Tuesday 21 November 2017

Why it is fame, not family, that hurts Sinead

Dishonesty about mental illness contributed to the terrible situation Sinead O'Connor found herself in, writes Donal Lynch

NOTHING COMPARES: Singer and songwriter Sinead O’Connor has had mixed reactions to her lengthy posts on Facebook last week
NOTHING COMPARES: Singer and songwriter Sinead O’Connor has had mixed reactions to her lengthy posts on Facebook last week
Sinead O'Connor
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Amid the horrifying threats, emotional blackmail, pleas and recriminations of Sinead O'Connor's long and disturbing Facebook posts last week, the singer wrote one indisputable truth: music did this.

Not the music itself, which has been her passion since she was a little girl, and not even the industry against which she has raged since she first got a record deal, but rather the fame that has been part and parcel of her success as an artist.

It bore down on an individual already damaged in childhood by her mother and, 30 years later, left her so thoroughly isolated that her only sounding board was the million-voice echo chamber of social media. She just wanted a normal life, she told them. She'd clean toilets if needs be. Of the thousands and thousands of comments written under her posts, two of which seemed to suggest that she had or was about to commit suicide, there was one oft-repeated question: can nobody help her?

For the record, many of those close to her tried. Her older kids tried. I tried. I have known Sinead for more than 10 years. As she spiralled further and further downward over the last few months, I reached out to her. I visited her in hospital after her hysterectomy. I offered my home to her. I sat on her bed and held her hand. It ended in screaming and tears, and I was banished.

In some ways, maybe I deserved to be. As a journalist, as well as being Sinead's friend, I had written about her. I was a small part of the media machine which recorded her every cough and spit over the last decade or so. I witnessed, from both sides, the cycle of her news appearances: huge public flameouts, sometimes involving threats or suggestions of suicide; and intense feuds, which she would pursue with phenomenal tenacity.

Following these, there would almost always be a redemptive appearance on the Late Late or The Saturday Night Show, where she would impishly shrug aside whatever dramas she'd just been immersed in. Rinse and repeat.

Any attempt to draw out the point or to question what she'd done could easily be batted aside - most especially by Sinead herself - as perpetuating the stigma around mental illness. Or, alternatively, the way she'd behaved could be explained by commentators as being part and parcel of her disposition as a wild and wilful artist. Sinead herself bought into this concept on every level. One of her most frequently repeated statements in interviews is: "It is part of my job as an artist to be emotionally honest, on and off the stage."

In reality, this honesty translated to a type of temperamental incontinence. Instead of annoyance, Sinead felt rage; instead of being mildly wronged, she would see herself as being unrelentingly persecuted. As one of her fans put it this week on Facebook: "She has always perceived herself as a child with no rights."

Manager after manager was fired. Last year, most of her band went too. Friend after friend was given their marching orders. The threat of suicide was never far away in rows. There were brash statements and public disavowals, marriages and lightening-quick splits.

Fatally, for future biopic writers, it lacked a certain operatic tragedy; at times it all got a bit silly. At other times, there seemed to be jarring glimmers of calculation, even in her wildest distress.

To some, it might all have looked like childish inconsistency, attention-seeking play-acting, or mental illness, but in the moment, Sinead believes every word. That is also what makes her a such great singer and performer. That is what made the tear fall in the Nothing Compares 2 U video. She was there, inside the meaning of those words, as she sang them.

If this way of being helped her make great art, it left her increasingly isolated as a person. She lived life entirely and absolutely on her own terms. She had total financial independence. She worked when she wanted. This had its downsides. One of the lines from her single, The Wolf Is Getting Married, goes: "I was too free, if that's possible to be." In her many personal and professional feuds, she was as resolute as that steely-eyed waif who stood up to a baying Madison Square Garden crowd during the Bob Dylan tribute concert in 1992. But privately, she often complained about being lonely. She would chide her band on Facebook for not keeping in touch during the months when they weren't touring.

The two constants through all the turmoil were her kids and her career. Her children gave her life meaning, even as the adult personae around her shifted. Her success provided a type of toxic validation for her personal rage. The album titles began to sound like bumper sticker slogans: How About I Be Me And You Be You?; I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss. She excoriated former lovers in songs and won rave reviews. Which was no surprise because the songs were heart-stoppingly brilliant. Sinead can turn back the devil with her voice.

The applause and renown, while she richly deserved on an artistic level, put Sinead in a strange category of person beyond rational assessment. Mesmerised by her talent and the access she routinely gave journalists - has there ever been a star who has given so many soul-searching interviews? - the media egged Sinead on. You would read she was a national treasure. You would hear her opinion on anything she wanted to talk about. But you would never read that she is causing great distress to herself and others around her or that she was obviously in need of help. When she got the tattoos on her face - initials from an ex boyfriend to remind him what he'd done - everyone just decided to never mention it again. Like Howard Beale in Network, she was depicted as a truth-spitting soothsayer. Even as, like Howard, she seemed to be moving in slow motion toward suicide.

What has to happen now is that Sinead, the person, needs to be rescued from Sinead, the legendary artist.

We need to understand that somewhere between the fourth and fifth open letters to Miley Cyrus, she may have been in the throes of something.

We need to be honest enough to acknowledge that publicly writing about her personal life in the manner in which she did last week is not good on any level, for anyone. It is voyeurism to watch it and too many innocent parties are drawn into it. We need to be honest about what she does, not to mock her, or to judge her, or to silence her, but to allow her the clarity to get help through the core group of people around her. Strangers on social media tell her what she wants to hear, regular media laps up her soap opera, but once again it is her family alone who can give her the love and support she needs to get through this. And, after the emotional succour she and her music have brought to people all over the world, that is the very least she deserves.

Sunday Independent

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