Sinéad O’Connor has always mined her life for art. Her 10 solo albums are diaries, their songs chapters. Outside of the recording studio, the Irish songwriter has never been coy about sparking controversy, from tearing up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live to her open letter to Miley Cyrus, in which she warned the young star that she was being exploited. A protest singer at heart, she sees herself as an accidental pop star who hurtled to unexpected fame aged 24 with “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
Rememberings, a loosely chronological memoir that intersperses short, episodic chapters with poems and photos, fills in the blanks between albums, charting her traumatic childhood, creative coming-of-age and mental health struggles, including addiction, agoraphobia and anorexia. If this sounds miserable, it isn’t, as she splices fierce sincerity with irreverent humour.
Dublin-born O’Connor has every excuse for being the “pain in the ass” she brands herself: she was violently abused by her mother between the ages of nine and 13, before choosing to live with her father. To tackle her wayward behaviour, she was sent to an institution run by nuns, then boarding school, from which she ran away aged 16.
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“I have been angry at my mother all my life,” she confesses. “But I displaced it. I couldn’t admit it was her I was angry at, so I took it out on the world.”
In 1985, when O’Connor was 18, her mother died in a car crash, and the singer signed with Ensign Records and moved to London.
In 1987, three months after the birth of her first child, her debut album The Lion and the Cobra launched her as a rising star; she then retreated inwards and began smoking cannabis.
From hazy memories, she crafts a powerful tale of a search for self-acceptance that has taken her deep into religion, psychotherapy and spiritualism.
Cynics may find the straight-faced description of her daughter’s guardian angel hard to swallow, yet this is all in a day’s work for this profoundly spiritual person, whose theological studies culminated in her conversion to Islam in 2018.
Rememberings is a book of two halves. In 2015, having written part of it, O’Connor had a hysterectomy for endometriosis, which triggered surgical menopause and a public breakdown.
She emerged from hospital in May 2019 with memory loss, resumed writing and booked a tour, twice postponed; last November, she announced that she was entering a year-long trauma and addiction rehabilitation programme.
Renowned for her haunting singing voice, O’Connor reveals a charismatic narrative voice: forthright, earthy, mischievous. Her four children have different fathers, one of whom she married, John Reynolds – the first of four husbands – so Father’s Day is “quite the revolving door”. Her metaphors are striking, especially when evoking early influences (her grandma’s piano keys echo like “ghost bells”).
Critical of her failings and unswerving in her principles, she is humble about everything but her work, where she knows her worth. She rejects the view that being labelled “crazy” post-Saturday Night Live derailed her career, insisting that it triggered a “rebirth”.
A skilled raconteur, she recalls encounters with figures such as Muhammad Ali, Daniel Day-Lewis (“We were getting very friendly until I blew the friendship by losing my temper”) and Prince, whom she describes trying to attack her at his LA mansion.
In the final third of the book, O’Connor reflects on motherhood, faith and her artistic themes and process, although she believes that “if you could talk about music you wouldn’t need music”. If you want to get to know her, it’s “all in the songs”.
A brave survival story, Rememberings is both a searing critique of the exploitation of women in entertainment and an eloquent riposte to those who have misrepresented her.