In post-truth, post-MeToo times, Samantha Miller is sharing her truth and her brand of hashtag feminism with three million followers who hang on her every word. A self-help guru and author, Sam has been elevated to God-like status and now she’s preaching the virtues of chastity in a new book. But a promotional article about her teenage sexual awakening in an encounter with her best friend Lisa marks the beginning of her fall from grace – Lisa comes out of the woodwork and reveals that she remembers things quite differently. Louise O’Neill is the Irish author of books including the young adult bestseller Asking For It. Idol is her third novel for adults.
Sam preaches pseudo-psychology, cherry picks from religion and spirituality, piggybacks on social movements and packages it all up in a marketable self-help brand. Misguided as it might be, ultimately she does help a lot of people and seems to genuinely care about them. Do people like her need taking down from their pedestals?
Samantha Miller is an incredibly charismatic person who has found a way to monetise her pain, from her difficult childhood to her trauma. As a result of this, she does, as you point out, offer solace to many of her followers who are going through similar experiences. It’s easy to presume wellness and New Age gurus are grifters, but I think many of them are trying to do good in the world. The problem arises when a so-called guru claims their way is the “only way” and demands blind devotion from their fans. Sam’s relationship with her girls, as she calls them, is quite symbiotic. She needs them as much as they need her so when her life begins to unravel, she panics.
Some commenters believe we are living in a post-truth age. Does Sam operate in that sphere and what is the novelist’s relationship with truth?
Sam often talks about “my truth” but as her mother asks her at one point in Idol, “if it’s not the truth, then what’s the point?” There’s that old saying that there’s three sides to every story, your side, my side, and the truth – well, in Sam’s world, her truth supersedes everyone else’s, contrary to all the evidence. I think a novelist has a responsibility to be as truthful as possible in their work. Maybe more so because we are writing fiction and so can hide behind the idea of narrative. We can get away with more!
What were you exploring about memory in Idol?
I have one sister, and we are close in age; there is only a year and nine months between us. And yet often when we talk about our childhood, it is as if we were raised in separate families. It’s strange, I think, how the same life can be remembered in such contradictory ways and that contradiction is at the crux of Idol. Sam and her former best friend, Lisa, shared a night together as teenagers and now, years later, their memories of what happened that night could not be more different. So, who gets to tell the story? Whose version of events do we choose to believe?
The New York Post article on Samantha Miller never gets off the ground but her mistakes are exposed on social media. Does traditional media need to catch up?
My partner is a journalist and I have enormous respect for the profession. Someone working in traditional media needs to source a story, they need to fact check all their information, etc, before they can run it. That takes time but it has to be done, not just from a legal standpoint but from an ethical one too, whereas on social media, there can be a much quicker, more immediate response. It’s easy to judge that – and due process is important, of course – but for many victims, particularly of sexual violence, there can be scepticism that going through the legal system will result in any real justice, as well as fear that they may not be believed if they do go that route. It’s very complex.
What are the dangers and benefits of reflecting on past experiences, particularly from our youth, that took place in “a different time”, post-MeToo?
I came of age in the early 2000s and I look back at that time with a queasy mix of unease and sorrow, horrified at what I endured. In Idol, Sam and Lisa are turning 18 at the turn of the millennium and yes, it was a different time. They are both products of that time, and their understanding of consent was not as informed as it might be today. But that doesn’t negate the fact that we must atone for our mistakes. If we have harmed someone, no matter how young or ill-informed we were at the time, there has to be consequences.
Why do young women in particular form such intense and complicated friendships that it offers such fertile ground for novelists? Do you have any favourite literary female friendships?
I went to an all-girls school from the age of 4-18 so I am very familiar with the obsessive, almost co-dependent friendships that teenage girls can form with one another. A friendship breakup can cause more long-lasting grief than a romantic one, in my experience! Sam and Lisa both see themselves as the victims, believing the other one has hurt them, and yet they are still the loves of one another’s lives, despite everything that has happened between them. We can still love those who hurt us the most. As for literary female friendships, my favourites are Benny and Eve in Circle of Friends, Kate and Baba in The Country Girls, and Vix and Caitlin in Summer Sisters by Judy Blume.
You’ve primarily written for young adults with previous novels. Is there a marked difference in how you approach writing for adults?
Idol is my third novel for an adult market so now I have written three books for young adults, and three for adults. I don’t think there is a huge difference in terms of writing the books – I still have to get up every morning and go to my desk, whether I feel like it or not! But I absolutely adored writing Idol. I found it challenging and thought-provoking, and I hope that reflects in the reading experience.