When I was five years old my father began to sexually abuse me. This went on until I was ten, and then the daily physical battery and terror began. This life of endless brutality and invasion rearranged my chemistry, forced me out of my body, repressed my ability to think and made me terrified of love.
My father never told me why he did what he did. He never explained how he became a man capable of this kind of sadism and he died without apologizing.
In recent months, I have read the accounts of several men accused of sexual violence. Their words often focused on the pain and repercussions they had experienced after being accused rather than thinking of the pain of their victims or admitting what they had done and how they had worked on themselves to understand their own histories and behavior.
It then occurred to me that I had never heard a man make an honest, thorough, public accounting of his abuse. I had never heard a man openly apologize. I wondered what it would be like to hear an apology like this, what impact it might have on me and other survivors and how it might help end the scourge of violence altogether.
And so I decided to write the apology from my father that I always needed to hear; to find the words and the language, to outline the anatomy of an apology that could possibly set me free and act as a possible blueprint for other men seeking a pathway to atonement, accountability and reckoning.
As I wrote “The Apology” I felt as though I began to hear my father’s voice. He told me of his childhood, how he was adored rather than loved and how adoration forced him to live up to someone else’s idealized image of himself rather than being able to be his authentic, imperfect human self. He told me of the ways that patriarchy and toxic masculinity had forced him to push feelings of tenderness, vulnerability, tears, doubt, uncertainty and wonder underground, and how they later metastasized into another persona called “Shadow Man.”
This disassociated self was capable of sexually abusing a five-year-old girl and physically torturing and gaslighting her thereafter. He told me in ruthless detail everything he had done to me and why. He allowed himself to feel the pain, heartbreak and betrayal he had caused in me. He reflected deeply on his past in order to understand what had led him to these terrible actions. He explained his behavior rather than justifying it. And through his agonizing detailed admissions, he expressed deep sorrow, remorse, guilt and self-hatred. He took responsibility and he made amends.
In the book, my father also confessed to me that to apologize is to be a traitor to men. That there is an unwritten code of silence that is not to be broken without unraveling the whole story of patriarchy.
But he also told me that what he had done to me had poisoned his soul and consumed him in the next world. He was desperate to tell the truth, to make an apology so he could get free.
Until I wrote this book, both my father and I were caught for nearly 60 years in an ongoing vise of pain, rage, guilt and shame. We were consigned to a particular terrible time in our history. Me, defined as victim; him defined as perpetrator.
Because my father owned his actions and apologized in the book, my suffering was honored and made real. I experienced justice and respect. I heard the words I needed to hear that released the resentment, pain and hurt. I was able to have a deeper understanding of his history, wounds and motivation, and because of that the ongoing, haunting question of why was finally resolved. I was able fully let him go and move on.
Of course I wrote my father’s apology for him. But I must say it was a profoundly healing and liberating exercise. Because my father has lived inside me my whole life, I was able to move him in a new direction, from monolithic monster to apologist, from terrifying entity to broken, damaged little boy. In doing so, I gained agency and he lost his power over me.
In the process, I also discovered how central apologies are to the next stage of our human evolution. We must create pathways for men to do this critical work of atonement, and men must be brave now and willing to come forward — risking being called gender traitors — in order to free the suffering of their victims and themselves. The time of reckoning is here.
This piece was first published by NBC news and reproduced with permission.
Eve Ensler is a Tony Award-winning playwright, performer and activist best known for “The Vagina Monologues.” Her critically acclaimed memoir “In the Body of the World” was published by Metropolitan Books in 2013. Her most recent book is “The Apology.”