I became a childhood sexual abuse survivor ally by chance. Years ago, my friend and colleague, Viv Gordon, asked me to come and work on a show with her. We met in the courtyard at The British Library, she came across as intelligent, funny and a little intense. The project was a cartoonish, outdoor event. It was fun and silly, and to some extent it was just another job. At the end of those few days working in Somerset we chatted in the car on the way to the station about future projects.
Jump forward a few years and Viv’s on the phone asking if I remembered her telling me about a show she wanted to make called ‘I Am Joan’, her first attempt at making an autobiographical work about childhood sexual abuse, and I said “yeah, kind of”. I hadn’t and I should have. It was to be ground-breaking, shocking and seismic. I remember watching a series of scenes she had prepared, gripping my seat with anxiety about what she was about to reveal. What was I about to witness?
I didn’t want to see it, I wanted to look away, I wanted to run away.
She performed the words and the dances with a simplicity and charm that is the hallmark of what she is capable of as a performer and I found myself being able to look at the subject and its terrible consequences.
Those early sessions were tough. Everyone was struggling to be at their best. We didn’t have the mental health safeguarding in place that would make the processes we were using possible for all of us.
A breakthrough came when Viv explained that she knew none of us want to watch this material, its societal, no one wants to focus on it, we can’t bear to, it’s too horrific. Viv has an extraordinary knack of talking about childhood sexual abuse. She makes the subject acceptable, dragging it out of the shadows and into the light. She holds her audience as she takes them through the experience of watching the shows. Making allies of all of us.
Viv trusts the material of the shows with a group of collaborators and I’m honoured to be part of that team. I don’t have a sexual abuse background so I’m an outsider. I need to remind myself to keep my judgements and my privilege in check. These aren’t my stories, these are the stories of some of the most difficult, harmful moments in people’s lives. I don’t take that lightly. I strive to listen with clarity and to treat the material with as much sensitivity as possible. I don’t always get that right, but together we learn and like any creative partnership trust grows over time. Ultimately our desire is that a survivor takes the reins of these projects but for now I’m grateful to be part of a team that brings these works into the world.
Being in the audience at Viv’s performances is the most humbling experience. Her audience are made up of survivors, activists and theatre enthusiasts. People with a willingness to listen and engage. I’m aware of how difficult it is to attend one of the shows, whether you are a survivor or not. The events sometimes become like rallies, a valuable time for survivors to connect in an abuse culture where connection is denied. The aftershow Q and A’s are a time for people to add theirs to the growing chorus of voices refusing to be silenced. A time for me to shut up, listen and take inspiration for the work ahead.
And so now I’m gradually learning to be a survivor ally. Trying to find the moments where my voice can be useful and when to stay quiet. One thing I know is that nobody wants to talk about abuse, why should we, even Viv doesn’t want to talk about it, but I also know that abuse thrives in a vacuum of silence. So, it is now my job too, dragging the subject into the conversation, with friends, with family, with colleagues and in my work (The shows I make myself now often have an acknowledgement of survivors). I will not always get it right, the Christmas dinner table is not the time to bring up child abuse - even if someone asks “how work is going?” But other times are, and my social circle now understand what I do at work and together we share the weight of that knowledge. Gradually they become part of the group of people that understands the scale and impact of the problem.
Every time Viv and I work together I am reminded of the seat gripping anxiety I felt when I first saw the material she makes. Our audiences experience that anxiety when they attend the shows and that’s often in my mind. How can the shows talk directly and usefully about the subject of CSA? How can we find the balance of presenting an unflinching version of the truth, whilst keeping our audience safe from material that could be triggering and harmful? And ultimately, how can we make the world a better place for survivors and a place where abuse is less likely to happen? If Viv keeps trying to answer those questions in the form of her extraordinary arts projects, she may not find perfect answers, but she will create more and more allies along the way. I’m proud to name myself as one of them, and if you aren’t already, perhaps you could become one too?
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I'll be posting my personal reflections on creating work as an artist and survivor of childood sexual abuse, my work with the wider sector and interesting developments in arts and mental health.