I watched a powerful documentary last night that spoke to me on so many levels. It challenged me and opened my eyes to things I hadn’t known before. It made me really think about my life and my beliefs and how gullible I was in the 1990s. Sometimes when we focus so much on one thing (my career and ambition), we lose sight of the important things that are happening around us. Stay with me here. I have some things to say about this documentary. Whether you check it out for yourself is up to you, but I encourage you to do so with an open mind.
In the 1980s and 1990s, I was a big fan of the kinds of alternative music that were starting to arise, while still being quite the dinosaur. I moved from Led Zeppelin (okay, I still listen to the Zep) to Aerosmith in the late 70s to the punk sounds of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, and of course David Bowie. Then came 80s-Bowie, of which I wasn’t as fond, and Prince (great dance music and some wonderful ballads), and Sinead O’Connor. Oh my God, I’d never heard such an angelic voice screaming into the void. And then she shaved her head. Brilliant! She had the courage and fortitude (and vocal power) I could only dream of.
And then came her appearance on SNL in 1992 in which she stared into the camera, ripped up a photograph of the pope and said, “Fight the real enemy.” She promptly blew out all the candles and walked offstage.
Oh, people had a LOT to say about that. Her career in popular music was over. What none of us really knew, though, is the trauma that was behind her act. That act was against her late mother (whose photograph it was) in addition to the Church. Watching the documentary, you will learn about her tragic and traumatic childhood, in which she was beaten by her mother and sometimes locked out of the house, sent to survive in the garden for weeks at a time, as a little child, mind you. She says her mother’s actions were informed by her religious beliefs and the hold the Church had on Ireland. She already knew about the sexual abuse of children by priests. She knew about the women who were sent to the Magdalene Laundries to live out the rest of their lives in service to the Church because they were “fallen women.” Sometimes these fallen women were girls who had been raped and left pregnant. Because of the country-wide ban on abortion and laying the blame squarely on the female, no matter how young, because of the rule of the Church over the entire country, these girls not only had their childhood and innocence stolen from them, they indeed had their entire lives stolen from them.
None of that was on the national news, though. All anyone did is trash Sinead. That’s exactly what I remember, and you’ll see it in the documentary, too. She had the audacity to speak out for those who had no voice. She had the audacity to hold up a mirror to the world and say, “Look what you’re enabling.” We have met the enemy, and they are us.
It was complicated for me. I was in the process of converting to Catholicism, you see. My ex-husband was Catholic (though a lapsed one), and I had been raised Baptist. I wanted to give our children something to believe in. It was important to me. It was important to him that it not be Baptist. That was pretty important to me, as well, so I decided to convert. I went through all of the steps to convert and to have my children go through all the steps, too. We’d had our daughter baptized at 6 months old. While the young priest was holding her, she filled up her diaper with the nastiest, runniest shit you can imagine. As we hurried out to the car to change her after the ceremony, my ex-husband said, “That pretty much sums up how I feel.” We didn’t go back to church for a long time.
I left out the part that before the baptism, we’d had to meet with the senior priest, Father Casimir. He found out we hadn’t been married in the Church, so he promptly turned away from me and spoke directly to my husband.
“You are not considered married in the Church,” he said. “So you can decide if you want to continue this union.”
I was sitting right there with our baby in my lap. I was flabbergasted. My husband, of course, just chuckled and said, “Ah, yes. I will be continuing this union.”
I’m surprised they didn’t make us marry in the Church before we had our daughter baptized. And I should have learned something right then. But the good girl in me thought that if I devoted myself and my children to faith, life would feel better. My complicated existence with organized religion might get better. (Spoiler alert: It did not.)
But back to Sinead. As much as I loved her music and her whole vibe, I turned away from her, too. I believed what they said of her, that she was offensive and crazy, that she was mentally unstable. I let some talking heads and a lot of my own complicated feelings dictate what art I would enjoy.
Isn’t the purpose of art to tell the truth? If that were not the case, then we definitely could let artificial intelligence do all the creating – of the books, of the pictures, of the things we should be thinking about. If that doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention! My son and I disagree on this one. He is all for AI-generated movies and doesn’t see a problem with AI-generated books, either.
“After all,” he said, “there are only so many storylines. They just get reworked.”
That is partially true. And in the case of the James Pattersons of the world, AI could definitely fill in their blanks. But for those rehashed plots, elements of truth and insight are woven in by storytellers throughout history. As the world changes, the situations and the characters change. The conflicts change.
One of my favorite books (which I haven’t re-read in years) is The White Plague by Frank Herbert (yes, the one who wrote Dune). In that book, a molecular biologist is driven mad by the murder of his wife and child in an IRA car bombing. He exacts his revenge through the creation and release of a plague. It’s worth your time to read it. At the time of its writing, the IRA was a powerful force in Ireland, and growing stronger. Yes, the plot itself is common enough. A man in dire grief seeks to exact revenge after he loses a bit of his mind. Take that writing prompt, and you and I could produce very different stories. Isn’t that the purpose of art, I ask again? To tell the truth, as we see it.
But I digress. In the 90s, I let the media and some skewed view of the world break my connection with O’Connor’s art. In truth, I was a little hesitant, even now, to watch the documentary. (That kind of shocks even me.) But I know that when the SNL thing happened, I was going through major internal conflicts in my life. I loved my husband, but at the same time, I was grappling with the struggle to stay in a straight life when I knew in my very core that I was a lesbian. During that time, I even fell for a woman at work. But I wanted to be a good girl. Story of my life. Throw some religion at it and maybe it will take, and you can keep up the facade. Story of my whole life.
It was another twenty years before, halfway through ten years of therapy, I recalled the abuse I suffered at the hands of my best friend’s father – a Baptist deacon, pillar of the community, big man on church campus. Boom.
How could I be married to organized religion when it had hurt me so much? Since then, I haven’t set foot in a Baptist church except for my mother’s funeral, and even then, it made me absolutely angry and sick. I should feel the same way about the Catholic Church because of how they covered up the sex abuse of children for … forever! And I’m getting there. I just haven’t quite reconciled all of my thoughts about it yet. There is something I love about the ritual, sadly.
I now understand why my ex-husband became an atheist. I now understand why he sweated and had panic attacks walking into the Church, and why he eventually refused to go with me. I understand, somewhat, why he scoffed at me and got angry with me for my faith. I believe that he was abused. His mother used to dump him and his brother at the Church when they were “bad.” He was an altar boy. He can’t remember (doesn’t want to remember) if anything happened, but consider the fact that it took me most of my life to recall the trauma of my own experience with organized religion. He had a lot of trauma in his life, too, and most of it came out later, but still nothing about his childhood as an altar boy.
Sinead, too, has had a complicated relationship with the Church. She is spiritual, though. Just listen to her and you’ll know that.
I’ve been invited to church since I moved to North Carolina, but I just smile or say “thank you.” I won’t go. I have my faith, but it does not involve the human element, only the spiritual. I live a peaceful life, and I live it alone.
The documentary is Nothing Compares, and it is on Showtime. And just so you know how deep her voice cut, the Prince estate refused to let the video for “Nothing Compares 2 U” (which he wrote) be included in the documentary. But it remains her best known single and remains on all the charts as one of the most loved songs of all time. I hope you watch the documentary and that you discuss it with me or with others in your life.
Art is important. Art saves lives.
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