Once again I find myself wrecked by Louise O’Neill’s ability to tell stories about how our society messes up women and girls. I expected this. I’ve pre-ordered this book but was delighted to receive an eARC on NetGalley because I could not wait. Shout out to the Sam Miller I knew when I taught in England (aside from being a blonde white woman, she was nothing like this Sam Miller).
Sam Miller is a wildly popular, successful influencer. Founder of a wellness brand, Shakti, Sam is riding high on the publication of her latest book. After she publishes a tell-all essay about her sexual experience with her female best friend in high school, however, that friend emails her manager, angry and accusing Sam of sexual assault. So Sam must venture back to her small New England hometown to reconnect with this friend. In so doing, she opens the floodgates of her memory for a deluge of disturbing propositions. Idol asks us to confront whether we really remember the past accurately—and what happens if we aren’t the person we remember being?
Pretty much from the first chapter, I did not like Sam. This is by design—O’Neill has a talent for creating unlikable protagonists, and I think they have their place. We so often label women “unlikable” (or even less polite terms) simply for being strident, forthright, assertive, etc. Sam is these things, yes, but that isn’t why she is unlikable—I don’t like her because she is self-absorbed and perhaps even narcissistic. However, she isn’t a shallow character. Based on the limited third-person narrator’s perspective, Sam seems to truly believe in much of her grift—she meditates, etc. (Note that I am not suggesting meditation itself is always a grift—rather, I’m pointing out that many wellness gurus do not practise what they preach.) Sam doesn’t have a public and a private persona: she generally believes in her reality, and that is fascinating.
One of the best moments in the book comes early on. Sam is having an emergency call with her therapist, who asks her, “What would it mean to you if this accusation were true?” The therapist does not let Sam dodge the question, despite much bluster from Sam that it isn’t and can’t be true, and I really liked the dynamic in this scene. It’s a great, albeit harrowing question: what if it were true that you did something awful to someone, even if you can’t believe it of yourself?
The whole theme of Idol revolves around this question: is Sam Miller a “good” person? Can any of us be good people? O’Neill leaves many of the details of the past up for interpretation. The book strongly hints that Sam’s version of events is unreliable. On the other hand, it seems clear that her former bestie, Lisa, has her own issues, has made her own mistakes, has her own traumas. There’s another character who is nominally the primary antagonist of the book—I won’t reveal their name, for spoiler reasons, though it’s pretty easy to figure out who they are given all the breadcrumbs. This character has it out for Sam. And I get why, even though I don’t condone their actions.
I think this is what makes Idol work so well for me: O’Neill spends time exploring the different angles of what it means to be a flawed social media influencer, encompassing the perspectives of Sam herself, her manager, this antagonist, Lisa, her mother, etc. There is a compelling scene later in the book where Sam is meeting with Shakti’s board of directors, mostly old, white guys. One of them is adorably “woke” because of his younger daughter’s influence. They are discussing how Sam can distance herself from Shakti, given the allegations against her, so Shakti can go public. Sam, of course, balks at the idea of stepping away from her baby when men who have similarly been accused of sexual assault haven’t fallen from grace.
It takes guts, I think, for O’Neill to examine these double standards in this way. It’s one thing to write books about women crusading against male abusers—and these books should be written. It’s another to write a book about a powerful woman who might be one of those abusers, to discuss how white women like Sam and myself are often complicit in propping up these abusive systems because we think we will be rewarded and think we will be safe as a result. At the same time, we can admit that when we as a society do hold women to account, we do so with a vociferousness and viciousness seldom seen for men.
But I keep coming back to the portrayal of Sam as an influencer and what the role of influencer culture plays in our society. We have a lot of conversations about cancel culture: whether it exists, whether it has gone too far, whether it only works on marginalized people. I think we need to reverse that. We need to talk more about promotion culture. We need to ask ourselves why it is that certain people keep being given a platform, only for them to be revealed as frauds, criminals, or abusers. O’Neill is asking us, gently but persistently: “are people like Sam Miller rotten from the start, and that is what draws them to influencing, or does the influencing rot them from within?” Has Sam’s entire life since living her hometown just been her running away from memories she doesn’t want to admit?
There are no easy answers to be found in this book. The climax and denouement are raw and jumbled and bitter; I had to go back and re-read to make sure I wasn’t missing something. The ending is a testament to O’Neill’s refusal to reassure us that everything will be OK. It won’t be. We’ve constructed this abusive society that loves to build up women only to tear them down and pits women against each other, generationally, sexually, and competitively. Whether or not we root out the Sam Millers of the game is immaterial so long as the game itself continues to exist. She may or may not be a product of the culture, but her power and privilege are a symptom of it. Idols fall from grace because we demand it—yet we are always willing to replace them with someone fresh, someone new, so the cycle can begin again.