You may only be aware of Eve Ensler from the 1996 theatrical phenomenon The Vagina Monologues, which gives women permission to become self aware about their bodies and sexual issues. (Published in 48 languages, performed in more than 140 countries.) You may know her as an author, prolific playwright, or actress in dramatization of her own work. Perhaps you have knowledge of her extensive humanitarian volunteer work and activism against violence to women and girls, including founding both the global V-Day and One Billion Rising.
Ensler’s latest written work, The Apology, is a fabricated letter of apology and atonement written to the author from her father. From ages five to ten, she was sexually abused. “Adoration turns men into monsters…” she states, making one wonder whether she’s completely rid herself of responsibility for his heinous acts.
A self-avowed defiant child, Ensler then had a series of abusive relationships, was dependent on drugs and alcohol, and eventually became a militant feminist. The author credits a past marriage, rehab, and therapy with helping her work through issues. A woman in progress, she pointedly never uses the word “overcome.”
Glenn Close, arguably one of the finest actresses of our time, has been friends with Ensler for over 20 years and participated with her in activism. Actor James Naughton reads an excerpt from Ensler’s book in the male voice we need to hear.
“I’ve been waiting for an apology from my father my whole life, 60 years…,” Ensler explains. “We’ve now told our stories in the dozens, thousands, millions, and I’ve still never seen a man apologize, so I thought maybe I should write the apology I want to hear.”
Naughton reads: “…You were always apologizing, begging for forgiveness. I had reduced you to a daily degrading mantra of ‘I’m sorry’…I have recognized what I’ve done as a crime, faced how my actions have devastated you…feel profound remorse and regret…and finally take responsibility…I will attempt to proceed with neither self-defensiveness nor self pity…”
As her father, Ensler writes that he would often (passively, compulsively) “find himself” in her room when others in the family were long in bed, that she would pretend to be asleep “as if what was happening was not happening” that “silence” was his power. Ensler and Close sit with eyes shut. We learn later this is the first time the author has heard her words read aloud by a man.
“At five I took your body,” her abuser continues, “I made my stain, left my stinking mark, infected you…robbed you of the ordinary…you lived in perpetual self-hatred and guilt…afterwards, you compulsively gave it (your body) to whoever wanted it because I taught you you should…Let me be the father who mirrors your kindheartedness back to you…I free you from the covenant, I lift the lie, I revoke the curse…” Ensler opens her eyes.
This brutally honest volume must’ve been wrenchingly difficult for its creator. She tells us it was cathartic, but implies there’s no such thing as a clean slate. “I allowed myself for the first time to really go inside my father. I think we all carry our perpetrators with us.” She notes Arthur Ensler was himself abused, but declares, “I didn’t want to know about my father’s pain.”
Ensler asks Close about professionally going inside characters. “The character I played in Fatal Attraction had been sexually abused by her father. She couldn’t have a relationship for her terrible feeling of self-loathing.” An example, but not an answer, addressing process.
“Given your incredible history of activism, why did you write this now?” Close asks. Ensler feels humanity is at a point of no return, that we have to make a huge leap of consciousness “or not be here in 12 years.” Related issues of racial, economic, and immigrant abuse are cited as part of the plague of our own making we currently experience. “We have diabolical amnesia in this country,” Ensler observes.
“I think forgiveness is the absolute hardest thing to do,” Close reflects. “I don’t know that everyone will get the apology he needs,” Ensler responds. “An acknowledged accounting is necessary. I was thinking recently about Anita Hill. Joe Biden apologized, but took no responsibility…In the book, my father says, ‘when a man apologizes, he’s a traitor to men…’ I really believe it’s possible, but men need the will…There should be a pathway back after a man apologizes. I’d like to see Al Franken make an apology so he could return.”
Without being a victim of abuse, it’s impossible to understand what an actual apology would have meant/achieved. During the question/answer portion of this evening, Ensler is asked whether, as an adult, she confronted her father. She responds that he was an alcoholic, that she felt neither safe nor brave enough, that he terrified her.
Someone else inquires whether the author ever told her mother. She did. This is clearly an especially touchy subject. Ensler says her mother came from a very poor family, that her charming father was a way out. By the time her mom had three children, she was economically as well as emotionally dependent. “My mother sacrificed me in order to keep her economic advantage.”
“With my upbringing,” Close notes, “I still have an instinct to apologize to men. We feel like we have to prop them up. Isn’t that crazy? It’s what we’ve been taught…” She and Ensler have taken apology-as-exercise into women’s prisons to great effect. The two talk about patriarchy now supported by a world that celebrates white, authoritarian men. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Donald Trump.
Audience Question: We’ve discussed apology on a personal level, but what would it look like on a social level? “What would it look like if white people apologized to African Americans or Indigenous Peoples?” Ensler asks rhetorically. “Uprooting the basis of trauma is the most important thing we could do in this country.” The subject of endless reparations could take up an entire evening.
“We need more articulate leaders,” Close remarks. “I feel strongly we have the ability to empathize in our DNA…” “We don’t teach apology, we teach prayer and forgiveness. I’m sorry you feel bad is how most people apologize,” Ensler adds. People don’t own what they did.
Audience Question: Can you imagine a reconciliation of the north and south of our broken country? “White supremacy has been here forever,” Ensler answers. “It isn’t new, it’s just been given authority in a new way…We have a predator-in-chief now. He’s modeling not just bullying behavior, but behavior that admits no culpability.”
Dense with feeling and commitment, the evening evokes as many questions as it does suggest theories and answers. Work is ongoing. Awareness and activism should be encouraged. The remarkable Eve Ensler is a phoenix soaring out of ashes. Her wings may be dirty and scarred, but spirit is determined and, importantly, inclusive.
Talk Photos by Maricela Magana / Michael Priest Photography
Opening: Glenn Close, Eve Ensler, James Naughton
On the publication of Eve Ensler’s book The Apology
Recanati-Kaplan Talks at the 92Y present Eve Ensler in Conversation with Glenn Close
Featuring an excellent reading by actor James Naughton
May 13, 2019