I didn’t remember being abused until I was 29. At that time CSA was still incredibly taboo - I’d only ever heard 3 people talk about their experiences and it still felt like a big dirty secret. Even though abuse is never a child’s fault, we internalise the stigma, shame and guilt and go through life thinking there must be something wrong with us. A belief that is compounded by the mental health system that pathologises our distress and labels us as disordered.
The narratives around the experience are unhelpful - that it was a long time ago, that we should move on and get over it - all survivors know that we live with the impacts of abuse everyday. The icing on the cake is that most of us have no recourse to justice - there is no evidence to take anyone to court and even when there is, convictions are very rare.
I spent a lot of time in therapy (I still do) unpicking what happened to me and how that has affected me, working out that none of it was my fault, forgiving myself for all the chaos I created as a young adult and recognising that all the things I thought were wrong with me, were just very normal responses to trauma.
Be one of the first to hear and see our brand new track and animation She walks...
The launch will be taking place on Wednesday 25th November between 8pm - 9pm. We will be streaming live to YouTube where you can join the creative team, watch She walks... and ask us any questions you may have about the work.
How do I watch?
You can find the scheduled live YouTube video down below. Click 'get reminder' on the video if you're viewing this page in advance. Or watch it down below if you're arriving after the event. Watch directly on YouTube to see the live comments and ask us any questions you may have.
Click play on the below video, or click here.
View our YouTube channel here.
How do I submit a question?
You can submit a question in advance by filling in this form.
Or you can ask them live via the 'comments' section on YouTube.
She walks… has been developed with some incredible collaborators. We used a poem I had written as our starting point - Rapper JPDL and I co-wrote the lyrics which are spoken, sung (more on that here) and rapped. Experimental composer Quinta (part of Collectress) wrote the music. Award winning animator, Lou Sumray created hand drawn charcoal images - incredibly she uses 24 drawings per second.
The result is something authentic, beautiful and haunting - the music has a trip hop feel and the animation connects us to nature with its organic aesthetic. The temptation with work about abuse is to tidy it all up and make it more palatable - there’s a raw chaos to She walks... that chimes with the experiences and fragmentation that survivors share - it's untamed and all the more alive for it.
We hope that survivor audiences will connect with the story and see something of themselves in it - the lyrics talk about the experience of dissociation, feeling like our bodies are far away or numbed, as well as the drive to keep going and the belief that something better is possible. We want to share hope but more than that we want to reach out to other survivors and say “What you feel is real, is normal in the context of trauma, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re miraculous, you don’t need to hide away, your voice matters”
The work is not just for survivors though - it's for everyone - we all have difficult times and right now the pandemic is making life really tough for so many - one of the things we have in common is the ability to connect with nature and find solace and inspiration there - even if it's looking out of the window at the birds or feeling the rain on our faces while we queue for supplies!
Get involved in the #MyLineInTheSand campaign and register yourself as coming to our launch event via our Restless project page here.
I campaign for access and inclusion in the arts for artists and audiences with mental health needs -
I speak at conferences and events, as well as offer training and consultancy with individuals and organisations. Previously, I was an Agent for Change with Salisbury International Arts Festival (2017) and have led work with marginalised adults and families since 2003 as Artistic Director of Mean Feet Dance.
She works to present musical material in visually imaginative ways, using movement, dance, light, and homemade instruments and sample sets. Working across a number of fields including dance, circus, theatre and film, she performs with a variety of bands and has a richly diverse biography of collaborations, including with all-female arts collective, Collectress.
Recently she has discovered making stop motion animations using charcoal drawing. As a member of 154collective theatre her first charcoal drawn animation Follow me was made for the show “Under The Bed” in 2015. Follow Me won 1st prize at Bradford Open Art Exhibition 2017.
Introducing the Creative Team by video
We've just started the Survivor Conversations podcast!
It's a podcast for hopeful, honest and purposeful conversations about surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse hosted by us. We intend to use the podcast to continue campaigning for voice, visibility and community for survivors, and each episode will feature survivor artists and activists discussing issues that matter to us including creativity, social justice and change.
We've planned out 3 episodes for you and they're just 15 minutes long each. You can find the first episode above, by following this link, or on other sites like: Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts etc.
Over the 3 episodes we will be talking about what it's like to be a survivor and why it's important to share survivor experiences and break the taboo. We will be referencing our most recent project Restless and She walks... and speaking about the use of creativity to enable challenging conversations.
Where do we start? How do we talk about CSA? What can we do if someone wants to talk to us about their own experiences?
Voice 1: Emma Bryson, survivor-activist and campaigner for Survivor rights and interests
Voice 2: Viv Gordon, theatre-maker, arts/mental health campaigner & survivor-activist whose work is intended to increase the voice and visibility of survivors of CSA.
Find out more about Restless and the launch of new digital artwork She walks... here.
She walks… is a digital artwork combining music, song, spoken word, rap and hand drawn animations. It is the first part of a wider project called Restless that uses imagery from walking in coastal landscapes to talk about the experience of living as a survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse - ideas of being isolated and exposed, of navigating challenging territory and occupying marginal, liminal spaces. The central metaphor running through the project is the restless sea, slowly and insistently changing the landscape - just as activism changes culture through continuous collective action. She walks… sits at the mid point of the larger work - the character has survived and despite an inner fragmentation and experiences of dissociation, she is instinctively propelled forward.
The track ends with the idea that change is possible - it is a turning point. It's not that everything gets better from there on - I don’t really believe in recovery as such - I think we learn to live with what happens to us and reclaim some of what we’ve lost - trust, connection, hope… I will never not have been abused, I will never not be a survivor - it's not something that happened years ago and is now over - I live with the impact of it everyday - lots of us don’t survive and I am acutely aware of that.
Walking has been a massive part of my journey - I’m making up for lost time - I had a developmental delay when I was little because of the trauma - so walking is a victory. It's what I do to feel good, to find solace, to stay connected with my body, to work things out when my brain is in chaos and to write. The Restless project draws on a long tradition of artists and activists walking to create change - what do we do when we’ve had enough? We march.
She walks… is based on a poem I wrote after walking a 110 mile stretch the South West Coast Path, inspired specifically by the landscape around Portland in Dorset which is rich in contradictions - at once beautiful, wild and ancient and deeply scarred with quarrying, a Ministry of Defence site surrounded by razor wire and a high walled prison. The resonance for me is the impact of abusive, defensive or controlling patriarchal structures set against the wonder and resilience of the natural world.
Come along to our launch event on Wednesday 25th November at 8pm: https://bit.ly/she-walks-launch
Follow the event on Facebook: https://fb.me/e/b9km6BIdH
As part of Restless & She walks… we are launching the #MyLineInTheSand campaign.
Whether you’re a survivor or an ally, sometimes it’s hard to find the words we need. So we came up with #MyLineInTheSand as a way to give voice to the feelings that we can’t always say out loud.
Every voice matters so give us big words, small words, lots of words or simply a picture – we welcome them all. You can make a bold declaration on the beach or you can do so quietly at home, using whatever you have to hand. Then take a picture and share on social media using the hashtags #MyLineInTheSand and #RestlessVGC
Stand with us, be an ally. Share your rage, hope and solidarity for Survivors of #CSA and gender-based violence. Watch Viv's videos below find out more.
The intention is to give greater voice and visibility to the 11 million adult survivors of CSA in the UK and to demystify and de-stigmatise the conversations around this subject. Artistic Director, Viv Gordon has a strong track record as a theatre maker, arts & mental health campaigner, and survivor-activist grounded in her lived experience of childhood sexual abuse. She walks… is part of a wider project, Restless, an album Viv Gordon Company will be creating with collaborators over the next 18 months.
This starkly beautiful and haunting digital work does not flinch away from uncomfortable truths but looks to the restless sea for inspiration to keep going and slowly change the landscape. The track can be experienced as a song in its own right, and/or accompanied by the animation. Audiences can ally with survivors by joining in the conversation on social media with the hashtag #MyLineInTheSand.
She walks… is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
Release date: Wednesday 25th November
Register your attendance at our launch event by clicking here.
Follow the event on Facebook here.
Find out how to take part in the #MyLineInTheSand campaign here.
Spilling The Beans
Telling the truth about mental health discrimination, exploitation and gaslighting in the arts.
In 2018 I was a supported artist with an NPO and part of their Critical Friends Group. Mental health access and inclusion was never on the agenda (unless I put it there) which I challenged when they called a meeting to discuss their Equality Action Plan. I received 2 responses: one from another group member saying she didn’t consider mental health to be an equality issue; the other from the CEO saying we’d talked about mental health before and including a list of everything the organisation had ever done for me (I read this as her demonstrating how inclusive they were, suggesting I should be grateful and maybe that I should shut up). Turns out they weren’t really interested in critical friends - just weird, arse-licky, transactional tick-box relationships. I resigned from the group. 15 people blanked my resignation email. No-one thanked me for my volunteered time.
Soon after, I had a residency booked in their space to work on a show about my lived experience of childhood sexual abuse - work I needed to feel very safe to do. As the residency approached, I felt increasingly anxious. My producer called the CEO and lead producer to ask if we could meet to talk things through - they agreed but didn’t respond to our date suggestions. I rearranged the residency costing me £700 of a small funding pot I had to make the show. Additionally, therapy to process the anxiety caused by the interaction cost £300.
The following year I was on a development scheme led by the NPO and my anxiety resurfaced as a weekend event approached. My producer asked again for a meeting that never happened. I’ve no idea why I went on the weekend but I spent a lot of it in tears - its hard to explain to someone who hasn’t faced a lifetime of discrimination what it feels like to be ignored because you have raised an issue, the sheer rage of seeing the bullshit tagline about inclusivity on their conference banner, the humiliation of feeling emotional in a space that is not safe - where you are stigmatised as being “difficult” or “irrational” read “mental” and “unprofessional”. Over the weekend 2 other artists on the scheme approached me angry and upset at their own experiences of discrimination at the hands of the organisation. The icing on the cake was when their entire staff left the room during an active listening exercise saying they’d “done it before”. It would be funny if it hadn’t cost me another £300 in therapy, sleepless nights, a missed opportunity to connect with peers on a level playing field and my sense of dignity.
I no longer work with that organisation - I just won’t put myself in that position anymore. Objectively I can see they are nice people doing good work. It's a constant mystery to me how many nice, progressive people in the arts find it hard to listen, be humble, say sorry and make changes. If I’ve learned one thing working in disability arts contexts for the last 20 years, it's that it's impossible to get it right all the time for everyone. Disabled people are not a homogenous mass who all agree on what equality looks like - beyond some basics, access is very individual - accessibility and inclusion are all about relationship, listening and responding. What happened in this case wasn’t initially that bad but it became terrible because no-one was prepared to listen - if they had it could have been sorted in 20 minutes.
I’ve never spoken out about it before and never outed them because naming and shaming just isn’t my bag - noone here is bad - just unaware of the impact of their actions. In any case it’s systemic. This example highlights the difficulty of challenging a whole organisation as an individual artist - even one with producer and access support. Organisations often don’t understand the power they hold - to support you or not, to employ you or not, to book your work or not, to champion your art or not..... The money, resources, buildings, networks, job security and organisational structure they possess give them power. This power imbalance is, in itself, incredibly triggering to anyone who has been raised with abuse, inequality and discrimination. In order to call yourself an inclusive organisation, you must be willing to be conscious of your power, to learn and reflect on feedback about how your approach is replicating oppressive cultural structures and to make a commitment to change. If an artist comes to you with a problem, they will have overcome significant barriers to do that. That means the issue is important enough to warrant that effort and deserves to be heard. What was it they said in the active listening training again?
Experiences of mental health discrimination, exploitation and gaslighting are alarmingly commonplace. Another NPO chief exec questioned whether it was safe to allow adults with mental health needs to mix with other adults on a project and could not see this as discriminatory. Artists with mental health needs (probably all marginalised artists) are asked constantly to volunteer to speak at events, sit on panels and committees as if we should be grateful to be included (sometimes this is actually stated) which devalues our professionalism and expertise. If we get angry we get tone-policed. If we get emotional we are stereotyped and made to feel deficient.
There’s some interesting conversations in the Freelance Taskforce about how we reduce the burden on individuals to navigate these experiences alone with all the emotional labour, financial costs and potential career disruptions that come with that? More coming soon. It amazes me that funders don’t have a way of monitoring this as funding criteria increasingly emphasise diversity? Shifting a whole arts ecology towards equality is not a numbers game but a subtly nuanced journey that
requires time, kindness, honest communication and a mitigation of risk for artists who feel able to call out their experiences of discrimination.
If you’re a freelance artist with mental health needs who has experienced discrimination, exploitation or gaslighting please do get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m collecting stories to call this out and bring it into the light. I’m also interested in ideas for new approaches and hearing stories of good practice that can be shared.
These are your options:
Over the last year I have had the great privilege of working with philosopher Havi Carel and the Life of Breath team to develop a new piece of theatre work The Book of Jo.
Havi wrote a book in 2008 called Illness which uses phenomenology to chart her lived experience of being diagnosed with sporadic LAM - a serious, rare and random lung condition that affects women of childbearing age - random in that it is not caused by any lifestyle choices, exposure to toxins or genetics. Illness reflects on what it is like to live with a terminal condition, to receive treatment and deal with the responses of friends, family and strangers. It reads as a call for more empathy in health care but also in the world. It asks important questions about finding wellness within illness - anyone with a long term condition will confirm there are better or worse days, that our experiences aren’t linear or one dimensional. I say that as someone living with a long term mental health condition.
When I read her book, it reminded me of the only bible story I know well The Book of Job. In the old testament story Job is seen by God as the best of men and he is blessed with a wife, lots of children, loads of sheep and property. God and Satan make a wager where Satan states that it’s easy to be good when you have it all. He encourages God to test Job by destroying his herds, home and children, to then see if Job is still so wonderful. When Job proves unshakeable, Satan pushes God to test him further by afflicting his body. Job sits in the ashes of his life covered in pustulent sores and maintains his faith.
His friends come to comfort him but prove pretty useless - they doubt him arguing that he must have done something wrong to deserve his plight, in a no smoke without fire kind of way. As he maintains his innocence - they question God and Job’s faith. To cut a long weird story short, Job is steadfast, God wins the wager and in the unsatisfying ending he restores Job’s life - new sheep, new children etc.
Both stories propelled me to think about how we make sense of life, misfortune, injustice…. How do we find hope within adversity? Why does bad stuff happen to good people? So these are the questions that I explore in the piece which draws on the bible story, Havi’s book and my own lived experience to animate the Life of Breath research and contemplate something about our humanness. It’s quite dark and wry, simmering with anger but also humour and love. I have written it with mentoring from Dramaturg Chris Fogg and I selected quotes from the bible story to link the scenes which have been brilliantly composed by Tom Johnson. I’m looking forward to performing it - I hope that audiences can see something of their own journey in it. No life is straightforward - none of us has certainty - especially right now. We all need some perspective and ways to understand life’s imperfections and challenges. Stories are great for that.
The Book of Jo is commissioned by www.lifeofbreath.org and funded by The Wellcome Trust
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.