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by Viv Gordon

This post was originally written by Viv Gordon at

Over the last year I have had the great privilege of working with philosopher Havi Carel and the Life of Breath team to develop a new piece of theatre work The Book of Jo

Havi wrote a book in 2008 called Illness which uses phenomenology to chart her lived experience of being diagnosed with sporadic lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) – a serious, rare and random lung condition that affects women of childbearing age – random in that it is not caused by any lifestyle choices, exposure to toxins or genetics. Illness reflects on what it is like to live with a terminal condition, to receive treatment and deal with the responses of friends, family and strangers. It reads as a call for more empathy in health care but also in the world. It asks important questions about finding wellness within illness – anyone with a long term condition will confirm there are better or worse days, that our experiences aren’t linear or one dimensional. I say that as someone living with a long term mental health condition.

When I read her book, it reminded me of the only bible story I know well The Book of Job. In the old testament story, Job is seen by God as the best of men and he is blessed with a wife, lots of children, loads of sheep and property. God and Satan make a wager where Satan states that it’s easy to be good when you have it all. He encourages God to test Job by destroying his herds, home and children, to then see if Job is still so wonderful. When Job proves unshakeable, Satan pushes God to test him further by afflicting his body. Job sits in the ashes of his life covered in pustulent sores and maintains his faith.

His friends come to comfort him but prove pretty useless – they doubt him arguing that he must have done something wrong to deserve his plight, in a no smoke without fire kind of way. As he maintains his innocence – they question God and Job’s faith. To cut a long weird story short, Job is steadfast, God wins the wager and in the unsatisfying ending he restores Job’s life – new sheep, new children etc. 

Both stories propelled me to think about how we make sense of life, misfortune, injustice… How do we find hope within adversity? Why does bad stuff happen to good people? So these are the questions that I explore in the piece which draws on the bible story, Havi’s book and my own lived experience to animate the Life of Breath research and contemplate something about our humanness. It’s quite dark and wry, simmering with anger but also humour and love. I have written it with mentoring from Dramaturg Chris Fogg and I selected quotes from the bible story to link the scenes which have been brilliantly composed by Tom Johnson.

I’m looking forward to performing it – I hope that audiences can see something of their own journey in it. No life is straightforward – none of us has certainty – especially right now. We all need some perspective and ways to understand life’s imperfections and challenges. Stories are great for that.

The Book of Jo is commissioned by and funded by The Wellcome Trust.

Viv debuted The Book of Jo with a rehearsed reading at the Royal College of Physicians, London, where the Catch Your Breath exhibition continue to be on display until Saturday 21 September 2019 for the Royal College of Physicians Open House.

The Book of Jo will be performed in full at the Catch Your Breath exhibition launch at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, on Tuesday 24 September 2019. Tickets are still available via Eventbrite:

About Viv

Viv Gordon is a theatre maker and arts activist producing feisty work about mental health and trauma based on her lived experience. She has just previewed her new show ORAL, exploring abuse, dentistry, and civil rights. Previous shows include: PreScribed (a life written for me), a commission from University of Bristol highlighting research into General Practitioners in mental health crisis in an NHS in meltdown; and I am Joan, a comedy about trauma survival and listening to the still, small voice within. With Life of Breath, she hopes to explore connections between breath, mental health, panic and anxiety as well as illness, risk behaviours, judgement, shame and blame.

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