cuts deepest when it chronicles her decades-long recovery from childhood abuse.

Actually, let me restate because, after talking to V, I’m disinclined to use clichés: her decades-long recovery from her father raping her and her mother protecting him. And as you’ll hear, that specificity matters.

CL: You’ve been writing about violence for four decades. We’re more willing to have these discussions now. But how are you feeling about these issues in 2023?

V: We’ve had amazing victories. We’ve broken taboos. We’ve opened safe houses, we’ve changed laws, we’ve activated young people. A lot of wonderful things happened. But the essential problem is we have patriarchy. We can have one-off wins, but we’re still in that system where very, very, very few, usually men, have all the wealth, all the power, all the ability to determine who is valuable, who is worthy, who gets to live, who gets to die, who has money, who doesn’t, and that all the rest need to be controlled or gotten rid of. Are we going to stay like that? Or are we going to say—finally at last—we don’t accept this way of operating? Because otherwise we will be in this struggle for eternity.

Cindi Leive: One of the things that has always affected me about your writing—going back to when I first saw The Vagina Monologues in the mid-90s—is how specific you always are in your language. You write in Reckoning that “violence against women” has become too abstract and broad a term. What do you mean by that?

V: I’ve always been despondent over the terms that we keep using for violence against women. They just seem to get more and more distant, more and more abstract, as the violence seems to get more and more amplified and horrific. And I don’t think that’s accidental.
When we talk about “gender-based violence,” who’s doing the violence? What is exactly being done, and who’s it being done to? The confusion of that takes the responsibility off the perpetrator. It really should be “men committing violence against women.” I mean, not all violence against women is by men, but a great deal of it is. And when you say “rape,” it’s very different than when you say “gender-based violence.” One you have an image of, and can see. With “gender-based violence,” I have no vision of what that is.

In writing The Apology [V’s 2019 book in which she imagines her father apologizing to her], it was very clear to me that there is no apology without a rendering of the specific details of what you have done. Because in that specificity, both you—the victim—and the perpetrator know you were present at the same event. If you say “I’m sorry I abused you,” that’s not an indication that you were there. But if you say “I’m sorry I walked into your room that had the gingham sheets and the pink bedspread” then you both know you were in the same room, and you’re accountable to the same moment.

CL: In the book, speaking of your own experience, you write, “this abuse altered the constitutional makeup of my entire being. It filled my cells and blood and body with terror, worry, guilt, and dread—that would in my teenage years and on until my sixties develop into all-encompassing self-hatred and anxiety.” That’s a really devastating sentence. But it also made me a little bit hopeful because you say “until my sixties,” which implies that you have perhaps found some peace.

V: One of the things about the kind of violence that happens to women is that no one really wants to think about long-term consequences. We talk about it as if it’s a one-off event when in fact it radically alters a woman’s life forever, right? I don’t know any woman who was abused sexually as a child or a young woman who has not had huge intimacy issues, particularly if they were incested by a family member. Nobody talks about what it does to your memory or your ability to think or your willingness and ability to be a leader, because then you’re seen and then you become a target and then you could be raped again.

I’ve had to do a lot of work to escape, and by no means am I fully out of it. There are things that can trigger me and put me back into it. But since I wrote The Apology, I will say I’m in a very different place. I felt I was forever in my father’s story, and that has changed. Yes, I got very damaged and broken early on…but it’s not the sum of me, it’s not the total of me. And that’s amazing. I never thought that I would ever see that.