Your recent interview with Juan González and Amy Goodman on Democracy Now moved me to tears and then it inspired this response.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Apology. That’s the name of a groundbreaking new book by the world-renowned playwright and activist Eve Ensler that imagines what it would mean for a survivor of abuse to hear the words she has been waiting for her entire life — ”I’m sorry.”
AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler’s father sexually and physically abused her throughout her childhood beginning when she was just five years old. His abuse caused immeasurable physical and emotional damage but he never apologized for his behavior. So decades after the abuse and his death, Eve Ensler decided to write an apology for him. The result is a stunning new book in which Eve writes to herself from her father’s perspective. In the book’s introduction, she writes, “I am done waiting. My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.” Eve Ensler is the well-known author of The Vagina Monologues. Over 20 years ago in 1998, she launched V-Day, an international movement to stop violence against women and girls. She has dedicated her new book to every woman still waiting for an apology.
Eve, I am really sorry for everything that you have endured as the victim of abuse. Your sharing, as painful as it must be for you, shatters the silence that continues to oppress a shocking percentage of our population. Whenever I’m in a cinema or a large hall, I’m aware that somewhere between one quarter and one half of the people present are survivors of abuse.
The abuse that I experienced was both physical and emotional abuse, though, to the best of my knowledge, it was not sexual abuse. My response, however, to that abuse included the pushing of sexual boundaries and taking advantage sexually, in situations where a less wounded person may not have. I apologise for all the discomfort and pain that I caused.
For decades I sealed the memories, of my contemptible and disgusting behaviour in a mental container and did my best to forget that the container existed. From time to time, my psyche would dredge up memories of what I’d done and what that implied about the kind of person I am.
The shame that I felt, knowing these things about myself had far-reaching consequences: It prevented me from ever fully accepting or loving myself or anyone else. And it prevented me from feeling the flow of love from friends, family and partners. I’ve spent most of my life, trapped in a state of agony, isolation and debilitating loneliness.
Roughly ten years ago I came across some resources that opened a door to my first ‘conversation’ with the Shadow parts of my psyche, or soul, or whatever we choose to call it. These are words, borrowed from Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, capture how that conversation felt:
“We’ll be going down so deep;
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen”
Having grappled, for years, with radioactive parts of my shadow, in a process that 99.99% of people eschew, I have a few insights from a rare vantage-point into the story that you’ve shared publicly about your relationship with your father and his failure to apologise.
Everything I write is an extrapolation, at best, from my own process, since we’ll never know exactly what was truly going on for your father. From the interview that I listened to, it’s not even clear if he, himself, was a survivor of sexual abuse.
As I became more intimately familiar with my Shadow, it became increasingly clear that there’s a direct correlation between involuntary-isolation and suffering:
The more separate a person feels from a source of acceptance and love, the more painful their suffering!
This dynamic, can be witnessed first-hand in videos of the Still Face Experiment (https://youtu.be/MP7AyCYwfDA?t=144). The video shows a mother who had been instructed to suspend all interaction with her year-old daughter when she received a command from the hidden researcher, seated behind the one-way mirror. Although her mother was seated only inches away from her, the year-old infant, who had been smiling and laughing delightedly, just a minute earlier, became increasingly distressed.
Within two minutes her distress has escalated to panic — BECAUSE the connection between her and her source of acceptance, love and support had been severed — and she was powerless to restore the connection and — had no way of knowing, whether or not it would ever be restored.
While this experiment took place in a controlled environment, and connection was immediately restored at its conclusion, every single human being carries cellular memories of trauma that they experienced when a connection between them and their caregivers was severed for longer than their nervous systems could tolerate, leaving them involuntarily isolated, and powerless to rescue themselves, and without any reassurance that this situation is only temporary.
The more extreme the circumstances surrounding loss-of-connection; the longer the duration of separation; the frequency of separation; and how the child’s trauma was acknowledged and addressed (if at all), influence the mental and physical wellness of that child for life.
From my unique vantage-point, I’m able to see that anytime a person enters a state of Fight, Flight or Freeze, they have become ‘emotionally-unavailable’! Anyone who is dependent on their PRESENCE to feel safe will likely respond to the loss of secure-attachment with feelings of abandonment and terror. My parents did everything that they could to ensure the health and the well-being of my siblings and I, but they had never taught that their frequent bouts of anger, depression, futility and anxiety were, in fact, expressions of Fight, Flight and Freeze and therefor:
- When my parents felt enraged (fight), they were emotionally-unavailable and I experienced abandonment.
- When they were depressed or anxious, they were often emotionally-unavailable and I experienced abandonment.
- When they were seriously distracted, they became emotionally-unavailable and I experienced abandonment.
- Had my parents had gotten inebriated or stoned, they would sometimes have rendered them emotionally-unavailable, and I would have felt abandoned.
As we saw in the Still Face Experiment, our pain escalates to intolerable levels when we find ourselves involuntarily-isolated, or when we’re in situations that where involuntary-isolation feels imminent.
99% of the things that we do and say, and our particular ways of doing and saying them, are intended to prolong connection and to minimise the chances of us inadvertently sabotaging connection.
A friend was telling me, recently, about her experience, living with chronic pain. She tolerates baseline-levels of pain that would send a ‘normal’ person begging for morphine. Her baseline-level of pain is 10 out of 10, and any beyond that takes her into the range between 11 and 20. The intensity of pain that she experiences is almost unimaginable.
Yet emotional pain levels are no different from physical pain levels and involuntary-isolation often results in pain levels exceeding 10. As the pain increases, those who find themselves powerless to overcome their isolation are driven to seek relief from their pain. The form that their relief takes, seem to matter less and less as they become increasingly desperate for relief. They may reach the point at which they are willing to do almost anything just to experience a single instant of relief from the torture of involuntary-isolation.
We have no way of knowing with any certainty, whether the pain of involuntary-emotional-isolation was driving your father’s violation of you, but it’s plausible that this might have played a significant role. It’s possible that he sought relief by sexually abusing you because he wielded absolute and total control over you and there was nothing that you could do to prevent him from abusing you. His pain is no excuse for what he did!
In addition to causing unbearable pain, prolonged-involuntary-isolation communicates the message that the person is unworthy of acceptance and love. The more often we receive this message, the more likely we are to accept that we are unworthy — that there is something inherently wrong with us — that we are damaged!
Desperate for connection, we often do whatever-we-can to engineer instances of connectedness with some other being, saying or doing things that tend, more often than we would like, to backfire on us, exacerbating our isolation, and strengthening our perception that we are unlovable, and the inner-belief that there is something wrong with us.
The name that we give to the emotion that we’re experiencing when confronted with evidence that we are unworthy of love is Shame.
As shame intensifies, so does emotional pain. By the time that our emotional pain level is nearing twenty, our nervous systems are looking for some “way out”.
Some part of your father, I imagine, was acutely aware of the pain and the harm that he was causing, and this awareness may have reinforced his belief that he was fundamentally unworthy of love — that there was something inherently wrong with him. If I’m correct, then acknowledging to you, or to any other living soul, that his actions were causing, or had caused, such debilitating harm, might have taken him to a level of pain that he was afraid he would not survive.
When I initiated a process of confronting the pain that I had caused by trying to force my hand down a classmate’s blouse, or up her skirt, I was unsure if I would survive the deep dive into my own Shadow. I was already struggling to accept and to love myself, and I was concerned that acknowledging what I had done would make it even more difficult for me to accept and to love myself.
I was afraid that my pain and isolation would increase, and that no-one, including myself, would ever accept or love me.
Had I not found a mentor to help me through the process of shadow-integration, I would not have arrived at a point of self-forgiveness. It’s unlikely that I would ever have reached that point where it became safe enough to crack open Pandora’s Box.
Before healing could occur, there needed to be SAFETY. I needed to know, from the outset, that no matter what I discovered in my Pandora’s Box, there would remain a path to social-inclusion. Full Shadow-Integration only occurred once Unconditional Acceptance was assured.
My mentor was able to lead me through the initial steps in this process. Then I was left alone on a terrifying path that, years later, led to that moment where nothing remained in Pandora’s Box that I considered too vile, or too disgusting for me to accept, to embrace, to own, and eventually, to love.
I have discovered that I am more than an aggregate of all disgusting, and the beautiful things, that I have done during my lifetime.
Committing this to paper has taken nearly a week. I’ve invested this time in the hope that there are people reading this, who feel inspired by what I’ve shared and who would appreciate the assistance and the support that I can offer them in their process of deep Shadow-Integration.
I’m also reaching out to anyone who would be interested in creating safe, UNCONDITIONAL-LOVING ENVIRONMENTS where individuals are safe enough to apologise for the most shameful thing that they have said and done. Physical and Virtual Venues where they can tackle the disturbing memories that are keeping them awake at night or driving them to cheat on their partners and to numb themselves with unhealthy amounts of alcohol drugs and other distractions.
I’ve spent many years developing a unique suite of tools for accelerating our healing processes while ensuring that re-traumatisation is minimised. These tools are available to everyone who is healing and to healers who have prioritised the integration of their own shadows, and the healing of their own wounds, before distracting themselves with efforts to ‘heal’ others.
Thanks you for your attention, Eve, and for every minute that you are contributing to our collective healing process. I’d be delighted to expand this conversation and to explore opportunities for integrating the tools and techniques that I’ve developed into the work that you are doing.
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