Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Making Amends
The playwright V, formerly known as Eve Ensler, survived horrific sexual violence as a child. Years later, she decided to write what she needed to hear most: a true apology in the words of her abuser.
V (formerly Eve Ensler) is a Tony Award-winning playwright, activist and author of the Obie Award-winning theatrical phenomenon The Vagina Monologues. Her plays include Lemonade, Extraordinary Measures, Necessary Targets, OPC, The Good Body, Emotional Creature and Fruit Trilogy. She starred in her one-woman play, In the Body of the World, adapted from her memoir. Her most recent book is The Apology.
V is the founder of V-Day, a global activist movement which, over the course of more than two decades, has raised over 100 million dollars to end violence against all women and girls—cisgender, transgender, and gender non-conforming. She is also the founder of One Billion Rising, the largest global mass action to end gender-based violence in over 200 countries.
V is a co-founder of the City of Joy, a revolutionary center for women survivors of violence in the DRC. V, along with her co-founders Christine Schuler Deschyrver and Dr. Denis Mukwege, appeared in the documentary film City of Joy, released globally as a Netflix Original in 2019.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
On the show today, ideas about what it truly means to make amends. And just a warning – there are stories in this next interview about sexual assault and violence that may be hard to hear. If you’re listening with kids, you might want to turn down the volume on this one.
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ZOMORODI: So back in 2017, during the #MeToo movement, it seemed like a lot of people accused of assault or harassment responded by saying things like, I’m sorry if you interpreted my actions this way or I remember the incident differently. It often felt like the accused, most of them men, didn’t give real apologies.
V ENSLER: No. There have been no apologies. There really have been no apologies. And I think this non-apology must be a pretty fundamental column of what’s holding patriarchy up and keeping this kind of toxic masculinity in its place.
ZOMORODI: This is playwright Eve Ensler. You might know her play, “The Vagina Monologues.” And she recently wrote a book called “The Apology.”
ENSLER: I think an apology is an equalizer. It removes hierarchy. It makes you humble. It makes you vulnerable. It makes you human. You know, and I think there are many reasons why men don’t apologize. I mean, one is – I think from a very young age – men are taught that it’s a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of vulnerability.
But I also think that to apologize requires awareness, and it requires knowledge, and it requires wisdom. And it would mean that men knew how to go through a process of self-interrogation, where they would have to look at their behavior and investigate who they are, how they became the person they became, how they became the kind of man they became that is capable of raping somebody or abusing someone or harassing someone or violating someone. And I think all that requires a mindset that doesn’t really exist within the current culture of patriarchy.
ZOMORODI: Eve’s perspective comes from her own experience with sexual violence, which began when she was just a child. She told her story on the TED stage.
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ENSLER: My father began to sexually abuse me when I was 5 years old. He would come into my room in the middle of the night. He appeared to be in a trance. The abuse continued until I was 10. When I tried to resist him, when I was finally able to say no, he began to beat me. He called me stupid. He said I was a liar. The sexual abuse ended when I was 10, but actually it never ended. It changed who I was. I was filled with anxiety and guilt and shame all the time, and I didn’t know why.
I hated my body. I hated myself. I got sick a lot. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t remember things. I was drawn to dangerous men and women who I allowed – actually, I invited – to treat me badly because that is what my father taught me love was. I waited my whole life for my father to apologize to me. He didn’t. He wouldn’t. And then with the recent scandals of famous men, as one after another was exposed, I realized something – I have never heard a man who has committed rape or physical violence ever publicly apologize to his victim. I began to wonder, what would an authentic, deep apology be like?
So something strange began to happen. I began to write, and my father’s voice began to come through me. He began to tell me what he had done and why. He began to apologize. My father is dead almost 31 years, and yet, in this apology, the one I had to write for him, I discovered the power of an apology and how it actually might be the way to move forward in the crisis we now face with men and all they abuse.
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ZOMORODI: So that apology that you’re describing turned into your book. How did you come up with this idea to write a book from your father’s perspective, to make an apology on his behalf?
ENSLER: Well, as a survivor of enormous sexual and physical abuse, even though he was dead, there was still this part of me that yearned for an apology. I started thinking, well, maybe I should write the letter I want to hear; maybe I should write the words and say the words that would free me, and possibly, this could be a blueprint for men who might be wanting to write such an apology. So I wrote my father’s apology letter to me.
And I want to make a big distinction here. There’s a huge difference between explanation and justification. There is never any justification for sexual or physical abuse, ever. But I think I wanted to try to understand why my father did it because there’s something about getting to the core of the why that has aspects of liberation to it, when you just begin to see, oh, here’s the culture my father was born into. Here’s the family he was born into. Here’s the story he was born into. Here are the things that affected him and changed him and made him into this kind of man.
And I think the book really was my attempt to create an apology process, and that’s what the apology is.
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ENSLER: Apology is a sacred commitment. It requires complete honesty. It demands deep self-interrogation and time. It cannot be rushed. I discovered an apology has four steps, and if you would, I’d like to take you through them.
The first is you have to say what, in detail, you did. Your accounting cannot be vague. I’m sorry if I hurt you or I’m sorry if I sexually abused you doesn’t cut it. You have to say what actually happened. I came into the room in the middle of the night, and I pulled your underpants down. I belittled you because I was jealous of you, and I wanted you to feel less. The liberation is in the details. An apology is a remembering. It connects the past with the present. It says that what occurred actually did occur.
The second step is you have to ask yourself why. Survivors are haunted by the why. Why? Why would my father want to sexually abuse his eldest daughter? Why would he take my head and smash it against a wall? In my father’s case, he was never allowed to express tenderness or vulnerability, curiosity, doubt. He was never allowed to cry. And so he was forced to push all those feelings underground, and they eventually metastasized. Those suppressed feelings later became Shadow Man. And he was out of control, and he eventually unleashed his torrent on me. The third step is you have to open your heart and feel what your victim felt. You have to let your heart break. You have to feel the horror and betrayal and the long-term impacts of your abuse on your victim. You have to sit with the suffering you have caused. And, of course, the fourth step is taking responsibility for what you have done and making amends.
ZOMORODI: Can you talk me through a little bit how you came up with the four steps to a real apology? Like, how did you break it down so that it could be an apology that counted?
ENSLER: I think I just went on the basis of what I needed, right? I think often particularly with sexual abuse, we talk about it like it’s this broad thing, like gender violence or sexual harassment, but we don’t really talk about what it does to people, all of the ways that it affects our health and our psychology and our ability to function and our ability to show up in the world and our relationship to intimacy and sex. We don’t talk about all that. And so getting a perpetrator to really have to look at what his actions did, to sit with the suffering he’s caused, is really a huge piece of it. And I think that’s what I needed from my father. I needed for him to sit with that suffering, to feel my suffering, to feel bad about how bad I felt.
ZOMORODI: But he didn’t. You did. You wrote it for him.
ENSLER: Well, the imagination is a powerful thing, right? I think sometimes the imagination is more accurate and more persuasive than anything we can do, you know? It was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. And when the book was over, my father says at the end, old man, be gone. He’s gone, and he hasn’t come back. And that story is over, and I’m no longer living in his paradigm, his narrative. I’m living in my story. It’s not a reactive narrative. I’m not living out of rage. I’m not trying to prove to him that he was wrong. I’m not – it’s over. It’s done. And it’s been so moving. People are writing me to say that they’re actually doing this. They’re writing to themselves from their perpetrator and are having a really amazing impact. I wouldn’t do it alone. I would do it with a counselor or a therapist or a clergy or a friend, somebody to support you. I’m also getting letters from men who want to undergo an apology process, which has been very moving.
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ENSLER: That’s what we want. We don’t want men to be destroyed. We don’t want them to only be punished. We want them to see us, the victims that they have harmed. And we want them to repent and change. And I actually believe this is possible. I really believe it’s our way forward. But we need men to join us. We need men now to be brave and be part of this transformation. I have spent most of my life calling men out, and I am here now to call you in.
ZOMORODI: Eve, it sounds like despite everything you’ve been through and everything you’ve seen, you are hopeful that this conversation, this straight forward path to making amends, can start to really change things.
ENSLER: Look, I have to believe that. I’ve been fighting to end violence against women and girls for much much of my life. I have tried every angle, every approach. You know, I can go down the list of the 30 million approaches. This is my newest approach, right? I feel like you just keep coming at it from this side and keep coming at it from that side. And I have to believe that at a certain point something is going to catalyze men to join us in this struggle. I dream that there will come a day where we just can’t believe that any man would ever lift a fist to a woman, that any man would threaten a woman at her job by making physical overtures to her that she couldn’t resist without risk of losing her livelihood. And if I didn’t believe that, you know, I’d be very, very depressed. I think I’m one of those people, you know, I can’t go on, I will go on, I must go on. I’m going to keep going until someone tells me differently, but this would be a very, very good moment for men to come forward (laughter). We’re ready (laughter).
ZOMORODI: Eve’s book is called “The Apology.” And by the way, since we recorded this interview, Eve has decided to change her name to the letter V. She writes that although she holds no anger towards her father, she no longer wants to live with his name or the name he gave her. You can see V’s full talk at ted.com.
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ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about making amends. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Dib Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I’m Manoush Zomorodi, and you’ve been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.