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  • Joanne Thomson

5 steps you can take if you’re asked to work with an abuser

Updated: Sep 3

Trigger warning: SA

On this sunny 2021 July, we’ve got Bill Cosby released from prison on a “technicality” and Britney Spears’ womb under the control of her father. If you need me I’ll be flaying my skin off in a corner somewhere. Don’t wait up.

Over the past few months, I’ve reported my own abusers through lengthy HR procedures, supported others in doing the same, helped facilitate community accountability procedures, spoke way too honestly on Twitter, and watched one of my closest friends bravely hold her own against a “famous” actor in a court of law and because there was DNA evidence, get a guilty verdict. Which he’s attempting to appeal. Because apparently, literal science still isn't good enough.


At least thrice a day I ask myself what. is. the. fucking. point.


But the more I investigate, the more tiiiiny ‘lil cracks I find in the system. I’m writing this to give some practical thoughts that might help widen said cracks until the wall crumbles completely.


It goes without saying this work is usually done by survivors. What might the culture look like if it was done by past abusers? Cos I’m here to tell you, the reason we’re going at this so vehemently is because we’re overcompensating. We’re making up for the work they won’t do. Or if they are, they're not telling us about it.


So if you’re a past abuser and are looking for ways to help, I’ve also written this: 5 steps to take if you’ve abused and want to help repair some damage. It also details what to do if you're asked to work with your victim. And indeed your victim’s friends. Because we’ll know what you did. Spoiler alert: it involves being the bigger man. The biggest big manly man you ever did see. If you don’t want to risk being outed as an abuser to employers, and you've made no/insufficient attempts to bridge the gap with them or their friends, take yourself out of that space and nobody needs to know. Turn the job down. Say you’re taking a retreat to rescue baby dolphins in Torquay that week. Whatever. Just don’t hold a survivor’s basic desire to feed themselves hostage. You could be in jail. This is the least you can do.


Having spoken to Equity at length about this, it’s become massively clear to me that almost no members are aware of what is within Equity’s remit and what isn’t when it comes to historical abuse. And as an Equity member for over 10 years it’s very frustrating that I’m still seeking answers to the same questions. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for half. of. your. members. this is literally the most pressing issue at hand right now. We need communication more than ever. When these discrepancies are highlighted it seems their only solution is to put pressure on companies to update policy, which only relies on further abuse to test. It does nothing for those currently being triggered by team announcements or asked to choose between employment and sanity when they see a known abuser on the cast list. We need clear commitment and communication from our unions on what action actually looks like in practice. I need receipts. Case studies. Anything. But hey, maybe they just don't have the resources. In that case, it's pretty clear we need a third-party organisation that mediates between all three.


Because policy fails freelancers. Often. My friend had to listen to her own abuser read out the Equity Safe Spaces statement at the start of rehearsals. I think it’s safe to say that at that point, we’d already failed her.

here’s an unrelated photo of a dog dressed as a seal to offset the horror.

I’d also like to say that there will be certain limitations (as there should be) on cases you’ve not heard about first-hand. This advice is geared towards instances where you or close friends have been directly affected. Don’t try to report rumours.


This is not a wizard hunt.


1. Get an exit interview

Speaking from experience, there are a hundred reasons you might not want to speak up ahead of the job. For me, the reality was that there were a hundred other women that could play my part. But he was the only person that could play his. He ticked all the boxes. If he didn’t play it, it’s likely the play would be pulled from the season and I’d be left jobless and penniless so I chose employment, and let my mental health suffer for months. The amount of time between cast list release and rehearsals starting is often painfully short and a re-cast simply might not be doable within that timeframe, not to mention potentially legally impossible if there’s been no criminal investigation.*


BUT what should always be possible, are exit interviews. These are standard practices for staff on payroll, but usually absent for freelancers. Before you start your contract, get assurance that they’ll hold exit interviews when it’s finished. It should be in your contract really. If you’re not sure how to pressure them, speak to your agent or DM me and I’ll do it. That way, if you’ve gone through hell and back in that room, they will have a record of what being employed with that person did to you, even if the abuse happened prior to the contract starting. They’ll have it on paper and at the very least it could maybe corroborate other reports either historically or in the future.


2. Get Equity and/or the company to pay for therapy

I’m doing this at the moment. It seems every Equity member I’ve spoken to has not been aware of their wonderful pair-up with BAPAM. All Equity members are entitled to 6 free 50–60min sessions of counselling. Abusers, that includes you. You just need to give them your membership number when signing up. They ask you about what’s been troubling you and use that to offer up some therapists they think will suit and you can choose from that final list. I went with Kasia Marzyńska at Psychotherapy Corner as she seemed to specialise in SA trauma.


Following that, I was also offered 6 free sessions through the TV network’s HR department that I’d been reporting through. And if you’ve found a good therapist you like, ask if they’ll pay for you to continue with them. Another wonderful resource is Industry Minds who are doing some amazing work.


Take. all. the. free. help. you. can. get. I can’t say this enough. I went for nearly a decade without acknowledging trauma and it becomes crippling. And you can’t be a good ally or artist if your big squidgy brain isn’t being looked after.


Again, this is all to compensate for what the abusers did. So at this point they should really be tying £100 notes to the legs of carrier pigeons and sending them to your doorstep right now. Fly little guys, fly. Give us our money.


3. Report it to Equity

Apparently, (and this was news to me until yesterday) if you see your abuser, (or indeed a known abuser who has assaulted friends of yours) on a cast list you’re on, this is exactly where Equity can step in. It took me a while to get clarity from them on that, but I argued that if their policies are in place to make those spaces safe, then being asked to work with someone that’s capable of something they should be in prison for (were it not for their victims’ overflowing empathy and our failing justice system) then I for one would deem that as an unsafe space. It’s nigh on impossible to create your best work, let alone any work when you are consistently triggered and playing over your own trauma in your head. That rehearsal room becomes a dread, a chore and a challenge. Call them. See what they can do. If they don’t have the resources to deal with it then they need to direct you to somewhere that does. Or what are you paying for? We need to collectively stop putting the onus on survivors.


And make sure the narrative is led by you. A company doing their job right should be respectful and take these reports as far as you want them to be taken. Your anonymity should only be broken with your say-so. On one of my jobs, all I wanted was for someone in that room, in this case the director, to be confidentially told that there may be moments in rehearsal where I might not be ok and to be informed of my reasons why. I was scared my closing down would come across as me just not being good at my job.


I was told over the phone this week that Equity can help mediate between you and the company in that circumstance. If I’d known that years ago, it could have been a great support. Instead, I had to tackle it on my own, weighing up what my integrity and sanity were worth, and contact other victims of this person to seek clarity which I’ve since realised only spreads the trauma wider. I’d argue that if the abuser doesn’t pull out themselves, the very least that should be put on the table is group or individual counselling/mediation for the cast throughout the entire process. And again, having that complaint on paper somewhere could in turn help corroborate other claims.


4. Talk

Rather frustratingly, therapists also have lives. HOW DARE THEY? Which means they don’t follow your rants on social media and they can’t always answer your calls at the moments you need them.

But some charities can. R**e Crisis, Women’s Aid, Mind & Galop (LGBTQ+) are all wonderful resources. Call your GP to get on the 2-year waiting list (no I’m not joking) for NHS counselling but in the meantime, ask if they have an in-house counsellor you can speak with. Within a week I had 3 sessions set up with a listening ear service they referred me to as well as being offered sessions with their in-house counsellor. Find a tribe. A decent group of equally angry people who you can scream into the void with. I’d have been lost without mine. Good people will help you construct your game plan. BUT, bear in mind, it’s statistically likely, they are also survivors. So try your best to check who has the spoons to help you in that moment and who doesn’t. And accept that. Cos we’ve all been there.


The best advice I got from my tribe is to take it in shifts. It’s not on you to fix the world single-handedly. Rome’s patriarchy was not destroyed in a day.


Write things down when they happen and if you have an agent, talk to them. This saved my ass recently. The day after a horrendous experience, I wrote down everything I could remember and within the week I emailed my agent a play by play of the events while they were still clear in my head. The email was timestamped so the “hazy memory” argument was rendered invalid. That email helped my case. Paper trails are your friend, my friend.

5. Make art

This phrase made me curl my face up like someone had farted up until 6 months ago. But holy hell, it works. If you’re even minutely involved in a creative industry, you’re already better at this than most. And who cares if it’s good anyway.


I’ve managed to turn trauma into 6 very different writing projects. SIX. And I only started writing in November. And guess what, NONE OF THEM ARE DEPRESSING. Take the shite, flap your fingers about, abracadabra, it’s a comedy. And if it doesn’t make anyone else laugh, that’s fine. It made you laugh doing it and that’s half the battle. Write a shitty song about it. Plonk the lyrics through the 2 chords you know on the ukelele.


I found that most of my anxiety was caused by the sheer rage at how many hours I wasted undoing the damage they’d done. And I’m not good at baths. So I came up with a plan. If my body involuntary broke by being confronted with yet another abuser winning a BAFTA, or getting a part in something I auditioned for, or just plain skipping about pompously unscathed, I set a timer. 10 mins of meditation and breathing (gross, but necessary), 50 mins of violently twisting it into art to fuel my own agenda, and then another hour if I was still angry afterwards to spend on activism. Sending emails, making phone calls, taking the active steps I felt necessary for that incident to lead to change. And cap it at those 2 hours. That way I could go on with the rest of my day knowing I’d at least done something but that it wouldn’t eat into my whole week. (Saying that, it has taken me 6 hours to write this so I’m not very good at taking my own advice.)


So if you feel it might help, use it. Use them in the same way they used you. But better. As HRH Carrie Fisher once said, “Take your broken heart and turn it into art.” Make these fuckers watch you succeed in spite of what they did to you. Watching them get job after job will tear you down a little bit. Of course it will. It looks like success. But it’s not. The brief glimmer of success that’s found by standing on the backs of others, isn’t success at all. It’s fragile. And it will break. What you’ve done is worth ten times that. Take it, own it, wring it for all it’s worth, and take up that space they thought they could take from you. We will change this industry. We will. I promise.

*if a lack of criminal investigation makes you question a survivor’s truth, read a book and talk to more of your friends as to why they think that is.

P.S. These are purely my own thoughts on the subject and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Nor do I have a monopoly on this advice. So if anyone wants me to add any of their findings, I’m happy to make changes. I have done my best to be inclusive and gender-neutral but if I've shared something harmful, please let me know.

P.P.S. I would be lost without the support of Persistent & Nasty who are currently unfunded. Dear Creative Scotland: please help them in any way you can.


Since the publication of this article, Equity have provided me with this document which is by no means exhaustive but may be useful: www.equity.org.uk/media/1263/agenda-for-change.pdf

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