When I was a child I loved diving. Diving off. Diving in. Diving off high stone quarry walls. Diving off high diving boards. I loved climbing the long ladder to the top. I loved my sky blue onepiece bathing suit. I loved how fast and compact I was at ten. I loved practicing the approach. I see now everything is in the approach. How high you get, how focused your attention, how clear your desire for flight and clean entry. I loved my naked wet feet on the board. Loved the three steps, knee up, jump down on the bounce. I loved flying through time and space. Loved altering my body in air, loved moving with currents, loved grace. Loved flipping sometimes, or opening up like a swan. Loved entering the water without a trace (this happened very rarely). Loved the force of the dive pushing me deeper, pushing me under. Loved getting out of the water and doing it all over again. Loved practicing. Loved coming out of the pool with my hair slicked back; it made me feel like a water animal. Loved the way the water dripped and fell out of my bathing suit when I walked back to the board. Loved wearing a sweatshirt when I practiced ‘cause it made me feel brave. Loved my diving instructor. He was handsome and angular. His name was Jake.
Then there was my father and it all changed. He would sit in a deck chair by the pool. He called it “observing me,” like I was a storm brewing or some bacteria in a petri dish or something about to go bad. It made me nervous, him sitting there, smoking Lucky Strikes and observing me. It changed the nature of what I was doing. It made me aware of myself. It made me afraid. It made me think about what he was thinking rather than just flying through space. After each dive I would surface from the pool and he would give me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Mostly it was thumbs-down. He was so serious. I couldn’t mess up. But I did, over and over. I began to dive for his love, for his approval. Not for the joy of the jump on the bounce, or flying through space or making my body do new things. I began to sell my dives, began to see them as hard currency. Things that could win my father’s affection. It is where I learned to perform. High-diving girl-hooker tricks.
Sometimes I would look at him and try to guess what he was thinking during the dive and I would end up smashing my chest into the water. Sometimes I was so sure he hated what I was doing that I would ruin the dive before he could criticize me. On the rare occasion I got a thumbs-up, I would usually quit for the day ‘cause I was so so scared of failing after that. I lost the pleasure. I lost the privacy. I lost the discovery. I lost what was mine.
I had to be someone. My dives had to be the greatest. I had to be better than anyone else. I wasn’t diving anymore. I was racing, I was proving myself, I was trying to win.
This became the trajectory of my life. Racing, not diving. Winning, not discovering. Proving, not learning. Conquering, not being.
I think how much I have read that I did not read. I think how little I was able to learn. Information became currency. Know what you need to maintain security. Memorize facts in order to pass the exams. I think how many places I have traveled that I did not see, how many times I have had sex without losing myself ‘cause I was so worried about performing. I think how my father has been sitting there as I come up from a dive—a new piece I have written or a speech I have given. I think how many years I have longed for the weight of his gaze to be lifted and how at the same time I was afraid to lose it since I believed it was what motivated me and gave me direction.
I think how I learned then to compare myself to others and compete. How anyone who won at anything was the proof of what a loser I was. How desperate I was to win and how much shame I felt around my own desperation. Losing became so unbearable that eventually I turned to alcohol and drugs so I could stop engaging or competing at all. But even as a drunk, I had to be the worst, had to be the craziest, had to push myself to the edge. That way I would be the most significant loser. I think how, in the mad struggle to get where I thought I needed to go, I had no time or ability to ever be anywhere that I was.
And now I was about to open The Good Body in Washington, D.C., heart of the empire where government and corporations merge in greed and exploitation, turning the majority of the world into losers. Stupid me, to have thought I had something to say in the face of this power and arrogance and privilege. There I was, in another empty hotel room, e-mails coming in every minute from women all over the world with news of continuing violations from Yanar in Iraq in the darkest time of her country, unable to leave her house for fear of being gunned down by religious extremists the U.S. had unleashed in this ungodly war; from Esther, whose center, Casa Amiga, was desperate for funds as the bodies of poor factory women continued to turn up dead in Ciudad Juarez. I was alone, without a partner, feeling fat and old, comparing myself to everything and everyone shiny and successful and significant. I was back on the diving board, rushing my dive, not concentrating, not focused on what I love, looking out another millionth time for his—for the world’s—thumbs-up. I was missing my step on the board, landing flat on my chest, smashing and hurting myself. No grace. Flopping. Never amounting to anything. Never, never being anyone.
I stopped fighting it. I dissolved. I became no one. I lay on the floor and I cried and cried. I passed through to the other side. Then I passed out. I slept like I have never slept. I slept as if I had died.
The next day, my eyes swollen, I went for a walk in the capital. I was so tired and fragile. But there was this lightness, this sweetness, in me. I remembered it from long ago.
Out of nowhere I heard this gentle voice say, very matter-of-factly, “You are done. You already did it. You made something of your life. You can stop. You already dove for him. You can live your life now. Go on.” I breathed. It was hard to believe.
That night I opened in Washington, D.C. It was different this time. I was not thinking about how it looked or how I was being received. I was not thinking about critics or other playwrights or what I was going to be doing next to prove my worth. I was deeply in the story, flying through space, through currents of thoughts and feelings. I was lost in the mystery. I was dancing in the messy, wet world of the play. There were hundreds of people in the audience, yet no one was watching. I was not separated from them by my need for their approval. We were there together, struggling to find our way, working on our approach, our bounce, our courage, our height, our spin, our grace, our entry. My father was no longer in his chair smoking and observing. He was gone. He got the first fifty-two years of my life. The next ones are for diving.
Eve Ensler is an internationally acclaimed playwright and the founder and artistic director of V-Day, an organization to end violence against women that was inspired by Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. She lives in New York City.