The Alchemy of an Apology: Eve Ensler Interviewed by Raluca Albu

On writing a letter of atonement from the perspective of her father, the perpetrator of sexual assault.

Eve Ensler Mockup 5

Dear Eve, 

I am writing this introduction to our interview as a letter to you because your latest book inspires such a thing. Most readers know you as the creator of the Vagina Monologues, the seminal work that broke open the floodgates (pun intended) to two decades of global activism to end violence against women. Since then, you’ve written or been involved in over a dozen plays, books, and screen appearances. You’ve received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and survived advanced uterine cancer—all while actively fighting to end femicide in the Congo. Now you’re back with The Apology (Bloomsbury), an epistolary narrative that asks us to go into the deep, cavernous complexity of an apology—one written in the perspective of your father, the man who sexually assaulted you repeatedly throughout your childhood. 

The book is a lean 128 pages but you spare us no details and you spare him no questions. You tell the story by imagining his perspective, plunging into his childhood and his early years with your mother. He begins this imagined apology by telling you that Eliot was his favorite poet, that actors he watched on screen created other selves for him to escape into. He says, “Charm took the ugly off my grandiosity.” You give him lines of poetry because the scariest thing about him was that he was so smoothly human. We go moment by moment through the decisions he made to try and destroy you—down to the days before his death, as he watches you mourn. At every turn, this project is a lesson in how the real work of atonement happens through the churn of reckoning. The Apology shows all of us how to take a body back by imagining its freedom. This book is a gift to our collective liberation.

Raluca Albu You have such a long-standing career as an activist, writer, and storyteller. Why did this feel like the right moment for this book to come out? 

Eve Ensler I think that in the last twenty-one years of the movement to end violence against ALL women, we’ve done a good job of breaking the silence and telling some of our stories. With the recent #MeToo movement, that work has escalated and spread. What we haven’t seen is men coming forward publicly to make detailed accountings of their violations, to examine their histories and childhoods and the links to patriarchy in order to understand what led them to become the kind of men who could rape or batter or harass or incest women. We haven’t heard men feel what it felt like internally for their victim or imagine the impact of their violence on her life and the people around her. What we haven’t heard is a thorough, authentic public apology.

From the very beginning of the movement, women have taken on the work of ending the violence against us when, in fact, this wasn’t our work. Violence against women has always been a men’s issue. We don’t rape ourselves. And we’re at a point now where if men are not compelled to step forward to make reckonings, to soul search, to do self-interrogation into history and patriarchy and misogyny and the roots of their own childhoods, we are never going to end violence against women. The time of reckoning is here.   

RAThe book is a model for how such a conversation could go. Ron Charles calls it “a blueprint of contrition.” Why make such a personal process public? It’s a generous thing to do.  

EEA few reasons. First, we don’t often know what an apology is. I wanted to explore and find out what the words were that I needed to hear. What did I need to experience in order to release? What would it look and sound like? What would its textures be? What were the stories I needed to hear? I was looking for what catalyzes the alchemy of an apology.

I was also struck by the language we use. We talk about harassment, and gender violence, and sexual violence, but often we actually don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore. These words are abstract and removed. I wanted to write something in meticulous detail that described sexual and physical violence.

I came to understand, in the middle of writing this, how deeply my father has lived inside me. When a person rapes you or beats you or defiles you, they enter you and become embedded in you. For years I have been in dialogue with the father inside me, proving things to him, arguing, fighting him off. I realized in writing this apology from him to myself, I was able to change how he lived inside me. He moved from being a monolithic monster to an apologist; from a terrifying, towering entity to a broken, vulnerable human being.  

RA Writing into the trauma at a slant sometimes even more sharply targets the truth. You took the facts your father dismissed, all the love and family he denied you from, and you made it come out of his throat, through your fingers, out to the world. What surprised you about the process?

EE I learned so many things about my father that I didn’t know. I think many survivors are haunted by the “why: Why did my best friend drug me and date rape me? Why did my father want to destroy his daughter? In writing this book, I got a lot of my “whys” answered. And this was tremendously liberating. My father explained things. This is very different than justifying. Explanation frees. Justification further imprisons. So much came through the conjuring. I think imagination is sometimes far more accurate than anything.

RA At one point your father says, “You have freed me by your witness” and mentions the importance of accounting for an “autopsy of consciousness.” Why does the “why” hold so much power?

EEWhen someone tells you why, they become accountable. The simple spelling out of the details of the misdeed is the beginning of contrition. My father, in life, would never own what he did. He was always the victim. He’d say, while throwing me against a wall, “You made me do that.” Part of what survivors live with is having knowledge of what happened to them, but never having it confirmed or legitimized.

RAYou mentioned the “alchemy of an apology” earlier. Can you say more about that?

EEIt’s not, “I’m sorry” or, “I’m sorry if you felt bad or if what I did hurt you.” That’s not what we’re looking for. For me, a true apology is when you make a detailed reckoning with your misdeeds, and then you go under that; understand what brought you to those misdeeds, then feel what your victim felt; open yourself to that devastation—all of this evidencing you could never do something like this again. 

It takes years for survivors to go through a recovery process, years to be able to touch and mine the hurt, memories, betrayal, and confusion. It’s a deep, long, and arduous process. In order to do an authentic apology, you have to be willing to undergo a similar process, walk into fire, examine your own darkness, touch your own pain. It’s not easy, but the good news is that you get freed from that darkness. It stops ruling your life.

My father was not a happy person. My father drank himself to the end. He died a very painful death because that pain still occupied him. I like to believe this book freed him.

Eve Ensler By Paula Allen

Photo of Eve Ensler by Paula Allen.

RA You could have dismissed your father as a monster, but you identify other factors at play in his actions. Why this choice?

EE In patriarchy we bring up boys and judge and condemn them for feeling, for crying, for being vulnerable and needy. We force them to close their hearts and disconnect from their humanity. Where does their anger go, their sorrow, their grief? It goes underground. It congeals into another being, or form, or personality. My father called him “Shadow Man.” That being eventually finds its way to the surface through a catalytic event. That’s when the violence happens.

RA What about your mom? She was a witness to your childhood. How do you reconcile that? 

EE My mother died a few years ago. She was very much a woman of her generation. In her later years I confronted her with what happened, and it took her time to own her piece of the story, admit that she essentially sacrificed me, as she was terrified of economic insecurity. Eventually she was able make deep amends to me, and we were in a beautiful place when she left this world.

RA How did you find strength through all this?

EE Through writing and imagination. I was able to create and enter other personas and other ideas of who I could be and what the world could be. I think my connection to nature as a child was a really powerful force. And, I had a lot of rage and defiance. I know this kept me from drowning.

RA You wrote a scene where your father is beating you with the paddle and your child self has such resolve, like you knew what he wanted from you right then—you knew how to give it to him and also how to deny just enough so you could still have yourself. Your survival mechanism seems to have something to do with entering characters, probing their psyches. 

EE I think because I was constantly on alert, reading my father’s moods, trying to know what was coming, I developed powerful intuition and ability to know people.

RAIt’s almost the opposite of rage; it’s deeply empathic. 

EE It’s both a blessing and a curse, because sometimes you go into people and it’s really dark. Going into my father’s mind and feeling the trajectory of his sadism was really alarming. Really alarming. Writing this book was at moments unbearable.

RA Did you ever worry you’d get stuck with no “why” in sight? 

EE I didn’t have an agenda for the book. I just wanted to hear the words that I wanted to hear, and sometimes he would say things and I’d say, “No, we have to go back, because you didn’t go deep enough.” A lot of times, he would say what he had done, but he would say it only from his perspective at that time. And I would say, “No, you have to explore this deeper. We have to go back.” The next day, I’d go back to it. I forced him to go deeper.

This whole book was a very profound experience. It came on like a fever or a trance. I was in it for four months, day and night, and then it was over. When it was over, my father was gone. He hasn’t been back yet.

RAIt sounds like articulating that apology was more about finding your own power than about some sanitized notion of forgiveness. This reminds me of Lacy M. Johnson’s book of essays, The Reckonings. She writes about this gendered notion of forgiveness—how it’s this oversimplified, foisted expectation.

EE  Exactly. People talk about forgiveness and I’ve always been mixed about the word. I hear it too often being used against victims or marginalized people. “You just have to forgive and move on already.” We skip over the central part.

I believe in the alchemy of an apology because I think what happens when someone truly apologizes to you, becomes accountable and is willing to go through the depth and sincerity of the apology process or journey, there is an organic physical, spiritual, and psychological release of rancor, bitterness, hate, revenge, and so on. It does not feel mandated or forced. It feels earned and real. This is what I imagine forgiveness is. 

RA This nuanced way of seeing things has implications for how we think of justice in general. 

EE We live in a country that is hell-bent on punishment. We have more people in prison than any country in the world. Under our current Predator in Chief, we are a criminalization of collective consciousness. Who isn’t being criminalized? Women are criminalized for being women. Black and brown people are criminalized, immigrants are criminalized, homeless people are criminalized, mentally ill people are criminalized. Everybody who has need or who is exploited or who is marginalized is punished. Our systems are all about punishment. You make the wrong statement in public, you become a deleted person. But the truth of the matter is that we’re all deeply imperfect. The apology is the medicine, that salve that gets us through. 

RA After the abuse begins, your father says, “your pretty face lost its pretty.” It’s incredibly painful to know a child can experience and register that rejection. The Apology reads like an exercise in empathy not for the perpetrator but for the survivor—with all the necessary self-love and gentleness that it takes to apologize to yourself for ever doubting yourself. What’s your hope for this book now that it’s in the world? 

EE Somebody wrote me the other night after they read the book, and he said, “I’ve already made two apologies to people I needed to apologize to for years, and I thank you.” I thought, Wow. Okay. That’s what it’s about. Freeing up all the little hardened, metastasized packets of darkness inside and outside us. Freeing your victim from their suffering as you free your own soul.

It’s a worthy exercise to try to write an apology to yourself from your perpetrator. To say the words and write the words you need to hear. I think it’s important to do it with supervision and support. But it can be deeply healing.

My hope is that The Apology will act as a blueprint for all those men looking for a pathway to tell the truth, to open their hearts, to reattach with their humanity, to make the apology.

Raluca Albu is the online literature editor for BOMB.

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