Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler figured out who she really was—but it took a while
Hip Hot Spots
Let Them Eat Lifestyle
The Queen of Cool
Are Black People Cooler than White People?
How I Escaped My Addiction to Hip
It Took a Village
Being hip almost killed me.
I grew up in Scarsdale, a grotesquely wealthy suburb of New York City, and I failed at striving early on. I always had the wrong clothes, and I never had a car, a phone, social skills, a nose job, a Bat Mitzvah, or a dot of confidence. My father began to sexually molest me when I was five. Then, guilty, he rejected me with a shocking vengeance: constantly criticizing me, cursing me, beating me. I was a terrified mess, hungry for love, desperate for friends. My peers smelled it and hated me for it. In junior high, they even formed an Eve-haters club. I felt dirty, ugly, suicidal. I lived in a continual state of longing and despair.
Then the '60s happened.
The '60s released me—or so I thought—from my crying need to fit in. For the first time, I could be who I really was—an outsider. It was hip, and hip was my refuge. Hip made me feel safe.
Grace Slick was my icon, everything I longed to be: outrageous and cool, beautiful and tough, a woman inventing her life, heeding her desires. I dressed like her, talked in a deep voice like her, and even became a singer in a rock band (despite being so tone deaf that the band leader secretly turned off my microphone during performances). When Grace came to New York, I snuck out to the late shows at the Fillmore East to bring her feathers, stones, and other trinkets.
My father became progressively more tyrannical and violent. But he could no longer reach me. I had become immune to his cruelty and disapproval. I had learned to disguise my hunger for love with a look, a style, and a dare.
Then I got involved with Billy, a heroin addict with a Triumph motorcycle. He took me away after I finished high school to a commune in Vermont, where I discovered booze, sex, drugs, and raw cashews. I became a wild hippie girl and soon got caught up in a new kind of striving. The striving to break things apart, to explode suburbia, authority, mediocrity and comfort. The striving to challenge the status quo. Finally I had something I believed in. I became a kind of performer, a provoker. People were awed when I took off my clothes at demonstrations or when I smuggled large quantities of drugs across state lines. They were scared when I didn't sleep for weeks at a time. They were awed and scared, but they couldn't love me. I wasn't there.
My status as a hip person rested largely on the fact that I lived dangerously, on the cutting edge. So I needed to keep pushing the limits, to be more and more outrageous. But the hipper I got—in my own mind anyway—the more removed and distant I became. By the time college was over, I had all but disintegrated. I moved to New York City, hoping to finally disappear. I spent my nights drifting in and out of alcoholic blackouts in after-hours clubs, sleeping with Mafia hit men and Italian butch dykes, waking in sleazy hotels and bedrooms. My politics and values had long since vanished. I was looking more pathetic than hip.
One night I came out of a blackout and discovered a Mafia guy banging my head against a bar and ripping off my necklaces as his friends stood by casually watching. Although I was numb from the booze, it was clear even to me that something had gone badly wrong. This was not hip. I was dying, and I couldn't figure out the cause.
I moved to Greenwich Village to find safety and salvation. I worked as a waitress and met a bartender, Mac, who was sober. We fell in love, and I pretended to stop drinking. But one night Mac and I were walking home from work, and I went into another blackout. Then, I later learned, I picked up a sharp piece of glass on the street, sat down on the sidewalk, and tried to cut my wrists.
That was it.
I came very close to dying, but, thanks to Mac and others, I was saved. I don't know how really. Oh, I know the literal mechanisms: the recovery program, the kind and amazing people who supported me. But the real how is still a mystery. I know that I wanted to stay alive more than anything. And if that meant living as a square nobody, I was willing.
Drinking was my mask. I was terrified of giving it up, because I thought if I did I would become a straight person again, a girl from the suburbs. Though I didn't know it then, I was also terrified of all the things I'd repressed for years: sadness, grief, anger, longing. I was terrified of my desire to belong, my hunger to be loved.
Without alcohol and drugs, I was stripped raw. My self-hatred and low self-esteem became toxic. I craved fame as a substitute for getting high and began trying to make it as a writer. If I was famous, hip, somebody—I said to myself—it would fill the terrible emptiness inside me. Fortunately, I didn't get what I wanted. Pain forced me inside.
During those years, I discovered in therapy some terrifying aspects of myself. I was, in fact, terribly shy; I craved intimacy and a monogamous relationship. I discovered that I really loved clothes, make-up, clean sheets, and my own bathroom, and that despair and suicide no longer felt romantic. I discovered that my real safe place was in my authentic values and beliefs, not some abstract notion of hip. Most of all, I discovered that I could find myself in my writing, which I no longer did to chase success, but for survival.
What never left me was the outrage, the desire to change the world. By then, it was the '90s, and hip had become some bizarre exclusive class of people—empty, cynical, and part of the capitalist machine. Hip had become a style thing, a heroin-eyed/anorexic/Calvin Klein/don't give a shit/help yourself/life sucks/become a commodity/make money/greed thing. I wanted to be useful. I wanted women to stop being abused and ethnic wars to end, racism to stop, and people to care about the earth.
Then suddenly all these hip people started coming into my life. They came, I think, because I no longer needed them for validation. They came to serve the work I was doing.
One night, not long ago, I found myself standing on a Broadway stage after a benefit performance of my play about Bosnian refugees. Next to me was Meryl Streep, who had just performed the work. She was hugging me. We were crying. The audience was crying. We were all momentarily suspended in a state of grace. That miraculous state that comes sometimes in the theater when we find our humanity together.
How did I get there? Alchemy, I suppose. The alchemy of years in therapy, in rape groups, in recovery. The alchemy of years working in homeless shelters, protesting in city parks, and visiting refugee camps. The alchemy of being loved deeply by a good man and a tender son and supportive friends. The alchemy of writing and more writing.
Those years melted the hunger away. In that moment with Meryl Streep, it all came together. For a few seconds, I felt totally liquid, there and not there, somebody and nobody, full and yet somehow empty. I felt proud and irrelevant.
I like to think of this as hip.
Eve Ensler is a playwright and screenwriter. Her most recent work, the Obie Award–winning play, The Vagina Monologues, will be published by Villard in February 1998.
Part of Utne Reader cover story, November/December 1997.