Eve Ensler on Donald Trump, rape culture and the "unreckoned history" of America

"America's next stage," says Eve Ensler, is about "atonement and accountability." Her new book offers an example

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 11, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Eve Ensler (Getty/Salon)
Donald Trump; Eve Ensler (Getty/Salon)

Rape culture is both a noun and a verb.

Rape culture is a society and environment in which rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls are made to seem normal. This is done through language and the images circulated by the media and popular culture more generally. Rape culture is also reinforced, taught and learned by other means of political and cultural socialization. These values are internalized, both consciously and otherwise, by members of a given society.

Rape culture is not abstract: It is an act of violence done by men and boys as both individuals and a group, and an example of how power works on, through and among human beings.

And because it is a type of "culture," rape culture is taken for granted as something that is natural, normal and simply "the way things are" instead of as a series of choices that a society and its members make.

President Donald Trump is one of the most prominent examples of the way gender and sexual violence against women and girls in the United States has been normalized. Trump has now been accused of rape and sexual assault by roughly two dozen women. These alleged crimes, although not entirely ignored by the mainstream media, are barely treated as news. To many people, they are simply a fixture of Trump's behavior as opposed to scandalous, unacceptable conduct that ought to have disqualified him for the  presidency.

And of course there are the statistics: One in five women in college report being victims of sexual assault in the United States. Approximately 80 percent of women report having been sexually harassed or assaulted at some point. According to the New York Times, "An estimated 9 percent of women are raped by an intimate partner at some point, and an estimated 16 percent experience other forms of sexual violence by their partner, according to federal data." Rape remains one of the most underreported crimes in America.

Rape culture also manifests itself through the denial of women's reproductive rights and reproductive freedoms, such as the forced pregnancy laws now being passed in numerous Republican-controlled states. In Alabama, for example, rapists now have "parental rights".

Author, Tony Award-winner, playwright and activist Eve Ensler is one of America and the world's most prominent voices in the struggle for women's bodily autonomy, dignity, freedom and human rights. Her award-winning play "The Vagina Monologues" ran for more than 10 years and has been performed in more than 140 countries. Ensler's new book "The Apology" is a meditation on the decades of sexual abuse and other violence she endured from her father and how she finally purged his power over her life through creative confrontation and forgiveness.

In our conversation, Ensler reflects on the rise of Donald Trump and America's moral crisis, privilege and responsibility, healthy masculinity, why only certain groups in America are forced to forgive the transgressions against them, and how women who dare to publicly speak out against rapists and abusers are often made to suffer more trauma.

Ensler also explains the power of righteous anger, her own choice to forgive her abusive father, and what she gained and sacrificed through the process of writing "The Apology."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. My conversation with Eve Ensler can also be listened to through the player below.

Your work has impacted so many people. As you go around the country and the world discussing "The Apology" and this social and political moment in America, what are people hungry for? Is there a desire for a moral reckoning and accounting in America to atone for all that has gone wrong?

Something is afoot. There were the recent congressional hearings on reparations and the long history of America's crimes against African-Americans. The New York Police Department apologized for their abuse during the Stonewall Rebellion, and even the psychiatric community has recently apologized for their writings and bias against homosexuals.

As I tried to do in my new book "The Apology," if we as a country do not start looking at what happened in our own families, what is right in front of us, we are going to be lost as a community and a country. Before Trump got elected I wrote an article for the Guardian where I said that Donald Trump's election would be our reckoning. Trump is just the manifestation of the metastasized, undealt-with, unrepaired, unreckoned history of this country. As I see it, America's next stage has to be about apologies, reparations, atonement and accountability. We don't move forward as a country unless we confront these challenges.

Faced with the general cruelty of Donald Trump's regime, the American people have largely surrendered. They act like they are helpless. In this moral accounting, the American people will have to look in the mirror and come to terms with whether they are different from their ancestors who stood by and did nothing about slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide against Native Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans and other horrors. For some people, that's too much truth. They are waiting for somebody else to intervene on the right side of history.

There is this ludicrous notion that we are not responsible for our ancestors or what comes next in terms of cleaning up that history and its damages, the oppression. How do we create a means for people to take up that responsibility? How do we create pathways for that important work confronting that ugly history and its aftermath, without people becoming so freaked out that they stop confronting the reality of that history in the present? Where they avoid the pain of it all? People need to understand that going through that pain brings with it a type of freedom that we as a society and as individuals desperately need.

Why is it that basic empirical facts, such as that men possess privileges in American society because of their gender, cause such rage and anger? To acknowledge empirical reality is not to say that a given person is good or bad. The ethical and moral dimension comes from what a person does when confronted with the fact that they are the beneficiary of unearned  advantages. This is not a matter of "guilt," but rather of responsibility.

Of course people do not want to give up privilege. The rage comes from the thought of having to surrender some of that power and privilege, however small or large it may be. When you explain to people that they have a responsibility to share their privilege and to make sure that others are not excluded, the answer is often, "Why is that my responsibility?" There is a deep cultural-historical aspect to this resistance in America. Too many people do not want to see that they have any connection to other people, to society as a whole.

Journalist and author E. Jean Carroll recently told the world that Donald Trump raped her. Donald Trump has been accused of rape or sexual assault by at least 20 other women. Carroll's accusation was treated as a non-story by most of the country's news media. Trump threatens to sue her and has claimed that Carroll is a some type of Democratic operative — apparently she was a time-traveling sleeper agent who waited two decades for Trump to become president. Trump's other "defense" is that Carroll was not "attractive" enough for him to rape her.

Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing offered another example of rich white male entitlement when he threw a public temper tantrum about the credible sexual accusations against him.

When you're a public figure and when people denounce you and humiliate you for coming forward to tell the truth, this causes long-term damage for society and not just the individual involved. What we witnessed with Christine Blasey Ford was devastating for women in the United States. To witness Professor Ford's bravery, courage, her obvious truth-telling, and then to see her utterly annihilated by men who couldn't care less will have an impact for a very long time in America.

Trump's behavior and that of other powerful men sends a signal that women are to be submissive. Women do not have agency, freedom or control over their own bodies. Women's bodily autonomy is to be secondary to male desire and power.

It is not a coincidence that we are now seeing laws asserting the "parental rights" of rapists being passed in places like Alabama. The laws support a worldview and belief system in which men are entitled to do what they want to women's bodies, to take women's bodies, to have women's bodies, to invade women's bodies with no consequence.

One of the reasons I wrote "The Apology" was because I was yearning for an apology from my own father for so many years. To see how many times women have broken the silence about being sexually assaulted  by men, how many times we've told our stories, how many times we've risked degradation, attacks, humiliation, and people not believing us.

And even in this really exciting iteration of the MeToo movement, no men have come forward publicly to make a thorough, authentic public apology for their behavior. Literally, I ask every audience I go to around the country, "Is there anyone here who can tell me about a public apology they have heard from a man?" Nobody ever raises their hand. As my father says in the book, "to be an apologist is to be a traitor to men because once one man says he's sorry and he knows it's wrong, then the whole story of patriarchy comes crumbling down."

If we're going to move forward, there have to be men who come forward and say, "I'm a man, I made a horrible mistake. Here's what I did. Let me go back and make a detailed accounting of what I did. Look at my intentions, look at my history to know what motivated me to do that, or created me to be a man capable of such things. And then what impact did it have on the person I did it to, what feelings did I create in them? What did her life become as a result of my behavior? What is this apology going to make her feel like?" After doing that a man can begin to take some kind of accountability for the horrible things he did.

Who is expected to forgive in America? I cannot recall any moments when white Americans, especially white men, were expected to forgive those who have committed any transgressions, real or imagined, against them as a group. Vengeance and anger seem to be the exclusive "right" of some groups and not others.

In America, it is always oppressed people who should forgive. It is always women, black people and immigrants, in this moment, who are supposed to just "get over it." I have complicated feelings about the word "forgiveness." I've just never really understood that word. It feels highly religious to me and highly mandated — moreover, very "white-mandated." It does not feel natural to me. This version of "forgiveness" feels hollow.

When someone makes a true, authentic, profound apology, something happens in the body and the mind, in the spirit of the victim and the aggrieved party and the tentacles of rancor, hate, bitterness and revenge begin to release. But I don't think the onus is ever on the victim to have to forgive. The onus is on the perpetrator to find a pathway by going deeply into their soul, to acknowledge their misdeeds, acknowledge their crime, and to do so in a way that frees the victim.

Righteous anger is a good thing. Its ultimate merits depend on how the righteous anger is used.

What righteous anger does is it keeps your own spirit alive. It keeps your own drive to keep struggling alive. It keeps your drive to keep fighting alive. I've seen survivors be instructed by bad therapists to forgive their perpetrators when they were not in the least bit ready to do so. This is doubly damaging because the victim starts beating themselves up because they do not really feel like they want to forgive, and now they're suddenly made to feel like they are a bad person because they cannot forgive the abuser, the victimizer. Forgiveness should never be mandated or forced.

Anger is a fuel for me — it fuels a lot of my life. But at a certain point anger began to work against me. The anger began to lock me into a pattern, a paradigm, a particular vise with my dead father that I wanted to get released from. One of the reasons I wrote "The Apology" is that my anger was keeping me locked in that cycle.

In telling a story as deeply intimate and personal as "The Apology," how did you decide what to share and what to keep for yourself?

Having worked on these issues for most of my life, I reached a point where I was tired of words like "gender violence" or "domestic violence." It is language that covers rather than reveals. Part of me wanted to tell the story of what happened to me in great detail, because I believe that it is in the detail from which liberation springs forth and the truth gets told. My hope is that my sharing will let people know they're not alone. People have actually told me this. Readers have felt like I was telling an aspect of their story and it just triggered memories that they had never been willing to look at or deal with.

There were moments when I would start to write things and I would say to myself, "Wow, that's a lot. That's a lot of information." But I would then remind myself that if we are going to look at what a true apology is, then it cannot be half-done. It cannot be withheld. If we do not share the whole story, then it becomes poison that negatively impacts our children, other family members, people around us down into the future. There was a desire on my part to get my father to be as honest as he possibly could. I was willing to pay whatever price there was.

There was liberation and perhaps even catharsis. But what was the price?

People knowing your business. That is a given. I look at people and they know what happened to me, but I don't really feel like I've paid a price from what I wrote in "The Apology." It was incredibly liberating in the end. Whatever vestiges were left of my father are now untangled and free. I've never felt this way in my life. I'm not a victim to any perpetrator — which I was for 61 years. It is exciting in a way to have this type of freedom from him, although it feels wobbly, insecure. Are there people who judge me and think less of me? I don't really care. All we can do is tell the truth and hopefully tell it in a way that moves people. A truth that makes a person feel included and not alone. One that helps people on their own journeys by getting to their deeper truth. To do that feels like an honor and a privilege, honest.

A question about the subtleties of language. How did you balance conjuring and channeling your father in his voice versus engaging in ventriloquism? 

I think they merged at points. The imagination is so frighteningly accurate and sometimes more so than anything in reality. There were things I knew about my father and there were many things I didn't know, because he was a man of his generation who never talked. But there will be times when I really didn't know who was talking: Was it my father or me? I really couldn't tell you in those moments.

His language isn't my language. He knew words and vocabulary I don't know. His tone is much more authorial and formal than mine, but what I learned is that as a survivor of abuse, when a perpetrator violates you, rapes you, beats you, harasses you, demeans you, they enter you, they live in you, they're embedded in you. And in some ways you know them better than you know yourself, particularly if they're in your family, because you're always protecting yourself from them.

You know the sound of their voice, whether they've had three drinks or five drinks, you know by the sound of their feet if they're coming. You begin to read them and know them in order to obviously protect yourself. And I think in many ways I've been in dialogue with him for most of my life, both consciously and  unconsciously. Writing this book, my father went from this monolithic monster to an apologist. From this terrifying entity to this broken, tragic little boy. In doing that, my father lost agency over me.

Would your father think that he was a monster? That what he did to you was wrong?

Does Trump think what he's doing is wrong? No. This is caused by malignant narcissism. Sometimes I don't know where that ends and patriarchy begins. Malignant narcissism and patriarchy seem to be one and the same. My father, up until he died, I think he believed what he did was right and I deserved everything that was coming to me. I don't think he questioned himself because my father had privilege, my father had power and nobody questioned my father ever. If you look at our current predator in the White House, Donald Trump, the people who do question him are removed the minute they dare to do so. There's nobody kept in Donald Trump's orbit who isn't obedient and telling him that he is wonderful. That's what so-called monsters do, right?

There is harm to our corporeal selves. But historians, philosophers and others also write about the concept of "soul value," our self-worth, that which cannot be fully taken away by another person. How did you navigate this?

I'm not sure I was able to protect my soul value. I think there are ways in which my father didn't get my soul in the end, but he certainly crushed it for a while. My father made me cover my soul so deeply, in terms of needing to protect it, that it took me a long time to unbury it. My soul went into its shell and it stayed there and laid very still for a long, long time and a lot of crap got built up on top of my soul that I had to eventually chip through.

How are you different from the experience of writing "The Apology"?

At the end of the book, when my father says to me, "Old man, be gone," it was like at the end of "Peter Pan," when Tinker Bell just goes, "Shh." There was this sensation I had that we were done. This story is over. I would like to believe my father got a little more free, wherever he is. I know I'm free. It's not where my attention is anymore. I don't have a war there anymore. It's not my battle anymore.

How do you want readers to feel after they finish "The Apology"?

I want men to possibly see the book as a blueprint for what they could do. I hope that anybody who has been harmed sees that there is a way, a process, a journey of apology. It's a practice. I hope that those who have hurt others can see how they can begin to heal the person they harmed, but also begin to heal themselves. To free themselves of the poison in them that lives from their own guilt and shame. And I would hope that people would know that if you go through the wound, there is something on the other side. You stay outside the wound, the radiation falls down on you.

I know that there are many survivors who do not have any interest in apologies. I honor what different survivors decide they need. But this process of writing "The Apology" worked for me. It was profoundly liberating and I was ready to do it. It took me years to get ready to do it. I hope it will encourage people to know that after they have been exploited and abused or raped or hurt, the second story we're always told is that we're going to be destroyed for life. That is the second rape and it just isn't true. We can make a decision and we can work and we can come out of that story.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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