When I was 21 years old on October 3, 1992, Sinéad O’Connor was the brave hero I needed.
I remember being at a retreat for campus ministry that weekend, watching the show stretched across longish sofas with pizza and pop and the righteous purity of our little Catholic college bubble. I remember the shock in the room when she ripped the photo, the sputters of outrage, the confused feelings I had while I kept up the pretense of shock.
Except that did not happen.
On October 3, 1992, I had graduated college and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for graduate school at LSU. I was living in an apartment with a roommate as far from a bubble of Catholic college as you could get.
That’s how trauma works. It transfers this very real messy memory to a different very real set of circumstances, distorting my sense of time passing and my capacity to understand how I experienced the memory.
I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and I grew up in a Catholic parish staffed for 26 consecutive years by sexual predators. I survived both, but some of my friends were not so fortunate. I certainly didn’t survive unscathed, anymore than others emerge from traumatic oppression with worlds upended and a soul screaming for acknowledgment.
It didn’t come until I was 21 and watched the episode of SNL. I don’t remember the performance, just the graceful defiance of her hands ripping up the photo of the Pope with modulated, controlled gestures. I remember the silence. And the condemnation.
But I also remember being mesmerized by this moment. Who knows what I said to my friends, but in my heart, I was trembling that someone – a woman! – was so brave. That she could see me and feel my pain.
It would be a gross overstatement to say that Sinéad O’Connor became the soundtrack of my anything. I listened to her music, I followed her life story. I bathed in the world changing cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ as did most of us. It was obvious she was hurting and yet equally true that she was a defiant fighter, refusing to shy away from the uncomfortable parts of her experiences.
She was an ever-fixed mark in that moment, one that stretched for decades far past this day as the world still struggles to address the greatest child abuse scandal in history. I believe that she propelled the resistance and investigations further along. I can attest that she pushed me closer to a reality where the stories of my own life could be acknowledged and processed.
Once again, let me clarify – the sexual predator priests the Diocese of Pittsburgh sent to Holy Spirit Parish, my parish, did not sexually abuse me. They abused my male friends and neighbors. The abuse I experienced came from a man in my extended family. And the people who covered it up. Add to this sexual violence in the West Mifflin schools and ongoing violence in the homes of my neighbors and I hope you can see the way in which these institutions – family, school, community and church forged an impenetrable web of violence for the kids in my community. And probably many, many other communities. The default, the norm was sexualized violence and emotional harm. It didn’t start with Generation X, but the courage of our generation helped change that trajectory.
The grief of losing a famous person so important to our lives is unique – we did not know them personally, but there’s an intimacy especially in the arts. We know more about them than we do of many of our immediate neighbors – their kids’ names, their favorite foods, their professional highs and lows, and more. It isn’t real intimacy, but it feels real. For many of us, that’s enough. It might even be preferable as we struggle through 20th century traumas.
With Sinéad, I feel a sorrow that runs deeper. She was only a bit older than me. Her experiences hit a little close to home for me. And the realization that I had dissociated that original memory of her SNL appearance feels on-brand for both of us. My brain didn’t know how to process what Sinéad was exposing, so it wound it up and deposited it in another memory. Still, the core memory was always there, a beacon screaming into my void. She spoke a truth, my truth, in that moment and on some level, I heard her.
The tributes are flying around, but I fully expect she will soon be neatly packaged in her ‘tragic musical artist’ category and put onto the shelf of those who died too young. The industry won’t noticeably change. But changing the culture of sexualized childhood violence is perhaps a bigger fete than changing the greed of the music industry.
What can I possibly hope to add to these tributes and essays and memorials? My only hope is to honor her by continuing to point out who the true enemy is no matter how awkward my phrasing and even though I lack the grace and courage she showed the world repeatedly, even at her darkest moments.
Rest in power, Shuhada’ Sadaqat.