CW: sexual assault and abuse.
At the beginning of this school year, when the weather was still summer-like even though the calendar promised otherwise, my teaching schedule allowed for me to pick my son up at school. It also allowed me to leave the university and get to his school with a luxurious twenty minutes to spare—a perfect amount of time, because it is not long enough to work, but it’s too long to sit and scroll through Twitter. (It’s not really too long, but I try so hard not to.) And so I used those twenty minutes to read for myself.
On the day I was finishing up Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, the father of one of my son’s classmates stuck his head into the driver’s seat of my station wagon. This is how the conversation unfolded:
Him: “You read books?’
Me, annoyed, though with a vestigial reflex to be polite: “I do.”
Him: “What are you reading?”
I simply closed my finger in the book to show him the cover, which caused him to bring his hand to his chin.
Him: “Oh. Huh. Well. That book was not written for me.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
Although I didn’t know what to say to his wild assertion that a book written by a woman, that a book with the word “female” in the title was somehow “not for him,” I have imagined all of the things I could have/ should have said. I wish I had said something about audience, about reaching outside of one’s self, about the importance of reading voices that are not your own, about eliminating the idea that books are somehow only “for” certain people.
It’s a lecture I give to my students often. That it is not only important to read, but to read beyond comfort zones, and if and when something they read makes them uncomfortable, it is important for them to interrogate why.
And then I read Eve Ensler’s new book, The Apology (Bloomsbury), and found myself on the receiving end of my own lecture. I don’t quite know how to talk about it or even how to interrogate what made this book difficult for me. There were moments when I asked myself, Who is she writing this for? Then I wondered why I was even asking such a question.
Perhaps sitting with these questions is precisely the point. Ensler’s book is difficult in both its format and its content. It is raw and complicated, and it twisted my thoughts about women’s trauma writing into a knot.
This is an epistolary novel, and it is a memoir—and it isn’t. Here, Ensler writes about her traumatic childhood, but it isn’t a memoir, since the story is told through a letter written by her father, her abuser, the man who raped her when she was five and spent the rest of his life tormenting her, physically, emotionally, and financially. But it is, because she is writing the letter as if she were her father, as if he were writing to her from beyond death, from a purgatorial place she’s made up. Ensler asks, “How very strange to be writing you. Am I writing to you from the grave or the past or the future? Am I writing as you or as you would like me to be or as I really am beneath my own limited understanding?” This very conundrum makes answering the simple question, Who is the speaker here? impossible to answer.
If I am unsure who the speaker is, if I’m unsure who she’s writing for, perhaps the unsteadiness stems from how I am disoriented, how I am brought into her trauma, which was riddled with mind games that made her question the truth of what happened to her, that made her question her existence.
But do I belong here?
The book is slim, and for a moment I wonder about whether other female trauma narratives are kept small to avoid risking too much, revealing too much, traumatizing a reader too much, being too much. (Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit, and, although it is fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper all come to mind.)
Because of The Apology’s slimness, the details she chooses to include about her father’s abuse happen in its early pages. There is very little buffer, and the retelling of her traumas is detailed. The book’s thin width makes it sharp.
The bigger question then is this: What do we do with women’s trauma?
Trauma writing, and therefore trauma reading, is a complicated endeavor. A few months ago, Yale University hosted a panel on writing trauma that included Dr. Roxane Gay, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Terese Mailhot, Aubrey Hirsch, and Saeed Jones. (Though this took place minutes away from where I live, I could not go. This was an audience I wanted to be a part of, but wasn’t. Much gratitude to the university for recording and posting it to YouTube.)
In the early moments of this talk, the panelists question the audience, but from an angle different than my earlier parking lot dad experience, his thoughts about audience. The panelists are interrogating their own their work, away from the noise created by the faceless readers consuming their narratives. They begin by considering the question, Who do we write for when we write trauma? Several writers speak about writing their trauma for no one, as if no one will read it, as a way to stay honest to the story, as a way to protect themselves. And then Jones says he writes for a younger self, that he writes what a younger Saeed would have needed to hear as the trauma was happening. I imagine Ensler, sitting behind a big desk in a small room, surrounded by tea cups and a towering houseplant, writing what she needed to hear, not caring about the faceless future readers (like me) digging at it to find answers to questions I can’t parse.
In The Apology, Ensler is probing her own unanswerable questions. Because her narrator is ventriloquizing her father, she is finding out why her abuse happened without having to ask him to answer the question. This means she is writing what she needs to hear now, what she needed to hear when he was still alive, and, most obviously, what she knows she’ll never hear because he died three decades ago. This makes sense—trauma writing is a healing.
And because she has written the book so long after he died, it would seem as though she has had time to sort out her trauma, to distance herself from grief, to have, as the Yale panelists explore, written after the scab forms. But there are times when her trauma seems to peel that scab away, reveal the raw tissue beneath, and this is because she is looking at her trauma through her traumatizer.
Her epistle is studded with spits of anger. “I was way too old to have children and I only had them to carry my legacy.” She writes things that she could not really know, merely surmise. They are and are not true. Ensler gets to be herself, the girl turned woman, the survivor, and she gets to be himself, the boy turned man, the abuser. But even when she uses his voice, she is still inside. She is inside a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Are all of these coverings scabs?
If they are, there are times when it seems she is ripping them off and other times when her story reads like a therapeutic exercise, an assignment from her therapist, like when she writes about imagining her parents’ marriage, of their sex, of their behind-closed-doors arguments. And in these descriptions the story seems suspended between hurt and healing, an in-between place.
This also makes sense, this liminal space, for her father is writing to her from limbo. Ensler writes of her dad “floating, unmoored, spinning” in a place like purgatory. Unable to go up or down, forced to sit with who he is and who he isn’t. What does it mean that she has chosen to stick her aged father in this place?
Maybe writing in her father’s voice is the scab. Perhaps this letter made its way out of Ensler and into the world, a birth from her mind, in a way where its very creation was both a healing and a wound. The birth of the book is then a new place to start healing. She gets to remake the story.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
During my first read-through, I was troubled, uncomfortable, uncertain that Ensler wasn’t traumatizing or retraumatizing an audience of strangers in her search for healing. The details of her father’s actions and of his thoughts while he is sexually assaulting her are detailed, the descriptions of his abuse specific. However, she creates a distance between his actions and her body by creating and naming the force inside her father, a personification of his urges—Shadow Man. And because Shadow Man distances the actual man and the act, I can’t tell if The Apology will titillate some readers or traumatize others.
The line between the two isn’t always consistent. In a recent interview for Adroit, Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, explains the ways she writes about trauma: “The nature of writing is to try and make experiences sensible to your readers. That gets difficult when you’re writing about trauma, because there’s so much about trauma that doesn’t make sense. When I start an essay, particularly one about trauma, I’m trying to write towards a truth that I’m not sure exists. Instead of going straight down the obvious, linear path—which I find often leads to a dead end—I try to go through a series of side doors, circling towards this idea of truth and hoping to excavate other truths in the process.”
In the Yale panel, Dr. Gay talks about the importance of ugly, the importance of writing trauma that is unreadable, that violence should not being gratuitous, about how, when writing trauma, she wants the reader to feel ugly. Dr. Cottom underpins this by adding that she wants the reader to be changed. I agree with these theories; I agree with the importance of giving voice to trauma by searing those who look directly at it, because that makes the pain real.
Ensler’s pain is real, the violence is ugly, and I am certainly changed. And yet, because the voice telling us about these pains is (and isn’t) her abuser, I worry a reader can fall through the distance created by the duality. When Terese Mailhot spoke about the public looking for “good victims,” I wonder if, in giving her father this voice, and then giving his voice a voice, Ensler is creating two (too many?) victims. Is Shadow Man a way to rationalize her father’s actions, or is he a shield, a different type of scab?
The space that exists between Shadow Man, Ensler, and her father is rooted in a narrative larger than them. The panelists discuss the importance of grounding trauma in something else—in statistics and research and larger narratives, and Ensler does this by weaving in bits of T. S. Eliot throughout the book. To do this is to also speak about postmodernism, and subsequently her genre-less book, with its rejection of boundaries, becomes art, becomes a part of something larger. And this makes sense for Ensler, as I am now remembering that in The Vagina Monologues, she tells others’ stories by their words mixed with hers. She is and has been polyphonic.
But in creating these voices to tell her story, is she eating herself alive? Her graphic descriptions are not shrouded in metaphor or euphemism; we know exactly what happened. Is she cannibalizing herself? Dr. Gay talks about how readers want her to eat her own flesh, to show it all to them, but that readers don’t need to know the details of the terrible thing in order to know she went through the terrible thing.
Ensler gives the details, and I can read this as raw exposure but also as a protective veil. Because here, too, she turns the vulnerability that arises from exposing her trauma onto her father, or more accurately, onto his non-existence. She is both laying it all out there and sheltering herself. In fact, she says through her father, “…it was drilled into me that to apologize was to expose weakness, to lay yourself vulnerable.” She is removing his stoicism to build our trust, and perhaps to rebuild her own.
But here’s the part that troubles me most: Dr. Cottom says if, after writing, all you can say about your work is, “this happened to me,” you need to go beyond that. And Dr. Gay says trauma writing is more than testimony, that it needs a broader cultural discourse, nuance, and complexity. Dr. Gay adds that, when writing, one’s race, class, gender, and sexual orientation often become the parameters readers expect a writer’s work to fit into. She says, “…if you are a woman, a black woman, a queer woman…you are assumed to be writing that experience.” And so we have Ensler, a white woman who has seen trauma, poverty, and violence, writing of these things by assuming the persona of a wealthy, older, straight, powerful, white man.
Does this mean that she is hiding her own voice, her own power, by removing herself as the speaker? Or is she subverting the power dynamic, rendering him weak, removing his strength by speaking for him, pulling words from his ghost and using them to heal herself? In other words, has she reclaimed power over her narrative by creating this letter of apology, or perpetuated the problematic ways powerful men’s voices stay powerful?
I know there are no easy answers, though I feel that this book will be the flint that sparks bigger conversations. Ensler’s ability to speak through others is what makes her a compelling author and performer, and this book can be read like a script, a monologue, wherein Ensler is both actress and audience. We then choose to watch her heal her wound because she has allowed us to see it. Her words shift like tectonic plates and shake the ground her readers stand on. It is an important story, a pivotal moment in #MeToo writing, a multifaceted exploration into the ways we use narrative.
Women’s trauma narratives dig deeply to uncover a fuller understanding of the human condition, although too often we read their stories with scrutiny or worse, with pity. Seldom do we interrogate women’s trauma memoirs from all sides, to see whether it eats its author or bares its teeth at the abusers, to seek the larger, cultural impact these voices give to those who have suffered trauma. Perhaps this is why reading narratives like Ensler’s is so difficult: these stories remind us that people damage people, that we are all capable of hurting and being hurt.
When we read books like Ensler’s we must look carefully at her story and at the larger conversation; we need to focus not only on what has happened but what has enabled it to happen. Toward the end of her interview, Elliott says, “The only way to heal from those traumas is to first acknowledge them, then start looking at the systems that created them, how those systems operate now, and then start to dismantle them. Again, though, I don’t think we’re there yet. I hope we get there very, very soon.”
I hope so, too.