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Nothing compares

A documentary on the late Sinéad O’Connor reminds us of her astonishing talent and resilience
BRYAN LEDGARD CC BY 2.0

There’s always a danger of canonising a celebrity after their death, but those who claim this of Sinéad O’Connor are misguided at best. It’s easy to forget, almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, just how appallingly O’Connor was treated by much of the media and the general public.

Kathryn Ferguson’s 2022 documentary Nothing Compares is chilling in its reminder of the misogyny and grotesque insensitivity with which the diminutive but daring singer with the mellifluous, angelic voice was treated. The documentary features recently-made voice-overs from the mature O’Connor, as well as from friends and ex-partners, such as her first husband John Reynolds, the father of her first child, Jake.

The documentary follows her musical career from her time in a band with her brother, her move to London, her massive worldwide success and then her fall from grace, especially in America.

It’s shocking to be reminded of the abuse Sinéad suffered at the hands of her violent, unstable mother. After her parents separated when she was a child, her mother would carry out horrific acts of brutality. This documentary doesn’t mention the forced stripping and beating of her private parts with a broom that O’Connor talked about elsewhere, but hauntingly we are told that after her parents separated there was a period of a week or so when O’Connor was locked in the garden. She describes her despair at seeing the only light in the house go out, and how she would beg her mother to be allowed in. She mentions her terror of dusk since that time, and how she nestled in the long grass trying to keep warm.

As a young teenager, O’Connor was forced to live in a young people’s care facility allied to the Catholic Church’s notorious Magdalene laundries. O’Connor has revealed elsewhere that she was sent there after being caught shoplifting, something her mother encouraged her to do. In addition to neglect and cruelty she had the harrowing experience of spending a night in the Magdalene laundry’s hospice, as a punishment. She describes how dying elderly women cried out all night for a nurse, yet no one ever came. Many of them had been living there for 60 years, from the age of twenty, often victims of rape who were punished for “inviting” attack. It’s no wonder O’Connor built up a hatred of the Catholic Church: she also knew about its cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests long before others.

The documentary makers were not given permission by Prince’s estate to play the video of her sublime cover of Nothing Compares 2 U. This isn’t surprising given O’Connor’s account of Prince’s resentment at her successful version; elsewhere she told of being invited to visit him at his US home, where she described him as catty and resentful. He allegedly proposed a pillow fight, but attacked her with one containing heavy objects, trying to injure her.

O’Connor said her tears in the haunting video of that cover were inspired by thinking about her dead mother. Anyone doubtful about this explanation, given her traumatic maternal history, should remember the complex nature of childhood abuse and the way child victims yearn for the love of the withholding parent. They grieve for the final loss of any possibility of a normal, loving parental relationship. If, like Sinéad, the abused child has had to cut off contact with their abusive parent, there’s an additional layer of guilt from the estrangement.

XIIIfromTOKYO CC BY-SA 3.0

The misogyny in the way the media and music business treated O’Connor was there from the start. Told by a record company producer to grow her hair long and dress in seductive clothes, she famously shaved her head and continued to dress in her asexual way – baggy jeans and Doc Martens. The puerile ribbing she received for this from TV hosts was disturbing to revisit. One Irish TV presenter announced to the TV audience of little old ladies that she was “a disgrace, wasn’t she?”. With the combination of self-righteous piety and prurient, hypocritical lechery that we also saw in Bill Grundy’s ’70s treatment of Siouxsie Sioux and the Pistols, ageing male TV-hosts would rove their eyes over O’Connor’s elfin frame while lambasting her. At that time dirty-old-man behaviour was not called out; rather, it was Sinéad who was perceived to be in the wrong for being provocative and unconventional, for refusing to be a demure little girl, smiling sweetly. Those were still the days when women were either angels or whores.

Ageing male TV hosts would rove their eyes over O’Connor’s elfin frame while lambasting her

In one shocking scene O’Connor is asked about her support for the campaign to bring contraception and abortion to the Republic of Ireland. When she earnestly talks about how in Ireland it is seen as being the lowest of the low if you are a teenager of fifteen who becomes pregnant, the middle-aged male chat-show host ripostes by accusing her of having been in exactly that place. Reeling in incredulous astonishment at this attack, Sinéad is remarkably articulate, reminding him that she was twenty and in a serious relationship when she became pregnant, earning enough money to employ a nanny.

It’s just one example of how O’Connor was fair game to so many misogynistic and reactionary forces, who sometimes pretended to admire her for being different while wanting to bring her down for that very same bravery.

In the documentary, O’Connor relates how she visited the home of her deceased mother and took just two objects, one of which was the picture of the Pope that her mother kept on the wall. This was the one that O’Connor memorably ripped up on her Saturday Night Live TV appearance at the height of her fame. At the time she was widely demonised and her global popularity plummeted. Yet she never received an apology when widespread abuse of young children by the Catholic Church came to light many years later.

The other act of rebellion that wrecked O’Connor’s reputation in the States was when she refused to allow the Star-Spangled Banner national anthem to be played before her first concert, as was traditional then. The backlash was immense: she was accused of having no respect for America and became the butt of numerous cheap gags. One talk-show host even staged a “Pin the hair on the bald Irish singer” contest.

These controversies affected O’Connor’s standing in the UK. And although she was courageous and outspoken, like most people she didn’t cope well with being reviled.

The documentary steers clear of O’Connor’s turbulent private life – she was married four times with the final union lasting only sixteen days. It doesn’t mention her children apart from her first-born, Jake, nor does it invade her privacy about the suicide of her beloved second son Shane, who killed himself after escaping from a psychiatric facility eighteen months before O’Connor’s own death.

O’Connor was allegedly diagnosed as bipolar in adulthood, and a genetic predisposition to depression may help explain both Shane’s tragedy and her own troubled mental health issues. There’s evidence that parental abuse in childhood greatly increases the risk of depression and sometimes leads to a search for parental figures in adulthood. But the love we seek from a parent – endlessly nurturing, unconditional, non-sexual – is different from the love that mature relationships provide. Two of O’Connor’s lovers have written recently about how deeply they cared for her. But when you are a lost child it’s not easy to adapt to adult life, especially if celebrity has touched you with a sheen – and later infamy – that encourages fame-seekers and deters decent human beings. In the end, many of O’Connor’s closest friends were those who preceded her fame.

Her search for belonging was evident in the way she wavered between religions – she was ordained as a priest in 1999 by the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, an Independent Catholic sect that is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, and became a Sufi Muslim years later. Part of the reason for the latter might have been the opportunity it gave her to cover up; she had railed for years at the way the record industry wanted to sexualise her when she was young and sidelined her when she became older and plumper.

In retrospect, it is clear O’Connor was abused and misunderstood by those who held power over her, from the beginning to the end of her life. Morrissey was right when he condemned those who failed her alive but rushed to coo tributes after her death. We may have come a long way since O’Connor was trashed for her feminism and her denunciation of the Catholic Church’s crimes. But we still live in an era of the mass shaming of women, which has latterly found a new outlet in social media. O’Connor’s life should teach us all to be less judgemental and more empathetic, regardless of faith, dress or politics. If her struggles, and her songs, teach us to pause before leaping to condemn others just for being different, they will not have been in vain.

Leyla Sanai worked as a physician and consultant anaesthetist. She started writing aged 17 for New Musical Express, continued to write when she was a doctor, and made it her main career after illness caused her to give up medicine

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Arts & Culture, August / September 2023

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