When the news of Sinead O’Connor’s death broke in the evening of the last Wednesday of July, it was a painful reminder that fame – even when the height of it is long distant – comes at a high emotional price.
Her death will be processed no differently to the sudden and unexpected death of any other UK resident: a postmortem followed by a coroner’s investigation.
The autopsy will already have been performed. If the cause of death is found to have been natural, she will be laid to rest in accordance her expressed wishes within a matter of just a few weeks.
And it is, of course, entirely possible that the singer succumbed to some sudden illness or catastrophic health event.
But as any journalist will tell you, when police use phrases like ‘found to be unresponsive’, ‘the death is not being treated as suspicious’, and ‘we are not looking for anyone else in connection with’, it generally turns out to be something far more tragic.
It isn’t helpful to speculate further on the circumstances that saw Sinead O’Connor leave this world. But it’s certainly true that despite reportedly telling friends that she was happy to be back to London after 23 years, her life had at times been controversial, troubled and emotionally challenging.
She was fiercely outspoken on subjects such as child abuse (particularly – and very publicly – in relation to the Catholic Church), organised religion, racism, human rights, and women’s rights.
Much of her activism stemmed from childhood trauma, something that commonly gives bloom to fierce compassion and the strong desire to protect others from pain. Given the platform her talent afforded her, her outspokenness on these topics is hardly a surprise.
She voiced her opinion on – and contempt for – these subjects openly and candidly, and talked equally openly about the multiple mental health diagnoses that her experiences had nourished: bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder among them.
Last year her 17-year-old son Shane took his own life after going missing. Within hours, O’Connor had posted multiple social media messages saying it was pointless to continue without him.
It was the latest in a string of attempts she took to end her life, on one occasion taking to Twitter to announced that she had taken an overdose.
A short time after voluntarily hospitalising herself following the loss of her son, she again took to social media and apologised for any distress those messages had caused, immediately caveating it by saying: “I am lost without my kid and I hate myself. Hospital will help a while. But I’m going to find Shane. This is just a delay.”
And so it proved.
Fame was not responsible for the childhood abuse and consequent trauma she experienced, but it is perhaps a contributing factor to whatever led to police discovering her body at her South East London address.
In a relatively recent interview, she admitted: “I grew up with a lot of trauma and abuse. I then went straight into the music business. And never learned really how to make a normal life … Never took proper time to heal. Wasn’t ready to either.”
Abuse suffered in childhood is multiple relational trauma and recovery requires a lot of time and space – commodities that are in short supply when you live your life in the media spotlight.
Like so many others, O’Connor – just 21 when she recorded her first album and 24 when Nothing Compares To U turned her into a global phenomenon – found fame early. She also found it hard to cope with.
From a disruptive and traumatic early life, she found herself further removed from whatever a ‘normal’ life might have offered her and was instead transported into an artificial existence in which she became a commodity to be monetised, exploited, and used.
Psychologists might point to the rebellious live performance that saw her banned from Saturday Night Live for life and suppose that this was a reaction to the restrictive Catholic upbringing to which she was subjected.
They might look at her stance on child abuse and draw a line to the abuse she talked about experiencing as a child – either directly as a victim or indirectly as a witness (and to be clear childhood witnesses of abuse are also victims).
They might look at her outspoken views on women’s and human rights and suggest this was an articulation of the emotional imprisonment she had experienced.
And they might look at her swift transition into a career in the music business and suggest that this was entirely consistent with a human being who craved the love, validation, approval that had been sorely missing from her formative years.
And they would probably be right. But where does fame and celebrity fit into all of this?
I’d suggest that fame is simply the lens through which everything that happened to Sinead O’Connor was magnified.
Even in the years of declining celebrity, our ‘stars’ are prevented from being able to experience private moments of emotional upheaval privately.
Shane O’Connor’s death came 8 years after his mother’s last album release and 7 years after her last major tour. In entertainment terms, at least, it had been a long time since Sinead O’Connor had been current.
Yet his death made the national media. She was given neither the time nor the space to grieve and heal. Like so many others on her path, her life was lived in emotional tumult.
Was her conversion to Islam five years ago the result of religious epiphany, or just another milestone in her quest to find meaning for all that had happened and a way to bury a past that haunted her daily?
We’ll never know, of course. Yet, if she had been trying to divorce herself from her emotional past, that past had no intention of letting her go. Following Shane’s death she admitted she believed that she ruined everything she touched, and her remaining children wanted nothing to do with her.
In years punctuated by abuse, trauma, emotional persecution and controversy, the one person who gave her life meaning had abandoned her. If the perceived rejection by her older children was painful, the ultimate rejection by her youngest son would have been unbearable.
There are those who might suggest that emotional disharmony is a byproduct of fame, but it would be wrong – not to say cruel and heartless – for anyone to suggest she invited the challenges she experienced upon herself.
Sure, she courted controversy. But was that because she enjoyed being controversial, or because it was the only way in which she could articulate an ongoing lifetime struggle with her mental health?
Fame gave her a platform from which to speak out against the things that she believed had wrongly come to define her. Sadly, it also became the prison in which she would always be fated to relive them.
In theory, fame is an attractive ideal. The money enables you to afford the finest things in life. Every night you walk out in front of hundreds or thousands of people who have paid money to listen to your voice, or watch you perform.
And then there’s the adoration and the approval. The unconditional love. The esteem and the respect. And it comes from every person in every corner of the world. Everyone, in fact, apart from the one person who really matters.
Fame is the mirror you hold up to yourself. But like the mirrors at a funfair, the image it reflects is often distorted. It renders beautiful things ugly. It makes bright things dark. It shows blemishes that are invisible to everyone except the person looking back at you.
Like so many who went before her – Amy Winehouse, Caroline Flack, Kurt Cobain, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Michael Hutchence … the list is almost literally endless – and regardless of the circumstances of her death, Sinead O’Connor paid an exceptionally high price for her moment in the sun.
Until those who profit from celebrities start to learn that stardom is a cold and emotionally inhospitable place in which to exist and resolve to create a framework of support to protect them, it’s a price that will continued to be paid with alarming frequency.