Five Ways Reading The Apology Impacted Me
Five Ways Reading ‘The Apology’ Impacted Me
Guest Blog by SPT
A friend, who knew that I was a sexual abuse survivor, sent me a notice about Eve Ensler’s new book, The Apology, the week that it was published. Eve Ensler is a playwright, best known for her groundbreaking work The Vagina Monologues, which premiered in 1996. Named as one of Newsweek’s 150 Women Who Changed the World, Eve Ensler has been recognized as a major feminist activist, who speaks her truth with courage and without apology.
I never saw The Vagina Monologues, but reading about The Apology, I was intrigued by many familiar elements in her story. We were preschool age when our fathers began molesting us. The trauma of such a deep, early betrayal left both of us with a disrupted sense of identity and a resulting struggle with intimate relationships.
We have both worked hard, not only to survive, but to thrive. This has involved decades of hard work, including recovering memories, integrative therapies and spiritual quests involving deep compassion. Because we are all in this healing business together, I want to share five insights I gathered from The Apology, which I offer with the hope that they may be helpful to my fellow survivors.
Insight 1: It is possible to change our relationships with people and events in our past. Our healing is not bound by time and space.
In The Apology, Eve Ensler presents us with an imagined letter, written from her father’s point of view. In 112 pages, she has him provide a detailed account of his actions, take responsibility for the pain he caused and attempt to bridge the 60-year gulf between father and daughter. In fact, Arthur Ensler never made any such amends. He died 31 years ago, so estranged from his daughter that he tried to disinherit her on his deathbed.
Anyone who has been abused longs desperately to know how this could have happened and to hear, “I am sorry I hurt you. It was my fault, not yours. Can you ever forgive me?” Realizing that she was never going to hear these words from her father, Eve took matters into her own hands and wrote an apology for him. She opens the book with the following, “I am done waiting, my father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen our narrative, and design alternative outcomes.” (Preface)
When I first heard about the book, I thought “How convenient, to put the words you long to hear into his mouth,” yet this is anything but a simple kind of apology. Written during an intense four-month period, Eve’s book does the unthinkable. Rather than fleeing from her terrifying father, she describes “opening a portal,” inviting him to meet her and to speak in excruciating depth and horrifying detail about how an upstanding family man could have raped and beaten his own daughter, with seemingly no thought to the lifetime of damage he was imparting. By taking this approach, Eve shifts the power dynamic that has existed between them for 60 years.
Insight 2: Stop hiding from the monster and get to know your perpetrator.
Eve identifies herself as a Buddhist, so she is no doubt familiar with the seemingly counterintuitive technique from that tradition of inviting the monster who lives in the basement of your psyche up for a cup of tea. In her interview with Ron Charles of The Washington Post, she says, “It takes so long to get to a place where you can open yourself to feel what your perpetrator feels…and to know what they have been through, to know who they are because it’s so much easier and less painful to cast them as a kind of monolithic monster.”
She points out that no one is born an abuser, so it is useful to look into the perpetrator’s past. Not only are Eve and I about the same age and therefore subject to the same cultural influences, but our fathers also grew up carrying the high hopes of their families through the Depression and World War II eras. They became husbands and fathers at a time where the myth of the American Male ruled supreme. Her father was a successful executive of an ice cream company and my father was a well-respected Episcopal priest and seminary professor. In the 50s, Dads were the kings of the castle, the unassailable CEOs of the family. Eve points out that men of that hierarchical era had no healthy outlet for their emotions, no idea how to deal with the tenderness that they felt for their baby daughters or the horror of their own drunken desires.
One of the hardest parts of the book to read is the description of how affection strays over the line into seduction and love becomes obsession to the narcissistic father. In Arthur’s voice, Eve describes how his psyche splits into two, with a character called Shadow Man. Shadow Man slips out increasingly after dark to feed his insatiable lust for the pure life force of his little girl. I actually listened to The Apology on Audible before I read it in print. The voice of Edoardo Ballerini as Arthur is hauntingly smooth and diabolical. In an interview, Eve said that this father of two daughters broke down sobbing during the recording. There are plans to bring the work to The Apology to the stage, so audiences will have the riveting and somewhat terrifying experience of hearing the powerful words spoken live.
I too have used writing to try to get to know who my father was as a child, to try to see where the unhealthy seeds of self-centeredness and disconnection were sown in him and to find compassion for the miserable man that he was during my childhood. As close as he ever came to an apology was to say that during the time period when I remember the abuse taking place, that he was deeply unhappy in his job and his marriage, drinking heavily and “something like that could have happened.” Like Eve, I have made strides in understanding my father without excusing his behavior. I feel both sadness and compassion that the prison of fear and alcoholism kept him small throughout his life. Much of my own spiritual momentum has gone into making choices that create more space and fewer regrets.
Insight 3: Trauma is about splitting apart; healing is about reintegration.
Our fathers, it seems, could not accept what they were doing to us, so they split in two, inhabiting the mutually-exclusive worlds of Daylight Man and Shadow Man. As children, we also split, with our psyches dissociating from our bodies, as an instinctive way to survive the betrayal of the trusted parent. We both have memories of out-of-body experiences, seeing ourselves floating near the ceiling, looking down on the scene of our fathers molesting our still bodies, feeling a disconnection from what was happening.
Psychologists say that in trauma one of three things happen: we fight, we flee or we freeze. According to Richard C. Schwartz, who pioneered the Internal Family Systems therapy model, all too often, abuse survivors leave energetically frozen ghosts of themselves behind, stranded at age 5, 10, 21 or 50. Left untended, these energetic orphans cause problems. When current events trigger feelings of abandonment, the younger ones act out, while the older ones struggle with their sexuality and forming healthy relationships. In The Apology, Arthur condemns Eve as a whore who had a series of unsatisfying relationships with married men, replicating elements of her first sexual experience. She talks about turning to alcohol and drugs to dull the unstoppable pain, as so many survivors do.
The good news is that it is possible to reclaim these lost parts of ourselves and to reintegrate them back into an ever-better functioning self. In more than 30 years of doing my own healing work, I have found many techniques, particularly creative writing and meditation, that have helped me break through the next layer of pain and bring me closer to my authentic core. Eve says she feels that writing The Apology has allowed her to break free and banish her father once and for all. In my experience, “once and for all” never truly arrives, but she has taken a very bold leap, for herself and for all of us as well.
Insight 4: Yes, the way that the rest of your family reacted is as bad as you imagined.
One of the most chilling aspects of the book for me was coming to terms with how other family members responded to finding out about the abuse. I recognized the brutal truth, that, threatened with exposure, Eve’s father chose his own survival over that of his child every time. Once Shadow Man gets used to roaming free, he becomes an insatiable vampire. Sooner or later the daughter says, “Daddy, I don’t like this. You need to stop or I am going to tell.” (The child hopes and believes that he will see reason, but quickly finds out that is not the case, and an unbalanced game of chicken begins.) Eve talks about her father beginning to beat her until she fears for her life. I remember my own father telling me that if I told my mother, I would be cast out and have to find my own way in the world at age nine.
Whether the family is actually alerted or just picks up on signals, the daughter finds that she is increasingly ostracized, called a liar, dismissed as too emotional when she cries or says she can’t sleep at night. The imagined Arthur says to Eve, “The family grew to despise you for it. In that sense I set you up to be hated. And that would come to be part of what destroyed you. They couldn’t blame me, I was the husband. I was the father. They needed me so they blamed you.” (p. 42) The ongoing pain of my own sisters’ “shoot the messenger” attitude is far longer-lasting than the original abuse.
No one wants to deal with what incest means for the whole family, since it doesn’t reflect well on anyone. “How this could have happened in a household with another parent and other siblings?” As a consequence, there is huge pressure for the victim to remain silent, to simply forget about it and “to just move on.” I literally had no memories of seven years of incidents for more than 20 years, until they came back when I was giving birth. When I did confront my father, he and his therapist wife accused me of “false memory syndrome,” attention-seeking and the possible need for hospitalization – preferably immediately before I said anything more and damaged my father’s professional reputation!
Neither Eve, nor I, have felt supported by our siblings, though we both found some validation in the responses by our mothers. My mother asked me specifically about my father’s sexual behavior toward me, and based on that, said she knew that I was telling the truth. She certainly had nothing to gain by declining to jump on the family bandwagon of discrediting me. Her believing my story, at a time that I felt so vulnerable and attacked, may well have saved my life. I will be forever grateful.
Insight 5: We live in interesting times…certainly challenging and possibly hopeful.
I found the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the fall of 2018 so triggering that I have put the book I was writing for survivors on hold for a while as a means of self- preservation in these devastating, brutal times. Seeing a man, whom I believed to be an unrepentant rapist, using the power of lies and politics to stonewall allegations of his ethics violations, reactivated a wave of panic and rage that has been held deep inside me since the first time my father touched me inappropriately, when I was three years old.
Eve Ensler hopes that apologies will catch on and free us from this toxic divide between abusers and the abused. Brett Kavanaugh is not apologizing, and neither are Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein or a host of other men who have been called out for their treatment of women. However, a few years ago, I could never have imagined the #MeToo movement, so who knows? I find it wonderful that women are finally raising our voices and telling our stories.
What is it that will actually catalyze men? In the context of a 12-step program, I have seen the process of offering amends free lots of people, both men and women, from old toxic bonds. I have also learned in that 12-step program that we are only in charge of our own actions and reactions, never those of others. In this context, Eve’s book, dedicated to “every woman still waiting for an apology,” is brilliant. She takes back the power that her father had held by withholding his apology for decades. She uses her imagination to bridge the gap between the two of them, thereby making a bold leap for all of us to follow if we choose.
Will an apology liberate your soul, once and for all? In my experience, it’s doubtful. Still, reading this book breaks through the traditional confines of time and space and offers new hope to survivors and that is quite something! If one believes that ultimately “we are all one,” as I increasingly do, then there is no future in judging or despising “the other.” Feeling compassion, even for the parent who has betrayed our most fundamental trust, is the alchemy offered here. I highly recommend giving yourself the gift of reading The Apology and benefitting from the medicine – the transformation – that comes from Eve Ensler’s remarkable offering.