Schnall: Congratulations on this amazing book. It was so gripping that I could
not put it down. It is such an important book, and has so many truths in it
that people need to hear, and it was beautifully written. I think I read the
whole thing in 3 nights. What inspired you to write “Insecure at Last”?
And what is at the heart of the message of the book?
Ensler: Well, I think this country has become, since 9/11, so much
about, “security.” I think the word gets used more often than any word:
‘security checks,’ ‘security watch,’ ‘security this,’ ‘security
that.’ And I started thinking, with all this focus on security, why do I
feel so much more insecure? Why do I feel more terrified than I have
ever been in this country? So I started with that examination - what is
security? Why have we as a country become so obsessed with security as the
point of our lives? When did this happen? Why did this happen?
I began with
myself. I started thinking about my own life, where I’ve come from. I grew
up in a neighborhood where I was told on a regular basis that I was secure –
you know, upper middle class, white neighborhood – I even had a white picket
fence. And yet inside that house, I was being beaten and molested on a regular
basis. This became a split in consciousness - what was being named as security
and what was really going on. I began to be suspicious and very distrustful of
Much of my life
until recently has been guided by this attempt to find logic and security. It
drove me around the world, particularly in the last 10 years. I have been to
over 40 countries. And in the process, I ended up dissolving any notions I
ever had of security. And in a way, I got free. I don’t mean
“free” in the sense that there’s no pain and no suffering, and no
hardship – but I’m free of the illusion of security. That’s the journey
I am documenting in the book.
was also so amazing to see the span of all the many places you have traveled -
and actually your interest has always been global. How important is it that we
begin to see our world as a global community and feel our interconnectedness
on all of these issues?
We are so much a globe at this point that the idea that we are still live as
nations seems utterly absurd to me. Because it’s so clear -- if you look at
global warming, if you look at 9/11, if you look at anything that’s going
on, whether it’s Palestine, or Lebanon, or Iran – that everything is
completely interconnected and interdependent. I think part of the problem we
have in this country is that Americans don’t see themselves as connected to
the rest of the world. And I think part of that comes from this fear that got
induced after 9/11, which really encouraged people to shut down, isolate,
close up the borders, close up their minds, close up their families, narrow
their identities, close up their thinking. The book is a cry, really, to open
up those borders.
Given all these many difficult issues that the world faces today, what area do
you think is the most important for change?
There are two levels to consider. I think on one level, on an abstract level,
I think we have to re-conceive the dream. We have to say: is it security
we’re after, or is it care? Is it security we’re after or is it peace? You
know? Is it creating and building military democracies? In this country $390
billion dollars a year is spent towards defending ourselves. No other country
has a military budget like that. Or is our intention and money going to be
spent in building a humane democracy based on feeding people, educating
people, stopping global warming, getting rid of diseases, providing health
care, and building an infrastructure where people are guaranteed their basic
human rights? It’s a real decision we have to make, as a country that has an
enormous impact on the rest of the world.
you feel hopeful when you look out at the world that such change can happen?
You know, it’s an interesting question. I think part of what the book is
talking about is the capacity to hold opposites at the same time, the capacity
to live in ambiguity. In the chapter where I speak of going into the prison to
work with the women there, I said I thought I would be afraid of the barbed
wire, or the doors slamming shut, or women who had committed terrible crimes.
In fact what was most terrifying was falling in love with the women. I think
part of the difficulty of this time we’re living in is that there are always
these opposite thoughts existing simultaneously: I love this woman and she
committed a terrifying crime. When you’re in a state of fear you shut out
one, to avoid the confusion of feeling both at the same time. You shut out one
and you just stay in this state of delusion and denial.
My hope is
rooted in feeling both. I am wildly hopeful, and I’m wildly afraid.
I’m wildly hopeful and at the same time I’m in great despair over where we
are. I see a worldwide movement called V-Day working to stop violence against
women and girls in just about every country in the world, and I see a
government that is ruining this country, dominating the world, absolutely
destroying the planet. A government that has birthed a mentality of
occupation, invasion, domination, that has literally bombed the heart out of
Iraq in the name of security, and escalated terrorism triple-fold.
is the oppression and violence against women connected to all of this?
Well, patriarchy is a mentality that is based on the principles of dominance,
control, and hierarchy. Once you create that hierarchy, you always have to
have power over someone. I think when a government is practicing (on national
and international levels) policies of dominance and using mechanisms of
violence to control people, of course that will be mirrored and matched on the
domestic levels. And of course it will encourage men to bully, to dominate,
and to control their women, just as we are controlling other countries, as we
are controlling nations, as we are controlling whoever it is we’re
controlling. It gives license to hierarchy and violence on all levels.
It’s funny – people can often sign on to feeling outraged and wanting to
do something about the atrocities that are happening to women around the
world, but when it comes to women defining themselves as “feminists,” many
women today seem so reluctant somehow to do that, even though when you explain
the dictionary definition, of course, even most women - and men - would
support that. Why do you think so many women are reluctant to call themselves
“feminists” and what does feminism mean to you?
Well, I think most people don’t know what feminism means. And I think
everybody has a different definition of it, frankly. You know, I talk a lot to
people and some believe that feminism is simply moving women into power. That isn’t
what I think feminism is. There are a lot of people who think just getting
women equal rights and equal pay is feminism.
I don’t know
what the word is anymore, Marianne, to be perfectly honest. I don’t know if
that word is helping us anymore, or not helping us. Of course, I am a feminist
and I’ve been a feminist. But now I’m seeing there is a new way, the third
way. It’s not left or right. It’s not Democrat or Republican. It’s
a third way. And the third way to me is a shift in these principles where
dominance, occupation, invasion and violence are the tools on which the whole
planet turns and operates. The new tools would be cooperation, invitation,
dialogue, and care. Care would be fundamental to the principles of
We are really
talking about moving that $390 billion dollars a year that is being spent on
military defense, and working to end terrorism by ending the fertile ground in
which it is birthed – which is violence, which is invasion, which is
poverty, which is disease, which is people feeling completely impoverished in
90% of the world.
I don’t know
if you’ve seen Robert Pape’s book on suicide bombers, but this whole take
that the Bush administration has had that suicide bombers are fundamentalists
and they hate our way of life – well, it’s just not true. The majority of
suicide bombers are not fundamentalists. They are actually people who
are responding to other people who have invaded their lands. Whether it’s
Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq or any other part of the world, some foreign people
have occupied their homeland. And what does this bring up in them? Humiliation
and shame, and powerlessness. And so they find a way to resist. If you really
understand this it seems to me logical that you might recognize that invasion
and occupation are not tactics that end terrorism! Maybe honoring people, and
supporting people, and providing resources would do that.
I can share
from my own experience with Agnes, for example, in Africa. Agnes was walking
through the fields to end female genital mutilation. She knew how to do it,
she knew the practice she was doing, she had a beautiful method to educate
people. She didn’t need me to come and tell her what to do. She didn’t
need me to occupy her town in Africa and move in, and spread my knowledge all
over her. What she needed was resources to do what she already knew how to do.
And once she got those resources, she built a house, she changed her
community, she became deputy mayor, she began to bring her way of thinking and
her way of doing things, inside her own tradition, into being.
When I look out at the world right now and I talk to people, everybody is just
turning on the news and feeling, first of all – overwhelmed by their own
lives, and then overwhelmed by everything happening in the world. One of the
things I think was so empowering about your book, at least for me, was that
you share your own personal experience, and your vulnerabilities, your
healing, your ongoing growth – how you’re making connections between how
your inner work corresponds to your outer involvement in the world – it’s
so important to be sharing some of that inner stuff, because we’re all
having it, and I think it’s related to the problem, because we’re all kind
of hiding in all of that, and it can make us feel really helpless and
confused. Why did you feel it was important to share your own story, and what
do you hope your readers will gain from that?
What patriarchy has done more than anything I think is divide the mind and the
heart, the body and the soul. It’s made this huge split that allows people
to do all kinds of terrible practices and be highly disassociated from what
they’re doing. It seems to me, until you connect your personal life
experience, history, feelings with the world, the world does not change. And I
think the more people stay away from what they know, what they feel, what they
see – the more powerless they become. That’s what fear does, doesn’t it?
It robs you of your instincts, it robs you of your knowledge, it robs you of
your voice, and so that you become more and more powerless in a system, which
then begins to spin madly out of control.
To me, I’ve
always trusted that my personal experience is connected to the larger story.
What you know inside your own story is a reflection of the larger world. I
grew up in, as I said, a really beautiful, so-called upper middle class
environment, where everyone was telling me I was secure. There was a huge
disconnect going on – my father was a corporate president, my father was
beating me, my father was molesting me. I was told not to believe that it was
true even while it was happening to me. So I learned how to dissociate and
disconnect for a long, long time. When I started putting it together I
understood: father = empire, father = family, father = having all the control,
father = determining the way the family thinks, father = president = having
all the control = determining what the country thinks. You start to make these
associations – they begin somewhere.
accidental that we grow up and don’t question the President. It’s not
accidental we grow up and we don’t question doctors. It’s not accidental
that we grow up and we don’t question the media. We’ve been taught to
relinquish our authority from a very young age. And in many circumstances
we’ve been forced to because of violence.
of the things that makes your story so inspiring is that somehow you managed
to take your personal experience of violence from your childhood and turn it
into this amazing source of strength and power. How is it that you were able
to do that? And what advice do you give to women who you see all over the
world who have experienced varied forms of violence – what is the healing
process for that?
I think of women and men across the planet, who have been through terrible
violence, terrible pain, and rather than getting an AK-47 or retaliating or
becoming avengers or revengers, they actually grieve what happened to them,
they experience what happened to them, and in doing that something transforms
them and they then commit their lives to making sure it doesn’t happen to
anyone else. We call these people “Vagina Warriors.” In the “Waiting for
Mr. Alligator” chapter of the book I speak about how I waited my whole life
for somebody to rescue me. I waited for someone to make it better. Waiting was
better than killing someone! And I created this character named Mr. Alligator
who I thought would come and rescue me. I would wait for him all the time as a
kid. He didn’t come. But years later, V-Day went to Africa and we found
Agnes and we were able to give her the resources to build a safe house for
girls. I went to the opening of the house and in the midst of the celebration
I found myself walking down this path. Suddenly it was the path of my
childhood. In that moment I realized that I was no longer waiting.
Mr. Alligator had finally come. Here was this beautiful safe house we had
opened for girls to escape Female Genital Mutilation. In giving that I had
healed the broken part inside myself. When you give what you need the most,
you heal whatever is broken. What we are waiting for has always lived inside
I think what I
would say to anyone is - stop waiting. Stop retaliating. Stop living your life
as if you’re going to be rescued, and give what you need the most. And you
will heal and you will transform whatever pain is inside you.
Many people look at the world today and want to be a part of creating positive
change or a more hopeful future for humanity, but often times, really, they
honestly don’t even know where to start, or can’t imagine that they
themselves can make a difference. When I look at, you know, having known you
since the beginning of V-Day, and now, $40 million dollars later, and all this
work that you’re doing, and all this amazing art that you’ve created -
what advice do you have for people who are feeling powerless and helpless in
terms of just getting started?
What I would say is this: discover your fantasy of what you need the most,
what you would want someone to do for you the most, and then go out and give
it to someone else. I would say to give voice to what you know to be true, and
not be afraid of being disliked or exiled. Because I think that’s the hard
work of standing up for what you see.
do you keep from burning out or becoming discouraged? Or even giving in to
anger given all the injustices you’ve witnessed, and the fact that sometimes
it probably can feel like an uphill ride.
Some days I feel awful! I think being ‘insecure at last’ means you’re
actually where you are, you feel what you feel. Some days I just get in bed
and cry all day.
Some days I am
utterly furious at the state of the world. When I get a bad review it hurts.
When I get a good review it’s too aggrandizing. And part of being in a state
of insecurity is being truthful, saying, ‘OK, this is where I am today. How
do I go with this?’ as opposed to pretending I’m not where I am.
There are times when I am with people who have been terribly abused and
damaged, and then I can’t function for two days. And so I don’t function
for two days. And then there are times that are glorious when I look at this
V-Day movement spreading across the planet and I have never felt more hopeful
and more thrilled. And there are times when I look at this current
administration unwriting habeas corpus and giving up our central liberties,
and I think - we’re done! And there are times when I think, ‘oh my god,
we’re just beginning!’ And all those things live in me all the time.
And I don’t pretend they’re not there. And I think the way to survival is
to just honor whatever is inside you, and to keep letting it go through you,
as opposed to getting caught in any one identity that is false.
Because all those things are true all the time.
you could speak to all of the leaders of the world today, what would you want
to say to them?
I think I would ask people to look at the path we’re on. To really, really
think deeply about whether they are, first of all, interested in the
continuation of the human species or amassing their own power, and position
and wealth. And if the answer was that they were interested in the human
species going on, I would then say we all need to sit down and talk about how
we are going to shift from a military and violent paradigm into a humane
paradigm. Because I don’t think there is any other way now. For example,
although there may be some minor distinctions, the Democrats and Republicans
are both managers of the same empire. They are both fed by the same dominant
principles of aggression and violence. They are supported by the same
corporations. Wealth puts people in office and the elected officials then
serve the wealthy when they are in office. And until we offer a third way, I
don’t see that it’s going to shift.
What is your vision and prayer for the future? What would you like to see?
Oh, I would like to see a V Party. I would like to see a party that’s
founded on ending violence across the board – the violence of poverty, the
violence of oppression, the violence of rape, the violence of what we’re
doing to the Earth, the violence of health care deprivation. And I would like
to see us construct a new way, a new party, a new vision internationally, that
is about bringing equity to the world, balance to the world, so that you
don’t have 90% of the world totally impoverished, and 2% of the world owning
everything. You don’t have corporations where the shareholders have
everything and the workers have less than they have ever had in the history of
their life. You don’t have a country that’s sacrificing the future of the
environment and the globe to immediate needs and greed. You don’t have
people promoting policies that end up getting women raped and dishonored and
sold. I would like to see a new paradigm where holding women’s bodies’
sacred and honoring women’s lives become a priority. And that honoring the
Earth - because you know it is what sustains you - is a priority. And all of
us really getting that care, the principle of caring, is an
extraordinarily deep value. Right now we don’t value caring – it isn’t
even on the charts.
What is consuming your focus and thoughts now? I read that you are going to be
working on a book that focusing on the experiences of young girls?
The next piece I am working on is about teenage girls. I have been
interviewing girls and I am going to do some kind of theater piece musical,
and a book. And I may be doing this piece for HBO about love and
can’t remember who said that you were a force of nature, but you do seem to
exude so much energy into everything you do – and you have this amazing will
and capability to get these very ambitious things done – what do you think
is the source of all that energy in you?
You know, it’s hard to say. I mean, I think that I have a profound desire to
undo what was done to me. And to make sure it isn’t done to anyone else. And
I think I have a profound desire to really see if it’s possible for us to
evolve out of a violent paradigm, and out of a violent mentality, and to
actually know what the world would be like if we weren’t living in that.
I’m very curious about it. So I think the idea that we are murdering and
dropping bombs on people in Iraq and Lebanon, the idea that there are women
across this planet who have no rights, and cannot live their lives even a
quarter of the way they should be living, the idea that there are people
starving and living in dust, the idea that people have no voice and no life
– and that this is the only life we get – gets me up and gets me going
reason why I think this is the perfect time for your book is that – it seems
like we are going to this place right now where things seem almost
overwhelmingly chaotic and bad in so many different areas in the world, that
it’s almost makes me hopeful that perhaps it will wake us up and will become
apparent how wrongly off-course we are, in terms of human evolution, that it
may shift us back. That’s actually what I would like to think is happening
– that we’re going through a shift in consciousness.
I agree with you. Part of becoming ‘insecure at last’ is to give up the need
for “security” – and I’m talking about the idea of a security where
you are untouched by change, untouched by death (which, by the way, you’re
never going to be, because all life is change.) But were you to give
up that impossible idea and focus on freedom, on connection, on compassion –
I tell you, it’s a glorious life! It’s a glorious life. It is amazing
here in vulnerable land. It just occurred to me; it’s another “v” word
– “vulnerable land.” You know? It’s beautiful here in vulnerable land.