Playwright and activist Eve Ensler is the bestselling author of The Vagina Monologues and the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women. She is one of Newsweek’s 150 Women who Changed the World, and the Guardian’s 100 Most Influential Women.
Ensler endured years of physical and emotional violence by her father, and has waited much of her life for an apology. In her new book, The Apology, she writes, from her father’s point of view, the words she has always needed to hear. Ensler’s message has the power to prompt transformation and healing, not only in those who have been abused, but also in their abusers. The CJN interviewed Ensler during a recent promotional tour stop in Toronto.
Describe your book.
It’s a letter I wrote to myself from my father apologizing to me, taking responsibility for the sexual and physical abuse of my childhood and my teenage years, and I think it was a way of really going deeply inside his motivations and looking at how each thing led to the next thing. In writing the book, it became very clear that when we rob boys of their tenderness, when we bring up boys so they can’t cry, so they can’t wonder, we kill their hearts and we numb them to the point where they have to split off all those feelings that are not allowed. When I was born, all that incredible tenderness that my father was feeling, he had no capacity to feel. No one ever allowed him tenderness, or to feel tenderness, so when it came up, he had to do something – he had to own it, have it, rape it, destroy it, exploit it.
Why did you wait until now to write The Apology?
When you survive an enormous amount of physical and sexual abuse, it takes many years to climb out of the ashes and find your way. I don’t think I could have written it five years ago. What really cata-lyzed it was having worked in this move-ment to end violence against all women for the last 21 years, and thinking about all the women who came before me, and then all the women in the #MeToo movement who have broken our silence, and how we have called men out.
I was thinking, “I never heard a man, in all that time, make a public, thorough, authentic apology,” and it hit me: this is a big piece of the story. Why hasn’t this happened? I thought of how long I have been waiting for my own apology from my own father – it’s been 31 years since he died. I would like his apology. Why am I waiting for it when I could sit down and write the words? I wrote this hoping it would free me, but also hoping it would be a possible blueprint or pathway for men.
What does an apology mean to you and how will this narrative create a dialogue and perhaps a movement for others to follow?
I think in writing the book I had to learn the anatomy of an apology – what goes into a true and satisfactory apology. I asked myself, “What do I need in order to get free?”
It’s humbling on the part of the perpetrator. It’s becoming vulnerable. It’s an equalizer. It’s making a detailed accounting of what you have done, because the liberation is in the details. It’s going into your intention. It’s feeling what your victim felt, and opening your heart to the impact and the emotional, physical, psychological long-term damage you caused in her. It’s allowing yourself to actually feel responsible, emotionally and psychologically, for what you’ve done. And then it’s evidencing that you have gone back in your own childhood, your own life, to examine the things that led you to become a person who is capable of doing what you’ve done, so that it is then clear you couldn’t possibly do this again.
When you were writing the letter, it appears you wanted your father to recognize and own up to his own failings, but also how it impacted you.How difficult was that?
The harder part of the book was going back into my father’s childhood and seeing his pain, seeing what had turned him from a tender, open, vulnerable, sweet and wondrous boy into a sadist. Looking at that journey of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, I didn’t want to know my father’s pain for so long. I was in such a rage, and to feel my father’s pain, to see where he got broken, this terrifying entity became a broken, sad, needy little boy, so he lost power over me.
In your book, you wrote that your father dreamed of studying the Torah. Tell me about your Jewish roots.
My father was Jewish. He was the only one in his family that married a shiksa. We were not brought up Jewish, and yet we lived in a Jewish community. We would go to bar mitzvahs every weekend. It was very confusing.
What did you learn from writing this book?
I learned a lot about my father, and I learned that no one is born with a machete in his hands, and no one is born a pedophile. I think if we are really going to change, if we are really talking about evolution of humanity in a way where we are going to survive as a species, we can’t keep punishing people. We can’t keep locking people up in prisons and punishing them, because it actually creates more violence.
Once my father had sexually abused me, and had seen the consequences of it, how screwed up I was – it was daily evidence, a reminder of what he had done – I think at that point he wanted to erase me. Until I left home, that’s what he attempted to do. How ironic is it that I have now written a book writing an apology for my father, who never apologized to me, who made me apologize to him every day of my life? It feels so good. It’s redemption.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.