Sophie Willan: highbrow comedy from a care leaver
I booked tickets to Sophie Willian’s show Branded back in January. By the time the show came around, I’d forgotten why I’d booked. “Who are we seeing?” my friend asked. “Dunno, I said. Northern feminist I think.”
So imagine the thrill of recognition that went through me when Sophie Willan uttered the words: “So my mum is a heroin addict” partway through her set. I remembered why I had booked to see her and I realised the power of hearing those words said out loud.
Sophie spoke about her mum to a room of total strangers without a sliver of shame. She was matter-of-fact, accepting and compassionate. I realised I've missed hearing people in the mainstream talk about addiction as well as its links to poverty and its ramifications for future generations. I think it’s only Russell Brand I’ve heard talk compassionately about drug addiction, outside of our bubble on Twitter and the likes of wonderful organisations such as The Open Nest, etc.
I also realised a huge part of what is missing for me: humour. Generally I'm terrified to tell anyone about my sister, and I don’t talk to anyone in my adoptive family about it in depth except my brother, with whom I admit to having some gallows humour moments with. (I’ve written before about my husband’s amazing support.) Now here was a child of an addict, who herself had been in care, including kinship care, making jokes about her mum in a loving way, i.e. “Let’s just say being a mum wasn’t her skill set.” Will my sister’s children, who have been adopted and/or are in Care, ever get to a stage where they are able to accept, and one day even make light of things? Wouldn’t that be wonderfully healthy and healing for them?
I told Sophie afterwards that I found her show refreshing. I didn’t mean this in a patronising Radio 4 way, as in ‘it’s nice to hear about and then go back to my fluffy world’. I meant it's refreshing to hear someone talk about addiction and poverty and being Care experienced without shame, apologies or over-explaining. The facts of her Care journey were almost incidental to her stories and observations rather than the purpose of the show.
The show is called Branded, which refers to the lazy labels Sophie has been given over the years, from 'working class' to 'Northern', 'woman' to 'Care leaver' and more. And the part that stayed with me was her segment about labels. She said when people hear a bit of your story they instantly want to give you one of three labels:
Victim, hero or devil
I feel this is accurate for adoptees as well. I’ve always been labelled the hero. The survivor. The one that triumphed over adversity without succumbing to the drugs and chaotic lifestyle my sister did. She, of course, is the devil – at least to my parents as well as (probably) the adoptive parents of her children and much of the general public. But since I’ve been blogging I’ve somehow become the somewhat of the victim. I don’t wish to be seen this way, but it’s nice to experiment with other narratives than the hero one.
As many of you will know, I feel the weight of all I carry with my family and their situations and challenges. The associated shame is so heavy, it was amazing to feel light and laugh for once at the sheer stupidity of it; the silliness of ever imagining my sister in an “actual” job behind a counter somewhere. I wasn’t being cruel by laughing at her, I was throwing my head back and roaring at the utter hopelessness of the situation – and that’s ok.
Sophie Willan ended her show by saying she will not be defined by the labels others insist on giving her. Since finding her online I see she does a lot for and with people who are Care experienced, so I hope that’s one label she won’t mind me using when I recommend you check her out as well as her book Stories of Care.