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Living in the Gray

Author: Tamara Blum

I stumbled across this book excerpt by Eve Ensler, author of the play The Vagina Monologues and survivor of cancer, anorexia, and child sexual abuse. In her new memoir, In The Body of the World, she draws parallels between her fight against cancer and the violence endured by the women of war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo. With stunning candor and conciseness, she gives a personal face to the connection between attachment, eating disorders, and child abuse:

"A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. It says you are here. Without this body against your body there is no place. I envy people who miss their mother. Or miss a place or know something called home. The absence of a body against my body created a gap, a hole, a hunger. This hunger determined my life.

I have been exiled from my body. I was ejected at a very young age and I got lost. I did not have a baby. I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy. I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the pace of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the Earth. I aggrandized my alien identity and wore black and felt superior. My body was a burden. I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs.

The absence of a body against my body made attachment abstract. Made my own body dislocated and unable to rest or settle. A body pressed against your body is the beginning of nest. I grew up not in a home but in a kind of free fall of anger and violence that led to a life of constant movement, of leaving and falling. It is why at one point I couldn’t stop drinking and fucking. Why I needed people to touch me all the time. It had less to do with sex than location. When you press against me, or put yourself inside me. When you hold me down or lift me up, when you lie on top of me and I can feel your weight, I exist. I am here. (p.53)"

Woven into this narrative is the idea of managing life in a polarized way. Survivors of difficult childhoods often swing between feeling numb and feeling overwhelmed. Ensler describes managing difficult emotions by distancing herself from her body. Without having the basic needs for physical safety and emotional attunement met when she was most vulnerable as a child, she became an adult who managed life by restricting: restricting emotion, food, connection to the Earth, and interpersonal intimacy. Being human, the only way to cope long-term with restriction is to binge, as Ensler did with alcohol and non-intimate sex.

Dr. Love (yes, that’s really her name) writes about how even in more ordinary, loving families a similar dynamic of wounding can be created. We are “born needy, vulnerable to emotional injury, and 100 percent dependent. In order to survive and thrive, we need consistent nurturing from loving and reliable caretakers. When our parents fail to respond to our needs, or when they misinterpret our needs, we experience psychological wounding.” She goes on to describe this wounding as “tragic”, because even with children lucky enough to have well-meaning, well-intentioned parents, to one degree or another, “we all go through childhood with unmet needs and struggle most of our adult lives trying to satisfy them.” (p. 118) Common ways to get these needs met include building adult love relationships, raising children, finding meaningful work, as well as less healthy ways including all the “ism’s”: alcoholism, workaholism, spending and food addictions.

A wise therapist once said to me that the way you do food is the way you do everything. Think about it. Think about your way of managing your relationships, your emotions, your finances, your work responsibilities, even how you watch television. Are there any ways you can relate to Ensler in her all or nothing approach to life? One important goal of therapy can be to counter this polarized way of feeling and relating to yourself and others, and move towards living in life’s gray areas.

Ensler, Eve (2013). In the Body of the World- excerpt from Ms. Magazine (Spring 2013).

Love, Patricia (1990). The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to do when a parent’s love rules your life. New York: Bantam Books.


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