Just Like U Said It Would B

Sinead O’Connor. Shaven-headed priestess of a pop-rock religion; patron saint of angry girls the world over. There’s something mythical about her. Those big green eyes in that elfin face, her clarion voice calling us to prayer. Whether she’s keening or fighting, singing songs of love or protest; whether she’s crooning old torch songs or tiny grief songs, songs about jumping in the river or police killing Black boys on mopeds—her music hits me in a soul-spot that no other musician touches.

It’s dangerous to idolize celebrities or artists of any stripe, because they’ll always disappoint you. I should have only ever loved her songs and not the person behind them, but I was an impressionable wee thing when she appeared on Saturday Night Live. I was not quite eleven when she shredded Pope John Paul II to confetti and told the world to fight the real enemy. Sinead became my icon that day—a shorn-headed Joan of Arc for a new age. And like Joan of Arc, the world called her heretic, tried to burn her for a witch. She’s gotten into a lot of trouble over the years for speaking out about things others don’t want to know; for fighting against the status quo. A woman with fight in her is always in trouble. An honest woman is always in trouble.

Several years after that SNL appearance, as I began the process of coming to terms with my own childhood sexual abuse, I was told I couldn’t be honest about it because it would break my Catholic grandmother’s heart. Because it would break her Catholic heart and with that classic Catholic guilt she’d blame herself, mea culpa. I thought of Sinead often during that time. I thought of what speaking out had cost her and wondered if it was worth it, but I knew that silence cost something, too. It was around that same time that I first shaved my head. One of the many ridiculous things my mother said was: “Are you trying to look like Sinead O’Connor?” (Here’s your ‘90s pop culture reference—Well, Sinead O’Rebellion! Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behavior!)

It’s dangerous to idolize celebrities and artists, to focus not on their work but on their personalities. Because they are not saints or mythical beings, they’re humans, and humans are contradictory little messes. Sinead has always been a jumble of contradictions, and at times I loved her for that very reason. I loved her for being a Catholic who spoke out against the Church and its abuses; for being a woman ordained as a priest. I loved her for speaking openly about her abuse and mental illness, for daring the world to call her crazy. I loved her for saying she was a dyke who had mostly been with men; for pushing the boundaries of what women in the public eye could do and be; for offending entire swaths of people like a middle finger in the shape of a girl. I loved her through all the name changes and the changes in image that went along with them.

But her recent conversion to Islam bothers me. I have no problem with Islam or Muslims, but her conversion seems disingenuous. She once said all religions are a smokescreen, and now she says Islam is the only proper conclusion for any thinking theologian’s journey. (And I’m not upset by her tweeting that white people are disgusting, though she seems a bit confused about terminology—white does not equal non-Muslim, nor does non-Muslim mean white.) Poor Sinead has had a rough time of it. The public’s disbelief in her truths, her struggles with mental illness—either of those would be hard enough on their own. On top of that, she’s also fought fibromyalgia, and she recently lost custody of her youngest son. (As a mama myself, I can’t even imagine what I’d do if the latter happened to me.) Perhaps her conversion to Islam is simply one woman’s search for spiritual comfort in the face of strife. Everyone deserves that, and we each have our own paths to G-d or Allah, the Holy Spirit or the Universe. And perhaps her recent statements about her newfound religion are partly a convert’s zeal, and partly Sinead being Sinead—speaking her mind, no matter how many people it upsets.

I will continue to listen to her music, her songs will still be my hymns and battlecries. I will listen to her on gloomy Sundays and silent nights. I’ll sing along while I light votives on my altar, to Fred or Daisy or anyone who’s listening. Oh Sister Bernadette, Magda Davitt, Shuhada’ Davitt, Saint Sinead—in heaven, all the angels are ripping up pictures of the Pope. The angels are singing your name.

Jessie Lynn McMains is a poet, writer, zine-maker, and small press owner. She’s also a queer womxn (she/her or they/them pronouns), a mama to two wild kiddos, and a witch who practices a blend of paganism and folk Catholicism. Aside from words, music is her favorite thing in the world. She’s also obsessed with tarot, the Midwest/Great Lakes/Rust Belt, ghosts, and the undying spirit of punk rock. Someone once referred to her as the Debbie Harry of poetry, and she still thinks that’s pretty rad. You can find her website at recklesschants.net, or find her on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram @rustbeltjessie.