You were 5 years old when your father started sexually abusing you, followed by physical and emotional abuse. He’s been gone for three decades now. Why was this the time to write the book?
My whole life, I’ve been waiting for an apology. I think there’s not a survivor of anything — whether it’s sexual abuse, white supremacy, violence — who isn’t waiting for that person who did it to them to acknowledge it and to apologize. To make it right. That search for wholeness, for release, that’s been there for 31 years. But having worked in the movement to end violence against women and girls for 25 years now and seeing all that women have done — coming forward with our stories, opening shelters, starting hotlines, risking humiliation, and #MeToo is the recent iteration of that — it really hit me when I started reading these self-pitying articles of men who had been called out: Look what’s happened to me. Poor me. Why should I have to suffer like this? With no awareness for their victims or survivors. And then it occurred to me: I have never heard a man, in 16,000 years of patriarchy, make a public apology to a person he’s raped or battered. Ever.
I’ve heard you say that. Is that true?
Well, I keep asking people to show me. One person has shown me one thing, but that’s the only documented thing anybody can tell me. And now we have Bill Cosby saying, a few weeks ago, that when he comes up for parole, people should know that he will show no remorse. We have Harvey Weinstein in the New York Post saying he doesn’t understand; he’s done more for women filmmakers than anyone can imagine. So we are seeing the absolute non-apology being the kind of basic bedrock column of patriarchy.
What does a full apology look like?
It would mean somebody who's been accused going through a rigorous process of apology, where they do deep self-interrogation. Where they look at their childhood, their history, their parents, at what made them a person capable of doing that? Then coming forward with a real detailed accounting of what they did. And then, what kind of impact did it have on their victim? What were the short-term impacts? What were the long-term impacts? And then making amends.
The non-apology is in the DNA. [An apology is] like a sign of weakness. You lose status. you lose power, you break ranks, you're a traitor. So how do we change that, so men begin to say: "Well, I'm going to break ranks. I may lose a little status, but I'm actually going to gain my humanity."
You said that for people who go through sexual violence, the big question is: Why? The fact that you had to write your own apology, was that a credible enough “why” for you?
It worked for me. There was something about the process of going so deeply into my father and allowing myself, maybe for the first time, to feel his pain, which I don’t think I ever let myself feel, to understand his perspective. To understand, not justify. There’s a huge difference between explanation and justification. There’s never any justification. But to know the story was profoundly liberating for me. Even if, to some degree, it was my invention.
So it wasn't me being a bad person. It wasn't something being intrinsically wrong with me, which is what survivors walk around feeling. It was my father's story. It was his problem. It was what he came to based on really what the tyranny of patriarchy had done to him. Right? So that was a painful thing to visit. But a deeply liberating thing. Because it took the onus off me and put it back on him. And back on the culture. And since the book, I have been able to really see the things my father gave me that were good. My father gave me some really decent values. So now the pieces of myself that I had to push away and say, "Those are attached to him," I've been able to take back.
You talked about years of self-abusive behavior following his abuse: seeking out people who didn’t treat you well, traumatic situations, drinking too much. How did you interrupt that pattern?
I think writing saved my life. Just being able to write and write and write and write and write. Not even to make sense of it, because I don’t know that I could make sense of it. But just to write it out and turn it into something else. So it wasn’t just poison.
And the other thing was activism. Just finding ways to serve. Finding ways to show up for other women was healing. And there were people miraculously along my path who intervened. Whether it was taking me to 12-step programs, finding me a therapist. People who loved me, who cared about me. You know, I met Joanne Woodward when I was, like, 24 years old. She had read a play that I had written and directed it in this school she was teaching in. She really believed in me and stepped in for me as this kind of artistic mother for a period of years. That gave me so much confidence, so much faith, that I could begin to see that maybe, maybe, maybe I could make something out of all this pain. And self-hatred. My fundamental belief — which I didn’t know then — is that we heal ourselves when we give what we want the most. If you can begin to help someone turn it around, you begin to turn it around in yourself.
Part of the reason for undertaking what I’m sure was a very painful journey in writing the book and revisiting the abuse was to set yourself free from the memory, from the need for an apology. Did it work?
Totally. I mean, look. It's been a long journey setting myself free, 60-some-odd years of trying to get out of all the impact of what my father wrought on me. But I will say, doing this book was one of the most powerful things I've ever done. At the end of the book, when my father — or I — or my father — I'm not sure who wrote this book sometimes — says, "Old man, be gone," I really experienced it like the end of Peter Pan when Tinkerbell goes, shhhup. He hasn't been back.
I honestly feel I stepped out of his paradigm and I came into my own. And every day is new. Because so much of what I was fighting up against, whether it was proving to my father he was wrong or battling my father or raging at my father — all that kind of structural paradigm-ic psychological framework has been erased. It was the motor of my life. But what's very exciting to me is to see what's emerging creatively. Because so much of that story with my father informed both what I felt compelled to write about — the content of my work, the energy of my work. And my work is completely changing. I'm working on something now that's a complete departure from anything I've ever done. And I know it's related to not having to be in that battle anymore.
Many people who’ve faced something traumatic try to just push it down, not acknowledge it — the thought being: Don’t give it the power to occupy you any further.
It already has the power. That’s the thing that survivors, I think, forget. That once someone has done this to you, they are occupying you on some level. So that presence inside you, that occupation — that’s what you’re exorcising. And it will catch up with you eventually in different forms; I’ve never seen it where it doesn’t.
What I learned from this book is: Every one of us has a wound. Everybody knows their wound. But what this country teaches us, because this country is all about bury and deny, is: Don’t touch your wound. Don’t go near your wound. It will all get better. Well, the truth of the matter is, the longer you avoid your wound, deny your wound, repress your wound, the sicker you get on some level. And when you’re willing to go through the wound, it’s very , very, very painful for a short period of time. Like, unbearably painful. But then it’s over. When you sit outside your wound, it’s like sitting outside some toxic cave. So whatever your wound is, touch it. Get help. Get someone to walk you through it. Because, on the other side, there is freedom. I know now that there is freedom.
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” was published last year.