Nneka McGuire is a multiplatform editor at The Lily, The Washington Post’s website that focuses on the stories of women.
An apology, if authentic, is an exquisite tool. Crafted thoughtfully and delivered earnestly, it can absolve the guilty and soothe the wronged. It’s an antidote for resentment, a balm for a bruised soul. There’s a certain magic in the words “I’m sorry.”
But if a perpetrator refuses to acknowledge cruel deeds, and an injured party is left with aching wounds, what then?
Enter Eve Ensler’s “The Apology,” which is as exquisite as it is excruciating.
In her preface, Ensler writes: “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 the narrative, and design alternative outcomes. This letter is an invocation, a calling up. I have tried to allow my father to speak to me as he would speak.”
The novelist, activist and playwright, who shot to fame in the ’90s with “The Vagina Monologues,” has long said her father, Arthur Ensler, who died more than 30 years ago, sexually and physically brutalized her as a child.
The book — or rather, the novella, as it clocks in at around 120 pages — is an unnerving, imaginative exercise and a harrowing account of abuse.
How best to parse the makings and motives of a pedophile? Apparently, in detail. And in first person.
Our author may be the younger Ensler, but our narrator is the elder. “The Apology” is a letter. “Dear Evie,” it begins. Arthur is writing to his daughter from limbo, “a most debilitating zone,” where he floats and spins, rehashing his crimes.
As a child, he tells us, he was idolized by his mother and sisters, made to feel superior, but rarely shown affection. His parents subscribed to the teachings of Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, a German physician who conflated child-rearing with authoritarianism. “Dr. Schreber strongly believed that babies should be taught from the outset to obey and should refrain from crying,” Arthur explains. “The way to control a baby, he taught, was by frightening it, and after you would be master of the child forever.”
Mix rigid discipline with isolation and consistent, sadistic bullying at the hands of his brother, and Arthur’s childhood starts to resemble a toxic stew. Then, on his 17th birthday, an uncle takes him to the cinema. Arthur’s entranced, and through film he finds a way out of his misery — not via escapism but with mimicry.
He studies leading men: John Barrymore, Errol Flynn. He’s drawn to their charm. He emulates their allure.
“The tortured and angry young man inside me was now firmly disguised, costumed in dashing handmade suits,” Arthur tells us. “He dressed in confidence and elegance and seemed, at least momentarily, to transform his enemies into admirers through style and charm. As you can imagine, this was a most synthetic remedy to what I can only identify now as soul sickness.”
Using charisma, Arthur makes friends, attracts women, ascends social and workplace ranks, all the while suppressing his hurt, bitter, spiteful self. “All the sorrow and pain I ignored and did not care for, eventually metastasized into an entity and returned as a most terrifying fiend,” he says — a mutant he calls Shadow Man.
It is this monster who molests Eve, starting when she is 5.
“I would find myself sitting on your bed, somehow carried there by Shadow Man. You would pretend to be asleep. As if what was happening was not happening. You desperately wanted it and me to go away. I didn’t go away.”
Even someone without a drop of psychological expertise can see why Arthur must create a vicious alter ego who could do this to a child, why Eve must imagine that the abuse she endured was a manifestation of her father’s own festering trauma.
When she is 10, the sexual abuse ceases and the beatings begin.
The first stunning act of physical violence is described with haunting specificity. Eve asks if she can spend the night with a friend. Arthur says no.
“You frowned and made a terrible face. You didn’t like my answer. I told you, ‘Smile when I tell you something, smile when I give you my answer.’ ”
She doesn’t. She presses on. He orders her to smile.
“And you waited as long as you possibly could, pushing and daring me to cross that edge. Then you turned your face into the most disrespectful smirk, a disdainful smile refusing and mocking my command. And Shadow Man instantaneously leapt up and with all his might he smashed his hand across your insubordinate face. Your whole body went flying across the room until it crashed against the wall and you dropped like a flimsy rag doll to the floor on top of carpet fuzz and crumbs. And through your tears and shock, you smiled the sickest smile.”
This is a potent, engrossing book. It is difficult. After digesting harrowing passages like that, I found myself vigorously vacuuming the rug. Twenty pages later, I was watering the plants, washing the dishes, painstakingly organizing the closet. Given how difficult it is to read, I imagine it was nearly unbearable to write.
At times, even Arthur — and by extension, Eve — seems to question the impact of this reckoning. Is it therapy or torment?
“I wonder if telling you what happens next is really doing you a service, Eve. Yes, I realize there is no apology without a meticulous accounting. But I seriously wonder if unearthing the depth of my cruelty and confirming it to you might be more devastating than curing,” he says.
I can’t say if this book will mend Eve Ensler’s heart. It has broken mine.
The final sentence of her preface reads, “This letter is my attempt to endow my father with the will and the words to cross the border, and speak the language, of apology so that I can finally be free.”
Please, Lord, may she get what she asks for.
By Eve Ensler
128 pp. $22