Monday, 19 July 2021

Going into the Difficulty

[ TLDR: This blog post is long and involved. But perhaps you are simply here because you were looking forward to reading my book, Experiments in Listening, but then realised it contains mention of Chris Goode, and are having second thoughts. If so, here are some options for you!

If you want to read Experiments in Listening, but would feel triggered by reading the part that mentions Chris, then you have two options. There are a series of five zines that contain preludes from each of the chapters, and are a friendly option for encountering the main ideas without going into the fine detail. These will be available (free) for print-at-home from the Performance Philosophy website from September, and contain no mention of Chris or his work. Alternatively, if you want to read the book as a whole (wow, thank you for your deep curiosity! please feel free to use discount code RLFANDF30) but you want to avoid the parts where Chris is mentioned, you could skip, or navigate with self-care, pages 169-219. ]

image of a dark landscape, with blurry trees on the horizon, from the cover of Rajni's book Experiments in Listening

TW: brief mentions of suicide, child harms

This is a blog post that involves some detailed questioning around Chris Goode, his life and death, and my friendship with him. If you don’t care about those things, or if reading about those things will feel harmful to you, please don’t continue. This writing is part of my process of working through the complexities of the situation I find myself in, as someone who was friends with Chris for many years, and who worked with him on a project of my own fairly recently. I am sharing it in case it may be resonant and helpful for anyone else.

Specifically, this writing comes as a response to the following situation.

I have just published my first full-length book, called Experiments in Listening, which I’ve been working on one way or another since 2013. It was supposed to go to print in 2019, got delayed, had to change publishers, and I finally signed off on it at the end of April this year. The book details some of the work I did between 2013 and 2016 in which I began to feel into my own understanding of the relationships between listening, performance, and being. Specifically, it details (in a slightly academic mode) my own journey towards understanding the ways in which human encounters always take place across difference, and the possibilities that being-in-audience (as an explicitly attentive mode of being-with) might offer as a form of resistance to dominant voice-centered, presentational ways of being.

Between the time when I signed off on the manuscript, and the time of its publication, someone who plays a role in the final chapter of the book died by suicide. That person was Chris Goode.

For those who don’t know already, Chris killed himself after he was arrested on possession of child pornography. Since then, more and more of the story has come out, and the story is one of harm and abuse - Chris was abusive in his working relationships, groomed young men, and was addicted to watching pornography in which young children were being harmed. He never repented for these behaviours, and in fact consistently tried to justify them under the banner of queerness and within his own performance works. Now that he is dead, and a fuller picture of the harms he caused is becoming known, some people in the industry are calling for all traces of his works to be destroyed, in order for him to have no legacy.

Chris was a friend of mine for about twenty years. In the fifth and final chapter of Experiments in Listening he is framed explicitly as a friend. Since the book was already at press when this news came out, there was nothing I could do to reframe this within the book itself. So this blog post is partly a working-through of what it means to publicily declare friendship with someone who is now known as an abuser. And it is partly a reckoning with this moment in time, asking the question: what does it mean to move forward from here?

In some ways, this is a follow up to the blog post I wrote when I first heard about Chris’ death. It is written with deep faith that we can move forward from here, together. But only if we centre care, love, and slowness, for ourselves and for others. And only if we are prepared to embrace the complexities and challenges of doing that work.

Experiments in Listening

The backstory is this.

In 2013, I had decided to abandon my career as a performance maker.* I don’t think I knew why exactly, but I understood that my relationship with something I had always thought would be core to my identity (making performance) was coming to an end. It was a long goodbye, and it felt deeply sad. But I knew it was important to trust the process that was unfolding.

Before I had a chance to figure out what my new life might look like outside the constraints of being a career artist, something extraordinary happened. Someone showed up. That person was Gerry Harris, a professor at Lancaster University who knew my work as a performance maker, and asked whether I would consider doing a PhD as a way of reflecting on the work I had made over the past 14 years, and as a way of processing my decision to leave.

I was very unsure about this invitation. I had already been to university as an undergraduate, and it struck me as the kind of place where I decidedly did not belong. I had also just walked away from one industry and wasn’t very interested in entering another. And yet, the idea of spending three years in dialogue with Gerry was appealing. And it was a funded position. So I applied. I was accepted, and got the funding. And I decided to trust that this was the path I was meant to follow.

It was a ‘practice as research’ PhD, which meant that I would need to do some of the thinking through performance practice rather than only through writing. Initially, this felt like it would be in conflict with my desire to move away from performance-making. But I soon realised that this could be an opportunity to examine the parameters of what I had been calling ‘performance’. And this is how Experiments in Listening (the name of a project, which I later borrowed for the title of the book) was born.

Experiments in Listening was a project that I had been dreaming in some form for years. It was about inviting two people who were friends to be together, in a state of listening, while being witnessed. It was about bringing together familiarity and strangeness. Today I would frame it as a project that was about bringing our internal and external selves into dialogue. The project relied on me working with performers who were experienced enough to be comfortable with ‘not-doing’ in front of an audience, and with whom I was comfortable enough to call ‘friend’. The three people I invited to work with me were Karen Christopher, Andy Smith, and Chris Goode.

The project involved me spending a week working with each of the three friends, a week in which we attempted to do nothing more than be attentive – to each other, to the room, to what might arise when we were not prescribing it. Alongside us each time was a filmmaker, who was present in the room, doing their own listening with a camera. Later, I held a series of sharings during which audiences brought their own listening to the three films that had been made in those rooms. Each dialogue had a different filmmaker, and for the dialogue with Chris, Griffyn Gilligan (who Chris and I had at the time just recently met, but would go on to become Chris’ husband) was the filmmaker.


Skip ahead. On the night of my PhD viva, I held a screening of the three Experiments in Listening films, for my examiners and a public audience. In that audience was someone who would carry me through the following years, someone who would become an important part of my chosen family: Ria Righteous. At that time, we had only recently met, and were about to begin a creative mentoring relationship.

Some days after the screening, Ria and I had our first mentoring session together. That day, Ria asked me why I had chosen not to work with any people of colour for Experiments in Listening. I will never forget that moment. I was stopped in my tracks. I fumbled around for an answer. I said that it was because I didn’t have any friends who are also performance-makers and people of colour and who would be the right fit for this project, and this was because I had grown up inside a performance-making scene that was very white. To some extent, it was true. But another answer to this same question was: because it didn’t even occur to me that this would be important. The truth that finally came into view for me in that moment was that, although I had been interrogating identity politics at surface level through my work for many years, I had never taken the time or had the courage to work through my own internalised racism. In the years that followed, I began this work. It is ongoing and will last a lifetime.

So why mention this here? Because this story, the story of how I came to confront my own internalised racism, and began to reorient my world, is part of the story of Experiments in Listening and part of the story of my friendship with Chris.

During those week-long dialogues, during the screenings, and during the writing of the book, I was very slowly starting to understand the ways in which my lack of internal rigour had led to default worlds around me. I started to understand the extent to which it was structural racism that forced me to leave the theatre/performance industry. And I started to realise, too, that I have the capacity to create the worlds I live within.

Chapter Five of the book, the chapter that is about Experiments in Listening, begins with the following paragraph:

“[I]f listening, as I am proposing it, is a gathering of bodies and of attention, then it seems at best inadequate and at worst dangerous for that gathering to happen without an acknowledgment of the histories and geographies that have shaped those bodies and their capacity for attentiveness. […]

The main players in this chapter—Karen Christopher, Chris Goode, and Andy Smith—have all already appeared as writers in previous chapters, where, slightly uncomfortably but according to academic convention, I have referred to them by their last names. In this chapter, they come back on a first-name basis, as performers and friends. Somewhere in here, among the signs ‘friend’ and ‘writer’ and ‘artist’ and ‘audience’, are human beings with complex identities and emotions, meeting each other in many contexts, across time, and in different places. In this chapter, I ask what happens when we meet each other as complex beings in the context of performance.”

This final chapter of the book includes the beginnings of my realisation that my relationship with Chris could never be reciprocal until we both did the work of addressing the ways in which structural inequities manifest through our bodies.

In June 2019, just under two years before Chris ended his life, we had an email exchange, initiated by Chris, in which I invited us to re-examine default behaviours within our friendship. As part of this exchange, I wrote:

“I have become aware (in part through the project of our dialogue during Experiments in Listening, or rather the beautiful film that Griffyn made) that our relationship has been one in which I bring myself to you, and enter into your world. I have never succeeded in bringing my full self to that relationship. This is on both of us, and I do not expect you to take sole responsibility. I feel we have both inhabited patterns of behaviour that played with power in ways I am no longer prepared to do. […] I am trying to change those patterns.”

I invited Chris to join me in creating a new chapter of our friendship. Chris didn’t tell me directly that he was not prepared to do this work. He indicated that he had heard me, and that we were moving forward with respect and care for each other. I later found out that he had blocked me on twitter, and was spreading false information about me. It has become clear that this was part of a bigger pattern in which Chris was being asked to reckon with his relationship to power and privilege, and was not prepared to, or was not ready to, or was not able to do that work.

I am not sharing this with you in order to demonstrate that I was or am morally superior to Chris, or anyone. These kinds of comparisons feel reductive, and dangerous. I am in a process that I know will last a lifetime, and my own understanding of how to confront these truths is boundaried, as we all are, by my own lived experiences. What I am trying to do is point towards what feels like an important piece of the puzzle – which is that this work happens somewhere between inside and outside. It happens between us, but it also happens inside of us. And those things are not separate.

I draw a line between this story and the worlds within which it occurs. Which means that I am part of the story too. It is our story. They are our worlds. And we are the ones who make them real.

What happens now?

There has been a strong call from some people in the UK theatre industry to destroy all evidence that Chris existed, to write him out of (theatre-making) history. I understand where this comes from, and feel supportive of the need to re-examine and re-write at both a personal and systemic level. I also fully recognise the importance of showing up for survivors in exactly the ways they need. At the same time, I have a fear that these calls for destruction might be where the work of this moment ends, leading us from one dangerous archetype (the figure of the lone genius) to another (the figure of the villain, who can be eradicated, thus eradicating harm from our community). And so this blog post, as well as being specifically about the situation I find myself in relating to my book, is also a call for complexity.

I heard the news about Chris’ death in the same moment that other excavations were happening, literally revealing bodily evidence of the many years of child abuse and genocide that have occurred on the lands that are colonially known as Canada. Evidence of histories that have largely been ignored, in spite of repeated reports and campaigns for justice. The two stories arrived in proximity, and they felt utterly connected. They are both stories about harms that were happening and continue to happen within structures that are upheld by white supremacy. They are stories about what we choose to ignore. And they are stories about the tightly-wound relationships between power, hero-worshipping, and violence. These stories are not in the past. We can’t eradicate them by destroying the evidence that they existed. Our work now is to transform those narratives, and part of that work lies inside us. In recognising our own attachments to those narratives, in recognising that we are part of the stories we tell.

Grappling with my own internalised racism, and other attachments to privilege, is at once the most challenging and transformative work I have ever done. I feel like I am late in starting this work, and I am clumsy as I try to work out what’s needed. It is often devastating, rendering me slow as I work through shame or grief, and it is most certainly not linear. Somedays, it feels hard to justify this internal work, in a world that demands evidence of productivity, in a world that demands immediate evidence that justice is being served. But ever since Chris died, I have felt more certain than ever that this work is important. That it is the most important work we can do.

My book exists without acknowledgment of the series of events that would follow its printing. It occupies an awkward place in this narrative, a kind of strange innocence, of words written before things were known. But the truth is that all of us who knew Chris knew that he played with power. We knew that he was fascinated by harm. Arguably, anyone who was close with Chris for any length of time felt his capacity for harm, and held it together with the knowledge that he also had a capacity for great tenderness.

In the book, describing a scene in the film that Griffyn made, I write:

“In my recollection of this dialogue, Chris and I were caring, careful, and vulnerable, meeting each other on equal terms. Griffyn’s film reveals to me something that I already know in theory, but that is much harder to grasp in practice, which is that—while we might be caring, careful, and vulnerable—we never meet on equal terms, and this must be the starting point for any dialogue.”

I, like many people, spent years filtering out, forgiving, or stepping away from the more problematic moments in my friendship with Chris. This was only possible because I was living and making work inside a system that itself was built through violence, erasure, and extreme gaslighting. Slowly, because slowly is the only way to do this work, I am learning to feel and to notice these patterns in all of my relationships, and to become braver in taking actions to reorient them.

I am not trying to suggest that everyone’s work looks the same as mine. Of course it doesn’t. The whole point of this work is to recognise that we are all implicated differently in these networks of power, violence, and abuse. The call I am making is to recognise the seemingly quiet and internal work of learning to feel again, of listening to self, as part of our collective movement towards freedom. It is complex, confusing, and non-linear. It can feel slow, and it can feel invisible. It is sometimes painful, sometimes impossible, and sometimes, at moments, joyful. It happens at once within and between us. This, I believe, is how change happens.

* I later realised that what I was abandoning was not performance-making or ‘being an artist’ but the uphill struggle of trying to make a career within an industry that upheld patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist values. Abandoning the idea of ‘career’ (i.e. a damaging fiction of linear progression) was the best thing I have ever done, and it eventually left me feeling more like an artist than ever before.

Reading list (some things that inspire me in this work)

We Will not Cancel Us by adrienne maree brown

Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina

As We Have Always Done (and everything) by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Leaving Evidence blog by Mia Mingus  

Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

Love and Rage by Lama Rod Owens


(on this blog) 'Breaking Open: the work of listening in a racist world'

conversation with Ria Righteous as part of how to think podcast