Next year marks my 10 years making work as a visible CSA survivor artist activist. My first show, I Am Joan, spoke out about child sexual abuse and explored what it might be like to listen to the quiet, insistent voice inside, follow your intuition and back your own horse however scary, radical and countercultural that horse is. It was inspired by famous Joans who did just that: Joan of Arc, Joan Jett, Rivers, Baez … Kick-ass women who refused to be silent despite huge risks…
I talk about what it was like making and performing that show in my TedX talk. What I will say now is that it was scary and lonely - I had incredible support, friends and collaborators but I didn’t know any other CSA survivors who were speaking out - no role models, no peer artists, no route map - just intuition …
In one scene, I enact burning at the stake as Joan of Arc and shout the following words in a comedy french accent - words that reflected my experience as a survivor but that I couldn’t yet say (let alone shout) in my own voice
All I do is speak the truth
I will not be silenced
I will be heard
It is you they will judge
This is nothing to do with me
This was me trying to say “I didn't do anything wrong - it wasn’t me - so why am I being judged, shamed, persecuted?”
If you’re reading this thinking the word “persecuted” is too strong then you might want to consider how 11 million adult survivors in the UK are kept separate and silent. Not all oppression is overt. So much is part of our cultural wallpaper - institutionalised, systemic and semantic. Ours is oppression by omission. A huge community in hiding, stuck between the chemical cosh of mental health provision and a catastrophically broken victim blaming justice system - either way we are pathologised, stigmatised, discredited and overlooked. We are a population no-one has to think about until they do …
Fast forward 9 years and change is exquisitely unfolding: I’m getting ready for my next project - a series of punk songs that will eventually form the spine of a new show where I will use my own gnarly, raging voice to shout loudly about abuse, survival, social justice and revolution. And I have peers! And we are role-models for each other - because there is still no map, we are writing the map together. But Viv Gordon Company sit within an international community of brilliant CSA survivor artists and activists connecting, collaborating and driving change in defiance of the many barriers we face. We are survivor-led not just by me but by 51%+ representation on all our teams.
Our core belief as a company is that CSA survival is a creative act - we are inherently creative people otherwise we would not have survived. We champion voice, visibility, community and survivor leadership and this week - for Creativity and Wellbeing Week 2023 - we have been joyously celebrating some of the survivor artists and activists we work with on our board, our steering group, our emerging creative leaders and others - a Dazzle of Zebras!
The zebra thing comes from our ABC of CSA project. The Z card is “feeling like a zebra in a world of giraffes” which initially speaks of feeling othered and alien as many of us do. But there’s a lot of us zebras and we’re pretty cool - each with our own unique stripe pattern and strong kick - together we are a super herd. Lots of us are starting to wear zebra print as a kind of survivor pride - we’re “rebranding” survivorship, unshaming and gathering as a community - it's all very empowering and beautiful, and undeniably bittersweet too.
Our drive for visibility is about community visibility, not about all survivors being individually visible because those of us who are able to speak out are the tiniest fraction of our 11 million strong community. If you are reading this and you’ve not been able to tell anyone or you need to compartmentalise your survivor identity to specific spaces - I hope you know how dazzling you are, how much you matter, how happy I am that you survived and how none of this is your fault - the deficit is cultural. I hope one day it will be safe for us all to speak and gather freely - I will die on that hill (in a fabulous zebra print tuxedo)
I’ve spent some of this week chatting to a brilliant wise woman who is not able to safely self-identify or attend any in person events, but is still very active in our community, about the role of creativity in her life. I want to give her the last word …
“Torn in a world in which silence and speaking can both feel particularly violent and frightening to me, creativity points to a possible, initial, way through. In a world in which there is a ferocious attempt to control, obscure and re-write history, art stands in the way: fragments of non-erasable reality. Art speaks …”
Illustration: Imogen Harvey-Lewis
welcome to my blog
I'll be posting my personal reflections on creating work as an artist and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, my work with the wider sector and interesting developments in arts and mental health.