For daws to peck at
Sinéad O'Connor and the vulnerabiltiy industry
Briefly: Amsterdam’s Poet Laureate Marjolijn van Heemstra talking about stargazing on How We Live Now | Members can watch the replay of my wonderful hangout with Carissa Potter Carlson here | Edinburgh Festival appearances on 15th August with Sam Baker and 16th August with Kerri ní Dochartaigh
For your stray attention this weekend
Sinéad O’Connor and the vulnerability industry
I opened my phone on Thursday morning to see tributes pouring in for Sinéad O’Connor. I don’t need to add to the glowing accounts of her extraordinary talent here - her contribution is beyond words. Instead, I want to talk about one particular word that kept coming up: vulnerability.
Sinéad was vulnerability personified. Her voice drew us into an intimacy that cut to the bone. When a tear meandered down her cheek in the video for Nothing Compares 2 U, we knew that it was real, that we were witnessing something beyond performance. If we had stopped to think about it, we might have known the same thing about the other visual that will forever be linked to her memory, tearing in half a photograph of the Pope on SNL. She was vulnerable because she was unable to achieve the hardened polish of the media professional, the protective carapace of the megastar. Passion burgeoned out of her, overspilling her boundaries. The tear was the truth and the tear was the truth. She couldn’t hide it.
It’s tempting to say that she wore her heart on her sleeve, although I notice now that we tend to leave out the second half of that Shakespearean line: ‘For daws to peck at.’ Both halves of that sentence are important here. Whether through choice or compulsion, Sinéad spilled out the suffering that patterned her life; my sense was always that she could not contain it. The information she shared - about abuse, generational trauma, physical pain, unbearable loss - was then, summarily, pecked at by people for whom understanding was no concern.
As someone whose work is also called ‘vulnerable’, it’s hard not to notice that something is happening here, something that takes the glorious, necessary vulnerability of truth-tellers, and grinds it into units of consumption. Sinéad was ahead of her time, and all of us who have followed in her wake owe her a debt of gratitude. With bare hands and bleeding fingernails, she dug out a channel into which so many of us have flowed: the difficult, broken, remade people, speaking out our complicated truths. Sinéad - and others like her - has seeded a redemptive moment in our culture, an uncovering of secrets, a voicing of the unspeakable.
I worry, lately, about the way that this has grown. It seems that we have taken the pain, the righteous anger, the raw transmission of feeling, and folded it neatly back into capitalism, another product to be consumed. Vulnerability sells, and it adds a bankable ring of authenticity to boot. We congratulate ourselves for this new understanding of mental health and diversity. But there is something missing. The circle is not being closed. We are not taking good care of the people who give us so much through their sharing.
Reading a memoir by a young - and yes, vulnerable - woman last year, I began to feel uneasy. The writing was revelatory, the talent dazzling, but it was also clear that she was still at a very early stage in her journey towards healing. On one hand, I drank in her work, with its story that overlapped with so many parts of my own life. On the other, I wondered about consent. Was she truly in a safe place to reveal so much? What support was she getting? How much control did she have over the interviews she would give, in which she would have to repeatedly rake over her trauma?
I know from my own experience how painful that is, and what a pall it can cast over the hours after those intimate, vulnerable conversations that so tantalise audiences. When I wrote my memoir The Electricity of Every Living Thing, I dug deep into a traumatic life, often crying as I wrote. Getting those words on the page felt like a mission: to set it all out like that was illuminating, soothing, even healing. I know, too, that reading them has been healing for so many others, and I’m grateful for that.
But there was no support from my publishers when it came to handling the publication and publicity. This is not an accusation of any sort; it’s just not what the publishing industry does. There’s no university course for being a public figure, no training in handling interviewers who push for that little bit of extra revelation, no protocols for coping with trolls who tell you that you should undergo compulsory sterilisation. There’s no support group that you can join to talk with other vulnerable artists who are out there, sharing their truths. You have to make it up as you go along. You learn to set increasingly firm boundaries, but often too late. The advances are rarely big enough to pay for the therapy you’ll need in the aftermath.
I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Sinéad didn’t have any support either. My guess is that she went out into the big, wide world as herself, and we loved her and then tore her to pieces, and then loved her again, and then laughed at her, and then loved again, but a little bit less each time. She would have swept up the ashes of this on her own, her head ringing. And maybe, just maybe, she didn’t always handle it very well. Maybe she was inconsistent, and capricious, and more reactive than we think a pop star should rightly be. But we must ask ourselves whether this is really a surprise. She showed us what she was, and we wanted to merely purchase it. It was not enough.
At this point, I’m sure that many people will think: Well, nobody has to share this material. When you accept money from your art, you don’t get to complain. And yes, in theory I could have not written such a personal memoir, and Sinéad, in theory, could have sung fun upbeat songs that fill nightclubs rather than keening out ballads. But in practice, neither of us could manage restraint. Work like this is necessary for the creator, and necessary for the audience. We need these truths, and we need the truth-tellers. And in return, we need to learn how to receive them without causing harm.
At this exact point in history, when we are building whole industries around the vulnerability of individuals, it’s time for a little introspection in the creative industries. Can we learn to nurture incandescent talents like Sinéad’s without exploiting them? Can we offer genuine support to artists who might, by their very nature, be naive - training and preparation before they are launched, and helpful human contact after? Can the media finally learn that poor mental health is not news or gossip, and therefore turn our gaze away when privacy is needed? And can we, as an audience, learn to treasure what is freely given to us, and leave it at that.
Rest well, Sinéad.
And to all of you: take enormous care of yourselves. Reach out for all the help you need. You matter.
If you think a friend or loved one would enjoy The Clearing by Katherine May, gift subscriptions are available here | Website | Buy: Enchantment UK /US | Buy: Wintering UK / US | Buy: The Electricity of Every Living Thing UK / US
The Clearing by Katherine May is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.