The Vagina Monologues' author imagines her father's painful apology, 31 years after his death
What if your abuser wrote an apology? What would it need to say?
Eve Ensler, an anti-violence activist and author of The Vagina Monologues, answers these questions in her genre-bending book, The Apology, published Tuesday. In the 112-page letter, Ensler imagines her father’s voice as he finally apologizes for the ways he sexually and physically abused her, starting when she was five years old.
For Ensler, 65, writing his apology — which she’s yearned for most of her life, even after her father’s death 31 years ago — was a form of personal healing. The book is also an “offering,” Ensler tells PEOPLE, “It’s not a prescription.” She hopes it will help victims, as well as provide a “pathway” away from the patriarchal system — one that continues to breed toxic masculinity and abusers like bacteria in a petri dish.
“As a survivor of sexual and physical abuse, I think I’ve been waiting for 60 years for an apology from my father. So that definitely was underlying it, the need for that reckoning and accountability,” says Ensler, explaining why she wrote the book. “And to be released from the power that I feel like my life has been framed by for so many years.”
Ensler now feels “free,” she says. But writing The Apology was an intense process.
“[Writing the book] was everything. It was grueling, it was devastating, it was revelatory,” says Ensler, whose award-winning play led to the creation of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. “And it was ultimately healing and very reparative.”
The Apology evokes a similar mix of intense emotions for the reader. Written as if her father, Arthur Ensler, is speaking from a void, where he’s been since his death, Ensler delves deep and exposes the roots of his violence.
In the book, Ensler explores her father’s traumatic childhood, in which he was “adored, not loved,” she explains. When he married her mother, he was a charming man, but didn’t know how to express tenderness or vulnerability. Unable to connect with his most human of feelings, Ensler reveals how her father’s internal turmoil led to her molestation when she was a 5-year-old girl. When that stopped, he beat her and psychologically abused her. (Arthur Ensler was never convicted.)
“You were my life force returned. You were the gift of passion made out of my own sperm and flesh,” Ensler writes, imagining her father explaining his incestuous attraction, which would scar her forever. “You were the calling, the invitation, the wild invocation of the sublime.”
She continues: “I tried to stay away. In those early days, before I crossed the sea of the forbidden, I prayed to God to be relieved of this possession. My prayers were, in all honesty, half-hearted and insincere. Desire and destiny had already merged.”
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Even though the sexual abuse came to an end, her father was not done trying to destroy her, Ensler explains. His vicious beatings were so severe, she could have died many times over, she writes. (Her father once beat her and threw her out of the house. Another time he almost choked her to death, she recalls.)
“I wanted you dead, Evie,” Ensler writes, continuing to imagine her father’s voice. “I tried on several occasions to murder you. I had to kill what I had already destroyed. I had to erase the evidence.”
Though her father didn’t kill her literally, Ensler was dead in other ways. In The Apology, Ensler reveals she abused drugs and alcohol, was suicidal as a teen, and her ability to retain information was impaired.
“You’re always attempting to block out the terrible things that happened to you,” she tells PEOPLE, describing the reasons for her faulty memory. “You begin to block out a lot else that’s attached to it, right? Any road that leads you back, you have to cut off.”
The trauma from sexual abuse also continues to impact Ensler’s relationships, her ability to trust, and her “ability to be intimate,” she says. The unending abuse also impacted Ensler’s relationship with her mother.
“I did confront my mother before she died,” she says. “We went through a very deep, ongoing dialogue and process to get to… her true apology, and my releasing her.”
Ensler’s mother came from a poor family. After she married Arthur, she relied on him to support her and their three children. She continued to stay with him despite the signs he was abusing their daughter, their daughter explains.
“At a certain point, [my mother] actually told me that she sacrificed me, that she made a decision that [she would ignore] whatever was going on with me, and the violence, and all of that,” Ensler explains. “She never said openly that she knew consciously what was going on, but when looking back after I told her [about the abuse], she said all the signs were there.”
Ensler continues: “I think the idea [that you’d] sacrifice your daughter for your economic stability, or you sacrifice your daughter so you could stay with this man you love, is a really painful, and all too common occurrence.”
Economic inequality is just one aspect of patriarchy and male dominance that Ensler has challenged throughout her career. And while she wrote The Apology partly for herself, she also was motivated by the #MeToo movement.
“We’ve seen some men face some accountability,” Ensler says. “Some have gone to prison, some have lost jobs. Many of them right then have gotten them back. Some have lost face and status. But what I haven’t heard in all of this time is any man make a public, thorough, authentic apology.”
She continues: “It occurred to me that there’s a very big difference between punishment and transformation. I think what I wanted to try to do was to create a blueprint of what an apology might look like, what would it be like.”
It’s by encouraging vulnerability and honest self-examination — like what appears in The Apology — that Ensler hopes to help victims of sexual abuse. But she also hopes to help men who are struggling to navigate oppressive gender norms.
In The Apology, her father has to grapple with the pressure to be manly and repress his emotions, which creates an internal fissure. (Ensler labels her father, the abuser, as “Shadow Man.”)
“I think this is what we do to men in patriarchy, we don’t allow them to be human,” she explains.
Born out of Ensler’s pain and her father’s violations, The Apology is Ensler’s way out of the “controlling paradigm.”
“I feel like The Apology was my offering to say, ‘This is a pathway,'” she says. “An apology is humbling. It’s making yourself vulnerable. It’s an equalizer. It’s looking into your self.”
Ensler adds: “What apologies do is they force you to remember. They force you to reattach. They force you to go back and know that what occurred really did occur, so that you can clean up the past in order to move forward.”
The Apology is on sale now.