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Eve Ensler: “I vowed I would never be vengeful.” Photo/Paula Allen/Supplied

Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler on coming to terms with her abusive father

Activist, feminist and celebrated author of The Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler never received an apology from her father for his sexual and emotional abuse, so she did it for him in an act of “heroic ventriloquism”.

"I keep thinking, okay, it’s going to go out of date this year,” says Eve Ensler, calling from New York. “Please let it go out of date. Please let everyone know their vaginas and see their vaginas and love their vaginas by now. But the great thing about patriarchy is how stubborn and persistent it is. It’s like the herpes virus. You think it’s gone away, until the conditions are ripe, and then it surfaces again.”

We’re only a few minutes in and already three vaginas and a herpes. Classic Eve Ensler. She’s the American playwright, thespian, activist and feminist whose 1996 play, The Vagina Monologues, has caused women around the world to find themselves giddily chanting the C-word at her behest. Check your primness at the door. It will do you no favours here.

Ensler is amiably in your face, even on the phone. “Right?” she demands. “You know?” Her conversation is an invitation to a collaboration. She talks about her most famous alliance with women – “21 years of vagina madness!” – as a sort of frankencreation with an existence beyond her. “Yes, I put pen to paper and I wrote those monologues, which are fictional monologues based on hundreds of interviews, but there’s some energy. I mean, there were 900 [V-Day] productions in February.” February 14, Valentine’s Day, is also V-Day, an annual occasion of global activism to end violence against women and girls. It started in 1998, spinning off the global phenomenon that was – is – the Monologues

Ensler performing The Vagina Monologues. Photo/Joan Marcus/Supplied
Apart from cries of “vulgar” and worse from the conservative, churchy end of the spectrum, there have always been controversies. One monologue originally told of the sexual awakening of a 13-year-old girl with an older woman. These days, she’s 16. More recently, the odd US university scrapped its annual production of the play because it was perceived to exclude trans women who don’t have vaginas. “Which, by the way, was not even true,” Ensler says, “because I wrote a trans monologue many years ago that has been part of the V-Day movement for many years. So, it was interesting that …” Ensler decides not to go there. “Look, I’m going to leave that alone.”

Fair enough. Twenty-one years down the track, she still operates in tricky territory. The play was – is – not everyone’s taboo-trashing cup of tea. In 1996, it was revolutionary, broke silences, became an idea greater than the sum of its remorselessly named body parts. It drew people such as Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep into Ensler’s starry orbit. It sparked action for women across communities, countries and cultures. Chant with her, or no thanks, Ensler is a legend.

But we’re here to talk about a different kind of collaboration: between Ensler and her dead father. The Apology is a small, startling grenade of a book, with a cover that looks like the sort of black-bordered envelope that used to bear bad news. Ensler has referred to the sexual abuse and violence she experienced from her father before – her 2013 memoir, In the Body of the World, about her experience of cancer, trawled its legacy: drinking, drugs, unhealthy relationships. The new book conjures up the apology she never had from him in life. It represents a reckoning long delayed. “I know, right? Isn’t it strange to be past 65 and finally figuring this out.” That’s a long time to exist in a sort of emotional limbo. “I think it just took me so long to, first, survive it, then begin to recover from it, then begin to get through my rage about it. All that stuff took stages and time. Nobody had written a book like this. It would have been different if someone had said, ‘You can actually do this and save yourself all those stages.’”

With Jane Fonda during V-Day. Photo/Getty Images
Her father died in 1988. “We’d been estranged for a while. As a matter of fact, no one told me he was dying. They told me a couple of days after he died. And he didn’t believe in things like memorials.” There was no goodbye. “There’s that passage in the book with me sitting in his closet, smelling his sweater, just trying to make sense of it and let go of it. Which I believe is really what he wanted – to leave his poisons in me. He succeeded for a long time.”

Before he died, he cut her out of his will and tried to ensure his abuse was buried with him. “He was saying to my mother, ‘If she says anything to you, don’t believe her.’ My mother said, had he not said that to her, she wouldn’t have believed me. It was so obvious.”

He always called her a liar. “It never made sense to me, because I was scrupulously, obsessively honest. Because I didn’t want to be hurt.” Finally she understood. “He didn’t want people to believe me when I finally told. He had to delegitimise me so I would never be believed.” The book was, in part, about freeing herself from who he told her she was. “Exactly.”

The sexual abuse started when she was five. That stopped when she was 10. She cut off her hair, became truculent, he punched her in the face and the beatings began. The Apology is an exposition of an adoring father turned monster. “You were an angel descended to save my soul and I yearned for salvation,” he says. And: “I told myself you wanted this.” It’s uncomfortably, unflinchingly graphic, describing not just the abuser’s response but the confused response, at first, of the child.

Has she had any negative response to going into such fraught territory? “I was anticipating that and so far it has not happened. I think it’s so clear, that complexity, it just screws your mind so badly. If it were just horrible, you could walk away and be done, but because there is some pleasure involved in it – it’s your father, for god’s sake, the person you love most in the world – it explodes your mind and confuses you for a long, long time after. I think it’s so implicit in the book, and that is maybe why people haven’t gotten upset about it.” It was the hardest part to write. “I wanted to tell the truth. And the truth has so many layers. I kept going back to that section, to just get my father to go deeper. Like, ‘You haven’t really told this completely. Let’s go deeper, down another floor.’” It forces a reader to have to try to make sense of what happened. “Exactly. We’re so scared to think about what these things are. It’s ironic. You have to step into the mess in order to be freed from it. When you start to get very detailed and specific, they lose their ability to control us.”

She makes him say what a little girl longed to hear: “Let me get it right this time”, “Let me be staggered by your tenderness”, “I’m sorry”.

Now she’s the one in control and he is consigned to a desolate, lonely limbo, “Floating, unmoored, spinning …” Is there an element of revenge in finally bending her tormentor to her will? “No,” she says, sharply. “No. I didn’t want to do a book that was revengeful. I made a determination that whatever he was doing, I would do the opposite. My father was a very vengeful person. I vowed I would never be vengeful.”

So, does that mean she has forgiven the plainly unforgivable? “I’ve always been wary of the word forgiveness. It’s something that often gets mandated – man being the operative word – on survivors of all kinds. ‘You should forgive’, ‘Why don’t you just forgive, already’, blah blah blah. I really don’t know what forgiving someone means. What I do understand is the alchemy of an apology.”

The book is meant to act as a model for a process on the part of the perpetrator that is detailed, forensic, accountable. “If someone feels the effect their behaviours have on you, and lets themselves be open to that feeling, and then takes full responsibility, there is this alchemy that occurs. Any rancour or bitterness or hate gets released in that moment. If that’s forgiveness, I’m all for it.”

In a time of no platforming, the book gives a platform to her perpetrator, even if channelled through her. Not everyone would do that. “I can only say that I respect and honour survivors’ feelings and everyone must choose. I’ve been doing this work, it feels like, forever and if we do not get under why people are doing this, and if we do not start looking at the seeds of patriarchal abuse, we’re going to be here forever.” So, her father speaks about his boyhood. He was the idolised son of an Austrian father and a German mother. His mother’s golden boy. His parents followed the parenting advice of a German physician who favoured discipline for babies of the no cuddles, no comforting variety.

Her father was spoilt, special, emotionally deprived: a toxic combination. Gaining understanding was painful. “It was hard to feel for him as a boy. It was hard to say, ‘Oh my god, my father hurt.’ I would have liked to stay away from that. But it was in that that I really began to get free.” Those feelings are there, anyway. “We know our perpetrators better than we know anyone else in the world. Their feelings are stored in us because they don’t feel their feelings. We do. So, in a way, I got to give my father back his feelings. It was, like, ‘Go, take them. They’re yours, not mine.’”

With Meryl Streep and Afghan women’s rights activist Sahar Saba. Photo/Getty Images
The book couldn’t be more excruciatingly personal. But we’re in the age of the Me Too movement. It’s also highly political. “Part of it is feeling that we’re stuck. We’re really at stalemate. We’ve called men out, we’ve broken the silence, we’ve told our stories, la-la-la. And men are not changing. Men are not taking responsibility.” The big taboo this book breaks, she says, is that it has a man apologising. “Men do not apologise. Honestly, when have we heard one? When have we heard a man apologise publicly in a thorough, personal and detailed accounting? I can’t think of any.”

Inevitably, Donald Trump comes up. Her description of him is best not printed here. “Is he as despised in New Zealand as he is everywhere?” she wonders. You would hope so. Perhaps she could write his apology.

Ensler is a phenomenon, a one-woman consciousness-raising industry. She’s already working on making The Apology into a play and translating it into activism. Her website for the book outlines typically monumental goals: “How do we offer a doorway rather than a locked cell? How do we move from humiliation to revelation, from curtailing behaviour to changing it?” The idea is to form apology groups. “People come together and start talking about going through a process: detailed accounting, what was my intention, how did I get here? Then, hopefully, next year, communities can write their apologies and they can perform them on V-Day.”

But will men read it? “Men are reading it and I’m getting such amazing letters saying, ‘Thank you, this is changing my consciousness.’ Is it 95% of the population? No, it’s not. But it’s a beginning.”

Certainly, women have done all the work in this area. In The Apology, she’s throwing the responsibility back on the man, her father. “Yeah, which I did for him,” she says, laughing. Oh, well, baby steps. “But, hey, someone said the other day the book was heroic ventriloquism. That sounds about right.”

Ventriloquism, heroic or otherwise, isn’t easy. “Oh my god, right? Figuring out what you need to hear. Really going inside and saying what would set you free? What would make it right?”

So, has she been set free? Has it been made right? “At the end of the book, when I said … when he said … I don’t know who says, ‘Old man be gone,’ it was as if he were a dot in the cosmos and he just went, he was sucked back into it. It was just, like, swoosh.” She makes the sound of an email when you press send. “He’s gone. It’s been months now. Honestly, he hasn’t been back. And the ways that I was tortured by him really seem to have subsided.”

So, where is he? “Now?” Long pause. “I’d like to believe that he is on his way to a higher consciousness.” For her, the book was also something of a spiritual encounter. “I think it was a joint project. It was like, okay, I guess we’re doing this together.” Even her vocabulary changed. “I’m not formal like that. There are words such as ‘crepuscular’. It’s not my style. Is it that he just so deeply lives inside me and has for so long? Or is there some other kind of presence in the mystical realm? I can’t figure it out.” Well, the past is never really safely back there somewhere. “Exactly. Which is why we have to clean it up.”

He’s gone. That absence might take some adjusting to. “Oh, I have to tell you, it’s very discombobulating. I think survivors of anything, those things are the frame of our life, our identities, to some degree. So, it’s very odd to suddenly be in this place where I don’t know who I am.”

Being lost isn’t a bad thing. “I’m beginning to understand how violence and this whole paradigmatic structure limit women’s abilities to be other things. If that’s the story you’re in, that’s the cage you have to wrestle with. But there are so many other stories that you could be out there being a part of or creating. The depth of the occupation is what’s becoming very clear to me, feeling the release from it.”

After the book, she says, things changed. “I was suddenly overcome with people wanting to do new projects and none of them were about violence against women. Everything was completely new. It’s not that I won’t always be concerned about violence against women. My life is for that. But it’s not the only story I’m telling any more.”

No one’s been let off the hook. Ensler leaves her father trapped in the cage of the story he made, spinning out there somewhere. “But he’s not controlling the narrative any more. I’m not his victim and he’s not my predator.” She’s pressed send. Swoosh, he’s gone.

The Apology, by Eve Ensler (Bloomsbury, $39.99).

This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.