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Louise O'Neill confronts the 'insidious sexisms of our culture'

On October 29, the Irish author brings her buzzworthy prose to Concordia
October 22, 2015

Source: University Communications Services

“I really want women who read my book to just be a little more critical,” says Irish author Louise O'Neill. “I know when I was a teenager I unthinkingly accepted the narrative that the media fed me about what women are 'naturally' like.” "When I was a teenager I unthinkingly accepted the narrative that the media fed me about what women are 'naturally' like, and I think that was very harmful to me as a person."

Move over, Stephenie Meyer.

Irish author Louise O'Neill burst on the literary scene last summer with Only Ever Yours, an award-winning book in the young-adult category that has been described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls.

And we’re in luck. Next Thursday, October 29, at 7 p.m., O’Neill is coming to Concordia to do a free public reading from Only Ever Yours at the School of Canadian Irish Studies.

“What is brilliant and terrifying about O’Neill’s novel is that every aspect of the dystopia is an explicit manifestation of the more insidious sexisms of our own culture,” says Susan Cahill, an assistant professor teaching O’Neill’s novel in her Narrating Irish Childhoods course (IRST 398A) at the School of Canadian Irish Studies.

“A classroom scene in which a teacher circles a girl’s perceived bodily imperfections in red ink is a physical realization of magazine spreads that shame celebrities’ bodies,” she says.

O'Neill was working for a fashion magazine in New York when she got the idea for her book. “I had suffered a major relapse in my struggle with anorexia and was feeling very weary of trying to conform to society's idea of what beauty was,” she writes in an email.

“I really want women who read my book to just be a little more critical. I know when I was a teenager I unthinkingly accepted the narrative that the media fed me about what women are 'naturally' like, and I think that was very harmful to me as a person,” says O'Neill.

She is frustrated by how young women are bombarded with hyper-sexual images that encourage them to believe their worth is very much related to how attractive men find them.

“When young women try and reclaim their own sexuality they are often vilified and shamed. It's an odd dichotomy and a very confusing one for all women. Female sexuality seems to inspire such fear and hysteria, and a desire to try and police and control it,” she says.

“One of the questions I consider in my research is why girls’ cultures are often dismissed and neglected,” says Cahill, whose own work aims to put girls back into conversations about early 20th-century Ireland.

“O’Neill’s novels speak to this question, showing us the consequences of a cultural dismissal of girls and a broader objectification of women and the intensely damaging effects of this sexism.”

Irish author Louise O'Neill will give a free public reading in the Henry F. Hall Building (Room H-407), on the Sir George Williams Campus, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 29, 2015.

Here’s a juicy excerpt from Only Ever Yours:

“In the beginning, men created the new women, the eves.” – Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behaviour, the Original Father

Chapter 1

Ten months until the Ceremony

The chastities keep asking me why I can’t sleep. I am at the maximum permitted dosage of SleepSound, they say, eyes narrowed in suspicious concern.

Are you taking it correctly, freida?

Are you taking it all yourself, freida?

Yes. Yes. Now, can I have some more? Please?

No more can be prescribed. Not safely anyway, they say. They warn of muscle spasms. Internal bleeding. The corrosion of vital organs.

But I cannot see these “vital organs” in the mirrors. All I can see are dark circles under my eyes, a gray pallor like a dusting of ashes over my face. The hallmarks of too many nights spent burrowing a hole in my mattress, tossing and turning, yearning to join the perfectly synchronized breathing of my sisters. I can hear them now, sucking artificial heat into their lungs greedily, oblivious to me, lying in my cot, buzzing like an exposed wire.

I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy-go-lucky.

The robotic voice spills down the walls and crawls along the floor, searching for a receptive ear. And we eves are more receptive when sleeping. We are like sponges, absorbing beauty, becoming more and more lovely as we dream. More and more valuable.

Except for me. Night after night I lie awake, nothing but the Messages to distract me from my clamoring thoughts. chastity-ruth says thinking too much robs you of your beauty. No man will ever want a companion who thinks too much. I do try to be more controlled. I try to shape my mind into nothingness. But when night falls in the dorms the demons stir, their eyes flashing white in the dark, looking for something to feed on.

I am a good girl. I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.

It’s the heat; I know it is. It’s pumped in at night to detoxify our pores, rolling in waves through the dormitory, molding to my skin. The SleepSound can disguise the fire in my lungs only for so long before I jerk awake, gargling steam. I blink as my cubicle flickers in the subdued light. A single bed with snow-white sheets. A locker crouching beside it, the black paint peeling off in ribbons. It is a small house made of mirrors, every surface papered in glass.

And there I am. And there. And there. I am imprisoned in these walls.

I watch in the mirrored ceiling as I spread my body out like a starfish, bending my knees away from the sticky sheets. My hands hit the clammy mirrored wall behind my head, the black silk nightgown gathering around my waist. I turn onto my right side, my forehead pressed against another mirrored wall, a heavy sigh misting the glass. I etch my fingertips over my high cheekbones, watching as I trace circles around my almond-shaped eyes. My skin feels crepe thin, as if it’s slowly dissolving into my bones. Before us, they counted sheep to help them fall asleep.

Before us, there were sheep to count.

I fumble under my pillow for my ePad, its square corners reassuringly solid in my hands. I update my MyFace status, whispering into the screen, “I can’t sleep again. Anyone out there awake?” A shiver of satisfaction runs through me as the video status uploads, as if this somehow proves that I’m real. I exist.


Am I dreaming of her again?

She’s like an apparition, standing in the arched doorway between the corridor and my cubicle, her full-length pink bathrobe glowing in the shadows. She tilts her head, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, waiting for me to say something. I nod and her tense face softens as she creeps into my narrow bed, aligning her body with mine, our limbs interlocking like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We are reflected in all of the mirrors, splintering into parallel images, echoed from the ceiling to the walls and back, multiplied over and over again. Her milky-white legs entwined with mine, her white-blond hair bleeding into my dark brown waves.


“I was afraid you were a chastity.”


“If she catches us breaking Isolation, we’ll get in trouble.”

“It will be fine.”

“Still . . .” “chastity-ruth isn’t on duty,” she replies, reading my mind as always.

We breathe in unison. I rest my head on her shoulder, inhaling lavender, counting heartbeats. She shifts, pulling her arm from under me, and my head drops onto the damp sheets. She inches back, away from me, until she’s hovering on the edge of the bed, one foot planted on the ground for support.

“Good idea. It’s too hot, isn’t it?” I say quickly.

She came in, after all this time, I tell myself. You didn’t ask her to. She came in by herself.

“Hmm.” She taps her toes against the base mirror, her neon- pink nail polish matching her robe. I seem to be the only person affected by the heat.

“So,” I blurt out.

“Where have you been hiding?”

“I haven’t been feeling well.”

“I sent you chat- requests . . .” I trail off, thinking of her room, the corrugated steel door rolled to the floor and bolted down like a portcullis. I’ve sent her countless messages in the last two months. All unanswered.

“I can’t sleep.”

“Nervous about tomorrow?” She shrugs apathetically.

“Have you asked chastity-anne for more SleepSound?”

“It interacts badly with my other meds.”

“What are you taking?” I prop myself up on my elbow to look at her. “I’m on the maximum dosage and I haven’t had problems.”

“gisele broke out in hives when they mixed her dosages. She looked ugly for a week,” she says, as if I hadn’t spoken, as if I don’t exist. She’s been doing that a lot lately.

“Can you stop kicking the mirror? It’s really annoying,” I snap, and her foot slows to a still. I feel guilty at the flicker of hurt on her face but somehow satisfied as well, savoring the sense of being seen by her.

“How do you know that about gisele anyway? You haven’t been at Organized Recreation or the Nutrition Center all summer,” I say, watching our reflection in the ceiling. I’m squashed against the wall, isabel skirting the edge of the mattress, a sliver of white flashing between us. Fat women are ugly. Old women are ugly. But gisele? Honeyhued gisele, with her honey-blond hair, honey-flecked eyes, honey-colored skin? Ugly?

“So that’s where she was last weekend,” I say when she doesn’t answer. “She told us she was in quarantine with suspected flu.”

“Hives,” isabel repeats. “Hives the size of eggies all over her face.”

“Pity it was during vacation,” I joke weakly, tasting a bubble of nausea. “Her rankings won’t be affected.”

“Be nice.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Miss #1.”

“You’re #3. And we were all designed equally,” she replies mechanically.

“Yes. But some eves were lucky enough to be designed better than their ugly sisters.” I hold my breath, waiting for her to disagree with me like she always used to.

“You’re not ugly, freida,” she sighs. She’s tired of me, tired of my constant need for reassurance. “None of us is.”

“I am compared to you.” I can hear the need stitched through my voice and I hate myself for it. “My skin is so tired looking.” I stroke the contours of my face in the ceiling mirror, searching for cracks. “What if my ranking is affected?”

“Better tired looking than fat.” Her voice is flat, as if someone has let the air out of her lungs.

I turn to face her, our noses almost touching. I breathe in deeply, as if I could suck in her mesmerizing beauty and steal it from her. I looked up her chart online once, hoping to find an easy formula to copy. PO1 Metallic Silver hair, the computer chanted, #76 Folly Green eyes. Muted goldcolored skin, frosted-pink lips, a few small freckles over a neat nose. I wish I looked like you. Everything would be easier if I looked like you. I’ve been thinking that since I was four years old. “What are you talking about, isabel?”

She rolls onto her back and points at the ceiling, waiting for me to copy her. I watch as she loosens the silk tie around her waist, unwrapping the bathrobe, laying her body bare. A thickening at the waist, a roundness at the thighs. In the dark, my sharp intake of breath sounds like a scream.

“I know.” She pulls the robe closed, hiding her sins.

“Have you tried throwing up?”

“Of course,” she says impatiently. “It doesn’t always work, you know.”

“What about the extra meds you’re taking? Are they helping?”

“They did at the start. They don’t seem to be working anymore,” she whispers.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad.” I want to sound consoling but I don’t know how. That’s always been isabel’s role in our relationship. “Maybe you won’t be the only one. Lots of eves gain weight over the holidays.”

We both know this isn’t true. Not this year.

“I don’t understand how it even got this far. Surely someone must have noticed in your weekly weigh- ins? You haven’t even set foot in the Nutrition Center for— ”

She holds her finger to her lips to forbid me from speaking further and I swallow my thoughts. Just one more secret between us. I close my eyes but all I can see is her flesh spreading, threatening to engulf her bones.

“I was thinking the other day about your obsession with monkeys.” isabel’s voice is so low that for a moment I wonder if she said anything at all, if my desire for us to be close again is so desperate that I have started imagining her speaking to me.

“Remember?” she says, reaching her hand out to touch mine. “The monkeys?”

“They were a fascinating species.”

“I’m sure they were. Did you have to pretend to be one though?”

“I was four!”

“No excuse.”

“That’s exactly what chastity-ruth said when I fell out of a tree in the garden and broke my leg. What a witch.”

She clamps a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles.

“Excuse me. It was extremely painful,” I say in indignation, but I’m smiling too.

“I thought she was going to kill you when you had to take your Monday foto with that massive cast,” she says, her voice rising.

“Shh, isabel, you’ll wake the chastities.”

“Who cares?”

“Ah yes, princess isabel never gets in trouble!” I tease, bowing my head in mock salute. “It must be nice to be so special.”

I wait for her to laugh, to tease me back, but there’s nothing. Her body stiffens beside me. The silence is overwhelming, jamming into my eardrums, and I search blindly for the trail of our conversation. “But the thing about the monkeys was— ”

“I’m tired,” isabel cuts across me and the words fizzle in my throat. I always take it a step too far, chastity-ruth says.

We shift apart in the bed, space yawning between us again.

I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told.

The Messages continue, as if nothing has changed….


(Page 1 – 9 of Only Ever Yours, Louise O’Neill Copyright © 2015 by Louise O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of Quercus, a Hachette company.)

Read the rest of Chapter 1 from Only Ever Yours.


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