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DO MENTION THE V

It’s 25 years since the publication of The Vagina Monologues: a celebration of female empowerment that hit the spot in diverse cultures worldwide. Laura Craik meets its author

quarter of a century before Gwyneth Paltrow created a scented candle called This Smells Like My Vagina, Eve Ensler wrote a gynaecological tribute that has burned longer and more influentially than Gwynnie’s novelty ever will. The 70-year-old playwright is the creator of

The Vagina Monologues, which she first performed in 1996 then published in 1998

– 25 years ago. The work was made up of monologues about vaginas. One was titled

My Angry Vagina (a rant about tampons, douches and gynaecological tools). Another was called My Vagina Was My Village (compiled from the testimonies of women abused in rape camps during the 1992-95 Bosnian War). The script, political and personal, has since been performed in 140-plus countries, in more than 48 languages, by a phalanx of stars including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Oprah Winfrey.

Ensler – now known as V, for reasons we’ll come to – says she has lost count of the times she’s seen it. ‘Too many!’ she says, laughing,

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over Zoom from her home in New York state. Her favourite performances aren’t the ones with famous names, but those by indigenous women in oppressed situations. ‘I saw one in a prison [in Queens, New York] that blew my mind, and another covert production in Pakistan. It was performed by Filipina women in their Congress, and for government officials in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those really moved me.’

V seems preternaturally cheerful, fizzing with energy, her former Anna Wintour-esque black bob now a short grey-blonde crop. It’s a style she adopted following a diagnosis of uterine cancer and chemotherapy in 2011. Ever upbeat, she once called it ‘a cancer gift’ that has strengthened her.

As a struggling artist in Manhattan in the 1990s, V wrote The Vagina Monologues after a series of candid discussions with friends. She ended up interviewing more than 200 women whose tales of sex, love, birth and abuse formed its basis. ‘I didn’t even want to write a play about vaginas, but there were stories that needed to be told,’ she says. ‘The monologues aren’t testimonies: they’re fictional, based on themes that emerged.’ (And as one line goes: ‘Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before.’)

She first performed the play on 3 October 1996 on a high-backed stool at a tiny theatre in downtown New York, with no cast or props. Originally just 40 minutes long, it was to run until 15 November. But it was a hit and V was asked to continue until 31 December. Then a producer, David Stone, took it off-broadway with a rotating cast. ‘From the minute I started, it became this place where women could talk about issues in solidarity with other women,’ says V.

But there was also fury. In Paris, directors said they would only stage it if the name was changed; CNN ran a ten-minute US broadcast about it but didn’t mention the v-word once; and as late as 2013, a newspaper in Wisconsin prudishly ran a struck-through title, advertising it as The XXXXX Monologues. Even feminists had issues. Germaine Greer, performing in a British production, found it ‘a much-hyped and fundamentally unchallenging piece of buffoonish American hoop-la’. US critic Camille Paglia called it ‘a painfully outmoded branch of feminism’ from ‘a feverish charlatan and cultist’.

‘There was outrage from the Catholic Church: that young women were performing it in schools; that it was immoral. There’s no place the play went that wasn’t controversial,’ she says. ‘But controversy is not a bad thing. It opens up spaces where people previously haven’t been able to have conversations.’

V recalls one production in Oklahoma City, a deeply conservative part of the US, in a tiny warehouse illuminated by one lightbulb. After the first night, word spread and so many locals arrived to watch that they had to bring their own chairs. During one monologue, a young woman in the crowd fainted. When she came around she said that the play had inspired her to say, for the first time, that she had been raped by her stepfather.

This was often the case. After performances, crowds of female audiences would queue to speak to V. ‘Ninety per cent were lining up to tell me they’d been raped or abused. It was too much.’

In 1998 she launched V-day, an initiative to help end violence against women. Funds raised performing The Vagina Monologues have since contributed more than

$100 million to anti-violence programmes globally.

V is a survivor, too. In 2019, she wrote The Apology ,a memoir about enduring her father’s sexual abuse, which started when she was five years old. By the time she was ten, he was choking and beating her while her mother looked on. She never received his apology:

‘I’d been waiting so many years for it, then he died.’ So V crafted her own, writing from his perspective. ‘I climbed into my father’s psyche, to fathom why he almost murdered me. It was excruciating, but it helped me release his hold over me. Because I understood it, I saw it had nothing to do with me.’

After finishing the book, she felt free. ‘I had no more rancour or bitterness. Even being angry at my father proved I was still his story. But it took a while to find a new engine for my life, because so much of it had been about fighting him.’ In a final bid to be rid of his influence she stopped using his surname and became V. ‘It helped me say, “This is my life – I’m going to write the next chapter.’’’

V’s next chapter is Reckoning. Published this month, it’s a wide-ranging compilation of prose, poetry, letters, essays and diary extracts written over a 45-year period that chronicle her sexual abuse, the alcohol and drug abuse she later engaged in to escape her trauma, her surviving uterine cancer and her activism. It is dedicated to the ‘pod’, a group of friends she lives with in a commune in New York state – an arrangement you may or may not deem idyllic, depending on your current circumstance.

‘They’re wonderful people – four women, two gay men and my dog, although two members are currently in Spain. It’s beautiful to be in a community where you have your sovereignty but come together for meals and to process things. I always lived with partners [she was married to Richard Mcdermott between 1978 and 1988, and is the adoptive mother of his son, actor Dylan Mcdermott]. Now, I’m alone but in company. We each have a little house, and we can meet or not. We’re guardians of each other’s solitude.’

Friendship has always been essential. ‘Writing The Vagina Monologues, I got attacked a lot. How do you survive that, turn that into something positive? By surrounding myself with friends – women, for me – who I can turn to when I get attacked, to help me work it through.’

Twenty-five years after the first publication of The Vagina Monologues,

V ponders what has changed for women. ‘#Metoo was important, but what I haven’t seen are any apologies from the people called out. Have men changed? There’s been no self-reflection, no reckoning with what they have done.’

She pauses. ‘It is my prayer that The Vagina Monologues will become outdated. I dream it will reach a point where they seem completely irrelevant. Sadly, we’re not there yet.’

There’s a scene in my new thriller that my agent wanted me to take out. A young woman lies asleep in her home, unaware that her stalker has sneaked in, hidden and is watching her breathe in and out. ‘It’s too far-fetched,’ she explained. ‘No one’s going to believe that could actually happen.’ Only it did, I told her. To me. I was 19 and in my first year at Cambridge when I discovered that truth could be scarier than fiction. Back then, stalking was something that happened to Hollywood actresses or TV personalities: high-profile figures who people thought they knew personally, intimately.

I don’t ever remember the word being used in the context of a regular young woman – or man. And if you’d been stupid enough to have a relationship with the person making your life a misery? Well, then there were different words for it, softer words such as ‘overattentive’ or ‘confused’. Glamorised words such as ‘obsessive’. Maybe you hadn’t made it clear enough that your relationship was over. Maybe – and I really hope there’s no context in which this would be acceptable now – you’d ‘led him on’.

I wish those stoking the female blame culture could understand that, apart from everything else so profoundly wrong with that narrative, we don’t need anyone to tell us it’s our fault. From the moment the nightmare begins, we’re blaming ourselves.

I should have spotted the signs – I still believe that, more than two decades on. But N – a fellow student I met on my way to a party – wasn’t some loner you’d cross the bar to avoid. He was good-looking, sporty, charismatic, charmingly impetuous and so single-minded in pursuing me from the start that I got caught up in the excitement of it all.

I was flattered by the endless love notes he’d slip under my door, the teddy bears, the roses and the compliments. As pathetic as it sounds, I felt special. Then, one night, a few months into our relationship, that excitement drained away. We were lying in bed, our faces inches away from each other’s on the pillow, when he said with a tender smile, ‘Sometimes I think I’d like you to be in an accident, so that no man ever looks at you again.’ I caught my breath, tried to move away, but his hand was in my hair, and he kept on stroking it, calmly, lovingly, until he fell asleep.

For me that was the first sleepless night of many. Because when I subsequently broke things off – far later than I should have – a few weeks later, he decided to make me pay. I say ‘decided’ because what happened over the next ten months wasn’t haphazard or left to chance in any way – it was a meticulous campaign of intimidation.

I’d be in the pub, laughing with friends, when I’d see him sitting at a table in the corner, his face in a rictus. He’d be behind me in the street, in front of me or sitting there, waiting, outside my lecture hall.

The notes kept coming, again, slipped under my door – ‘Sleep well, my love’, ‘Liked that blue dress today!’ – only I never heard his footsteps outside, and the roses he left

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2023-11-19T08:00:00.0000000Z

2023-11-19T08:00:00.0000000Z

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