Book Reviews

The Blood On My Hands: An Autobiography by Shannon O’Leary

The Blood on My Hands is a heartbreaking—yet riveting—narrative of a childhood spent in pain and terror, betrayed by the people who are supposed to provide safety and understanding.

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“Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum….” he rambled, watching the furniture he had just set alight burn while his family ran around with buckets of water.

“Your husband has a multiple personality disorder.” the doctor said, “If I commit him, he will prove he is sane and when he is released, he will kill you and the children.  Let’s try and subdue him with some form of therapy first”  he continued, before abruptly leaving the family home never to be seen again.

In 1960’s and 70’s Australia, there was a stigma engulfing domestic violence, mental health and child abuse and it was a stigma which kept the pain and torment of families hidden behind closed doors with few outlets for support and help.

The story Shannon O’Leary has to tell in her autobiography The Blood On My Hands is chilling and it is terrifying. A child who endures a childhood full of terror is child that when grown into an adult,  has to find a way to process and deal with their experiences.  In today’s world childhood abuse is at a frightening level and this is abuse carried out on innocent children most often at the hands of their own parents.

Shannon O’Leary grew up deep in the Australian outback on the outskirts of Sydney.  She lived on secluded and private land with her parents and two brothers in surroundings where brutality, abuse and murder could take place away from prying eyes. In The Blood On My Hands, Shannon O’Leary tells of her childhood and her experiences growing up with a man who ruled his household through fear, violence and abuse.

Related: Parents Who Kill Their Children [Book Review]

This is a deeply personal memoir written to try and lay some of these ghosts to rest not only in the mind of Shannon O’Leary, but for the many other victims of her father. For her father was a man who not only terrorized his own wife and children, but who murdered innocent individuals who were unfortunate enough to cross his path.  All of which his young daughter witnessed, not quite believing what she was seeing.

Patrick O’Leary was a disturbed man who showed signs of multiple personality disorder.  He enjoying inflicting pain.  He thrived on holding power over his family which in turn encouraged his murderous behaviour outside his family unit.  For Shannon O’Leary her father was a man who would creep into her bedroom at night, a man who would dress up as her grandmother and hold a razor to her face.

“A killer walked among us. He was not consumed by his conscience. He was protected by his personalities, his manifestations of himself.”

Clearly mentally ill, he would rant and rave and ramble wildly along with his volatile and unpredictable behaviour. No organizations were in place and available to offer support. No laws were in place to protect victims of domestic violence and the children suffering from abuse.

When her mother did reach out to the family of her husband she was told to stand by her man, to be a good wife and mother and not to cause any trouble. Her pleas for help and her honest expressions of fear were ignored and brushed aside. When police were begged for help, despite being covered in bruises and clearly terrified, her mother was turned away and told unless someone was killed ‘they couldn’t interfere‘.

This book in many ways is difficult to read.  The facts of this story are so horrific, all the more so when told from the perspective of a child who had to endure this terror day after day.  It is a scale of fear I don’t think any of us can fully grasp. Equally the power of this writing keeps you turning pages and keeps you pushing forward to find out how this horror ended and what was the outcome for this family and the man at the centre of this storm.

Shannon O’Leary has written the majority of her story through the eyes of her young self. She describes ‘the Games Man’, one of her father’s many personas who would play cruel tricks and chuckle while she struggled and suffered. The Clown with his ‘furry yellow hair’ who appeared at night to do things a little girl just didn’t understand.

“Sometimes I felt I knew what it was like to be dead. When I lay in the cold, damp grave with the rusty mental door above me, I could almost feel the arms of death reaching out to grab me.”

Her father became a man that she called The Devil. He tied her up, he buried her in the dark, tortured her animals in front of her eyes and hissed horrid words that a small child should never hear. “When I decide you have suffered enough, you can die, not before….understand, I make the rules….you die when I say”.

With his death in 2009 came some relief and taking her story to the police did bring investigation but with no physical evidence, no remains of the women and travellers Shannon O’Leary and her mother witnessed being killed, police only have their word to go on.

A mentally ill, unstable man got away with murder alongside the violence and abuse he inflicted on his own family year after year.  Shannon O’Leary has to be admired for facing her past and laying it bare through this book.  Demons which haunt her are detailed and explained and the traumatic experiences from her childhood are confronted head on.

With the writing perspective sometimes being from a 5-year-old girl and others being from an adult point of view, the narrative can in places, be difficult to follow. However, there is no doubt this book is an admirably honest, compelling and detailed account of years of trauma and as a result, it is not a book which can be read lightly.  The strength shown by this author in surviving her childhood and in writing this book is a lesson to all of us. While The Blood On My Hands is a shocking read, these are words you will never forget.

You can purchase a copy of The Blood On My Hands: An Autobiography by Shannon O’Leary at Amazon.

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