LOUISE O'NEILL: I can attempt to be charming and cute but underneath all of that, my bones are hewn from iron

“Dear Louise, I was raped five years ago and I have been in counselling ever since. After reading your book, for the first time in five years I thought — maybe it was not my fault.”

As an author, I get interviewed on a regular basis.

This is particularly true around publication time where it can feel like all I do is talk about myself, my books, and my ‘process’ for hours on end. 

(My process = sitting in front of my laptop in a bear dressing gown and trying not to cry. So glam.) 

Oddly enough, it’s not live television or radio that frightens me but I consistently find myself sick with anxiety the morning that a feature is due to be published.

I might have been in conversation with the journalist for an hour and a half and most of the time I have no recollection of what I said. 

During my excellent media training — in which a professional who has worked with some of the biggest names in UK showbiz looked at me in horror and said, “Please, never repeat that story again. 

"Not just in front of journalists. In front of anyone” — I learned how to defect awkward questions as skilfully as a politician and then promptly forgot about it, returning to my default position of being painfully honest. 

This honesty makes me dread that every time I give an interview that I’m going to say something so stupid that I’ll manage to set my career on fire. 

(Sample headline — Louise O’ Neill finally admits that she does hate all men!* Yay for Feminism!)

There’s also something strange about reading another person’s interpretation of your personality. 

It’s almost akin to overhearing people talk about you. 

As a result, I tend not to read the articles anymore.

Last September, my mother phoned me.

Mom: Have you read this piece in The Sunday Business Post?

Me: OH MY GOD, WHAT DID I SAY? Did I have a mini-stroke and say that I wouldn’t call myself a feminist because I love men?

Mom: What? No. But the journalist said the most interesting thing about you. She said, “Behind the spark, there’s a certain steeliness.” Isn’t that true?

And she was right. I can attempt to be charming and cute but underneath all of that, my bones are hewn from iron.

I’ve tried to hide it. A naked desire to be successful is frowned upon in Ireland, particularly with women. 

“Yeah, but she really wants it,” was something I would hear about other women who shared my yearning.

It’s supposed to seem effortless, as if these incredible things just ‘happened’ out of luck. 

But the truth is that ambition has always been my greatest driving force; the need to achieve, to be good at things, has been the cornerstone of my life since I was a small child. 

That ambition burned in the pit of my stomach, ravenous, made up of a thousand open mouths begging to be fed. 

I would look at the world and wonder how I was going to sear my name across its grounds, coat its seas with my image. 

I couldn’t be ‘ordinary’; the very thought of it horrified me. I wanted to be remembered.

The publication of Asking For It changed that.

All of the things I thought I would be excited about — the book going to No 1 in the charts, being nominated for awards, appearing on The Late Late Show, selling the TV rights, being published in multiple languages — suddenly seemed like hollow victories in comparison to the emails that began to arrive in my inbox on a daily basis.

Countless women and a few men who wanted to share their stories of sexual violence with me. 

The parents of rape victims who approached me on the street to say Asking For It helped them to support their child through the experience. 

The teenage girl who rang her nearest Rape Crisis Centre an hour after attending a talk I gave. 

And the one email that completely broke my heart: “Dear Louise, I was raped five years ago and I have been in counselling ever since. Everyone keeps telling me that I didn’t do anything to deserve this. 

"I never believed them. But after reading your book, for the first time in five years I thought — maybe it was not my fault.”

There’s a part of me that finds this overwhelming.

I feel like a fraud. I’m a writer. I’m not a therapist and I’m so far from perfect that it’s laughable.

I’m afraid that people will think I have answers or solutions when I’m still muddling through my own life, trying to do the best I can. 

Despite that, I’m glad they feel that they can talk to me. It is a privilege to listen to their stories, to be a witness to their pain. 

I am honoured to do so. Asking For It transformed my life but not in the way I thought it would. 

It forced me to recognise how connected we all are to each other and how much we impact one another’s lives.

I would have always believed there was little I could do about issues that I felt passionately about.

Sure, who am I? I used to think. I’m just one person. I can’t make a real difference. 

This book made me realise that I could. I wrote Asking For It in our spare bedroom, in my pyjamas and my dad’s old fleece. 

I’m not particularly special or talented. I’m no better or more important than anyone else. I simply made up a story.

I’m not vainglorious enough to think I’m saving lives or that every book I write is going to have the same impact, but it’s made me look at my everyday life differently. 

It’s made me appreciate that we’re all fighting our own battles and that sometimes, just being kind to one another can help. 

That instead of looking around me and viewing my peers as competition, I could be generous. I could be gentle. I could put out a hand to help and say, “I see you.”

I think that’s all any of us want, in the end. To be seen. To be loved.


Kim Sheehan is an opera singer from Crosshaven, Co Cork, and is this year’s recipient of the Jane Anne Rothwell Award from Cork Midsummer Festival.A Question of Taste: Cork opera singer, Kim Sheehan

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