Web-only interview with the celebrated playwright and activist Eve Ensler about her new book, “The Apology.” In the book, Ensler writes a letter to herself from the perspective of her father, who sexually and physically abused her throughout her childhood, beginning when she was just 5 years old.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Eve Ensler, the award-winning playwright, the author of The Vagina Monologues. She’s the founder of V-Day. Her new book is titled simply The Apology.
Actually, Eve, I was wondering if you could start by reading from your introduction. It’s just a book that you will start, and you won’t be able to put down. Eve?
EVE ENSLER: I am done waiting. My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.
This letter is an invocation, a calling up. I have tried to allow my father to speak to me as he would speak. Although I have written the words I needed my father to say to me, I had to make space for him to come through me. There is so much about him, his history, that he never shared with me, so I have had to conjure much of that as well.
This letter is my attempt to endow my father with the will and the words to cross the border, and speak the language, of apology so that I can finally be free.
AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, reading from her book, The Apology, speaking—she writes in the voice of her father, an apology to her, a woman who, as a child, was abused year after year, raped, assaulted by her very own father. I wanted to ask you about the issue of complicity—because obviously it takes more than one person, the assailant, to allow this to happen year after year—about your family, your sisters, your brother, your mother.
EVE ENSLER: I don’t really talk about my sister and brother, because I feel like it’s their story, and I don’t want to. I can talk about my mother. I feel like, again, going back to this denial. How do we live and not see what we see? Right? All the time we are not seeing what we’re actually seeing. And I think, in families, there is this thing that starts to happen where something’s going on and everybody begins to pretend it’s not going on, right? It’s that old elephant-in-the-middleof-the-room story, right? It’s like we won’t see that. I mean, look at this country right now, how many things we’re just learning how not to see, right? Look at climate change. Look at climate catastrophe. We all built in this mechanism now that we don’t see what we see. Right? I mean, I was listening to your report this morning on the CO2—right?—never been higher in 3 billion years or 3—however many years. We’re not seeing. So I think denial is really, really, really powerful.
AMY GOODMAN: I should have put it another way, and that is: What do you say to family members now about what they should do? Because isn’t it true that so often, for example, a father or, you know, abusive person in the family grooms one person, targets—
EVE ENSLER: Definitely.
AMY GOODMAN: —for some reason, only one in the family.
EVE ENSLER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, when they leave, may go after a younger one.
EVE ENSLER: I think my mother, when finally confronted, told me that there were many signs that I was being abused. I had chronic—I had chronic bladder infections. I had—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, from when you were a child, you had constant urinary tract infections.
EVE ENSLER: Oh, I was being brought to the doctor all the time. I had night terrors constantly. I was screaming every night in my sleep. My personality was radically changing.
I think what parents and family members have to do is be attuned to each other, pay attention to each other. Is there radical change in behavior in your brother or sister? Because boys get abused, as well. Is there—is there something going on inside, where you’re seeing that your sister is suddenly emotionally bizarre and withdrawing or acting out or being bizarre? Talk to the people. As a mother, say to your daughter, say to your son, “Here are your sexual rights. Here are the rights that you have over your body. Nobody can touch you without being—without your consent. Nobody can invade your body that you don’t talk to somebody about, if anybody touched.” Be direct with your children. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about their bodies. If you’re in school, tell them, “If somebody touches you, if somebody takes you into a room and tells you not to tell anybody, you come home, and you tell me right away. If anybody invades you or”—see, we have to have discussions about this stuff.
And part of it is, we live in such a still puritanical society that everyone is so prudish and so afraid to talk about sex. The truth of the matter is, at 5 years old, you can be raped and invaded. And at 5 year old, your body is sexually awake. You can have orgasms at 5 years old. You are present. You are alive in your body. So you need somebody to be talking to you about what sex is and what sex isn’t. It’s not going to mess you up. It’s going to inform you. It’s going to protect you. It’s going to educate you.
And I think if I were going to say one thing we need in this country more than anything in the world, it’s real sexual education, about what is—what is incest, what is a sexual invasion, what is predator behavior, what—so girls know what that is, and they can go, “Oh, that’s not right. That’s not appropriate. Stop that. I don’t accept you doing that to me. I’m going to tell my mother.” “Well, I’m going to kill you.” “No, you’re not. I’m going to go tell my mother.” Because you’ve prepared your child for that. Instead, we pretend it’s not happening, we deny it, and then children are wildly abused and destroyed for years to come.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about the emotional violence your father inflicted on you, I mean, in addition, of course, to the physical violence. He told your future husband you’d been a horrible child? You write, your father cursed your future of love. Talk about that.
EVE ENSLER: Well, I mean, I think there’s so many ways that my father cursed my future of love, right? I think when somebody invades your body early on sexually, it’s such a mind-blank. You are so confused. It’s the person you love the most in the world. You adore this person, so there’s something weirdly pleasurable about it. At the same time, you know it’s totally wrong. You somehow feel like you’re betraying—you’re part of betraying your mother. You feel invaded. You feel—
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you’re the chosen one.
EVE ENSLER: Exactly. And somehow you’re the most special one. You’re the one he loves the most. So you’re all excited by that, and you feel good about that. Everything is the opposite inside you. So, what it does is it completely destroys your ability to be intimate with anybody, because all those feelings come up. It destroys your yearning, because when somebody has—first of all, daughters are supposed to long for their fathers. That’s part of how we develop our sexuality. If someone exploits that, it kills your yearning. Your yearning for your father, or, as a boy, for your mother, is what develops your sexuality. If that’s already taken, you don’t have yearning. Right? Like, you’ve peaked at 5 years old, right? You’ve had the ultimate experience, which has destroyed you simultaneously at a very young age. And I think he cursed my ability to love, because I felt guilty, I felt betrayed, I felt—and I felt special. And then, when he turned on me, I was no one forever. So, how was I then going to be in a relationship with anybody?
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you do it? How did you recuperate?
EVE ENSLER: It took years. It took years. I mean, I think it was step by step. It was therapy. It was body work. It was a 12-step program. It was being in a community. It was activism. And it was writing. It was like I wrote myself out of this. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote myself out of this.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about this particular book. I didn’t think you could surpass In the Body of the World, your previous book and Broadway show. As a one-woman show, you—that was about cancer, but it was also about abuse, and it was also about self-love and everything else. From that, you come off the stage, and you—I don’t want to say “descend into.”
EVE ENSLER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what I want to ask you—the writing of this book. Talk about the process—now, again, for people who are just tuning in, the process of writing your own father’s apology, who died 30 years ago. You write the apology for him, in his voice, to you.
EVE ENSLER: It was a wild, amazing process. I can only describe it is, I went inside almost like a trance state for four solid months.
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
EVE ENSLER: Up in the country. I did nothing but this. I just went in, every morning, every noon, every night, except I had five days’ break where I had to go to the Nobel Peace Prize to support Dr. Mukwege. But besides that, I was in this.
And I’ll tell you, it was very amazing, because I discovered that the dead really need to be in dialogue with us. They need it. They’re all around us. They need us to be in communication with them, to get free, to make sense of where they are.
And it would be weird. Like, I’d wake up suddenly at 4:00 in the morning, and I’d hear my father say, “Go to your office. I want to tell you a story.” So I’d go to my office, and he’d tell me this story. And I’d be like, “Whoa, OK. Never knew that happened to you.” I’d write it down. You know, it was that kind of process.
And there were some days when it was agonizing, where I’d find myself curled up in front of the fire in a fetal position. And there were some days where it was completely revelatory, where I’d go, “Oh! That’s why he did this! That’s what led him to make me a liar.” He had to delegitimize me so I would never tell anybody what he had done. “Oh, duh. I get it.” So, it was a step-by-step, daily—I don’t know even how to describe what it was. It was—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you have a moment of finishing?
EVE ENSLER: Oh, I did. I did. When he wrote that last line—”Old man, be gone”—and I really couldn’t distinguish in that moment if it was him or if it was me saying it, it was like—and you know at the end of Peter Pan when Tinker Bell is there and suddenly goes swooooop, it was really that feeling. He was like gone.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you read the end of the book? Or—
EVE ENSLER: I can.
AMY GOODMAN: I thought that was interesting. We asked you to read a part of the book, before the show, on the show, and you said, “No, a man has to do that.”
EVE ENSLER: I won’t ever read this book. I’m only going to have men read this book. I feel really strongly about that. And it was—
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning read out loud.
EVE ENSLER: Read out loud, yeah, because I feel it—last night, I heard James Norton read it for the first—you know, really read this publicly for the first time. And it was so chilling, and it was so powerful. And I know that this can only be read out loud in the voice of men, in a man’s voice, because that’s what this is, you know? And as I said to a person who’s talking to me about producing this as a play, I think many people, particularly women, will come to hear this play because they haven’t ever heard a man give an apology. So, it will be like a foreign language they will be coming to hear.
AMY GOODMAN: Eve, I know that you have to leave, and I wanted to ask you—because I think the personal is political, you demonstrate this every day of your life—about what recently happened at the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. coming under enormous fire for what it did around reproductive and sexual health. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to end rape as a weapon of war last month, but it excluded any mention of sexual and reproductive health. The resolution was gutted after the U.S. threatened to veto the measure altogether unless language referencing reproductive health was taken out. That’s because supposedly the Trump administration was concerned that the language was code for abortion.
EVE ENSLER: Abortion, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: The watered-down measure also weakened references to the International Criminal Court, making it harder for women and girls to seek justice. One of these rare moments where the French ambassador said this is outrageous, what has taken place. Can you talk about the significance of this?
EVE ENSLER: I will.
AMY GOODMAN: Because you have worked on not only issues, of course, in the United States, but you’re known for your global activism, helping to found the City of Joy in the Congo, where women who have been brutally raped, and girls, are operated on by the now-Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dr. Mukwege. You went to the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo to be with him and Nadia Murad, the two people who won the prize this year, fighting sexual violence.
EVE ENSLER: I think this is truly one of the more staggering things this administration has done. It’s just staggering upon staggering. I think the pile just mounts. But I will say, what this is saying to the world—what this is saying to the world, that the United States is now no longer supporting a resolution to stop rape in conflict, is going to license rape everywhere. I mean, we have fought for years and years and years to get this resolution. And, you know, I don’t mean to keep making these comparisons, but when I heard Pompeo the other day talking about why he was so thrilled that the glaciers were melting, because it could escalate the speed of our trade routes—
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance. It houses 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds and millions of square miles of untapped resources. … Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade.
EVE ENSLER: —there was a parallel there. There was a parallel there. It’s like we’ve got to plow through the world. We’ve got to rape through the world. We’ve got to take whatever we can for growth, for consumption. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the Earth or women’s bodies. We’ve got to control all the players, so that they can’t have an impact on the situations. And look. Look at this administration. From the day after the Women’s March, the gag rule happened. They have been beating and beating and beating down women’s rights and reproductive rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Which is metaphoric, as well as real, the day after a million—more than a million women marched all over the country.
EVE ENSLER: And 5 million in the world, the gag rule. I mean, come on. It’s like step by step by step. Their desire to shut women down, to make sure women are completely unprotected, and to make sure violence against women, which is the methodology that sustains patriarchy, is alive, is their deepest agenda. And we have a predator-in-chief. Come on. We have a rapist, a predator, who is our president. So why would we think he would care about ending rape in war zones? Why?
AMY GOODMAN: So, what gives you hope?
EVE ENSLER: What gives me hope? What gives me hope is all the amazing grassroots activists around this country and around this world who are rising up. I think that Trump is kind of the escalation of the—he’s the apex, the hologram of the racist, patriarchal nightmare. But I think it’s all up now, and I have hope that grassroots activists, that people around the world are going to rise with their best intentions and fight to remove him in the next election and make sure we begin a new time of reckoning, of love, of compassion and no more wars.
AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright, author of The Vagina Monologues, founder of V-Day. Her new book is titled The Apology. She travels around the country now and different places in the world, as she talks about what an apology can sound like, can look like, can feel like. It’s an important book to read.
This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.