Louise O'Neill: "It sometimes feels like we need to share our stories to be accepted as humans"
“When someone gets cancelled they’re met with the consequences of their behaviour, but it’s much easier to rebuild your life when you’ve got the cushion of a fortune."
Louise O'Neill's Idol has just landed on shelves - and it already looks set to be the book of the summer.
We caught up with Louise ahead of the release of her latest novel to chat the wellness industry, much-needed social media breaks, the expectation to share, and of course, cancel culture.
“I don’t really believe in cancel culture, which is hilarious because it’s such a massive part of this book" she tells Her. "A lot of the time we’re talking about people who are too powerful to cancel. Louis C.K. just won a Grammy. If you’ve got enough money, you are un-cancellable."
Such is the premise of Idol. Samantha, a powerful, wealthy, white wellness guru, has her reality turned upside down when she learns that an old friend doesn't remember a night they spent together quite the same way she does.
So ensues a novel about influencer culture, victim identity, memory, trauma, and what can happen when your own carefully constructed sense of self is not just questioned, but destroyed.
Louise says that she didn't come at the story from a place of cynicism or skepticism. Rather, her own interest in new age spiritualism - and the changing face of the wellness industry during the Covid-19 pandemic - led to her wonder how such a character would operate when faced with something as destabilising as a sexual assault accusation.
"I was in a prime position to notice a lot of the flaws in these [wellness[ philosophies. Especially in the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, you really notice how white these spaces are," she says.
"I don’t believe wellness gurus are con artists, they’re genuinely trying to make a difference and to help. Samantha sees herself as fundamentally a good person, and when something contradicts that, it feels so destabilising and so threatening. She’ll go to any lengths to protect her self image. She’s the master spin doctor.”
Idol is about cancel culture, but it's also about its limits. The phrase may have embedded itself deep into cultural consciousness, and yet, time and time again, rich men (and sometimes women) have proven their inability to truly be 'cancelled.' Oftentimes, says Louise, it's the other people in the story who bear the brunt of shame.
"The people who tend to suffer most with online campaigns are marginalised communities," she says. "They see real life repercussions, but if you’ve got enough influence you’ll find a way back. People say they’ve been cancelled while being interviewed on national broadcasters. You’re saying you’re being silenced - how?
“When someone gets cancelled they’re met with the consequences of their behaviour, but it’s much easier to rebuild your life when you’ve got the cushion of a fortune. I was going to say it’s not fair, but that’s the point of privilege, it’s not fair."
Where Idol critiques some of the more overt negatives of the celebrity, it also questions this culture's reliance on social media, a symbiotic relationship that often takes far more than it gives. While apps like Twitter and Instagram have been instrumental in leading social justice campaigns like Black Lives Matter and Repeal, they have also been undeniably detrimental to the mental health of so many of their users.
Louise took an 18 month break from all social media a few years back. She, like countless others, wanted her free time back, to stop doom scrolling, and, well, just be. The break, she says, was incredible, though it did take some time for her brain to rewire itself.
"I’d be going on a walk with my family and my brain would be formulating a tweet to write later, thinking 'how do I put this in a funny and cute way?'" she says. "It took a while but it was a relief. I do miss the community and educational element of it but I feel like it’s worth it.
“One of the reasons why I quit Twitter was the pressure to always have a ‘take.’ Sometimes I felt like I wanted to take my time, I wanted to read, I didn’t know enough about this yet to have an opinion. But you always have to have an immediate reaction, you have to post.
"It’s even more difficult with influencers and Molly Mae Hague is a great example. She seems like an excellent business woman and a nice person, but maybe not someone I’d go to for an incisive analysis of classist issues. Authenticity is such a buzzword at the moment but if you’re lifting your phone up to your face and speaking into it, it's performative."
Social media may encourage us to perform, but it also invites us to share. Louise has spoken candidly about her experiences of an eating disorder and sexual trauma in the past - subjects she says there was so much silence around, and that felt important to speak about. And while women in Ireland and beyond have been so forthcoming with their stories in a bid to shift cultural perceptions, some have stopped to wonder: Should we have to do this?
"I did get nervous during #MeToo because it was almost like there was this expectation to speak out for the good of the movement. I did wonder if the people who spoke out had support after the fact? When they were feeling vulnerable after sharing something online, did they have someone to catch them?
"During Repeal women were told to share their abortion stories and part of that was because when these statistics are made real it does generate empathy. But it can feel like we’ve been asked to share our stories over and over again, and you do ask, has anything shifted? Will we need to tell our stories again before they’re forgotten? It sometimes feels like we need to share our stories to be accepted as humans, and for our lives and rights to matter, and part of me just wishes that was a given.”
Louise may not dwell on cancel culture, but one thing that's for sure is that Idol places it front and centre. The book is a stark reminder of the fragility of the created self, but it's also an uncomfortable picture of a world that turns gleeful when a person is taken down a peg... particularly when that person is a woman.
Times change, and people do too. If someone hasn't intentionally caused harm or done something criminal, Louise says, there needs to be room for growth - and forgiveness.
"I’ve been writing columns for almost 10 years now, my opinions and my feminism have shifted a lot," she says. "There has to be room for people to change and to change their minds. There can be reflection and learning."
Idol by Louise O'Neill is available to buy in stores now.
Louise will be in conversation with Cecelia Ahern at Dublin's International Literature Festival on Thursday, May 19. Tickets here.