If we keep breaking the silence, eventually people will have to listen
The avalanche of disclosures about sexual abuse over the past few years means institutions like the BBC, Hollywood and the Church have come under fire for a culture of enabling and collusion, for turning a blind eye when they should have been shouting from the rooftops. But the first institution most of us know is the family, where there are no policies to review, no codes of conduct to draw up and no disciplinary procedures to follow.
My new play Elephant is inspired by my lived experience of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and the experiences of many survivors of CSA who I know. Set in the aspirational suburbs, it's the story of a modern British family and the unravelling of a secret. As a piece of art, it's heavily fictionalised. However, it's important to point out that it's rooted in the truth of what I've felt, what I've learned and observed.
I won't go on about the crushing horror that CSA is. You can imagine the abomination of grooming, the shock, the betrayal, the mess that's left in a child's head having been targeted by an adult. What we hear much less about is disclosure and the aftermath. Because for many survivors, once you tell those close to you what happened, their reaction is not what you'd expect. The same people who express disgust when they open the Metro and read about Jimmy Saville or Harvey Weinstein often react very differently when they learn about CSA in their own families. Survivors are faced with denial, fury for not staying quiet and many are ostracised because it's frankly easier to remove the problem than be reminded of it. Drowning in the silence can feel like being abused again.
I'm lucky to have a voice as a playwright. A way of being heard that many others don't have, moreover the theatre offers the artist a captive audience. I've always been interested in the theatrical space as an arena for provocation. A chance to jolt and activate, to encourage people to question and challenge what they think they know.
Secrecy is the currency of the abuser and shame is what we are all left with when a transgression occurs and nobody says anything. By breaking this silence, I hope Elephant is a piece of activism, a liberation that might help others to open up and for communities to acknowledge that their lack of engagement is a both a collusion and an emotional corrosion.
I have been involved with Solace Women's Aid over the past few years and I know firsthand that the work such organisations do can bring immense changes to women's lives. I am delighted that after its run at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Elephant will be touring community venues in and around the West Midlands and service users from local women's organisations will hopefully come and see the show.
While centred on a family, Elephant is also about a wider community. The tension between what people say they are and who they actually are. It explores a structure that is built on untruths where the characters' values are at odds with their belief systems. Under this kind of pressure, it's hard to bear what is unbearable, so people choose to accept what is unacceptable. I have tried to make sense of what is unfathomable and sought to have compassion, because it is my job as a dramatist to dig deep into heart and soul.
Although my play is written, I don't know how this story ends. But if we keep breaking the silence, eventually people will have to listen.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti
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