Performing, and writing, generate anxiety. It is as inevitable as adrenaline. You worry if your work is original. Does it communicate? How will it will be received? For those of us who explore difficult material – there is also conflict. We fear, or have been warned off, distressing our audiences. But we also know, from personal experience, the greater dangers of remaining silent.
The recent launch of The Dizziness of Freedom by Bad Betty Press, brought this dilemma home to me. By virtue of their strength, elements within the material were difficult to bear. But the searing, fierce, sometimes painfully funny performances by poets from this anthology responding to mental health, resolved many of my concerns – through their ability to transform creatively a raw subject matter into work no one could ignore.
Dean Atta gave us depression in formal mourning clothes in ‘No Ascension’. Rachel Nwokoro made OCD the logical response to growing up queer, short-sighted, and female in a Nigerian/London household in ‘School Days’. And then it was Joelle Taylor’s turn to raise her hand above her head like a pistol – and proclaim an only half-laughing “trigger warning”. She told the audience, with absolute seriousness, if you feel the trigger, you hold the gun – and the power is yours.
Joelle Taylor’s blistering performance – of work about her own experience of having been raped as a child, and its aftermath – bore out her words. I was deeply impacted by hearing her, as someone who, like Joelle, was raped in childhood. But I was also strengthened. And I jolted home on the train feeling so much less alone in the poems, and memoir, I am creating on this subject.
When I write, or perform, poems about my own experiences of sexual abuse in childhood, I question my right to bear witness on a topic which people may feel disturbed by – no matter how much care I take to engender agency and safety within the work. From past experiences at live readings, and with contacts made through this blog and twitter, I know that there many of us out here. Either we have our own histories of sexual abuse in childhood, or we are connected to people who do, simply as a consequence of the widespread nature of this crime.
But I have found that it is this same group – my group – who can be most relieved to hear, or read, my work. We discover within it forms of verbal and imagistic play which we recognise as making comprehensible an experience which is difficult to speak of, even in a private or therapeutic conversation.
While my poems appear simple, operating largely through layered imageries, and using direct, accessible language, it took more than a decade of creative experimentation in prose, then poetry, to find out how to write them. Before even getting going, I needed nearly a decade of psychotherapy to begin to able to articulate and resolve what had happened to me, and thereby gain enough separation from the sexual abuse to exercise a measure of creative agency.
I was already 32, with sons of 14 and 8, and researching a PhD at University College London, when I first met the psychotherapist to whom my GP referred me in order to discuss my troubled childhood and adolescence. I had recently discovered legal evidence of other harmful actions, which my abuser had taken concurrently to the abuse in the mid 1970s. This gave me the spur to open up a part of my earlier life which had always seemed too devastating to re-connect with.
I can still see that murky, grey November afternoon when I stood on a doorstep in Earls Court in London, feeling more numb than scared. After a few moments, the grey-haired, soberly dressed therapist opened the front door of the apartment block to me, and led me up a dark stairwell, and along a narrow hallway, into her consulting room. Small, lined with books, it looked out onto the grey backs of other houses.
I had been confined to a similarly view-less room when hospitalised for anorexia aged 13. That period of my life, during which I had first received psychiatric care, was one the psychotherapist asked me to discuss, along with the events that had caused me to stop eating as a teenager. I gave her a factual, slightly detached summary of my childhood, including my father’s death when I was eight, and our subsequent move from Brussels to Wiltshire in 1972.
And then she dropped the bomb. She said You’ll have to go back there.
From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered Don’t make me.
At that moment, with the light falling, and the darkness seeming to press its way in through the net curtains of the consulting room, a third person was present with us – ashamed, dirty, frightened, barely able to make a sound.
For twenty-four years I had kept this hurt child locked away inside me. Inaccessible, and silenced, her only medium of expression had been my regular, terrifying nightmares, which made me, and continues to make me on occasion, fearful of sleeping.
When our first session was up, I found my way down the stairs, and out onto the street. I was shocked – and deeply shaken. After I got home, time started to run in parallel. I was a mother, feeding my sons, asking them about their school day. I was also a cold, scared little girl, who wanted to curl up and lie absolutely still under heavy blankets.
That same night, I dreamt I was standing alone, in darkness, on the edge of a shingle beach. The stones shelved steeply down into navy blue water, the colour of a silk petticoat my abuser sometimes wore. With the pebbles sliding, and giving way, I stumbled forward into the sea. I was immediately out of my depth. All round me – dark, chilled water, and the pink-orange whiskery antennae of shrimp, touching my skin, entering my mouth, going between my teeth. I smelt a distinctive, fishy smell that I recognised from before.
The following week, with the psychotherapist’s support, I connected the dream with the textures, and colour, of my abuser’s slippery pubic hair, when I was forced to put my face in her aroused genital area. Our work of articulating my experience, and slowly, slowly, finding some degree of healing, was underway.
Many years later, I came to understand that the imagery within my poems could operate as a transmitter of meaning in the same way that the shrimp whiskers had. Back in 1996, the dreams simply intensified as we worked more deeply. I continued the practice I had already evolved of writing them down, to separate them from myself, and gain some sense of control.
I was simultaneously trying to research and write up my funded PhD, be a partner to my husband, and raise our two sons as best I could. The dreams offered me a space to re-engage very deeply with my childhood experiences of sexual abuse, while also granting a degree of safety in the other parts of my life, where I needed to continue to function for the well-being of our family. My poems now offer this for other people.
There was always a backlog of material, but I would print out two copies of each dream, and then bring them to my therapy session, so that the psychotherapist and I could respond to and interpret them together – in much the same way that I did the texts which I was writing about for my academic research. The difference was that the psychotherapist would then channel my responses to the imagery that my dreams had generated.
Although it was a slow and halting progress, which invariably left me devastated for several hours after each session, the dreams helped me locate feelings which I had not been able to experience at the time of the abuse because they were too dangerous. They also gave me a language in which to speak about the regular anal rapes, the implement used to effect them, and the emotional impact of living within the climate of secrecy, shame and fear both during the abuse, and afterwards as a teenager.
Heart-breakingly, as the psychotherapy was reaching a measure of resolution late in 2000, my husband Falcon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the next 14 months I cared for him full-time, in and out of hospital. After his death in 2002, my priority was to put life back together for our sons, then both in their teens.
Losing Falcon additionally led me to re-engage with the death of my own father when I was 8, which had been the precipitating factor for the penetrative phase of the sexual abuse. Through the Royal Free, I received further counselling. The more I took on board how much what had happened in my childhood had hurt me, the more I realised the need to try and change awareness around the crime of sexual abuse in childhood.
In 2007, once my younger son had left for university, I began to ask if I could find a way of articulating what had happened to me creatively, with all the personal risk this entailed. With younger my son away during term times, and his brother working outside London, I could afford to risk laying myself more open to my past. I was also fortunate to have formed a new, deeply supportive relationship, with the man who later became my second husband, which also helped sustain me.
My first attempt at writing took the form of a novel, which I worked on for seven years, while also working, and undergoing surgeries for ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 2011. The gynaecological surgeries had the effect of opening up more tissue memories of the abuse – a common response according to my surgeon. Although very difficult to bear, this extra layer of memory ultimately hardened my resolve to continue to agitate creatively for change.
Having always been a hungry reader, and previously been a features journalist, the novel initially seemed a good way to explore my story. I could see its scenes, and hear its voices, and I valued the ability to tell a longer story, and show my narrator at multiple ages, alone and refracted through others. But then as time went on, it began to feel as if I was working with thick gloves – speaking through a ‘character’.
I came to believe, for political, as well as personal reasons, that I needed to bear witness directly to my own experiences. At the same time, as I wrote towards the novel’s climax, I found the scenes breaking themselves into shorter and shorter fragments, due to the power, and difficulty, of the material, and the need to contain and offset it within white space.
From here it was only a small step into poetry. Not knowing quite how to negotiate this new terrain, I signed up for Pascale Petit’s final workshop course at the Tate, in conjunction with the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Pascale’s encouragement, and that of poets on the course including Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Seraphima Kennedy, when I shared my draft work, told me that I had found where I needed to be – and set me on the path of developing my craft, and honing my voice as a poet.
I have since taken classes at The Poetry School, and Spread the Word, and was lucky to be awarded a year-long Jerwood Arvon mentorship with Pascale Petit, which also gave me the opportunity to collaborate on poems with fellow mentees Romalyn Ante, Seraphima Kennedy, Yvonne Reddick and Rachel Burns.
I will be shortly sending out my pamphlet – spectroscope – while continuing to work towards my first collection, aperture, and a volume of essay-memoirs, album without photos. The poems may contain refractions of grooming, sexual abuse, and my troubled teenage years as a bisexual girl trying to find her identity after same-sex abuse – but I see them as jewelled musical boxes. They can be opened up, and allowed to play their harshly beautiful, sometimes shocking tunes – but they do so with all the resourcefulness and surprises of precise, beautifully made objects. When the song is done, and the tiny dancers have stopped revolving, the poem-boxes can then be closed down again until they are next needed, whether by myself, or another reader.
Although the materials at the poems’ hearts are given the resolutions of form and imagery, they nonetheless retain the danger, and terror of what happened to me as a child, which I re-experience every time I work on them. Without this, they could not do their work of speaking out on behalf of all those sexually abused as children – to help change how people perceive this global crime.
Alice Hiller will be reading at the Creative Futures Awards at 6.45 pm on 26 October at the Southbank as part of the London Literature Festival Book your Ticket
and at the Poetry Festival Aldeburgh with Mary Jean Chan, Richard Scott and others within the Queer Studio at 17.30 on 3 November https://snapemaltings.co.uk/tickets/book/?eID=93002
There will be two further live launch events for the The Dizziness of Freedom anthology by Bad Betty Press featuring different poets as follows:
3rd Oct: Waterstones, Birmingham TICKETS
with Luke Kennard, Mary Jean Chan, Antosh Wojcik, Anne Gill & special guests, in partnership with Verve Poetry Fest
9th Oct: All Saints Church, York TICKETS
with Rob Auton, Jackie Hagan, Kat Francois & Maria Ferguson, in partnership with Say Owt