Book Review: Rememberings

Brian Quinn

A self-portrait of faith
and courage

I’m calling it right now: 2021 is the year of the O’Connaissance. Don’t believe me? Scroll through the comment section of any Sinéad O’Connor video on YouTube, and you’ll find hundreds of recent messages expressing nothing but repentance and regret. “The whole world owes her an apology,” one person writes. “Maximum respect long due to Sinéad O’Connor,” laments another. 
Look further, and you’ll find this isn’t merely a case of hindsight being 20/20; the singer’s fanbase has run deeper with the dawn of the digital age. Who could forget O’Connor’s performance of Nothing Compares 2 U on The Late Late Show last year. After sending chills through the Twittersphere, the clip has since become one of RTÉ’s most watched online videos, racking up four million views. In fact, the track’s iconic music video from 1990 has now clocked up 261m hits on YouTube. Hell, that’s more than Enya, Van Morrision, Niall Horan, and yes — deep breath — even U2. 
This resurgence in mainstream popularity comes at a time of cultural upheaval within the music business. In light of the #MeToo movement in recent years, women who previously endured abuse, harassment and discrimination have raised their voices against the underlying power imbalances present across the industry. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Music Industry Research Association (MIRA), 72% of female artists have felt discrimination in the workplace. Even as I write this, US pop star Britney Spears finds herself caught in a bitter court dispute, battling a conservatorship that has controlled her life for the last 13 years.
In some parts of the world, Sinéad O’Connor is a one-hit wonder who threw it all away on the biggest stage. But to her fans, O’Connor has become our lady of perpetual resilience; cornered, but never caught; down, but never out. Her memoir, Rememberings, catalogues each rise and fall: from big breaks to breakdowns and every breakup in between. But it’s also crammed with so much charm and wit, you’ll find yourself cackling along with each turned page.
These tonal shifts are noted from the get-go. O’Connor outlines two separate voices in the book: one leading up to the ripping of the pope’s picture in 1992, and the other describing everything afterwards.“It took me four years to write anything after the pope chapters,” she explains, “years during which I lived in and out of mental-health institutions sorting out my reasons for not being present…I see the first voice as a ghost’s, and the next as a living woman.”
That first voice is what guides us through O’Connor’s childhood, detailing the endless mental and physical abuse she suffered from her mother. These accounts, written in the manner of diary entries, give a harrowing but crucial insight into the artist’s worldview. “I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well.”
However, these chapters aren’t without their fun, with passages reading like a rap sheet of teenage mischief. There was O’Connor’s brief stint as a kissogram girl, complete with a “naughty nun” costume; her knack for stealing anything within arm’s length; and the tale of how she lost her virginity to a Pizzaland waiter in Smithfield. “On the bus home I wondered if I looked different. Would passengers say to themselves, There’s a girl who isn’t a virgin anymore, and consequently think me cool?”
Unsurprisingly, one of the more fascinating sections of the book deals with the fallout surrounding the singer’s infamous appearance on the US variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL). As legend has it, following her performance, O’Connor stared down the studio camera, tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II and any chance she had of a future career. But O’Connor sees things differently. “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career,” she writes, “and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.” 
The truth is Sinéad never saw herself as a pop star. She was a protest singer trapped on a circuit of bright lights and shady producers, writing, “I made a lot of money for a lot of men who couldn’t care less what the songs were about.” What they did care about, however, was the bottom line. Whether it meant telling her what to wear, how to act, or going as far as pressuring her to abort her first child, O’Connor has made a career out of proving men wrong.
Such examples can be delightful, like the story of her signature buzz cut hairdo, featuring disappointed execs and one mortified Greek barber: “please don’t make me do this … what would your father say!?” Others veer towards horror, as is the case with her terrifying encounter with Prince, an anecdote which paints the late R’n’B artist as a cross between Dracula and Stanley Kowalski. “When he was sitting on a chair by the front door and wouldn’t let me out. His irises dissolved and his eyes just went white. It was the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life.”
You can’t help but think that writing this book – a memoir that does away with the cliches of the genre – must have been a healing process for O’Connor. And it certainly shows on the page. Her writing becomes more self-reflective in the the latter chapters when describing her recent mental health struggles and the spiritual journey which encouraged her to “revert” to Islam in 2018. But as always, it’s in her music where she bares all. Part Three of the book, dedicated to each album’s conception and production, gives readers a rare insight into her artistic process and relentless drive.
If you happen to download the audiobook version, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate the lyricism of O’Connor’s words even more. As with her singing, you feel every ounce of emotion pour through like bright light through stained glass. There’s no posturing here, just the sounds of a battleworn soul looking for comfort through human connection. The audiobook’s hidden gems include her impressive knack for accents and the occasional chortle she lets out when delivering a well timed punchline.
By all accounts the success of this book has rallied her fanbase like never before. However, it’s not all good news: Her upcoming tour, scheduled for 2022, is still up in the air. Following a series of tweets posted last June, O’Connor announced her retirement from the music industry, saying – in typical Sinead fashion – “it’s time for me to hang up my nipple tassels, having truly given my all.” Of course, you shouldn’t take Twitter as gospel, but if she really does retire, she’ll be going out on top. In many ways, Rememberings is one of the best albums she’s ever written, and one worth listening to again and again. Brava!
Rememberings by Sinéad O’Connor is published by Penguin Books. Price €18.99