Q and A with Eve Ensler
By Jennifer Baumgardner
I first encountered the playwright and activist Eve Ensler in 1996, when she was starring in her pivotal work, The Vagina Monologues, Off-Off- Broadway at a small Soho theatre called HERE. Her play was a revelation to me—part-exegesis of the vagina as site of pleasure and trauma, and part-exhortation to stop masking the body part with euphemisms and to instead acknowledge the misogyny and violence hiding behind our unwillingness to “say the word,” the eventual tagline for the show. That Off-Off Broadway show was a hit, but Ensler recognized that it was a piece of theatre that could become a movement.
Indeed, the V-Day movement has racked up thousands of productions over the last two decades at most colleges in the US and countries in the world. Ensler, now 66, has long traveled the world, working with activists to end sexual violence. In addition to V-Day, she co-created the One Billion Rising global campaign, City of Joy (a therapeutic and leadership center in the Congo), and several books and plays.
Her most recent contribution to this movement took her inward, to the origins of her activism: her abusive father. Her new book, The Apology (Bloomsbury, May 2019), is an emotional and insightful imagining of a 112-page letter from her now-deceased father to “Evie.”
Jennifer Baumgardner: How did you get the idea to write the apology you had never gotten from your father?
Eve Ensler: I was thinking about how many times I have heard women tell their stories in twenty-one years, how many silences I’ve heard broken, how many V-Days, Take Back the Nights, marches, protests I’ve attended. I was thinking that survivors have done so much work that was never our work to do as violence against women has always been a men’s issue. And then I was thinking that in all these years and with the recent escalation and iteration of #MeToo, I have never heard a man make a thorough authentic public apology for sexual abuse. Ever. Maybe in sixteen thousand years of patriarchy. And it hit me that if it has never happened, it must be central to what needs to happen.
Where are the men who will be brave enough to enter into this new time of reckoning, the practice and journey of the apology? To face themselves in deepest self-interrogation, look at their childhood histories acculturated in patriarchy and toxic masculinity, examine what brought them to place where they could rape or batter or incest or harass, investigate the why of what they’ve done and the details of what they’ve done, and then to feel what it felt like and feels like inside their victim? I’ve been waiting for an apology from my father for sixty years. He’s been dead for half of that time. But still that yearning was there. So, I decided to write my father’s apology to me for him. To say the words I longed to hear. I imagined it might be freeing and I hoped it might serve as a blueprint for men who are looking for a pathway to make their own apologies.
JB: What happened when you began “channeling” him?
EE: He told me things about himself I’ve never known before. He told me about his childhood and how through a process of being adored instead of loved, he was essentially severed from his heart. He showed how patriarchy had progressively robbed him of his humanity and eventually allowed him to become a sexual abuser and a sadist. And I discovered how deeply I have carried my father inside me. How whether I have been conscious of it or not, I have been in constant dialogue with him. Because once a person rapes you or beats you or invades you, they become embedded in you. I learned through this process that it is possible to change the narrative of your perpetrator inside you. For sixty years I lived in this frame of being victim to my father ’s perpetrator. Through the exercise of this book, this monolithic monster inside me became an apologist. This towering and terrifying entity was transformed into a broken, vulnerable little boy.
JB: In your book, your father recounts a time when your cat was hit by a car. Your dad cradled the cat and allowed his broken parts to come out. It reminded me that some of the most stern or patriarchal men that I’ve known have had this mysterious soft side for little kids and animals.
EE: Somehow animals offer men a place where they are allowed to feel and express tenderness. In my father’s case, and I think in the case of many boys, that tenderness is eradicated, judged, and annihilated. All those feelings of vulnerability, neediness, sorrow pushed underground. After time they begin to congeal into an alternative persona who often surfaces at some crisis moment and is out of control.
JB: It seems that people with a lot of privilege or entitlement have almost no capacity to deal with scary feelings like guilt and shame. Your father obviously knew that he molested you and that he treated you cruelly, undermined you, and said you made things up. These can’t be things he was proud of. Would it have annihilated your father or his self-image to apologize?
EE: My father says in the book, “To be an apologist is to be a traitor.” I think that’s how men feel. If one man admits he’s wrong, that he knew what he was doing was wrong, the whole story of patriarchy would to crumble. What we need is for ten per cent of the men to begin to come forward, to move us into a new time of reckoning. To devote themselves to the practice of sincere, deep, rigorous, humble apologies.
It took me sixty years to write this book—it didn’t happen overnight. If we sincerely want to end sexual abuse and all the forms of violence that destroy women’s lives, men have to move to this next stage of humility, honesty and accountability.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor of the Women’s Review of Books. She is also the director of the documentary It Was Rape.