Kim Crenshaw: A few weeks ago, presidential candidate, Joe Biden, expressed regret over Anita Hill's treatment during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.
(AUDIO CLIP) Joe Biden: As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well
Kim Crenshaw: Now a few days later, his wife, Jill, said in an interview with NPR that it's time to move on.
(AUDIO CLIP) Jill Biden: I mean, he’s called Anita Hill, they’ve spoken, he apologized for the way the hearing was run, so now it’s kinda- it’s time to move on.
Kim Crenshaw: So I'll admit this question is personal to me. It's personal because I sat in the hearing room. I watched the Senate Judiciary Committee take Anita Hill apart.
One of the consequences of Biden’s mismanagement of the hearing was that he was responsible for deciding that other witnesses, who were prepared to talk about Clarence Thomas's behavior was never heard. It was never heard because Joe Biden decided not to call these witnesses. To this day, many people don't know that there were other women who were willing to testify.
So when I look at the presidential field, and I see Joe Biden as one of the front runners for the Democratic nomination, I keep going back to that moment. And I'm still waiting for some indication that the same person that presided over that horrendous hearing is not the same person who is asking for our vote.
I want to hear him talk about how some of the questions that he asked Anita Hill reflected the insensitivity to how a woman who's experienced sexual harassment is often made to testify in a way that makes her even more stigmatized. I want to know that Joe Biden recognizes that Anita Hill had no one defending her, and no one actually prosecuting Clarence Thomas. I want to know that he recognizes what role he played in the imbalance. Once I hear that, then I might feel a little bit more comfortable recognizing that the lesson from that debacle has been learned, so that we know something like this will never happen again. But I haven't heard it yet.
(AUDIO CLIP) Joy Behar: I think what she wants you to say is I’m sorry for the way *I* treated you, not for the way you were treated. I think that would be closer
(AUDIO CLIP) Joe Bien: But if you go back and look at what I said and didn’t say, I don’t think I treated her badly.
Kim Crenshaw: In this episode, I had the opportunity to talk to Tony Award winning playwright and activist, Eve Ensler, and also to philosopher Kate Manne about what it could mean for perpetrators and bystanders to genuinely confront and also atone for violence that they've either committed or enabled.
In these discussions, we touched on the transformative potential that true apologies can do, and what it is in our culture that places so much more of a penalty on women for not accepting half hearted expressions of regret, what I call bystander apologies, than it does on men for making such disingenuous apologies in the first place.
I turned to Eve Ensler to talk about her latest book, The Apology, which came out May 14th, and it's written as a letter from the point of view of her late father, who apologized in the book for years of childhood physical and sexual violence.
Eve Ensler: Hi, I’m Eve Ensler. I’m a writer, I’m an anti-racist feminist, I’m an activist, I’m a dreamer.
Kim Crenshaw: And that’s just getting started with all the things you do are are. So tell us, why did you decide to write this book? Especially why now? It just seems so timely.
Eve Ensler: Well, as you know, because we've been in this struggle a long time together, been in this movement to end violence against women for the last 21 years. I've been watching and waiting, as we have struggled in this movement to bring consciousness around violence against women, to break the silence, to call men out, to tell our stories. I've been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for men who have been called out, or have not been called out, to come forward and to reckon with what they have done. To become accountable, to do self-interrogation and self-revelation, and look into one's past. Look into toxic masculinity, look into the history of patriarchy. Look into their childhood, to see what could have led them to become batterers or rapists or harassers, or sexual molesters. And sadly, I have never heard a man publicly apologize in a way that feels satisfying.
Kim Crenshaw: And why do you think? What's missing that makes it so difficult for men to apologize?
Eve Ensler: Well it was interesting, in the course of writing this book, because my father really did talk to me. And at one point he told me that any man who apologizes is a traitor. They essentially betray other men. They break the male code, they break the male bond. And once one man begins to apologize, the whole story begins to come tumbling down. So it's almost as if there's this silent, unspoken bond between men that they will go to prison. They will lose jobs, they will lose status. But they will never really be accountable. They will never say that what they've done is wrong, they will never look at a woman and feel what she's feeling, let it enter their heart and let her know that they have felt what she's feeling. They will never say to her, “What you know to be true is true. I did what you think I did to you,” because that would somehow shatter the whole story of patriarchy.
Kim Crenshaw: So you said you talked to your father, but of course you also say that your father was dead for decades when you began to write this book. So help listeners understand how you created the dialogue with your father and how that became this apology.
Eve Ensler: I really didn't know what was going to happen. I knew I wanted to write a letter to myself saying the words I needed to hear that I had never heard from my father. I didn't know what was going to show up, I didn't know what was going to happen. And I think part of writing this book was realizing that we have a relationship to the dead. But another part, which was really stunning to me, was this really acute realization that often, victims hold their perpetrators deeply inside them, particularly if they're family members, because we have had to learn what their movements are. What their moods are. So I realized I had essentially been in dialogue with my father for 65 years, whether it was conscious or not. And this was the very exciting thing I discovered: that up until the point of writing this book, I had accepted a given, which was, essentially, I would always be victim to my father's perpetrator. That was the kind of paradigmic setup, like this was going to be the life I led. And then I realized that through dialogue, I could shift who I was, and who my father was. He could go from being a monster to an apologist, and I could go from a victim to a person who was having agency over the apology I wanted. And that completely shifted everything.
Kim Crenshaw: Now, I imagine that some folks who believe they're owed an apology would be curious as to how creating that apology through your own internal dialogue with your father could actually be transformative and healing. So for those who say, “If I can't get it from the perpetrator, I don't see how I'm going to be liberated, how that shift actually happens.” What do you say to them?
Eve Ensler: Well first I want to say something about the book. The book is an offering. It's not a prescription, it's not a must-do, it's not a “have to do now.” I truly trust survivors to know their own process, to know when they're ready to do things. I couldn't have written this book three years ago; five years ago. I wasn't ready to consider an apology, right? I wasn't ready to even ... I was too angry, I was too bitter, I was too, you know. So this isn't something anyone has to do. I'm sharing an experience that worked for me after many, many years of recovering from my own wretched childhood What this book did is gave me a certain kind of agency, where I didn't feel like a victim anymore. It was like I took it into my own hands. It was like, “No. Okay, you're not going to give me the apology, I'm going to give me the apology. I'm going to imagine the words I need to hear to heal. I'm going to give myself this love, this accountability, this process.” And to tell you the truth, I don't think it would've been better with my father. I think he would've always reneged here and there, or held back here and there, right? Where I could get complete-
Kim Crenshaw: You can get it all.
Eve Ensler: I got it all.
Kim Crenshaw: Does it take radical empathy for him for you to be able to get into his life and his headset and his damage? To be able to capture each of those dimensions of the why?
Eve Ensler: I think that was the hardest part of the book, was feeling my father's pain. Feeling my father's brokenness, feeling what he had gone through that had made him a person who could become a sadist. It was heartbreaking, and I didn't want to feel that. I think for me, even though finding that empathy was grueling, like literally I would find myself sometimes curled up in a little fetal ball position, it was so liberating. Because I realized there were places in me that I really loved my father, and I had cut those places off because I had made him just a kind of monolithic monster. And nobody's a monolithic monster. But I think the majority of people are people who were not born that way. We’re affected, we’re hurt, were broken, we’re abused, we’re demeaned, and they become somebody else and then they pass that on.
Carl Jung once said that in order to survive this century we have to learn how to hold two existing opposite ideas at the same time. So this book was really about that. It was about holding my father accountable, being furious at my father; and feeling for my father. And the juxtaposition was a kind of a psychic washing machine that kind of cleaned away a lot that needed to be cleaned away. It's holding those opposites and being in that kind of alchemic world of contradiction that I think amazing things begin to happen.
Kim Crenshaw: And let me say what Anita Hill has said about your book.
“As only she can, Eve Ensler shares the story of her father's ultimate betrayal with both unflinching candor and immeasurable grace. Through sheer creative force, she takes us on a journey to healing. Though Ensler's story is deeply personal, its lessons are universal.”
So it is timely, I guess perhaps ironic, that your book is coming out in the same kind of news cycle as her own struggle to articulate the fact that even though Joe Biden finally has said something like “I take responsibility,” it's still not an apology. Now a lot of people are saying, “Well what else can he do?” So another full disclosure moment: I was on CNN last week with Barbara Boxer, and here's what she said.
(AUDIO CLIP) Barbara Boxer: The man has said he takes full responsibility, the man has said he regrets, the man has used the word sorry, I don’t know what else he can do. Some people will never, ever get past an injurious act. And you described it as such, and it was, and no one knows it more than I, believe me, because I was in the middle o the battle. But it may be that maybe somebody can never be forgiven by someone else or by a certain group of people. I would hope not because I think life is too short.
Kim Crenshaw: So what answer do you have to what else he could do?
Eve Ensler: First of all, I want to say that quote from Anita Hill, I can't even tell you how much that meant to me. It was my dream to have her on the book, because I feel, who deserves an apology more than Anita? I mean, she is the epitome of the person who deserves an apology. And I'm really moved that Anita Hill is demanding an authentic and thorough, accountable apology.
Kim Crenshaw: That's right.
Eve Ensler: Because I think what, and this is going back to the alchemy of The Apology. Any survivor knows when they have received a true apology. You have gone so deeply into examining your role in creating harm, the impact that has had on the person you have done it to, and the impact it may have had on all the people around them. In the case of Anita Hill, what was done to Anita Hill wasn't just done to Anita Hill. It was done to millions of women by discounting her, by delegitimizing her, by turning her into something that she was not, that was done to all of us. It put a perpetrator on the Supreme Court who is now making decisions about cases impacting women. So we have a perpetrator making decisions.
Kim Crenshaw: And the entire democracy, I firmly believe that Clarence Thomas being on the Supreme Court is one of the reasons why 45 is now in the White House.
Eve Ensler: Absolutely.
Kim Crenshaw: So the apology may be broad and deep across a number of constituencies who have lost because of this victory that Joe Biden made possible. So when you think about the application of this outside the context of your own relationship with your father, what do you imagine the possibilities of being able to develop a broader cultural practice around apologies might be?
Eve Ensler: That's such a good question because I think it's like how we go from the personal and, as you said, ramp it up to the cultural, political, historical? If we look at what was done to the Indigenous in this country, there's never been an apology. There's never been a reckoning. There's never been a sitting down and laying out of we did this, this, this, this. And there's never been reparations. So then we look at the story of African Americans in this country, and not only has there not been apologies, there's just been repeated and repeated injustices, which is linked to no apology. Because when you are never accountable, when you never own what you have done, when you never speak out loud what you have done-
Kim Crenshaw: And you try to discredit the people that you've done it to. So when I think about what this American society has done, for example to the descendants of slaves, it seems as though the desire to avoid responsibility for slavery in the first place has really provided the dynamic that underwrote lynching, that underwrote segregation, that underwrites today mass incarceration, that allows the rest of the world to look at us as damaged people who should not be believed. So if that's a model, if what you've shown us is a model, how might that play out on a societal basis, and a cultural basis? How can a group of people imagine what that apology might be and what good might it do?
Eve Ensler: We have forever needed to just stop and do some kind of reconciliation process in this country. Looking back at, beginning with Native Americans and saying, What happened? What did happen here, what is the truth? Let's put out the truth. Let's state the truth, and then let's begin to look at what we have to do to make amends that's going to allow people who were damaged and hurt and broken and raped and murdered to live in peace. Same story with African Americans. And I think what all families do, what cultures do, what politics does, is we have diabolical amnesia. It's just diabolical. We just erase and erase and erase the story. So part of an apology is remembering. It's remembering, it's like bringing back what has really occurred, and that's work. You have to go back and do the work of saying what actually happened.
So maybe there could be ways. We begin in our schools. That there are classes on apologies and reckonings with our ancestors, our foremothers, our forefathers, our African American sisters and brothers. How do we do that? What is the process that we could begin to do that all of us are a part of, because all of us are carrying it. Whether we think we were there, whether we think that wasn't our time, it's all in our DNA and until it's uprooted? It can't be an individual thing. It's got to be a collective enterprise.
Kim Crenshaw: That collectivity actually is another part of the challenge, right? Because there are the direct perpetrators, but then there are the enablers, the witnesses, the ones that are persuaded to play along. And what's so fascinating and infuriating is some of those people are the very people who are harmed by many of the things that we're seeking apology for. So what is your thought about that?
Eve Ensler: It's such a good question. I think that always the hardest thing is to see people who have been crippled within the same systems of patriarchy or racism or fear or whatever who are accomplices, even in passive ways, to perpetrators, how they take responsibility for their own behavior. Do you know what I mean? And part of that is willing ignorance. Willing ignorance, where you don't teach yourself or learn, what is going on with Black people? What is going on with Native Americans What is going on with immigrants at the border? What's happening? Go and look at it. And I think not knowing is a form of being an accomplice. So part of it is how do we wake up to that, which is also deserving of apology. Not seeing what people are going through, not opening your eyes because it's not in your neighborhood or not in your proximity is a form of abandonment, do you know? I guess this is where I am. We're calling out, we're saying the story. But where does the transformation come? Where are we going to get to the point where people go, "Aha. I've got to step up to be part of this engagement.” And we're not going to throw gasoline on you, we're going to actually walk with you through a process where you're going to do deep dive into yourself, to investigate who you are, what you are, how you became this, and how you're going to become someone else. This is the next step of our movement. Otherwise what we will do, and I fear, and I've been doing this for years, is calling out, telling the stories. Men get backed up in a corner for a while, they get quiet. But then they're out and about in another year. All the perpetrators are back and about-
Kim Crenshaw: It's like a time out.
Eve Ensler: Yeah, it's a time out.
Kim Crenshaw: What do you think the impact of this book is for people who have done ordinary harms to other folks? We're talking about heavy stuff right now, but we could all use help making apologies. How has this book, now that you've written it, helped you think about your own apologies?
Eve Ensler: Well that's a very good question. This is what I was thinking because I'm doing a sermon on Sunday, which I've never done before.
Kim Crenshaw: Eve in the pulpit!
Eve Ensler: I know, I’m kind of excited. But what I was thinking about is this: When we're children, we're taught prayer, and prayer requires devotion, it requires concentration, it requires going into yourself, connecting with the spirit beyond. But we're not taught how to make an apology.
Kim Crenshaw: Right.
Eve Ensler: And to me, it's the medicine. How do we keep going as human beings if we don't know how to do the work of apologizing? It's like, there's no way through. So what happens is, we don't know how to apologize. Someone gets mad, the other person gets mad, there's just a war. There's a stop, there's a death, as opposed to if you were brought up as a child to learn the practice of apology. It's a practice. It requires humility. It requires openness. It requires deep self-reflection. It is a form of prayer. When I finished the book I wrote three apologies to people who I've always held responsible for something. And I realized I had a piece of that. What was my piece of that?So we do it for ourselves.
Kim Crenshaw: Eve, I would imagine there's some people listening who know that they have an apology to give, but they just don't know where to start. So if this were a how-to moment, what would you tell that person to do, step by step?
Eve Ensler: Well if there's someone who's done something, a rape or a heinous crime, I would suggest that you find clergy or you find a therapist or you find a counselor, or you find somebody working in this field. And you sit down with them and you ask them to be your support. To work with you to go through a process where you can start unpeeling the layers of what you've done. I mean, I really think to go through this kind of thing is not an overnight experience.
Kim Crenshaw: You've got to self-interrogate.
Eve Ensler: You've got to self-interrogate, you've got to go through it, and you need support because it's painful. And I think there are many counselors out there who would be more than happy to go through this process