Sinéad O’Connor is no stranger to controversy—she seems to carry it around with her in her back pocket. The Irish singer-songwriter showed up to the party with her head shorn and her mouth full of fuck yous to various establishments, and she hasn’t backed down in the years since her searing 1987 debut The Lion and the Cobra. But after reading her recently released memoir, Rememberings, it’s clear the constellation of scandals that backlit her commercial peak in the early ’90s was more a product of headstrongness than savvy.
To hear (or read, in this case) O’Connor tell it, she wasn’t a pop star but a punk, and someone who “couldn’t understand why anybody liked my songs or why anybody clapped or thought they were good.” This attitude only caused further clashes. She writes:
“Success” was making a failure of my life. Because everyone was already calling me crazy for not acting like a pop star. For not worshipping fame. And I understand I’ve torn up the dreams of those around me. But those aren’t my dreams. No one ever asked me what my dreams were; they just got mad at me for not being who they wanted me to be. My own dream is only to keep the contract I made with God before I ever made one with the music business. And that’s a better fight than murder. I gotta get to the other side of life.
Rather than a disaster, she credits her most famous display—tearing up a picture that she took from her dead mother’s wall of Pope John Paul II to protest child abuse—as a sort of salvation. “A lot of people say or think that tearing up the pope’s photo derailed my career,” she writes. “That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.” But these words being O’Connor’s, they tend to provoke further inquiry. If she didn’t want to be a star, why did she sign with a record label, Ensign (a Chrysalis imprint), that could make her one? Why was she doing the pop star thing of sitting for interviews and making videos and taking her own opinion seriously enough to share it with the world?
Here’s how you know that you’re in good hands with O’Connor the author: She’ll lay you flat on your doubting ass with just a few sentences. “I’m not a pop star. I’m just a troubled soul who needs to scream into mikes now and then,” she writes. It’s not that O’Connor doesn’t have a pop star’s gift for sound bites; it’s just that content of hers tends to have more teeth than what is typically considered acceptable.
A book, it turns out, is a perfect vehicle for O’Connor, as it provides her with ample space to be messy and if not achieve completion, then approach it. Her music has long been multivalent—so gentle, so furious. (O’Connor recalls Anita Baker telling her during a Grammys rehearsal that her voice is “cavernous,” and I don’t think any single adjective is more apt to describe it). Interviews and social media require a pithiness that doesn’t fit with O’Connor’s labyrinthine logic or contradictions. It’s only in the ultra-long form that one can make sense of her inability, sometimes refusal, to make perfect sense.
Rememberings finds O’Connor in a constant tug-o-war with circumstance and will. She is like a willow that bends in the wind but never breaks and that seems to shake on its own volition. She describes herself as “born bonkers” and, in a passage late in the book, writes a letter to her father (in the third person) that claims of her mental illness: “Neither you nor her mother are responsible. You both did your very best with the tools God had given you. And your daughter remembers only everything wonderful you both gave her.” This comes well after harrowing descriptions of abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother that included being stomped on the kitchen floor. Her mother, she writes, intentionally drove her car into oncoming traffic with a young O’Connor in the front seat to get back at her brother for running away. (Mother and daughter escaped the accident unscathed.) When her father left her mother, O’Connor recalls, her mother made her and her siblings stay in a hut her father had built in the garden and then wouldn’t let them back in the house despite their wailing. “That is when I officially lost my mind and also became afraid of the size of the sky,” O’Connor writes.
Taken as a whole, O’Connor’s seeming inconsistency speaks to abuse’s corrosive effect on one’s sense of self and, perhaps not always to her immediate point, the futility of attempting to separate the coexisting forces of nature and nurture. O’Connor’s competing feelings about her mother never ring false, even when they contradict. She has been angry with her mother “all my life.” She also “was always—and am always—singing to my mother” her biggest hit “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
“Every time I perform it, I feel it’s the only time I get to spend with my mother and that I’m talking with her again. There’s a belief that she’s there, that she can hear me and I can connect to her,” O’Connor writes. The single tear that famously falls down her face in the song’s video was a result of thinking about her mother, she writes. In another section, she refers to her mother as a devil.
O’Connor’s book comes preloaded with the implicit understanding that the truth is a moving target. Her history with religion (she was raised Catholic and dabbled with Judaism and Rastafarianism before settling on Islam, which she now practices) illustrates her unending quest for truth, and her use of the present tense throughout her book that surveys her past underlines time-specific subjectivity. This plays not as weakness but as complicating strength for someone who has always defied summary, in terms of her message, presentation, and even musical genre. O’Connor also defies her own self-categorization. If only she were “a nut,” as she puts it in Rememberings, she’d be so much easier to ignore as someone screaming into the wind. If only she weren’t right so much of the time, her words would be easier to dismiss. If only she didn’t inhabit every syllable of her songs with lived-in emotion, she’d be just some has-been who had that song that one time.
Far from the irrational banshee that O’Connor was made out to be in the press, she is plenty reasonable. On the aforementioned pope incident, she writes:
My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope. It represented lies and liars and abuse. The type of people who kept these things were devils like my mother. I never knew when or where or how I would destroy it, but destroy it I would when the right moment came. And with that in mind, I carefully brought it everywhere I lived from that day forward. Because nobody ever gave a shit about the children of Ireland.
But being right and communicating effectively are two different things, and while O’Connor is reliably the former, she has rarely been the latter as far as public reception has gone. Her insistence that she isn’t a pop star, a job that tends to require one to prioritize effective communication over content, makes sense the more you read about O’Connor and think about her life. Her book helps her strike the balance at last; she’s not a pop star, but she’s a damn good author.
Rememberings may sound like a heavy book, and parts of it are, but O’Connor is more likely to be matter-of-fact than self-righteous, and she’s frequently very funny. She goes on and on about her first husband John Reynolds’s farting (“I’ve never laughed so much with any other human being. Nor farted out loud as much. John is a legendary farter-out-loud. And it’s catching.”) and proposes a book about pooping on tour called No Solids. Regarding her brood, she delivers what could work as an excellent opening for a novel: “I have four children by four different fathers, only one of whom I married, and I married three other men, none of whom are the fathers of my children.” Her own Rememberings opening is a minor miracle of orientation and candor: “I can’t remember any more than I have given my publisher. Except for that which is private or that I wish to forget. The totality indeed of what I do not recall would fill ten thousand libraries, so it’s probably just as well I don’t remember.” It’s like a little prayer.
O’Connor is unflinching regarding her flaws (“I’m a pain in the ass and too emotional”). She disarmingly describes losing her virginity at 14 to a much older man, who freaked out when he realized she was underage. In one of several satisfying mic-drop moments that punctuate her frequently brief chapters, O’Connor contends with her newly deflowered teenage self: “On the bus I wondered if I looked different. Would the passengers say to themselves, There’s a girl who isn’t a virgin anymore, and consequently think me cool?” She describes signing a terrible record deal that a lawyer begged her to allow him to renegotiate because, “I just wanted to get out of Ireland and be financially independent as quickly as possible, and I wasn’t hanging around waiting for another opportunity.” There is a real sense here of refusing to be victimized by that which did not create actual pain or trauma.
O’Connor’s agency is of superheroic proportions. This is especially apparent when she discusses the various ways men have attempted to control her, like when her label suggested she abort her first child for the sake of her career or the reaction of the barber who first shaved her head, protesting the entire time and wringing his hands over what the various men in her life would think of her new ’do. “When he finished I stood up to face him, and one tear rolled down his right cheek,” is how that story ends, hilariously. When she met Prince (whom she calls “Ol’ Fluffy Cuffs”) at his home, she writes, he berated her for cursing in interviews, hit her with a pillowcase with hard objects packed in, and chased her in his car for hours. It’s another O’Connor horror story that leaves room for absurdity: As she waits for Prince in his kitchen, she decides to check under his sink to survey his cleaning products. “After all, what woman wouldn’t want her kitchen gleaming like a palace?” she writes. “Actually, it is a bit of a mess in there, so I set about sorting it for him.”
Peter Gabriel made her feel like “weekend pussy.” Muhammad Ali “gave me a lovely present, which was a collection of Bible contradictions that he had put together himself.” The “weirdest 30 seconds” of O’Connor’s life occurred backstage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert, during which she was famously booed. (This was after her SNL appearance.) Actually, she writes, she was booed and cheered at the same time, resulting in “sonic riot, as if the sky is ripping apart.” She refused to perform the song she was scheduled to, instead she sang some lines, acapella, from Bob Marley’s “War” (the same song she performed on SNL) and then left the stage after being consoled by Kris Kristofferson. She felt Dylan should have been the one to attempt to placate the crowd into letting her sing, so she glared at him backstage after and he just stared back.
O’Connor’s aptitude for articulation hasn’t prevented her from being misunderstood, just like her assuredness hasn’t inoculated her against self-flagellating tendencies. There are times when it does seem like she prioritizes poetry over meaning (“I’ve been a very lucky person in that every dream I’ve ever had has come true,” writes someone whose relationship with her abusive mother left her in further emotional tatters when it was cut short by her mother’s death), but she is most often straightforward and her book is better for it. Simple explanations are often the best. After examination, O’Connor remains firm that her career wasn’t “derailed” when she ripped up the picture of the pope. “It was re-railed,” she writes. “And I feel I’ve been extremely successful as a single mother providing for her children.” It’s hard to argue with that.