Book review: Reckoning by V, formerly Eve Ensler


Anyone writing about personal trauma worries that no one will listen, that no one will believe or — worse — that some might even laugh.

Eve Ensler transformed these worries into a powerful cultural moment with her groundbreaking 1996 play, “The Vagina Monologues.” People listened, people believed — and, yes, people laughed, but in a good way. What began as a celebration of womanhood became a pre-#MeToo bonding session over the violation of that same womanhood. The Tony Award-winning play turned Ensler into something of an icon, a status she has wielded in her ongoing mission to fight violence against girls and women around the world.

Ensler understood her subject all too well. Her 2019 book, “The Apology,” detailed the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, beginning when she was only 5. To distance herself from that perpetration and the identity she had formed from it, Ensler chose to go by the mononym V. As she explains in her new book, “V is my freedom name.”

At 69, V recognizes that her role has changed. “I am older now. Irrelevant in the cul/ture of youth, followers, and TikTok,” she acknowledges in her new book, “Reckoning.” But, she explains, “I write anyway.” She still has a lot to say.

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“Reckoning” serves as a reflection on the personal, an overview of the professional and a reminder of the political, all with undertones of grief, vulnerability and later-in-life perspective. At a star-studded book event in New York this month, V explained her book’s purpose, reading from its introduction: “It’s about accountability and discomfort. It’s about remembering and honoring the most vulnerable and the most vulnerable moments. It’s about lost love, and craving touch in our aloneness. It’s about tearing down walls and wondering why we build them. It’s about the time of AIDS and a world of endless femicide. It’s about grief, trauma, a raging virus, and writing. It’s about reckoning.” So, no, this isn’t exactly what you’d call a breezy read.

“What exactly does it mean to reckon and why is it so critical right now?” she asks, in the question that we are all wondering and that she doesn’t quite answer. “It means determining both one’s personal and collective responsibility and how and when they intersect. And it inherently compels the action of admitting mistakes, apologizing for misdeeds and bad actions, changing course if that’s what’s required.”

It’s hard to take issue with these good intentions. Unfortunately, V’s conclusions and solutions can sometimes feel vague, overly upbeat — or frankly unrealistic. And although her perspective consistently radiates from the personal to the global, times have changed. Does the world really need another older White woman (and I say this as an older White woman) speaking on behalf of communities we are not a part of? What more than two decades ago would have been considered the well-intentioned act of sharing a substantial platform now feels a bit like inserting an unnecessary middleman (or woman) into the mix.

But let’s get to the writing. “Reckoning” gathers V’s work (including many previously published or spoken pieces) in a variety of formats: diary entries, essays, poems, monologues and op-eds, organized by theme. Sometimes these themes are literal and clear (AIDS, Grief) and other times they’re more conceptual in nature (Skin, Mother Hunger, Falling). Sometimes these groupings work, giving shape and context to the material to come. Other times they can feel thin or depressing, such as turning the page to discover that the next chapter is titled Femicide. Its almost 40 pages span a 20-year snapshot of horrific violence against girls and women against the global backdrop of war, poverty, pandemic but mostly patriarchy. How much more can we take?

Eve Ensler waited decades for an apology from her abusive father. She finally wrote one herself.

The author is always ready with an answer to that very question. In the introduction to a piece from 2007 about her visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, “Women Left for Dead and the Man Who’s Saving Them,” she sums up the challenge inherent in sharing horrific stories of violence against women — “I have just returned from hell. … How do I convey these stories of atrocities without your shutting down, quickly turning the page, or feeling too disturbed?” And in another piece, a monologue from 2015 titled “The Bureau of Sex Slavery,” she writes: “I’ve been writing this same piece for twenty years. I have tried it with data and detachment, passion and pleading, existential despair, and even now as I write I wonder if we have evolved a language to meet this century.” I think many of us often wonder this, too.

“Reckoning” is framed as an inextricable melding of the personal and the political. Where V delves into the political, especially such recent and current plagues as the coronavirus and Donald Trump, both topics feel like too much, too soon, all the time. But perhaps it would have been odd for her to exclude either, given the impact both have had on women and this country. Somehow several lines from a piece written in 2016, before Trump was elected — “Let Him Be Our Unifier” — could easily apply to both: “[He] is an outcome of years and years of each of us being taught to fend for ourselves, fight for our own share, step over those who we are told are slower or weaker but who may in fact be deeper, more moral, or more considered.”

In one poem from 2003, “The War Has Begun,” she melds war with sex in rapid-fire lines like “Scud bombers / Stud bombers / I’m not a target / You’re not accurate.” And “I’m hot / not like a missile / not like oil burning / I’m hot / like sun on slippery summer grass / like a cave where fur gathers. / I’m hot George Bush / stuttering anecdotes.” And I’m going to stop right there because I’m not sure I ever needed the line “I’m hot George Bush” in my head.

The pieces that lean into the personal are the most affecting, the most memorable. There’s the urgent and erotic poem “Sometimes It’s So Can’t Stop,” which is a visceral and sexy breath of life in a book that wrestles with so much damage and pain. “Sometimes it’s all about / Skin just skin / Just the way skin / Oh God, sometimes it’s like mouth on mouth / Teeth / Tongue / Have to / Sometimes,” and those are probably the only printable lines. Whew.

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A breathtaking example of a piece that grounds the political in the deeply personal — and benefits from distance — is “All of Us Are Leaving,” focused on those V knew and loved who had AIDS. Written in 1998 (a year before the World Health Organization would announce that HIV/AIDS had become the fourth-biggest killer worldwide), the piece reads like a mortality laundry list, a daily meditation on love, a captain’s log from hell, and a record both mundane and profane, gutting and gorgeous. “Is it as devastating as it seems, or is it because I know them? / Around my table. Inside my house. / I force Sheila to stay for tea. / I give Tim some more bean salad. / I bring Paul Fig Newtons. / Mark is eating from the pan. / Mark is eating from the sky, devouring stars, swallowing night.” After reading line after line, following her rhythm, I couldn’t help but be stopped cold by this one: “It should never have come to this.”

It should never have come to this. That line wouldn’t be out of place in almost any piece in this book. Being sexually abused by her father. Rape camps in Bosnia. V’s mother leaving her an envelope of mementos upon her death that included a photograph of V as a baby, with two black eyes. Covid. AIDS. All of it.

V, formerly Eve Ensler, read the introduction to her new book, “Reckonin” at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Feb. 1. (Video: The 92nd Street Y)

What this book underlines is this question: Is life anything more (or less) than examining and traveling the loops of our trauma again and again? The echoes of V’s deeply traumatic childhood reverberate in almost every piece, sometimes overtly and other times simply because her lived experience is inextricable from how she experiences life, politics, relationships, war and everything around her. How much more can she take? Again, how much more can we take?

Some readers might say they can’t take much more. It’s too dark, too upsetting, too much on top of what these past few years have been like. Other readers might say it’s been a hell of a lot more than “the past few years” for them and their communities, that it is our duty to take as much as we can, to bear witness and to rise to action. But this book comes across as more of a historical documentation of action than a solutions-based pathway to making change. Perhaps that’s part of V’s reckoning, too — to recognize when it’s time for others to heed the call and to pick up where she leaves off.

Kimberly Harrington is the author of “But You Seemed So Happy.”

By V, formerly Eve Ensler

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