The anatomy of an apology, according to Eve Ensler
The Vagina Monologues playwright said restorative justice is only possible when both victims and perpetrators of gender-based violence are allowed to heal.
Speaking to a small group of journalists in New Delhi, ahead of the launch of One Billion Rising’s 2020 agenda, noted Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler said that it was essential to focus our attention to restorative justice to end endemic violence against women.
One Billion Rising, started in 2012, is a mass action of activists in over 200 countries, including India, to end gender-based violence against women.
Ensler spoke of how her book, The Apology, which came out earlier this year, offered an alternative process of thinking about justice in the context of sexual harassment and sexual violence against women, and said that capital punishment and imprisonment were not necessarily methods that brought about real change in perpetrators of violence.
“What’s changing? That is a deep concern of mine. We will call out, but if men are not using this as a moment to say, ‘I’ve got to investigate how I have been created in a toxic masculine world; do I even know what rape and abuse really is’, how will we change?” she said.
Referring to the recent iteration of the Me Too movement, which resumed in India in September 2018, when several women revealed their experiences of sexual harassment over social media platforms, she said, “It is critical that the stories are told, and we call people out, but the next stage has to be how are we creating processes and platforms for men to grapple with the tyranny of patriarchy and what it has done to them, and who it has turned them into.”
One of the ways to do that was to learn how to apologise, something that men are not taught as children, Ensler pointed out.
Speaking of the incest abuse that she experienced as a child, Ensler said her book, The Apology, which was published by Bloomsbury in May, offered a pathway to restoration — a “a blueprint” to change the way one may heal from violence, whether victim or perpetrator.
The Apology is in the form of a letter that Ensler wrote from the perspective of her dead father apologising to her for the sexual and physical abuse that he subjected her to.
Explaining the anatomy of an apology, she said, “It’s not ‘I’m sorry I hurt you, or I abused you.’ An apology has four parts. It’s about looking at your childhood and understanding what happened. My father was the youngest child who was adored. But, adoration is not love, it robs you of your humanity. You can’t cry, you can’t express doubt. What do you do with all your feelings then? You push it down. In my father’s case, when I was born, he felt an overwhelming tenderness towards me. But he had never been allowed to be tender, and so he didn’t know what to do with that tenderness. He sexualised it, because as a man, that’s what he had been taught.”
Ensler said that apologising didn’t need to beget forgiveness, but it did require a reckoning of one’s actions through “detailing”. “[The perpetrator] can say, ‘I’m sorry I sexually abused you’, but liberation is in the details of what the perpetrator did. When you get very specific about what you’ve done, you touch it [which will allow the perpetrator] to understand the intention. Did I mean to undermine you, to hurt you? ”
“The third part is to allow yourself to feel what the victim felt. What did she feel when I was invading her body?”
To “go through that wound,” Ensler said, was what was needed for real change to take place.
The final part of the apology, she added, was to make amends for what the perpetrator has done. “If you’ve gone through that process, it would indicate that you are person who isn’t capable of [committing sexual violence] again,” she said.
At a time when the question of whether the law on sexual harassment is enough to address the social and cultural nature of the violence, Ensler’s blueprint of providing restorative justice is an important intervention, as it also bears witness to the urgent need of social transformation.