When Eve Ensler’s father died, she knew the apology she had been waiting for her entire life would never come. Her father would never say sorry ― not for molesting her as a young girl, or for beating her when she got older. Not for demeaning or dehumanizing her.
Like many survivors of sexual violence, Ensler desperately wanted to hear her perpetrator take responsibility for what he’d done. She believed that if he explained what led him to commit such heinous acts and expressed real, unbridled remorse, it would help her heal.
And so, at 65, the acclaimed author of “The Vagina Monologues,” decided she’d have to do it herself. If he couldn’t say the words she needed, she would write them for him.
Her latest book, “The Apology,” out on Tuesday, is written in the form of a letter from the perspective of Ensler’s father. In it, he describes in excruciating detail the abuse he inflicted on Ensler and attempts to reckon with the trauma he caused.
It is a punishing, painful read and reveals a remarkable depth of compassion. Ensler channels her father’s voice as she imagines his thought process and emotional state as he decides to hurt the child he is charged with protecting.
Earlier in May, HuffPost spoke with Ensler by phone about “The Apology” and why it is important to hear from the viewpoint of those who cause harm.
I’m curious when you decided to write this book and how long you’ve been thinking about it.
I’ve been thinking about it for most of my life, consciously or unconsciously. But last year, I was thinking about the recent iteration of #MeToo, and the ways in which men have been called out. Some have lost their jobs, some have lost their status, and a couple have gone to jail. But I was thinking ― what men have we heard publicly apologize and provide evidence that they’ve gone through a process of transformation where they’ve done deep self-interrogation? Where they looked at their past and investigated patriarchy and toxic masculinity and their own childhoods and what led them to do what they’ve done? The articles I read, like those by Jian Ghomeshi and John Hockenberry, they were just filled with self-pity. There was no vulnerability or humility.
I thought, maybe I need to write the apology I want to hear. I need to see what it looks like. And maybe it could be a blueprint for what a deep, true, authentic reckoning would look like.
What is an apology to you?
It is a humbling. It is an equalizer. It is becoming vulnerable. It is being willing to deeply look at your behavior and then look at what led you to that behavior. It is making amends. One of the things we have in this country is a kind of diabolical amnesia. We have it in our politics, we have it in our history and we have it in our families. An apology is an antidote to amnesia. It is a remembering. It is saying that what occurred really did occur. It legitimizes the victim’s experiences. It is stepping inside the victim to feel what they are feeling so that you are actually heartbroken by your own behavior. It is compassion.
Look at Anita Hill, who feels like Joe Biden didn’t give her a satisfactory apology. A part of it is that he didn’t take accountability for the impact of his behavior ― what it did not only to Anita Hill, but all the women who suffered because Anita Hill was not believed. All the country that suffered because Clarence Thomas got put on the Supreme Court. All the damage that was done to her credibility and her legitimacy.
What’s it like writing from your father’s perspective?
It surprised me how deeply my father lived in me. One of the things I discovered writing this book is that sometimes we know our perpetrators better than we know ourselves, particularly if they were part of our family. Because we had to always guard against them and prepare against them and know their moves and their rhythms and their body language. I realized that I’ve been in dialogue with my father, consciously or unconsciously, my whole life. And to some degree, that dialogue has controlled my life. When I started to tap into his voice, it was shocking how clear it was. It felt almost like a strange trance state that I got in where he would just speak. It was haunting and scary. And it was very liberating.
Did writing this book change how you feel about your father?
Oh, definitely. Before this book, I lived in the kind of vice of me being a victim to my father. That’s been the frame of my life because it was the most dominating, critical thing that happened to me. In the course of this book, I realized that I could take that monster inside of me and I could shift him to become someone else ― an apologist. I could turn him into somebody who could have self-reflection and self-accounting and remorse and sorrow. And by doing that, I shifted the whole dynamic of myself. So I actually feel done. That paradigmatic story narrative that shaped my life is no longer shaping it. I have no idea what the next years of my life are going to be like because that foundation is not there anymore. But I’m really excited to find out.
Do you think this process gave you more empathy for your father?
Yes. I think one of the things that survivors are always haunted by is the why. Why would they do that? Why would a father want to destroy his child? Why would a father throw his child against the wall and beat his child and incest his child? And I got to grapple with some of those whys, and that helped me.
What gave you the idea to write the book as a letter?
I like the letter form because it allows for intimacy and literary departures, where you can go in a lot of different directions. And there was this irony in our lives that my father never wrote me a letter and I was always writing him letters. I wanted to get that letter finally from him.
I imagine this was an emotional process, the actual writing part.
I locked myself up for four months and it was kind of excruciating to be honest. But my dog was with me and that was a great comfort.
It is an offering; it’s not a prescription. I’m not saying to survivors, you have to do this. I’ve worked 65 years to get to a place where I can do this. And it’s not something anyone has to do. But I will say it was incredibly liberating and it transformed my life.
Who do you want to read this book?
I want everyone to read this book. But I really want men to read this book. One of the things I hope is that we will move into a time where men will start to take responsibility for their deeds and start to do the kind of investigation my father did in this book. Start to go inside and really look at their history. Patriarchy is so fixed. It is metastasized. So finding the tools to unpick it, to unravel it ― it’s the work.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.