What is it about patriarchy that men refuse to apologise for sexual crimes, asks Eve Ensler     

Author Eve Ensler describes various phases of apology through which victim of sexual crime can attain restorative justice. She was in India to promote her latest book The Apology

Author Eve Ensler
Author Eve Ensler

Ashlin Mathew

“I have not heard a man make a public apology for incest, domestic battery ever. It occurred to me that there must be something fundamental about an apology if we have never heard them,” said author and activist Eve Ensler, while explaining why she had written ‘The Apology’. The book which had come out earlier this year is a letter of apology in her father’s voice to her.

Ensler’s father had sexually abused her from the time she was 5-year-old till the age of 10 and it has been almost 31 years since her father died. “I think I always secretly believed that when I grow up, one day my father would say he was sorry. All children believe that the criminal would wake up from their slumber and declare that ‘I was wrong’,” underscored Ensler. She said that is why she wrote the book.

The author of book Vagina Monologues, which is one of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century, was speaking to a small group of journalists in New Delhi. She was here for the India and Delhi chapters of One Billion Rising (OBR), a global campaign, founded in 2012 by Ensler, to end rape and sexual violence against women.

“The 31 years that my father has been dead, I have worked day in and day out to end violence against all women and girls. In that time, we have seen women break their silence, tell their stories, risk humiliation, attack and yet in all that time there has been no public apology. So, then I thought why don’t I write the words to myself, the words I long to hear,” said Ensler.

“Now is the moment to speak up. Look at narcissistic men like Donald Trump and Narendra Modi and women believe that if they speak up, they will be attacked. But, if you don’t speak up now, then when? We are the many; these few people at the top are very few people, but they are controlling everything,” pointed out Ensler.

Excerpts from the interview

You wrote in your father’s voice. Did it help you? Was there any solace?

Deeply. I think writing this book was an excruciating process for many reasons. As we recover from violence, incest and abuse, it’s like an onion. You keep peeling the layers until you get to the wound. And it takes many years.

What I didn’t want to do was feel my father’s pain. I didn’t think that my father had earned the right to feel this pain, but yet I was very connected to my father through my rage. No matter what I did in my life, it was to prove my father wrong, to show that I am not a failure, not a slut. But,that meant I was still inside his story. I wanted to get out of his story. By writing this book and by allowing myself to understand what made my father, my father, I wanted my father to explain to me what happened to him as a child,what turned him into a man who was able to incest his daughter. There is no justification of his actions.

By beginning to understand it, I was a huge liberation. When the book began, my father was a huge monster and by the time the book ended, he was a huge apologist and a broken little boy. He lost his agency over me.

Imagination is so powerful; it’s our super-power.

In the context of the MeToo movement, there are women who spoke about their harassers, but are being taken to court and that’s a heavy price to pay…

We have seen the accusations against all these famous men,but none of stepped forward to own their behaviour or apologise showing that they have gone to therapy or worked on themselves. What is changing?

We will call out, but if men are not using this as a moment to say that ‘I’ve got to look inside. What is the culture of patriarchy? How has it made me like this?’, then that is an issue of patriarchy.

I think it is critical that the stories are told, and we call people out, but the next stage has to be about creating stages, processes and methods for men to grapple with the tyranny of patriarchy. I think I hope that the book will be a template for an apology. It made me look at the anatomy of an apology. It is not ‘I’m sorry, I hurt you’; this is a write off.

An apology has four parts. The first is the perpetrator looking at themselves, their childhood, which includes looking at what happened then. The second part is a detailed accounting of what the person has done to the victim because liberation is in the details. The third is to look at the intention of the action – was it meant to undermine the victim?, did I mean to hurt you? The third part is to allow yourself to feel what the victim felt – to open your heart. The fourth part is to make amends and take responsibility for what the person has done.

Many boys are adored, but adoration is not love. Adorationis projection of someone’s self-idealised image onto you, which you are then forced to live up to. It actually robs you of your humanity. What do you do with anger, betrayal, sadness? You end up pushing it down within you.

My father felt a sense of tenderness when I was born, but he did not know what to do with it. He then ended up sexualising the tenderness.

What can families do to end this culture of patriarchy?

We teach children about prayer, but why don’t we teach our boys to apologise. Women are very good at apologising; we say we are sorry for everything. We don’t teach men how to apologise.

My father says to me in my book that to be an apologist isto be a traitor to men. Once a man says he is sorry, he knows what he was doing was wrong, then the whole story of patriarchy begins to crumble. I would say,apology is a column of patriarchy. Refusal to apologise is holding up patriarchy. Apologies are so liberating, they feel so good. I think we have to teach people how good it feels to apologise.

This book is an act of conjuring; there were certain things I knew about my father and there were certain pieces I made up. The book is anact of imagination. When a person enters your body, has sex with you against your will, beats you, they occupy you. They live in you for many, many years. You begin to understand your perpetrator more than you understand yourself. I could understand from his voice, his footsteps and I could tell you whether I would get beaten or destroyed that night because I knew him so well. It was my survival.

My mother was also raised in the same story of patriarchy, where she was also poor. My father was her way out of poverty. By the time my father began to manifest his monstrous behaviour, she had three children and nowhere to go. I am not justifying it, but I think when I finally confronted my mother, she said she had sacrificed me. She said she could not bear to be poor and had no place to go with the children. It was a devastating thing to hear,but I also knew it was true.

I do wish my mother had stepped in to protect me, but do I understand intellectually why she did what she did. She did make amends to me before she died.

How do you come to the level of forgiveness to write about your predator?

I have never been fond of the word forgiveness. It is religious and often feels artificial and damaging because victims can go through this artificial forgiveness process, which they may not be feeling. I believe in the alchemy of an apology. I don’t think the onus is ever on the victim to forgive; if the victim doesn’t want to forgive, they don’t have toever.

What I underwent while writing this book is that I had to feel what my father felt and that was excruciating. But, it was also liberating asit made me realise where I was tied to my father and I was still inside his story. I was in a rage for so many years and I didn’t want to be in rage. We often think that to go through the wound will kill us, but when we go through the wound, we get to the other side — to freedom. This book is literally about going though that wound. It was the most challenging thing about the book.

There are questions when people come out after many years‘why now? What do you say about that?

Trauma is a very strange thing. It completely fragments time, which is why people take the time they do. We have to develop our ego structures to be able to handle going back to that point in time. For me it has come back in pieces and stages and chunks; the survival system within you knows when you can handle it. When you go public with something, there is a hugetaxing burden on your nervous system, and we don’t respect survivors and what they have to go through. Going public is re-triggering all of those memories.

What is it about men that they end up being abusers, is it also about the power structures?

I have to believe that men are not born monsters, if we believe they are, we must just put them in camps. But, that is not the case. We have all grown up in the tyranny of patriarchy. When men are told not to cry,not show your emotions, not to feel and when that is combined with power than men have, we don’t know how they are going to turn out. Boys are more fragile than girls and violence wrecks them in varied ways and it turns to aggression. We don’t know how much boy children are sexually abused and that is a taboo that hasn’t been uncovered yet. It’s just beginning to get attention.

A friend of mine was working with those who had reached prisons due to violence. He said that if you address shame, issues of low self-esteem, you will get to the core of violence. Most people he worked with did not return to prison. He looked at what shaming racially, economically,personally has done to men. I think because men have power and because men are physical, what they do with their pain is that they go outward. Women, on the other hand, mostly go inwards and they attack themselves.

Do you have a blueprint of the contours of amends that a perpetrator has to follow?

If I had the law and judiciary under my control, I would allow the survivor to choose what the perpetrator has to go through. If you wanted the perpetrator to go to jail, the person has to go to jail. I have spent many, many years speaking to survivors, and many of them want their perpetrators to change. They don’t want to see people punished for eternity.There might be some who want that and that is fine.

The way the structure is now, men hardly change in prison and they often get worse. It’s a brutal inhumane system which makes them even more violent.

Why did you write after your father’s death?

I wasn’t ready to write it when my father was alive. I was in a rage. It has taken me so many years to reach this point where I am doing this. I would have done it now even if my father were alive. I am not afraid of my father anymore.

Is it possible to get rid of freedom out of the trauma atall?

I believe we can move on. Imagination is really powerful.This book helped me get agency over my life and agency over my story. It’s not like I don’t remember it, but it is not in me anymore. It is not occupying me anymore.

We have to tell ourselves that we don’t have to be prisoners to that violence. Women have powerful imaginations and women should not keep in their bodies.

Did you set out to write this book as a process of restorative justice?

I don’t know if I did that consciously, but I do believe in restorative justice. I think it’s our only path. I have seen what prisons have done to people, including victims. It puts a lot of toxicity into the universe.Restorative justice, when it works, is so beautiful.

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