Louise O'Neill: 'Sometimes I don't quite live up to maybe what I would like to be... but that's OK too'
The long history in Ireland of women's bodies being policed by the church and the state makes Louise O'Neill's blood boil, as does the retrograde gender politics of a certain magical, aquatic creature. So she has re-told Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 fairytale, The Little Mermaid, as a rallying cry for feminists.
"As a teenager," Louise says, "when my burgeoning feminism was beginning to develop, I began to realise that there were so many parts of the tale that were problematic. The little mermaid literally silences herself, gives up her voice and mutilates her body in order to make a man fall in love with her."
Summing it all up, Louise believes that "women in general are more likely to silence themselves and to self-sacrifice to be in relationships than men are, because we are socially conditioned to believe that relationships are the most important goal that we can aspire to. And that relationships are tools with which to validate ourselves - which I think is really unhealthy messaging.
"And I wanted to reclaim The Little Mermaid for a new generation coming up behind me. Not a lofty ambition at all, is it?" she says of her new book, The Surface Breaks.
I ask her if she might avoid relationships in case she thinks she is only doing it to validate herself.
"You are desperate to get me into a relationship," laughs Louise, who has been dating over the last few months. She was going on one such date the day we meet for lunch in the InterContinental Hotel in Ballsbridge.
In case he's out there, Louise is looking for a man "who is funny, smart, and ambitious, but more than anything else, I want someone who is kind. Kindness is a quality that is under-rated at times, unfortunately."
When was the last time you fell in love?
"I rarely fall in love," she says. "I have always been quite cautious with romance, prioritising my career."
When Louise was 22, she began her first long-term relationship. When it ended four years later, she felt "slightly relieved". She says: "Looking back now, there was definitely regret there, because I think I didn't treat him as well as I should have. But I think at the time we could see that we weren't making each other happy."
What were you like when you started the relationship?
"The thing is, it was always on shaky foundations, because I don't think I knew myself well enough. I was really young; I was pretending to be someone that I thought was cooler or better than I was. Any relationship, not just with him, would have been doomed to fail because it wasn't based on truth," says Louise of her 22-year-old self.
Eleven years later, as a successful author, with books Only Ever Yours, Asking For It and Almost Love under her belt, Louise says she knows that she is still learning. "And I know that that is OK," she adds.
At 22, she wanted to have "everything sussed". She wanted to know exactly who she was "and exactly where I was going". Louise says she felt "very unsafe" not knowing where she was going.
In 2018, Louise is open to life being mercurial and in a state of flux. She trusts her own instincts. "The minute you stop learning, the minute you stop growing, you might as well just die..."
Punchy, refreshing and eye-opening in her candour, the author believes that the biggest misconception about her is that "I am much angrier than I am".
"What is interesting is that I didn't grow up in a household where we were having conversations about feminism. We weren't sitting around the kitchen table discussing feminist theory."
"So I am," smiles Louise, who grew up in Inchydoney, and then Clonakilty in west Cork, with her English-teacher mother, her butcher father and her big sister.
So how did you become radicalised, I ask, joking.
"I think that's another misconception - that I'm a radical feminist. I would have considered myself a feminist from a very young age. I was 12 when the Spice Girls came out and that was the girl-power message."
At 15, Louise went from I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want to reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. When she put that book down, she thought, "I am a feminist". "That book gave me a language to articulate myself that I hadn't had before," she says. "I was very drawn towards anything to do with feminism and women's studies, because I did English literature at Trinity."
The latter experience was very daunting, she says. "I was so fresh, up from the country." When she got the bus for the first time into St Stephen's Green from her accommodation in Rathmines, she handed the bus driver a fiver "because in Cork at the time you could get change".
"He said, 'We don't have any change'. And I didn't have any change. And this other person on the bus had to pay for me. And then I got off at Stephen's Green and it took me two hours to find Trinity College. I must have walked up towards Merrion Square. I didn't know Dublin at all."
In other ways, perhaps, Louise was as lost within herself as she was looking for Trinners that day. She admits that she "oscillated between bulimia and anorexia" over different, and difficult, periods in her life. "So what would have started off as anorexia developed into bulimia..."
I ask how it oscillated.
"Well, I would have bouts of bulimia. Then I would say, 'I am going to manage this now'. I suppose my way of managing it was not purging, but also not eating very much either. So I would go a year where I would be starving myself, and my weight would really drop during those periods."
And the anorexia?
"To be honest, eating disorders are not as often as clearly delineated as they seem from the outside. Most people, if they are anorexic, might still purge. It doesn't tend to be always necessarily be one or the other."
Louise started therapy when she was 17. Her parents, Michael and Marie, were well aware of her condition and were - and remain - enormously supportive of Louise.
"Then," she says, "I went to university and I was living away from home. There wasn't anyone to say, 'Are you eating properly?' or 'Have you had your dinner?' So, if someone wasn't there to ask you, 'Have you had your dinner?', you wouldn't have it… No. I had a very, very strange relationship with food for a very long time."
Besides the disordered eating pattern, she adds, there was "a fear around even eating normally. I didn't even know what it would mean".
What were you frightened of?
"I think I was frightened of not being good enough."
"[Good enough] for me, because my parents were so relaxed and you know, 'We love you for exactly who you are.' I wanted to be the best at everything. I wanted to be the best in school. I wanted to be the thinnest. I wanted to be the prettiest. I wanted to be the most talented at acting. I wanted to be the best in my year. It was just this fear. I felt I had to be twice as good as everyone else just to break even."
It wasn't a fear of failure, she says, which can be a positive driving force. "I think it was just this crippling fear that there was something wrong with me. And if I didn't look perfect and if I didn't act perfect in every way, then other people would be able to see that as well."
Louise realises now that no one is perfect; and that "I am very flawed - and that is OK."
Ironically, Louise, always the most nonjudgmental of friends, always so accepting of other people's flaws, has never been as accepting of her own so-called flaws.
She has finally mastered the delicate art of self-acceptance. She tries her best in her work. She tries her best as a friend. She tries her best as a daughter.
"And sometimes I don't quite live up to maybe what I would like to be. But that's OK, too."
In 2016, when everything took off for Louise on a professional level she felt, "like I was falling apart. I found it overwhelming".
She also found it immensely disconcerting. It was like there were two Louise O'Neills. The Louise O'Neill who wrote a debut novel, Only Ever Yours, that everyone was talking about (award-winning writer Jeanette Winterson said it was The Handmaid's Tale for a new generation; The Guardian called Louise "the best young-adult-fiction writer alive today"). She was the person people suddenly wanted to talk to.
"And then there was what I felt was the real me," Louise says.
"The tension between the two made me feel slightly like an imposter. I felt very tired. I was very burnt-out by the end of it."
Eager to de-stigmatise
One day, she said to her parents: "I need help". In hindsight, Louise feels it that she was prioritising her health over her career for the first time. "It's always been work, work, work. I have always been like that since I have been at school. I would have pushed myself with my school work to the point of jeopardising my own health."
Did the therapist you attended at the age of 17 have any helpful insights or clues into the way you were?
"I think the thing is, I have been in and out of therapy basically since I have been 17. I have had general therapists and talk-therapists. I've had psychiatrists and I've had psychologists. I've seen a lot of different people.
"The difference is, when I was in New York, I saw a specialised eating-disorder therapist, and now I see, in Cork city, in the Eating Disorder Therapy Centre, someone who specialises in eating disorders. And actually, that is what you need. You need to specialise. Because a lot of it is not just anxiety or feelings of not being good enough. Obviously there are issues around body dysmorphia that you need someone who is an expert in it to help guide you through."
Asked where she is now, Louise says: "I am very happy and healthy now, probably the healthiest that I have been since I was a teenager. Food has become fuel for me to do everything I want to do, and to achieve all that I want to achieve. I believe that full recovery is possible for anyone suffering with disordered eating, as long as they access appropriate healthcare as early as they can.
"I have been eager to talk about this as I think it's important to de-stigmatise mental-health issues, and I want to facilitate open and frank discussions in the process. However, I am more than my past struggles and I think it's a mistake to reduce any person to one health issue or experience. We are all so much more than that."
Louise wrote in The Guardian in January 2015: "While identifying as a feminist, I starved myself and made myself vomit after meals in order to satisfy an idea of what I thought an attractive woman should look like. I called myself a feminist, but, in truth, I was buying into the patriarchy. I was internalising all of that misogyny, making it my own, making it my truth, and I didn't even realise it."
How did you stop internalising the misogyny?
"I think the most important step is acknowledging that we all have internalised some misogyny, men and women alike," she says. "None of us exist in a vacuum - we've all been raised in this murky mire of patriarchal standards and beliefs, and it would be almost impossible for us to emerge unscathed.
"Recognising that is key. It's something I still do every day, observing any thoughts that arise that aren't helpful in a feminist capacity, and making a conscious decision to challenge and dismiss them. I also believe that once the blinkers are off and you see how deeply ingrained misogyny is in every tenet of our society, it is very difficult to 'unsee' it."
Louise's earliest childhood memory was when she was three years old. She was due to have grommets inserted in her ears because she had hearing problems. The nurse, who was wheeling her down to the operating room, asked her mother to accompany Louise. "I told mom to stay behind because I was 'a big girl' who didn't need any help," Louise recalls. "I was fiercely independent from an early age - to a fault, perhaps," she says.
When Louise was seven years old, she first learned the meaning of the words 'rape' and 'abortion'. This was 1992, when the X Case was all over the television and the newspapers.
The story of a 14-year-old girl - who became pregnant after being raped, was suicidal and wanted to terminate the pregnancy - had a profound effect on a very young Louise.
A grown-up Louise would later write in The Irish Examiner about the deep upset she felt at seven years of age about "people debating the morality of allowing a child to terminate a pregnancy that had been inflicted upon her. And I learned my lesson. I learned that my body was not really my own. I learned that my body was, in some way, in the control of the state. And I became afraid. That fear followed me through my adolescence and into my early 20s. Despite using multiple forms of contraception, I was constantly anxious that I would become pregnant."
Are you still afraid at 33?
"I'm not afraid of getting pregnant," Louise answers - she will add later that she doesn't ever want to have children - "but I will admit that I do feel a little nervous when friends tell me that they're expecting. I'm thrilled for them, obviously, but I sometimes feel like I'm holding my breath until the baby is born. You just hope that none of them will have a FFA [fatal foetal anomaly] or will be in a situation like Savita Halappanavar, where their lives will be endangered because of the existence of the Eighth Amendment"
Louise adds that sometimes she feels "genuinely haunted" when she thinks of women who've died, she says, because of the Eighth Amendment. In 2015, she contributed an essay to the collection I Call Myself a Feminist, along with 25 other women under 30 - among them was Laura Pankhurst, great-great granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst; and Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.
"I think it's more important than ever to call yourself a feminist in Ireland in 2018," Louise says, "and that goes for men and women. Ireland is a wonderful country and one that I'm very proud to call home, but it can sometimes feel like a hostile environment to women."
Louise - whose award-winning 2016 book Asking For It was about rape and rape culture - adds: "Whatever your personal opinion about the recent Ulster Rugby rape trial, there can be no doubting that it showed up some serious issues with how our judicial system operates.
"The prurient and often aggressive line of questioning the complainant was subjected to was difficult to witness, and I have grave fears about the impact that this will have on future victims coming forward to disclose their stories. That needs to change. We need to take sexual violence more seriously."
Louise says that she doesn't miss the innocence of her life before she became the internationally feted writer. "I still feel very much the same. I think living at home in Clonakilty helps with that. People here will always know me as 'Haulie O'Neill's daughter'. Nothing more and nothing less, and there's a great comfort in that. Things around me may have changed, but I am the same person.
"My mother and father are two of the most incredible people you could ever meet," she says. "They are kind, endlessly supportive, encouraging, and have always had a very balanced relationship in terms of gender equality. They have been a great example for me and my sister," she says, referring to Michelle, who is a primary-school teacher at the local boys' school.
"I am very lucky to call them my parents."
What makes you happy?
"Simple things. Giving my one-year-old godson a cuddle," she says, meaning George, whose mother Aine Loughnan is Louise's childhood best friend. (The Surface Breaks is dedicated to them both. George is a character in the book, too.)
"A walk on the beach; a 24-hour detox from my phone; dinner with my family; proper, full-body hugs from my best friends."
So, while the little mermaid was fed up with her life in the sea, Louise O'Neill's life by the sea in Clonakilty is one of growing contentment.
'The Surface Breaks' by Louise O'Neill is published by Scholastic, priced stg £12.99
Photography by David Conachy
Styling by Chloe Brennan
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