Eve Ensler’s The Apology (Bloomsbury, 2019) is a transformative narrative that is intense and uncomfortable to read — but quite significant in the telling of sexual abuse for the child victimized by a parent. The Apology is a retelling of Ensler’s own experiences with sexual abuse but told from the perspective of her father, Arthur. It is his voice that tells us of the sins he committed against his daughter in raw detail, and we experience Eve Ensler’s character as a secondary one — from her father’s perspective.
This apology, of course, was never uttered by her father in reality, but Ensler provides us with an imagined one — what an apology would sound like if the abusers actually drew out the details of their abuse from beginning to end, explaining to us how they came to commit incest and how they continued to traumatize their victims even after the sexual abuse had ended.
There is no empathy offered to the characterization of Ensler’s father. We are not asked to forgive him or trust him, but it is an interesting retelling in trying to understand how a father gets to the point of actually abusing his own daughter and then keeping her a prisoner of this abuse even after she was out of his home and life.
The abuse of his daughter is graphic, and we witness how a narcissist withdrawn from his own family is pulled towards the youngest of his children simply because she seeks his affections and his attention. It begins with kisses and secrets when she is five and continues in the darkness of her room at night when he visits her and inserts his fingers into her vagina. This goes on for years, until she is ten, with no one in the family having a clue as to his actions, until the day she rejects his attentions, and he forces his hands into her forcefully. He uses the word “rape” because of the brutality of his assault, his usual gentleness gone, only rage and retribution present in the act that was wrong in the first place.
We see Ensler change then, from his perspective. He addresses the way she chopped off her hair and dressed like a boy in the hopes of making herself ugly enough so that he wouldn’t come to her at night. He regards her behavior as unfair and retaliatory, how she brings attention to herself by failing her classes, by being petulant and withdrawn, by starving her body and refusing to put food into the shell he had consumed and abused for years without anyone paying attention. He punished her by punching her, putting a knife to her throat and threatening to stab her, shoving her against the walls, enraged by her refusal to comply with his demands, lying still in her bed, looking away from him, frozen, tense, her body and thoughts not present when he visited her at night.
Her rejection of him, her betrayal in allowing his abuse to manifest physically so that the family could see — so that he could see what he had done to her — filled him with such ferocity and indignation that he ostracized her from her own family, pummeled her with familial rejection and ridicule long after she went off to college and became an addict and an artist. He slinked into her career, her education, her relationships, her addiction, her self-worth, and finally her art. But she had the final say. She wrote The Apology. And in this story, we see the abuser for what he is, imagined or otherwise, and what he did to his own daughter.
Although her abuse is graphic and reading the abuse from the father’s perspective is disturbing, this is worth reading. It’s an apology that, for once, sheds light on the abuser. We often hear the abuse from the victim’s (survivor’s) telling, but the abusers are always silent unless they speak merely to give an opaque statement or refutation of the allegations. But we never hear the whole truth, the reasons, the process of the abuse from the abuser’s mouth and perspective. This truth as it comes to us from Ensler’s father — imagined though it is — is raw and powerful and revealing. But it is also necessary to hear, since abusers rarely — if ever — apologize to their abused victims.