tv Tavis Smiley PBS November 2, 2017 6:00am-6:31am PDT
good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. tonight a conversation with playwright eve ensler. more than 20 years ago, she unlocked an outpouring from women around the world when she started performing her play "the vagina monologues." she joins us tonight to talk about abuse and sexual harassment from men in fire and a new play based on her memoir. we're glad you've joined us with a conversation with eve ensler, in just a moment. ♪
♪ ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ so pleased to welcome eve ensler back to this program. more than 20 years ago, her play, "the vagina monologues," broke the longstanding silence of women's experiences with sex and sexual abuse. her new play opens in new york in january. it's based on her memoir, "in the body of the world." i am honored to have eve ensler back on this program. how are you? >> good, as good can be. >> every time i see you, when i say i'm happy to see you, i mean
that literally, because i thought a few years ago when that cancer scare happened that you might not be on this set ever again. >> well, that's because i'm good, because every day -- i shouldn't be here. there's no reason for me to be here, and seven years now that i am here, so i have a lot of gratitude. a lot of gratitude. >> i hear the gratitude. how, to the extent that it has, and i assume it has in some ways, how did having that death scare fundamentally change your life, your work? it's a strange question to ask you, because you are doing high-quality work anyway, but what does that mean, though? >> i think what i like to think of it is is kind of a cancer conversion. it kind of changed everything. i think a lot of what -- first of all, the idea of being in your body, right? i think everything that's going on right now in terms of sexual abuse and women being harassed -- women have just left their bodies because they're the landscape of so much terror, so much pain, so much humiliation. and i think what cancer did -- you know, i woke up after nine
hours of surgery, seven organs gone, 70 nodes. i was in my body. i had tubes and catheters and machines, but it was the first time i was in my body, like my body was real. and that really began this journey over nine months where every day i was reconnecting to things in the world that i hadn't been connected to, particularly nature. i had been living in the city for so many years. i was very -- i feared trees, you know? i was one of those people. and i now live in the country. i live in the woods, you know? but i think really what happened is a lot of pain, a lot of memories, a lot of, i reckoned with, and it got burned away by the chemo. it got burned away by the experience, you know? i've been thinking about the time we're in right now, how everything is hinged to our unexamined past, right? everything. everything's predicated on jim crow, hatred of women, economic
inequality, and we're here now, right? we're at our reckoning. we're at our cancer. we're at our virus point, you know? so, i think i'm grateful to cancer. i'm grateful to the amazing doctors and nurses who saved my life, but i'm grateful to whatever that alchemical change was in me that kind of stripped away everything that needed to go and allowed me to ride more deeply in this being, in this body. >> so i take your point about this unexamined past that we have to reckon with. but i guess the question for you, dr. ensler, is beyond the diagnosis, you just offered for america and what's wrong with us, what is the prognosis? >> well, that's a good question. i mean, i think -- you know, so much of what's happening right now, i think we're all in a state of trauma. i don't know about you, but i'm traumatized every minute of every day, and -- >> every time my phone beeps with an alert, i'm traumatized. >> me, too. >> like what now? >> we have a whole country
waiting for the indictment, right? waiting for this person to fall, right to get closer to that moment. i think what we have to do is really go into our deepest imaginations right now and say what is the world we want? what is the world -- and what is it going to be predicated on? it can't be the kind of violent amnesia that we live in in this country, where all the harms done to all kinds of people over centuries and centuries have never happened, right? we don't teach any of that. so part of it is knowing where we come from, knowing what our history is, knowing what brought us here and what people have suffered for years and years and years that have led us here. and the other thing is, i mean, look at what's going on with women right now. i mean, it is -- we've been working for how many years now, every hour, every day, how many things in my inbox for how many years? there's a kind of explosion happening, a tsunami of telling. that tsunami of telling has to translate into institutional
change. it has to translate into education of boys and girls about what is a healthy masculinity, what it means to have rights over your body, what does workplace safety mean. and i have to say, it's got to be about men. >> yeah. >> men have really got to own this issue and say violence against women is our issue. it's kind of like racism became black people's issue. no, actually, it's a white person's issue, right? and it's the same thing with violence against women. men are the people who are committing these acts of violence. when are men going to wake up and say this is our issue, and i'm going to give myself to this the way i give myself to anything that matters to me, you know? >> so, gretchen carlson from fox, formerly of fox news, who went after roger ailes and started this whole tsunami about 18 months ago, i guess. >> yep. >> she was here in that very chair some days ago. and she described this moment as a watershed moment. and we went back and forth about that for a couple minutes.
i knew what she meant, but i wasn't taking the bait. what i said is if i had a dime for everything i thought would be a watershed moment with regards to racial issues, regards to race, i thought michael brown, rodney king a watershed moment. >> sandra blank. >> none of these things happened in terms of making it the watershed moment i thought it might become. what gives you reason to believe, if you agree with gretchen, that this is a watershed moment? >> i said potentially a watershed moment. >> unpack that for me. >> here's what i think, because we've been here before, right? >> anita hill. i could run the same list. >> roman polanski, bsk, bill cosby. we can go down the list. >> same list. >> this is only going to be a watershed moment if we actually martial our forces in every single way, if we look at education, if we look at legislation, if we look at activating laws, ending ndas, stopping the statute of limitations, if we look at men owning this issue.
it will not be that if we do not galvanize our forces and really focus on actionable steps, because we have been here before, 20 years of women telling their stories. and i think in a way, i feel like -- and i know you feel the same way with racism -- it's stubborn, it's persistent, it's intra intractable, it's in the dna. i feel the same about patriarch and feel like they come from the same domination, power over, making somebody weaker, less than you. it's the same mentality. we have to do a much deeper, emotional psychological interrogation and self-evaluation of ourselves. how is it we elected a predator in chief who was an open white supremacist and bragged about grabbing women's genitals? >> and a bunch of women voted for them. >> exactly. how is that possible? part of it is looking at what is in this culture, like in the bottom layer of the culture that is allowing this to happen? and i'm going to go back to
family. you know, i think that we don't reckon with -- like, i look at donald trump and i think to myself, why are people responding to this person as if he's sane, right? if you grow up in a family where you have a bully as a father, a narcissist as a father, a person who's dominating every hour of your day, you're terrified of him because you're always tiptoeing around for fear, that becomes normal to you, right? i think there's many people who have donald trump as their father, who understand that they have to kind of live in this awe and terror of this authority figure. so, part of it is, are we willing as a society to separate ourselves from that father figure who appears to be comfortable and comforting because he's familiar, and lose that, and achieve our dignity and achieve integrity. >> the thing that's tricky about that, though, as you well know, there is an old adage that you can choose your friends, not your family. you can choose your president, but not your family. so i hear the parallel, but i
didn't choose my mom or my dad, but we chose donald trump. >> yeah, but we choose things that are familiar to us, right? we choose things that remind us of where we come from. and i am not saying that's the only reason. i mean, look -- >> no, i got you. >> we know there are many, many seeds to white supremacy and sexism, but i also think there is a familiarity in this country with that bullying father figure who has dominated and continues to dominate us in every respect. and part of it is, like, what are we willing to do as a people in this country? he's our reckoning. this is our reckoning moment. i don't know where we go after this if we don't turn this around. i mean, it gets bleaker by the minute, you know? >> let me ask you something that might be politically incorrect, but let me ask it anyway. it would seem to me -- now i'll get backlash for this. let me ask it anyway. it would seem to me that if anybody is poised to talk to white men, it's white women. why, then, hasn't that
conversation happened? why after all these years are white men not hearing it from white women or not getting it from the white women who are saying it to them? does that make sense? is that a fair question? >> it is. and i want to say it's not all white men. >> not all, yeah, yeah. >> it's a really good question. you know, last night i was giving a talk and at the end of my, you know, conversation, i read this piece and i just said, where are you, white men? where are you? why aren't you standing up? what is it that is keeping men -- and this is men across the board, but particularly white men because they have the most privilege and power. what is keeping men? well, of course it's power! it's privilege. if you have that power and privilege, you don't know what it feels like to have someone stick your hand up your skirt and humility you with a job or rape you, which destroys and shatters your soul and being for the rest of your life. you don't know what it feels like when someone degrades you and puts you down in front of other people and how that rips you apart, not for days but for years. you know, when you're in privilege, you can't --
>> but these men, and to your point, you know, let me broaden this out, but you understand my question -- >> yes, i do. >> -- about white men and white supremacy and white power. >> yes. >> so these white men, and for that matter, men in general, we might not know what that feels like, but we have wives, we have sisters, we have daughters. these same men that you're talking about would kill if you did that to their wife, to their daughter, to their aunt, you know, to their mother. so why is it that -- what is it that allows us to be so disconnected from the plight of other women, when if it happened to somebody in our universe, we'd be -- >> i wish i had a real answer for that question, because i still can't figure out why white women voted for donald trump. believe me, that for me was the most shocking thing and the most depressing thing. i can only believe that these are women who don't have, haven't awoken to a consciousness where they are connected to women in a struggle and understand that having a predator in chief at the top is
saying to the entire world and an entire country, this is legitimate behavior, right? and that they are not connected in that struggle, or they have not been empowered in their own lives in ways where they feel they can stand up to such a predator or to their husbands. >> i've met a bunch of black people -- i'm not going to call no names. don't get scared. i know a bunch of black people and anybody who's black knows people who are self-loathing. they're not crazy about being black. they don't want to be black. there's a whole pathology behind that. i'm going back because you brought race in and i know this story more than most, certainly as well as others. so there are some people who are black who are just self-loathing. is that the same case with women, that women are harder on themselves, loath themselves, loath -- i'm just trying to figure out why it is that you would vote for some guy who you know -- >> absolutely! it has to be based on self-hatred. look, we're all brought up in patriarchy. >> absolutely. >> how many of those women grew up in violent families? how many suffered sexual abuse
that has not been examined? and when we don't examine things, we keep perpetuating it and keep staying in line. how many of those women would be hard pressed to find their voices in the face of a perpetrator, because they didn't find their voices in the face of a perpetrator? and i think looking at my own journey, right, i had to go through a lot to excavate the violence and the sexual violence that was done to me, right? for years, i kept bringing it on myself, more and more and more. but i look at families, for example, where, for example, one person in that family was sexually abused, and they come out and speak about it, and the other members of the family gather and turn against that person for talking about their father in that way because they are still allied with that father. they can't give up that kind of delusional idea in this father loved them and was wonderful, so they alienate the person that's come out. that is self-loathing, but it's also fear of losing this one thing that was familiar to you, which is your father, even though your father was abusive. and i can say, i travel around -- like, last night,
okay, lines of women. out of that line, 90% of them came up to tell me they had been raped or abused. we're talking about a crisis that is gender -- i mean, it's destroying our gender. it's destroying our gender. there's very few women i'd be hard pressed who have not been sexual harassed. i think it would be easier to find who has been sexually abused. what is keeping us as women from an all-out uprising, right? what's keeping us clamped down where we keep waiting and waiting? it's the fact that we've been trained and conditioned in this system of patriarchy, which has absolutely kept a lid on our rage, on our sense, our right to what we know, a right to tell, our fear that if we tell, we'll be destroyed by the world and it will backlash on us. and i think all those things factor in. and i'm not justifying it, because believe me, i've been trying to figure it out since the election. >> one of the things that i'm still wrestling with -- dr. king
said more than once that he understood that you could not legislate morality. >> yeah. >> you can't legislate morality. and what we have here is an awkward intersection in this moment of morality and politics, morality and economics. you follow me? >> totally. >> and i don't know how we navigate through this intersection without there being a huge accident. and maybe the huge accident's already happened, but there is some serious criss-crossing here of politics and morality and how we address these moral issues of the maltreatment, the misogyny, patriarchy toward women, but that's got to be done from a political platform -- laws, et cetera, et cetera. what do you make of that intersection? how are we going to navigate this? >> it's the critical question, because you can have all the laws in the world, but if people don't change their inner cultural reality, those laws will never be applied. and part of it is we aren't a
country of deep self-examination. we aren't a country of great reflection and looking at history. we're a country of fast sound bites, moving forward. one of the reasons i love your show is you have conversations. it's not tv where you're jammed into one second and firing an answer. we are used to twitter now. we're used to -- what we need now is deep time to reflect and think about who are we as a people, right? this is on a spiritual level, this is on a moral level, this is on a philosophical level. who -- what is america? we had this idea, this dream that's been holding space that nobody's ever really gotten to see, and it's been this kind of illusion that we're all kind of crusted under, but really what we've got to ask ourselves now is what is this country? what is our story? who do we want to be? and that requires time. that requires gathering. that requires places where people can deeply reflect and go into themselves, and that's not
going to happen like overnight. >> it also requires, and sounds like you and i were giving the same talk in two different places, because i raised those same questions. i said, who are we really? who are we really? not the ideals that we profess, but the ideas that are being advanced. how do you juxtapose? i'm asking the same questions in my talks, who are we really as a nation? and the issue that i raised the other night in a talk that i offered -- i'm going to get your take on this -- is to your point about us being lost. every empire in the history of the world -- my read of history suggests that every empire eventually has a reckoning. >> yep. >> every empire eventually falters. at some point, they fail. read your history. every empire has its day. so you're asking some tough questions now about who we are as americans. how much of this -- how much of our unwillingness to even be be introspective in that way, to be so democratic in that way, how much of our unwillingness to do
that has to do with the fact that we don't even want to consider how close to the edge our country could be? >> oh, i think you're dead -- i think we're one step away from empire fall. and i don't know if that's a terrible thing, by the way, because i'm not really happy -- >> well, tomorrow you'll be called anti-american for saying that. >> i've never loved the impyrrhic reality of the country, but i think -- i'm working on this new piece that i just finished. it's a fable about trump. and at the end of it, like every person has a take on who this orange virus is and how we're going to fix the orange virus, then there's all the exiles over here, the artists and sexual explorers and the people who were never part of that system. and because they're nearing their end, they finally get to do what they wanted to do all along, right? they begin to feed each other and tell stories and make amends and make reparations and massage each other and put oil on each other and dance. and i think in a way that, okay, i go each way every day, it's the end of the world, it's the beginning of the world. like it's inside an emergency,
it's a world emerge. are we emerging? are we ending? but i think in a way, like, we have an opportunity now because everything has been revealed. like, it is up. like, there's no way you can deny white supremacy now. there's no way you can deny horrible sexism. there's no way you can deny that capitalism has failed. these things are evident. so we have an opportunity now to begin to say what do we want this world to be and how are we going to make that world happen? and i think it's a time of imagination as well as a time of crash. and i think i look around and i see a lot of people who are really beginning to do introspecti introspection, to think how are we going to live with the planet that we've destroyed? what are we going to do? as we have this madman who is systematically destroying salmon and destroying every aspect of our earth that we live on. how are we as a people going to make a decision that the need to compete and the need to strive
and the need to win and the need for more and more and more cannot be what is driving us anymore, that the need to connect and the need to feel and the need to share and the need to build up everyone around us is the point of our existence, and it is a moral leap out of the individualistic, selfish, reagan, post-reagan drive towards self-centeredness? and that is the leap we have to make, i think. now, how we do that, i think we do that person to person, day to day. and sometimes i'm very optimistic and sometimes i'm not optimistic at all, you know. >> that just makes you human, in this moment. i don't know how we do that, either, but i know that one of the ways that we can find our way there, one of the gps systems that we can use is art. >> yep. >> i don't believe that art is the end all, be all, but i can't imagine that we're going to find our way there if our artists remain silent in this period of suffering. and so, you've never been quiet. as we said at the top of the
show, 20 years almost since "the vagina monologues" started and you have a new one coming up in january. tell me about the new production. >> i'm very excited about the new piece. it's based on the memoir that i did in "the body of the world," and i worked really hard to really transcribe it into and make it into a dramatic piece. and i think the piece -- it's interesting, because it feels really timely right now. i think more than anything, we need to be sitting in the theater where we're connecting and feeling, because so much of us don't have any space or time where we can feel because it's so scary to feel. and i think the piece is really about how do we come into our bodies, how do we come into a place in ourselves where we are connecting with each other, we're connecting with the earth, where we're opening our hearts. but it's also looking at congo, where i've spent the last ten years, and how the systemic destruction of that country is based on imperialism, racism, stealing people's resources that belong to the congolese for the
outside world and using proxy wars that rape thousands of women and murder millions of people to get those resources. i mean, everything is there in the congo that's kind of the state of the world. but also looking at how nothing is separate, right? all of that coaltane that lives in the congo, goes into our playstations and our computers and our iphones, so we are connected up with everything. and part of what capitalism does, i think, is it fragments everything. it doesn't get you to see how you're connected to every resource that's being obliter e obliterated and used and taken from indigenous people, but it also doesn't get you to know how you're connected to each other because it's constantly telling you that muslims or women are the problem or mexicans are the problem, when in fact, we are all under the same system that is crushing us, you know? and i think the play's funny. i hope it's funny.
i think it's kind of a wild journey through cancer, which doesn't sound funny, but it actually is, because i think you know as well as i do that you don't survive anything without -- >> without laughing, yeah. >> exactly. >> exactly. >> and i'm hoping after the shows that we're going to be able to do -- maybe you'll come do one -- we're going to do talkbacks. >> i'll come. i'll come. >> i'd love you to. just like what the show is bringing up. we're going to have nurses come and we're going to have trauma people come and we're going to have people from the congo come and we're going to have people talk about all different things. and look, i believe in the theater and i believe in art. i think culture does absolutely impact our dna. it's the one thing that gets inside of us and actually makes change. it can make change. and i think it's a kind of holy church, you know? it's a holy place where you're in the dark with strangers in a really intimate way, and you and those strangers are creating with the people on the stage what that is. >> eve's new work, "in the body of the world" starting in january in new york city. >> yeah, manhattan theater club.
>> manhattan theater. 20 years since "the vagina monologues" and people are still talking about that one. so, you'll want to check out the new one when it hits in january. eve, good to see you. >> you, too. >> great talking to you as always. >> always. >> that's our show tonight. thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. ♪ for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. >> hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation about what we learned from suffering and actor paul reiser. that's next time. we'll see you then. ♪ ♪ ♪
good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley, first a conversation on the legal ethics and discuss the book "cheating, ethics and law in every day life" and then, actor comedian, j.b. smoove will be here, his break-out character from "curb your enthusiasm," he has a book "book of leon." we hope you can join us in just a moment. ♪