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The Apology: Eve Ensler’s New Book Is the Letter She Wishes Her Abusive Father Had Written

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“I am done waiting.” Those are the first words in Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking new book, “The Apology,” in which the world-renowned playwright and activist imagines what it would mean for a survivor of abuse to hear the words she’s been waiting for her entire life: “I’m sorry.” Eve Ensler’s father sexually and physically abused her throughout her childhood, beginning when she was just 5 years old. His abuse caused immeasurable physical and emotional damage, but he never apologized for his actions. So Eve Ensler decided to write an apology for him, decades after his death. The result is a stunning new book in which Ensler writes to herself from her father’s perspective. In the book’s introduction, she writes, “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 can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.” Ensler says that she hopes the book will be a blueprint for an “age of reckoning.” Eve Ensler is the author of “The Vagina Monologues” and the founder of V-Day, an international movement to stop violence against women and girls. Ensler dedicates her new book to every woman still waiting for an apology.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Apology. That’s the name of a groundbreaking new book by the world-renowned playwright and activist Eve Ensler that imagines what it would mean for a survivor of abuse to hear the words she has been waiting for her entire life: “I’m sorry.”

AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler’s father sexually and physically abused her throughout her childhood, beginning when she was just 5 years old. His abuse caused immeasurable physical and emotional damage, but he never apologized for his behavior. So decades after the abuse and his death, Eve Ensler decided to write an apology for him. The result is a stunning new book in which Eve writes to herself from her father’s perspective.

In the book’s introduction, she writes, quote, “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 can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.”

Eve Ensler is the well-known author of The Vagina Monologues. Over 20 years ago, in 1998, she launched V-Day, an international movement to stop violence against women and girls. She has dedicated her new book to every woman still waiting for an apology.

Eve Ensler, welcome back to Democracy Now!

EVE ENSLER: Thank you. Good morning. Very happy to be here on the publication date.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is really an honor to be here as you launch this book. Eve, talk about what prompted you to do this extremely unusual book, act. I mean, what you must have gone through to write this.

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think there were several factors that kind of inspired me to do this. One was having worked in the movement to end violence against women for 21 years and looking at the recent iteration of #MeToo, how many women have broken the silence, how many women have told their stories, how many women have called men out. We see a few men losing their jobs—white men, in particular, getting them back fairly quickly. We see a couple of people maybe going to prison, some losing status.

But I was thinking, in all this time, particularly in this recent: When have we heard a man who has been accused come forward and make a thorough, deep, authentic accounting and apology for his deeds? And not only could I not think of one example, but I went back in thousands of years of patriarchy, and think: When have I ever read that happen? When has a man ever come forward and—and I mean an apology, where you detail an account of the harms you have done and the actions you have taken, where you go inside the feelings, the heart, the body of your victim to try to experience what she felt, where you take full accountability for your actions, and you evidence, through that, a process of self-interrogation, which means you could not possibly do that act again.

We’ve seen a few men come forward who have spoken out about being called out, but they seem to be more kind of self-piteous rants about the loss of jobs or the loss of face. And then I thought to myself, well, I’ve been waiting 60 years for an apology from my father, who died 31 years ago. Maybe I could write the apology I need to hear, to write the words that I need in order to get free, and possibly that could be a blueprint for what we could begin in our movement as the next stage of reckoning.

Because we can only call out men—like punishment is such a weird thing, right? It curtails behavior momentarily, but it doesn’t necessarily educate or transform people so that they will not repeat that behavior again. We have to move to the next level, where we create a pathway and we create an impetus, and men are catalyzed to begin to make deep and thorough accountings and look at themselves and say, “What about my childhood brought me here? What about toxic, racist patriarchy brought me here? What in my own history do I have to go back and re-examine and look at? And how do I make amends so that my victim or the person I have harmed can be released from this story and move on?” That was the basic premise.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s a really powerful book. What you have to do in order to achieve that goal is to actually, in essence, do an autobiography of your own father, go into his own development, his own history, what he was feeling. And I’m wondering—it must’ve been emotionally draining to have to write this.

EVE ENSLER: Slightly. I mean, I think, for many of us—and I just want to say this book is an offering; it’s not a prescription. I think there are many people who have no desire for an apology and don’t want to hear an apology, and I was certainly that way for many, many years of my life. It’s not a have-to. It’s like, if this works for you, do it.

But I will say something. You know, for so many years my father was this monolithic monster to me, right? And yet I was in a kind of paradigmatic vice with him, right? I was still victim to his perpetrator. Even my whole life has been framed by that paradigm, right? All my work, my writing has been framed. So, my refusal to really know my father kept me in that paradigm, because he remained monolithic monster to my victim.

The process of entering my father—or, should I say, letting my father enter me, because I do feel, to a large degree, he was very present through the writing of this book—I feel like I went into a strange trance state for four months, where I felt he was present with me and talking to me. I don’t even know some of the language that he wrote in this book. It’s not my words. It’s not my voice. Learning about my father’s story, where he came from, the steps in his own childhood, in his own patriarchal upbringing, in his own abusive upbringing, that led him to become the person—were profoundly healing for me.

Because I think most survivors are caught in the why. Right? Whether you have survived racial abuse or gender abuse or—you’re caught in why: Why would someone beat me up because of the color of my skin? Why would my own father—why would my own father try to kill his daughter? Why? Why? And doing this book, in doing, I began to unpack the why. It was like, “Oh, this happened to my father, and this.” That isn’t justification; it’s explanation. And I think there’s a big difference between justification and explanation. I think when you deepen—Emma Goldman once said, “We can’t forgive people until we understand people.” And I think that gave me a pathway to begin to say, “Oh.” Now, that didn’t mean it wasn’t incredibly painful to go into my father and learn about my father and feel his pain, because for so long I didn’t want to.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to you. You talk about your father as “Shadow Man.” Explain what happened.

EVE ENSLER: Well, I think, for my father, he was brought up in that era. He was a child that was born long after the last child in the family, like 15 years. He was going to be that golden boy who was going to take the family to a whole new direction and raise their economic status. And he was adored. But adoration is a very damaging thing. It doesn’t allow you to be a human being. You can’t be messed up. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t be tender. You can’t cry. You can’t be lost. So, my father, all those feelings that he had, he just kept pushing underground and pushing underground and pushing underground. And then he kind of created this very charming veneer, which he adapted from the movies and Cary Grant and all those kind of contemporary movie stars at that time. So, all that dark, disturbing—you know, the stuff he was not allowing him to accept got pushed under.

And I think, at my birth, the kind of birth of his tender baby daughter evoked so much tenderness in my father and so much vulnerability in my father that he had no capacity to deal with that, because he had smothered his own. He had smothered his own heart. He didn’t have any way to go, “Oh my god.” And so, what he did is what the Shadow Man would do. He went for it. He had it. He raped it. He grabbed it. He took it. He diminished it. You know what I mean? He conquered it. He had dominion over it, rather than just letting himself be at the mercy of it.

I was listening to Arundhati Roy the other night talk about leaving bauxite in the mountains. Can you just look at the mountains? Can you just leave the bauxite in the mountains? And I was thinking, it’s no different than women’s bodies or a little girl’s body. Can you just honor the tenderness? Can you just look at the tenderness and appreciate the tenderness? And the answer is, if you don’t have a capacity to be vulnerable, if you don’t have a capacity to stand in your own tenderness, no, you have to seize it and dominate it and exploit it and take it. And sex is the way, and rape is the way, to avoid that tenderness. So I think that began the journey.

AMY GOODMAN: So this started when you were like 5 years old?

EVE ENSLER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you recall these memories?

EVE ENSLER: It was, like I said—I mean, I have known pieces of my story. I have never allowed myself to really put it all down, to just go, “Here is what happened.” And I think, in writing the book, because I was writing it from my father’s point of view, I suddenly had memories that I had never had before, because he was the carrier of the memories. Do you know what I mean?

And I’ll tell you something interesting that I learned, and I want to say this to other survivors: We carry our perpetrator inside us. We carry them. If someone enters your body, if someone beats you, if someone harasses you, if someone rapes you, they enter you. And particularly family members, because we live with them. We know their movements. We know their footsteps. We know what the sound of a cocktail sounds like after four. We know what that can do to us, if they’re going to beat us, if they’re going to harm us.

So I had been in dialogue with my father for many, many years, whether it was conscious or not, inside me. And what I realized in the course of writing this book is that we can actually turn the perpetrator inside us in another direction. I actually could change my father inside me from a monster to an apologist, from a monolithic creature to a broken, real human—tender human being.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact on the rest of your family, and the failure of others
around you, especially in terms of your mother, to protect you?

EVE ENSLER: Well, you know, that’s a really interesting question. Last night, somebody was asking—at the Y event, you know, they were talking about women, white women who voted for Trump, and are there parallels. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And you are talking about the 92nd Street Y, where you were interviewed by Glenn Close.

EVE ENSLER: Right, and James Naughton performed the piece so beautifully. And I was thinking, you know, my mother was a woman who had grown up very poor from Missouri. She did not have money. She met my father, who was this charming—right?—you know, exterior New Yorker. And it was her road out. It was her economic road out. And by the time my father began doing what he was doing, she already had two children. Right? She had no money. She had no formal education. What was my—

AMY GOODMAN: Your brother and sister.

EVE ENSLER: Yeah, my mother had no formal education. So, where was she going with her children? And I also think, at that time, whether my mother knew it consciously, unconsciously, no one talked about any of this at that moment. I don’t think my mother felt agency enough in her life to protect her children. And at one point she actually said to me, “I sacrificed you. I sacrificed you.”

AMY GOODMAN: Did she say this when you were a child or as a woman?

EVE ENSLER: As an adult, when I confronted her about what happened. Several months after I talked to her, she said, “I sacrificed you. You were what I had to give up to keep the way of life that we had.” And I think sometimes fear, you know, terror—my father was terrifying. I think in some ways my mother was the fourth child. Do you know what I mean? We were all under the tyranny of his bullying, of his anger, of his violent outbreaks, of sort of like the state of mind that we’re in in America today.

AMY GOODMAN: You were the keynote speaker at your graduation. What was your dad’s response?

EVE ENSLER: Mm. Oh, that was a horrible moment. Yes, I gave the keynote speech on feminism and racial justice. I was 22 years old. I walked outside to light a cigarette, because I was completely—and my father was there, and he lit my cigarette. This was after I spoke to thousands of people. And he had a cigarette. He stood there silently, never mentioned the speech, never said a word about the speech. Time passed. Eventually he said—reached in his pocket, and he handed me a check for $1,000, he shook my hand, and he said, “Have a good life.”

It was as if someone had taken a fist and punched it into the center of my being and knocked me out. And I have to tell you, it sent me on a very bad path for many years—you know, drugs, alcohol. It was like the final crushing moment. I think even if a person abuses you and incests you and beats you, it’s still your father. You still want their approval. You still want their love. So, for me, it was like here I had done this, and it was like—boom.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he raped you and physically assaulted you constantly throughout your childhood and teen years. When did he stop?

EVE ENSLER: He stopped when I came home from college. I think I was in my first or second year. And I said I wanted to be a writer, and he said, “No, you’re going to be a lawyer or an accountant.” And I said, “No, I’m not.” And he picked up a chair, and he started to smash it over my head. And it was the first time in my life I stood up, and I said, “If you ever touch me again, if you ever touch me again, you will never see me for the rest of your life.” And I walked out the door. And that was the first time my mother, in all those years, stood up for me. And she followed me up the road, and she said, “I told your father that I’ll leave him.” And I said, “It’s a little late. You know, 10 years too late. But OK.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And during your adult years before his death, was there any kind of communication or—

EVE ENSLER: We had a few attempts. When I got sober, he was really unhappy, because he didn’t like the idea—it was very threatening to his sobriety. As a matter of fact, he mixed me a drink. We had occasional times when there would be these strange, very failing attempts to connect. And he didn’t contact me before he died. He didn’t contact me at all. As a matter fact, a week before he died, he came out of his stupor—he died of lung cancer—and he said to my mother, “I don’t want Eve in my will, and I want you to know, if she ever tells you anything, she’s a liar.” And my mother said to me it was that that made her know I was telling the truth. Because why would he have said that out of his stupor?

AMY GOODMAN: What is the anatomy of, the ingredients for an effective apology?

EVE ENSLER: Thank you for asking that. I think so deeply about what is an apology. And I think, first of all, it’s a humbling. It’s making yourself vulnerable. It’s an equalizer. It’s going into the detailed accounting of what you had done. Because the liberation is in the details. It can’t be broad. It’s not like an “I’m sorry.”

“I did this. I did this. I did this.” It’s feeling what your perpetrator [sic] must have been feeling as you were doing it. It’s letting yourself open to the heartbreak of that, to the sorrow of that. It’s doing self-evaluation and self-interrogation where you look at what brought you to do that, what in your childhood, what in the culture, what in your religion, what in your family, what in any part of your life drove you to do that behavior.

And then, one of the things I really learned is like, we live in a culture of diabolical amnesia. We deny what happens in our family. We deny what happens in our history, from the beginning of indigenous peoples through slavery. An apology is a remembering. What occurred did occur. And so, by doing that, we are actually reattaching the pieces of our own histories into a healing kind of cloth.

And I think when you make an authentic apology, there’s an alchemy that occurs. When you hear someone who has gone through the steps I’ve just outlined, something in your body, in your psychology, in your spirit releases, because that person has gone thoroughly and deeply and authentically into themselves to become vulnerable to you, to become equal to you, to become connected to you again. And I think, in a way, we need to now move in our movement to—as Tony Porter at A Call to Men brilliantly says, we’ve called men out; now we need to call them in. Now we need to call them in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering—talking about halfhearted apologies, we’ve all heard the reports of Joe Biden attempting to semi-apologize to Anita Hill about the way he treated her during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Your reaction to that? And is that a perfect example of how not to apologize?

EVE ENSLER: It’s a perfect example. And I’m really proud that I have Anita Hill’s quote on my book, because when I wrote this book, I was thinking like, “Who are the people who are owed the biggest apology?” And certainly Anita. But I think what Anita Hill was saying—and I think it’s so critical—is there is accountability. What has your harm done? Not just to Anita Hill. What she was saying is: What has your harm done to millions of women who were impacted by that decision for Anita Hill, the delegitimization of Anita Hill, the humiliation of Anita Hill, the putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court? What kind of decisions has he made over these years that have impacted? And I think what she was saying is, we want accountability. We want thoroughness. We want you to look at what are the impacts of your, to some degree, collusion with Clarence Thomas at that time.

Reading Jane Mayer’s article, she talked about how he was talking to them throughout that whole process. So, I think that is an excellent example. And I think—you know, my father says to me in the book this really brilliant thing. He said—when he said it to me, I was shocked, because I really feel like he spoke to me. He said, “To be an apologist is to be a traitor to men.” Because there is a male code. “We don’t apologize.” Which is why I think we haven’t heard one in 16,000 years of patriarchy. That once the one apology happens, once a man owns that he knows what he was doing was wrong, the whole story begins to crumble.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Eve Ensler. A message to women, a message to anyone still waiting for an apology?

EVE ENSLER: I think, to men, the time is now to find a clergy, a person, you know, a counselor. Start to work on your apology. It’s a process. It’s a journey. It’s a practice. It takes time.

And to women who can’t get an apology, write yourself one from your perpetrator. Work with somebody to support it. Do a thorough, thorough letter from the person who harmed you to yourself. The impact on me was profound. I feel free in a way I have never felt in my life. And I think this process—we just did this process at City of Joy in the Congo with the survivors who wrote letters from their perpetrators, and the outcome was astounding.

AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler, we’re going to do Part 2 and post it online at Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright, author of The Vagina Monologues. Her new book is called The Apology.

A very happy birthday to Erin Dooley. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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