Sinead's crusade on abuse and Polanski
The extradition battle of the director who fled the US in the Seventies after pleading guilty to a statutory rape charge is more than just a dinner-party topic for Sinead O'Connor, herself a victim of abuse at the hands of her mother. She tells Emily Hourican why the artistic community, including Neil Jordan, her boyfriend's best friend, must be challenged over their support for Polanski, and why after the Murphy report she's ready to be 'a terrorist' over child sex abuse
WHEN Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II, staring into camera and chanting "fight the real enemy!" on Saturday Night Live in 1992, she derailed her career, and caused most of us to conclude she was a bit mad. The gesture seemed extreme, showy, unnecessary, and by it and many others, Sinead seemed to wilfully chuck away the stellar career that could have been hers. That graceful child with huge eyes and breath-catching talent, she could have conquered the world by staying quiet and using her clear, pure voice to sing the songs people wanted from her.
Instead, she spoke up, spoke out, blundering frequently, sometimes retracting controversial statements, other times refusing to do so, but incapable of staying silent and keeping the status quo. She lost fans, friends and probably contracts too, but still she voiced her opinions on all the issues that mattered to her, making up for the lack of tact with blistering conviction.
At the same time, she refused to steer herself artistically in a false direction, choosing to explore the musical avenues that interested her -- gospel, chant, Sean Nos, reggae -- instead of the shiny world of commercial pop. Celebrity was offered to her on a plate, but she turned it down. "I didn't want it. I knew it was vanity, because I actually listened when I was growing up to the good things the Church was teaching me about what was real values. I used to live in Los Angeles, when the Nothing Compares 2 U stuff started. I used to live on the top of a hill; you could see right down into the city, and it used to remind me of the story of what the Devil says to Jesus in the desert -- 'if you fall down and worship me, you can have all this ... '"
She didn't want all that. And so we're sitting in her large house in Bray, bright and spacious, filled with children's drawings, their boots and clothes, racks of spices over the hob and, upstairs, the chatter of childish voices. Older, more maternal looking, Sinead still has the same appealing face dominated by huge, troubled eyes. We drink coffee and she chain smokes, lighting cigarettes one after another.
Eighteen years after that fateful Saturday Night Live show, her outrage seems less mad than justifiable, an acceptable reaction following revelations that have floored this entire country, and made many of us feel the need for extreme gestures.
The "tsunami" of child-abuse evidence which has poured out over the last year has been hard for all of us to take, but even more so for the many who have been affected, either directly, as with the clerical abuse victims, or indirectly, simply as part of their own tragic stories. And so Sinead O'Connor, herself a survivor of child abuse at the hands of her mother, has been greatly disturbed this last while, trying to process the evidence of crimes that were worse than even she imagined. And as part of this she has been trying to come to terms with the fact that so many artists -- her community, some of them her friends -- have signed petitions, one drafted by the French dramatic writers' guild, the other by philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, demanding the release of acclaimed director Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to statutory child rape in 1977, and has been technically on the run ever since.
The Levy petition states: "His arrest follows an American arrest warrant dating from 1978 against the filmmaker, in a case of morals." Martin Scorsese, Salman Rushdie, David Gilliam, Diane Von Furstenberg, Sam Mendes and many others have all signed it. Neil Jordan, a close friend of Sinead's, has also signed it. And she is still reeling at the very idea.
"They have every right to say they don't think he should be arrested -- I don't agree, but they have every right to say it -- but what I found offensive about the petition is that it made no reference whatsoever to the issue of child abuse and rape."
Does she believe that those who signed the petition are all fully conversant with the facts? "In my heart I believe that no, I don't really think that anyone who actually took the time to read the testimony of a 13-year-old girl who isn't capable of intelligent lies ... I don't believe that anyone reading that testimony would have signed the petition. Inadvertently on their part, they have put out these petitions that basically are two fingers up to people who are child-abuse survivors or are presently going through abusive situations. There was a kind of uncaring about the crime, no one was thinking about it. I'm trying to be nice about it, because I don't want to be a bitch and because I believe these are basically good-hearted people and I don't want to believe they deliberately dismissed the issue. I would like to think they didn't quite know what they were doing. I don't think for a second that they condone child abuse or rape, but I don't think they sat and thought for a second about what they were going to say and do. I think it was very immature to put your name to that petition without actually researching the crime."
Sinead was just 11 years old when Polanski skipped bail -- afraid that the bargain he thought he'd struck with the US judicial system, whereby he pleaded guilty to statutory rape, the least of the charges against him, in return for token jail time, would not be honoured. But her level of familiarity with the details of the case, as laid out in the sworn court testimonies of both Samantha Gailey, the victim, and Susan, her mother, is impressive. She can recite the sequence of events off by heart with a facility that shows just how closely the case has absorbed her.
This is no part-time outrage or attitude struck for effect, it is close to an obsession and undoubtedly consumes her to an intense degree. And she has tried to discuss it with Neil Jordan, the signatory to whom she is closest. "In September, driving along in a car one night with Neil and my boyfriend Frank, and Neil's wife, he loosely mentioned that he had signed this petition. Inside myself, I thought, that's a bit dodgy. But to my shame I didn't say anything, because he's my boyfriend's best friend and I didn't want to stir the s**t, but also sometimes it's hard to confront someone who's kind of famous with that stuff ... but my main concern was I didn't want to upset my boyfriend. But I didn't feel right about it. It was kind of inside me for a while, but I didn't say anything. I'm ashamed of that ... I think it's against my real nature not to. But I'm a contradiction. Sometimes I'll stand up for things and other times I won't have the guts to."
So she said nothing, but the thought festered, and as she began to research the allegations made against Polanski, which include drugging the girl and anal rape, although Polanski only ever pleaded guilty to statutory rape, her outrage grew, both for the sake of the victim, and about the fact that none of the signatories had been challenged on their actions. "As artists, they have all taken a stance yet they haven't been publicly asked to explain or make their case. And that includes Neil. In 2009, the biggest issue in Ireland apart from the recession was child abuse, but the artistic community, 99 per cent of them, said nothing about it."
And so, although she had not planned to be, Sinead became the challenger. And a pre-Christmas dinner party became the setting for the challenge. At the time, she was, by her own admission, "grief-stricken" over the Ryan and Murphy reports.
"I was feeling really f***ing sad and depressed and angry about what these people had done with the Church, not only on behalf of the survivors but on behalf of God. I've always been as passionate about the idea of God as I am about the idea of standing for child-abuse survivors; God is the most misrepresented person in all of this."
In this emotional, jangled state, Sinead went to a dinner with a disparate group of people. "There were some showbiz, movie people, some surgeons, friends of my boyfriend, Neil was there, his wife was there." And it so happened that that morning Sinead had been quoted in the Independent on her reaction to the Ryan report. "Neil turned to me, in admiration actually, laughing, saying: 'Oh, I see you're causing trouble for the Church today.' He thought it was funny I was doing it, but in an admiring kind of way. And without thinking -- I had never planned to say this -- but because I was feeling so passionate about the issue, I said: 'Not as much trouble as you're gonna get in for signing that petition for Polanski.' It just sort of fell out of my mouth. I realised he meant it in admiration, but somewhere inside myself, and maybe it's a flaw in my personality, I even objected to him thinking it was funny, although I know he was trying to be nice. There was a bit of a soldier in me about it."
A general discussion ensued, one of those discussions that maybe we all have, about which was "worse", what the priests did or what Polanski did? Idle chat for many at the table, but clearly not for someone who has survived a childhood of abuse. "A few of the people discussed that what the priests had done was far more reprehensible than what Polanski had done, because they were priests and more was expected of them. I disagreed with that, said that in fact there was no difference. I found it really offensive; people were making these 'poff, poff' wrist-flicking gestures. These people had every right to express their opinion, but I totally disagreed with it, as a child-abuse survivor. It was the hand gestures they made that really offended me; that spoke to me, that these people dismissed what happened with Polanski."
By then, Sinead was in a state of "great upset" and what happened next sealed it. "Someone at the table made a horrific joke, they said, 'at least she had a hot tub'; suggesting that at least she had some fun."
It was too much for Sinead to stand, and she left. "I was so upset that I didn't say anything. I said to my boyfriend that I was going to the toilet and got in a taxi and went home. If I had acted on instinct, I would have up-ended the table."
Is there any way she can accept the admittedly tasteless joke as a kind of coping mechanism, the kind of black humour we all deploy at times when something is hard to think about? The thought seems not to have seriously occurred to her, and she considers it slowly. "I guess I see your point that people can joke about certain things, but to joke in front of a child-abuse survivor is going to end in trouble. I wouldn't find that kind of thing funny. There are some things I don't think you should joke about. Whether I'm wrong or I'm right, I find that joke very offensive. And again, it implies to me that those people don't give a s**t, that they found there was something funny about what happened, that she got a bit of fun out of it. I know what you're saying, can I accept that people can make black jokes? But on that night, no I couldn't, and on that issue, no, I just couldn't. Maybe there's something wrong with me that I can't see the humour in it, but even now, thinking about it, it makes me want to cry."
In the days following that dinner party she couldn't sleep for thinking about what had been said, and how; feeling the idle flick of an uncaring lash, suffering pain on behalf of anyone who has known abuse. It wasn't in her nature to let it go, and so she tried to engage in a debate with Neil Jordan about his actions in signing the petition. "When I tried to engage him in conversation about this or conduct a debate with him, he had absolutely nothing to say. He ignored me."
And so she has decided to tell her story to all of us, to try and provoke the kind of debate that she knows is necessary, even though this may well destroy her relationship with a man she greatly admires, her boyfriend's best friend to boot. "This is a very hard thing for me to do because I actually adore Neil. I really love Neil a lot. I don't enjoy the fact of what I'm doing. But I see that as an artist I have a right to challenge him as an artist. I have spent my whole career campaigning on the issue of child abuse and standing for child-abuse survivors and people who are currently experiencing child-abuse issues. That's what I ever started writing songs about, it's all I ever talked about or stood for. I have to separate the personal relationship between me and Neil from this."
Is there any way she could not have done this? Simply let well enough alone? Maybe tackled the issue another way, another day? "I love Neil and I am not happy about the fact that now we will have fallen out, but I couldn't in conscience not have done it. I have to say, on this particular issue, I've risked my career, I've been treated like a madwoman for years because of ripping up a picture of the Pope after a song which was protesting the cover-up of child abuse by the Church. I put my neck on the line, and I'm not articulate enough to explain it -- I'm totally inarticulate, that's why I write songs -- but it's a principle which means more to me than anything in the world apart from my children. It means more to me than any friend, boyfriend or anything else, to stand for children. And that's because I come from a situation of extreme, violent child abuse, a lot of which was quite sexually-based. I am willing to lose a friend I love if that's what's going to happen. Because I think some things are more important. Plus I think that if someone's really your friend, they engage with you and don't just ignore you on an issue that they know is very important to you."
She is, she says, "a terrorist as far as the issue of child abuse goes. I'm not going to let him off the hook. As an artist to another artist, I'm going to challenge him. He made a public statement by signing that petition, and I'm going to challenge him on it."
There is something else underpinning the pain and anger Sinead feels, something she has only ever told a handful of people and has never spoken about publicly; an experience in her own battle-scarred childhood that means she feels close kinship with Polanski's 13-year-old victim. As a 14-year-old, Sinead was raped while on a family holiday, by an older man she had barely met. "It wasn't with knives or violence ... It was someone I knew for about 24 hours. It was while we were on a family holiday and stupidly, I was 14 years of age, and I don't know what I was doing or thinking, but I went off somewhere with this particular person for a walk, and this was someone in their middle age, by a beach, and I never told my family where I was going, and this person basically threw me down in the sand and held me down and had sex with me against my will. I was saying all the time that I didn't want him to have sex with me, blah blah blah ... but it happened. The reason I never told anybody is because I felt it was my fault, and I think a lot of rape survivors feel that way. I couldn't say to my father that I went off with this geezer, I put myself in this situation. I kind of did think all my life that it was my fault so I never talked about it, I never told anyone in my family until recently."
Her rapist, like Polanski, was small (one of the more dismissive comments made about Samantha Gailey has long been, why couldn't she just fight Polanski off?); "the guy who raped me was also tiny and I couldn't fight him off, because I was 14 and tinier. Men are stronger than women," she almost shrugs, reluctant to tell this particular story, but determined to try in any way she can to make people understand the enormity of what Polanski did, and the trauma endured by all survivors of sexual abuse, whatever the circumstances of their suffering.
"It's almost impossible to conduct a romantic relationship for years, it's almost impossible to trust anybody, impossible to share yourself and be relaxed and open ... it's very hard to describe, but there's this thing called hyper-vigilance that happens to people who've been abused where you're just really over-alert, watching out for trouble everywhere, where's the exit, that kind of thing."
She knows only too well the layers of damage done to the victims, but also to the rest of society; the waves of desolation that ripple out from a brutal centre point, and cause some kind of suffering to the friends, lovers and children of victims. Abuse is no finite act, but often the marshy foundation of further wreckage. It does not deserve a casual wrist-flick or tasteless joke.
These days Sinead has a 13-year-old daughter of her own, a constant reminder of the fragile innocence of an age that is still far closer to childhood than adulthood. And she is acutely aware that, "All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And so she cannot do nothing. "I think we need to make it very clear in Ireland these days that we are against all forms of child abuse and send a very strong message about that, considering everything Ireland has been through." What does she hope will come of her gallant and probably costly stance?
"I would like to see Neil have the courage to take his name off that thing. That would be a courageous thing to do, because he'd get a lot of flak for it. I'd like to think Neil has the balls to do that. We all f*** up -- there are a million things in my career that I wish I hadn't done or had done differently. Artists have a responsibility to be careful what they stand for."
It's a responsibility Sinead has assumed as sacred, on a par with motherhood, and trumping everything else.