Take a box and make sure that it has a secure lid on it and that the outside is fortified so that no one can ever break it. Make sure that this box is made of a heavy steal and that only you can open it from the inside to let yourself out. Living in fear and never having a proper childhood, Shannon O’Leary lived a life of abuse from the day she was born. Hoping to escape the hand of a father who was demented, sadistic and sick she should have placed herself and her brothers inside this heavy metal box along with her mother to protect them of years of torment, abuse and hate. The time period is the 1960’a and 70’s and the place a backwater bush country area in Australia. When Emma met Patrick she thought it was love at first sight and although her parents were against her marrying him she did anyway only to learn too late that she was no longer an independent thinker or someone with rights of her own. She was now his slave and his property. How do you fight when the world is deaf and no one listens to your cries for help? When the author was just four years of age her father played what some might call a came of tossing her in the air not as a father hoping to bring a smile to his child’s face but one that would turn out harmful, scary and almost deadly as he threw her up into the air and did not catch her but let her fall down hitting her head really hard and not caring if she was alive or dead. At times she was drugged, other times tied up and even abused. But, when the author describes how this man killed someone in cold blood for no reason and kept killing more and more you wonder where the heads and minds of the police were when they were made aware of this by Emma herself. How could they turn a blind eye and say they do not deal with domestic cases. What happened to the rights of humans?
Grandma O’Leary was austere and wicked and often treated Shannon to her own private insults and discord. But, when she went to visit her what she witnessed would remain with her until this day. A bizarre dark outline of a person in black boots and wearing a wig with pink lipstick, almost an illusion or specter who later would turn out to be his father dressed as his mother who threatened her with bodily harm if she moved and would kill her brothers and mother too. This was just the beginning as he would often drug her and her mother and sexually abuse her and beat her mother so badly she would hardly move and function. Her pet cat never had a chance and her other animals were killed and anything that she had to play with disappeared. The graphic descriptions are quite compelling and haunting as you can picture the end result of his acts of violence. When Emma begged his father for help they turned her away and said you married him you are now his property. But, when his brother Jack’s wife left and warned her to do the same she could not since her car, phone and her freedom along with any money were denied her. How could she leave four children to the care of this monster? How do you live in fear of your life? Why would he threaten to kill them all? Even in school when asked what her father did for a living she said,” He kills people,” and she got the wrath of the sister in charge. Living in this dark world, drugging her and feeling like she lived in that metal box and in a prison she might never escape it’s a wonder that she and her mother did not try and take his life for the benefit of others. Life was hard yet I wonder why no one heard their cries as the author discloses more of what her father made them endure. As her brother Michael suffered from poisoning that took quite some time to figure out the source, then regressing into his own shell and the author developing a stutter, even with the school aware that something was wrong they chalked it up to shy and young for her and poor Michael shell shocked you might say. But, her father killed many, destroyed their family love and unity and although he acted as if he had a demon inside of him and split personalities, no one realized at the time that he was mentally unstable. Rape was not uncommon, child abuse frequent and the laws to protect women not yet on the books. The deaths within the concentration camps were horrific and living with this man was like living in the same type of cells as the Holocaust victims.
How do you come back or live after seeing your father hack off someone’s head and roll if over a cliff? It that is not horrific enough the author watches as her father takes a young girl to a deserted spot and kills her in full view of the author by placing a guitar string around her neck and then taking a rail spike and driving it through her mouth.
Her own family and others would turn a blind eye to what her father was doing. The police would not interfere and the humiliation of having her family disgraced stopped them from ever helping her and her family nor would the nuns who stated her she was disobedient and did not comply to their rules rather then seeing what was really in front of them all the time. Even the police acted as if their hands were tied knowing that her father might be a killer and would not stop until maybe after his death. It was like they were living a life to illuminate his father’s hate, revenge and mental breakdown and sickness as he lived a make believe life of his own creation in his own mind. How can this not affect her even today?
When the nuns questioned her she held her mouth shut like a metal clamp was over it and each time her father wanted to torture and kill an animals she was tied up, gagged and made to watch. But, the one time she became deathly ill and in the hospital should have alerted authorities that she lived in a world that she needed to be protected from. With a mother that was helpless and the world around her so dark it is amazing that she loved girl scouts and dancing class and did not use them to escape her world and find herself somewhere where she can be accepted for her and not what her father wanted her to be. He did not only torture her but her mother too threatening to kill her if she told on him. How could she keep silent for so long? Why didn’t anyone realize what was happening and why did his own family turn a blind eye even after Ethel the grandmother died and even when he tried to pretend to be her at times. Shannon loved the fact that she was going to earn her first communion but the sadist in her father would ruin that too. Told in the first person you hear and see the events through her eyes in a graphic and definitely harsh way.
The scenes with the snakes and what he did to her with them might give anyone nightmares as it did the author maybe even now. The things she endured would have driven a child to insanity and yet she kept her mind but at times you wonder just how. In a house without any modern conveniences with a place that seemed as if it might come apart, imagine living deep inside a place that was barren, had long grass and poisonous snakes. In order to Patrick to do his dastardly deeds he would have to live and place his family in a place that was all by itself with no way to communicate with others. Even when Emma did have the car you never knew what he would do when she would return. It’s strange that she never just got them in the car and kept going. Why would she return?
Each incident described is even more telling than the one before it and the fact that the author relates that she did not use real names but in order to protect her family and even herself makes you wonder what would have happened if her father lived to read her words and if law enforcement would have ever finally taken action against him. Just how many did he really kill and how many if they could cry out would help lay blame for his murders. I wonder even now if when she closes her eyes to sleep if she does not relive what her father did to her.
The more you read this memoir the more you wonder just why she never expressed herself louder but fearing the wrath of her father on her mother and brothers and the fact that the doctor realized he was insane and only recommended counseling is quite thought provoking and the death of her grandfather made it even worse as he was the one person her father feared. Trying out for a television show, singing and hoping to distance herself from his nightly visits and often hiding in the cupboard or buried down deep with a metal door covering her and keeping her filled with bugs and even snakes you wonder how she managed to stay sane at all.
As the memoir draws to a close you find Shannon and her family moving to a new place and opening up a boatshed and a shop. But, her father is relentless and finds them but somehow they manage to protect themselves but he’s not the only one that they need to hide from as her mother’s new boyfriend Bill begins to show his colors too and fortunately he would eventually leave. This story is told in one voice yet at times you hear others too as Patrick justifies his murder and his actions in his own mind and Emma finally learns to fight back. Freedom comes to us in many ways in Shannon’s case it came on May 16, 2009. Her only regret till this day is that his victims were not all identified and no one would pay for their deaths and he never paid for his crimes. Child abuse laws are in effect today as well as laws against spousal abuse. But, even today schools, agencies that deal with this issue often discount some of what is reported and the victim does not always get justice. Teachers, counselors, parents, family members and the police need to still be more vigilant. This memoir is compelling and reminds us what happens when one young girl as she states often in this book is plagued with, “BLOOD ON MY HANDS.”
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine