In ‘Reckoning,’ Eve Ensler Unveils a New Name but Familiar Targets

RECKONING, by V (formerly Eve Ensler)

Way before #MeToo — not that it’s a contest — there was Eve Ensler, shouting all the way up into the cheap seats. Her breakthrough 1996 play, “The Vagina Monologues,” eventually performed by a rotating cast of celebrities, amplified stories of rape and abuse and helped de-taboo the female anatomy. Two years after that success she founded V-Day, which has raised piles of money to fight violence against women and girls around the world: Galentine, with gravitas.

The writer identifies so strongly with the letter “V” that she has taken it as her new name, she announces in a characteristically raw and free-associative memoir, “Reckoning.” This is a gesture that seems — like most of what she has done in a long career — both performative and potent. “V” stands for “vagina,” “V” stands for “victory,” “V” stands for “peace” (we’ll forget about the canned vegetable drink and the old NBC series about aliens wearing human masks), and for Generation Y on social media, a “V” hand signal has become as popular as the thumbs up was for boomers, the former Ensler’s generation. “I am older now,” she laments. “Irrelevant in the cult/ure of youth, followers and TikTok.”

“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple,” the English poet Jenny Joseph wrote (to her eventual consternation), and on the back cover of “Reckoning” its rechristened author stands in a fuchsia caftan, raising arms in a V-shape to a rainbowed, sunsetted sky. A little cornball maybe, like a motivational desk calendar in a mall gift shop, but having survived incest, alcoholism, uterine cancer and the occasional mixed review, V, who will turn 70 in May, just Does. Not. Care. She has plenty of fuchsia left to give.

For those familiar with Ensler’s work, much of “Reckoning” will feel like a jagged replay of her core stories; amply represented are transcripts of speeches she’s delivered at the conferences and forums where she’s become an honored guest, or pieces previously published in places like The Guardian. She processed her experience fighting cancer in a previous, more humorous memoir, “In the Body of the World” (2013), which was also made into a stage show, and the post-9/11 world in “Insecure at Last” (2006).

Now she is examining a term that has become ubiquitous to the point of cliché in American discourse since the murder of George Floyd. For V, as before, the political is intensely personal.

Her father’s horrific molestations, which began when she was 5, are further detailed; in what is perhaps the consummate therapy exercise, she expands on the apology she wrote on his behalf in another book. She reveals more of her mother’s complicity by indifference — “I needed her milky breasts. I got cigarette smoke instead” — and her posthumous bequeathal of a musty brown envelope (“Does pain have a smell?” V wonders) with a picture inside of the author as a baby, mysteriously bruised and bloodied. “I spent an entire childhood ducking, fists permanently raised like a boxer, quick but never fast enough, darting, panicked, frenetic, unbearably anxious,” she remembers. “My body was never my body.”

In apparent refutation of the patriarchy V wants passionately to upend, “Reckoning” obeys no conventional chronology or form. It’s collaged together with concepts — the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, for example, is linked to birds falling from the skies in 2020 — and exhibits a woman drawn inexorably, as if in repetition compulsion, to sites of even worse suffering than her youth. It’s a kind of Choose Your Own Abomination, from Covid to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt to Congo, where the author has done humanitarian work and tells of murdered infants and children, repeated rape and even forced cannibalism.

“How do I convey these stories of atrocities without your shutting down, quickly turning the page or feeling too disturbed?” she wonders in an essay that was originally written for Glamour. Contemplating the ISIS sex market, she imagines “crates of AK-47s, falling from the skies” and “breasted warriors rising in armies for life.”

I think V underestimates herself; the jump-cut style she’s refined for decades is actually perfectly suited to people who get their news from TikTok, and her rhythmic singling out of particular words — which she calls “trains traveling through a lush countryside”— presaged hashtag activism.

Along the long highway of her argument here, that readers should wake the heck up to injustice and suffering, poems pop up, like little rest stops. “Think of your luxuries, your cell phones/as corpses,” she writes of the mass rapes that occur near coltan mines, which are tapped to manufacture electronic devices. In a section that graphically recalls how AIDS ravaged friends and colleagues, she promises Richard Royal, a collaborator on a magazine called Central Park, that she will not write a poem about the budding trees; he hated pathetic fallacy and echoed Adorno that there is no poetry since Auschwitz. So after his death, in winking homage, she versifies instead his medical woes.

“One is always failing at writing,” V acknowledges, in a sentiment any writer understands. And indeed “Reckoning” is, if not a failure, kind of a bloody mess, but defiantly, provocatively, maybe intentionally so. It exhorts readers to confront the worst and ugliest, pleads for progress and peace, and provokes admiration for its resilient, activist author. V shall overcome, someday.

RECKONING | By V (formerly Eve Ensler) | Illustrated | 272 pp. | Bloomsbury | $28

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