Viv Gordon talks about reparation and recovery in the context of ‘Restless’ – an arts activism project about community, visibility and voice for survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse.
A few years ago I watched a documentary where Charlotte Church explored different experimental treatment approaches to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with veterans of the armed forces. One approach stood out to me – an ex soldier is walking on a treadmill, in front of him is a huge screen playing sounds and images that replicate his most traumatic experiences. He walks supported by a psychotherapist, talking through the horrific events he has lived through – it’s brave, physical, embodied, sensory and emotional – not unlike art – and guess what? It seems to be having positive outcomes for survivors of war.
It resonated with me because that’s what I do in my practice. I walk towards my trauma, relive it, spend time with it, move with it, feel it in my body with all my senses and invite it to be witnessed. This is my activism and my testimony. In my current project ‘Restless‘ this walking towards is literal, my creative process is a series of walking residencies on the South West Coast Path, the work uses these experiences as a way to talk about my journey as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It’s rich in imagery about navigating challenging territory, occupying the margins and being isolated and exposed. The central idea running through the piece is the restless sea that slowly, insistently changes the landscape just as the continuous collective activism of survivors will change the cultural landscape.
Whenever I share my work, someone will ask me if it is healing or therapeutic for me. Does it make me/it better? It’s a fair enough question. Recovery is the holy grail – and lots of us spend a lot of time on that quest but the answer is no – and yes – and no – and maybe – and I don’t know… The motivation in my work has never been my own healing. I don’t believe in recovery. I don’t consider myself recovered. I believe we learn to live with stuff and some days that’s easier and others it’s harder – no matter how much work we do on ourselves or how many shows we make…
To be honest I don’t really know what healing looks like (and I say this as someone who has gone above and beyond in trying to find out. I have chanted and prayed and meditated my arse off… All that yoga has left me tired of this endlessly individualised narrative. My healing is completely bound up with social change, with a fight for justice – it is a collective struggle underpinned by a set of social relationships that reach beyond the personal. The soldier meets his trauma, I meet mine – and YES it makes me feel better, braver, more joined up, more myself, but I’m still a survivor living in a systemically disabling culture where abuse is silenced, ignored and ridiculed. It’s hard to feel better about that.
The problem for me is cultural and my work seeks to address that. A guiding light is Mirander Fricker’s formulation of Epistemic Injustice. Criminal justice for most survivors is an unreachable goal so I’ve had to think hard about what justice might look like for me. I resonate with Fricker’s understanding that justice is about knowledge and power – if childhood sexual abuse is constantly minimised and stigmatised, we rob survivors of the language and framework to articulate our most distinctive experiences. Instead we are painted as unreliable sources of knowledge, our fragmented memories don’t pass the test, our righteous anger is deemed too messy to count, our testimony too easy to dismiss as unreliable.
My work seeks to reclaim the narrative. Talking about abuse is dangerous and subversive and a way to challenge existing power structures that protect abusers. With my project ‘Restless’ I am writing songs. Songs are great because we listen to them over and over and they become part of how we understand ourselves and the world – part of a shared vocabulary – a finding of voice, which makes change inevitable.
Don’t get me wrong, everything I’m saying sits alongside a very careful, care-filled approach to making work. My access needs are central to any process, I need to feel safe enough, supported enough and grounded enough to keep on walking towards my story. My care practices include therapy, physio, working with an artist assistant, thinking about trauma informed accessible environments, travel and accommodations needs – its very comprehensive.
There are individual gains. I’m sleeping better than I used to, I know none of it was my fault, I’m not ashamed any more because I know I didn’t do anything wrong, I’ve got a growing sense of self and community and a strong sense of purpose, I walk taller and am less afraid to be me. A highlight in the last year was my teenage daughter’s friends saying I have “big dick energy” – that’s a win….
But does it make me better though? Maybe – yes – no – I don’t know.
The soldier on the treadmill benefits from facing and integrating his experience – but are we still engaging in pointless wars?
Has abuse stopped? Are survivors emancipated? Is there justice?
When the answers to those questions are yes, yes and yes – then I’ll be better.