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The Congo stigmata

Friday, 31 May 2013 12:12 Written by 

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The Congo stigmata

Writer of The Vagina Monologues fame, Eve Ensler is known for her stark writing. In this excerpt from her gritty new memoir, In the Body of the World, she narrates her experiences with rape victims in Congo

There are no accidents. Or may be everything is an accident. My friend Paul says to me, “It’s like you’ve got Congo Stigmata.” Well, actually, almost everyone said it in one way or another. “It doesn’t surprise me, Eve, of course. All those stories of rape over all these years. The women have entered you.” And at first I pushed this away because it’s not really a great advertising for activism. Come care about others, listen to their stories and their pain, and you can contact it too. Then immediately after the surgery, the doctors told me that they had discovered inside me that they had rarely seen before. Cells of endometrial (uterine) cancer had created a tumor between the vagina and bowel and had “fistulated” the rectum. Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.


Dr Handsome, my colon doctor, e-mailed Dr Deb the day after the surgery and said he had been unable to sleep because he was so in awe of the mystery of what they had found. He said, “These findings are not medical, they are not science. They are spiritual.”


I have always been drawn to holes. Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas. Obstetric fistulas occur because of extended difficult labor. Neccesary blood is unable to flow to the tissues of the vagina and the bladder. As a result, the tissues die and a hole forms through which urine or feces flow uncontrollably. In the Congo fistulas have been caused by rape, in particular gang rape, and rape with foreign objects like bottles or sticks. So many thousands of women in eastern Congo have suffered fistulas from rape that the injury is considered a crime of combat.


After three trips to the Congo, I needed to see a fistula. I asked to sit in on a reparative operation. I need to know the shape of this hole, the size of this hole. I needed to know what a woman’s insides looked like when her most essential cellular tissue had been punctured by a stick or penis or penises. Wearing a mask and gown, I peered into this woman’s vagina, as she lay on her back, legs spread, her feet tied to steel stirrups with strips of bluegreen rags made from old hospital uniforms. As always, I was awed by the vagina, so intricate, so simple, so delicate. There in the lining was an undeniable hole, a rip, a tear in the essential story. It was almost a perfect circle, the size of a quarter may be, too big to prevent things from getting in or from falling out. I couldn’t help but think of the sky, of the membrane of the sky and the rip in the ozone. Humans had become hole makers. Bullet holes and drilled holes, hurt holes, greed holes, rape holes. Holes in membrane that function to protect the surface or bodily organ. Holes in the ozone layer that prevent the sun’s ultraviolet light from reaching the earth’s surface. Holes that cause mutation of bacteria and viruses and an increase in skin cancers. Holes, gaps in our memory from trauma. Holes that destroy the integrity, the possibility of wholeness, of fullness. A hole that would determine the rest of this woman’s life, would prevent her from holding her pee or poop, would destroy sex or make it very difficult, would undermine her having a baby, would require many painful operations and still might not be fixed. As I stood there in mask and gown, I realised I had stopped breathing. This woman’s vagina was a map of the future, and I could feel myself falling, falling through the hole in the world, the hole in myself, the hole that was made when my father invaded me and I lost my way. The hole that was made when the social membrane was torn by incest. Falling through the hole in this woman. I was falling. I have always been falling. But this time was different.


From Falling, Or
Congo Stigmata, Page 41

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