Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor never wanted pop stardom, and when it came for her, she knew it would bring only misery. Upon learning her sophomore album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” and its single, a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” had hit No. 1, “I cried like a child before the gates of hell,” she recalls in her new memoir, “Rememberings.”
Things would only get worse from there. O’Connor was a newly minted star when she appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992, intoning “Fight the real enemy!” as she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. Even in this moving, bawdy, open-wound of a book, O’Connor’s motivations remain a jumble. She was inspired by articles about the then-nascent Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, her own tortured childhood and a friend named Terry who had just admitted to O’Connor that he was using children as “mules” in his drug-running operation, and who expected to be imminently murdered in a turf war. The “real enemy” was the men she feared would kill Terry, which they did two days later.
Her punishment was swift and severe. She was egged as she left the NBC building. Everywhere she went, people turned their backs on her with an almost theatrical solemnity. Her album was steamrollered at organized protests. Her manager locked himself in his room for three days, and her father suggested she reconsider going to college. When she appeared at a Bob Dylan tribute concert weeks later, her presence nearly caused a riot. Kris Kristofferson came to her defense as an indifferent Dylan watched.
O’Connor, previously regarded as a budding pop star, who was a little strange but had her reasons, became an outcast overnight, her career permanently derailed. She figures this was probably for the best. “I understand I’ve torn up the dreams of those around me,” she writes. “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.”
“Rememberings” stops after the Pope Incident, then picks up again in 2015, after a hysterectomy led to a breakdown that wiped clean her memory of the intervening years. The book’s earliest passages, written in the conversational style of a child, detail the emotional and physical abuse inflicted by her mother. “My mother doesn’t like little girls,” writes O’Connor, in what turns out to be a vast understatement. Her mother purportedly locked her in her room for days at a time, beat her mercilessly and once intentionally drove, with Sinéad in the vehicle, into oncoming traffic. She would eventually die in a car crash.
The accompanying childhood photos tell the story: There’s one of tiny Sinéad in her Communion dress, already a haunted child. And eventually an angry one, her rage at her mother displaced onto just about everyone else. “I couldn’t admit it was her I was angry at, so I took it out on the world,” O’Connor writes. “And burned nearly every bridge I ever crossed.”
At 11, she suffered a serious injury when a boy opened the door of a speeding train as she waited on the platform, hitting her on the head. She grew practically feral, skipping school and stealing compulsively; she and her mother eventually ran a grift stealing money from charity collection tins. She discovered the guitar and would escape from a home for wayward girls to enter talent shows. She signed her first record deal at age 18, shaved her head at 19, and gave birth to the first of her four children at 20, resisting pressure from her label to get an abortion. She was famous at 21 and infamous by 24.
If there’s one thing pop-star memoirs teach us, it’s that fame is pretty much the same for everyone, regardless how they got there: It’s alienating and tedious and terrifying. For O’Connor, who struggled with loneliness, stage fright, insecurity, agoraphobia and PTSD, it proved especially debilitating.
Most everyone she met wanted to save her (like INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who would hover protectively at parties) or torment her, like Prince. When Prince called and invited O’Connor, then still a pop star, to his Los Angeles home, she fantasized that the two would fall in love, or at least eat cake together.
Reader, there was no cake. According to O’Connor, Prince lived in a house with foil-covered windows (“He don’t like light,” explained a cowed servant, who, much to her horror, turned out to be Prince’s brother Duane), delighted in casual cruelty and yelled at her for cursing. O’Connor was initially unintimidated but began to feel trapped in Prince’s isolated house. “I wish to leave and am told I may not.” She eventually bolted from his car in fear. It’s a near-unrecognizable version of Prince (though he did famously hate swearing), but like most everything else in this ripper of a memoir, it rings true.
“Rememberings” is nonlinear, and, due to O’Connor’s midcareer memory loss, necessarily fragmented. There are surprising revelations: O’Connor studied theology, converted to Islam, married and divorced four times, identified as asexual, volunteered in a veterans’ hospice and eventually became suicidal.
She had been hospitalized several times for mental health issues before she attracted the attention of Dr. Phil, who offered to sponsor a stay in a treatment center if O’Connor agreed to appear on his show. She writes, “I really thought the one God had sent was Dr. Phil.”
Spoiler alert: It was not God who sent Dr. Phil. He’s not the first person in the book to exploit O’Connor, who seems good-hearted and naive to a fault; he’s not even the first person in that chapter. But his off-camera indifference to her plight, his inability to fix her, galls her particularly.
O’Connor’s long-running mental health struggles prefigured those faced years later by Britney Spears. She is long overdue for the kind of cultural reconsideration, the collective atonement, that Britney got. We were wrong about her. But O’Connor has little interest in our pity, and even less in being liked. She would change none of it, she writes: “Some things are worth being a pariah for.”
Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.
By Sinéad O’Connor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 304 pp. $28
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