Growing up, Shannon O’Leary thought her life was as normal as any other child she passed on the streets of Australia. However, under the guise of a charming, caring and churchgoing man of faith, Shannon’s father, Patrick, proceeded to terrorize his family for years with physical abuse, an unpredictable temper and twisted mind games.
Unfortunately, Patrick’s violent and psychotic behavior did not end at the family’s front door. The O’Leary patriarch’s horrific acts extended to murder and dismemberment, and Shannon was forced to witness her serial killer father’s cruel, brutal deeds on multiple occasions. With little assistance available from Australian authorities during the 1960s and 70s, Shannon and her family were forced to endure a terrible rollercoaster existence for many years at the hands of a man they were taught to love and trust.
Shannon has shared her story with the release of her independently published memoir, The Blood on My Hands, which issued earlier this year. For purchasing information, please visit Book Publicity Services here.
Shannon O’Leary kindly spoke with True Crime Factor to discuss her childhood, the journey toward discovering happiness and her decision to publish The Blood on My Hands.
I’d like to begin by asking you about the book. Can you tell us how the opportunity to write The Blood on My Hands came about and why you decided to share your story?
I wrote the book many years ago. It was a way I could express myself and deal with what had happened to me as a child. For years I left the work unpublished because I was terrified of my father and repercussions. He died several years ago and I decided to wait until my children were over eighteen years of age to publish. I must admit I still was reticent to share my story, but then my mother, partner and eldest son said it was time to publish the book.
The title of the book suggests that you feel responsible in some way for the horrific deeds of your biological father, Patrick. Is the name indicative of any guilt you carry or is it more descriptive as it relates to some of the terrible things you experienced by being forced to witness his crimes?
When I was a child, I did feel responsible for what my father did. This was because he would insinuate that everything was my fault. As an adult, I do not feel I was responsible for what my father did and I realize I was a victim, a kind of pawn in a mad chess game. However, I do sometimes feel guilty despite me not being the perpetrator. It is a lifelong scar, a kind of childhood-enforced mindset that colours the way I think and feel in everyday life. I am also deeply saddened that the victims have not been found or identified. I called the book The Blood on my Hands because on one occasion there was literally blood on my hands.
Having endured so much during your youth, you appear to have risen above everything to build a wonderful life for yourself. What do you credit most for your ability to overcome such trauma and become the sane and strong person you are today?
I have to give credit to my mother for that. She taught me not to dwell on the past, live for today and try to aim for a better future. I have also been fortunate to meet some wonderful mentors and kind and respectful friends along the way. These people helped me to view life as a gift and see things from different perspective. Education has also helped me to be a more understanding person and in many ways has helped me move on to a better future. I think my ability to express my feelings through my writing as a teenager also helped me to wade through the mix of muddled emotions and confusion. I kept journals, painted, wrote music and played the piano endlessly. It is in these times of solitude that I came to realize who I am and once I accepted myself and my past, it became easier to move on.
You have been open about your own life’s journey following the split between your parents. How did your mother and siblings fare after finally escaping Patrick’s emotional, psychological and physical clutches (albeit not completely)?
My mother spent many years trying to gain her self-confidence back. I can remember her borrowing positive thinking and assertive training books from the local library. Her attitude of “Just get on with living” helped all of us. During our teenage years we all had to find ourselves and learn what could make us happy. I am not saying that life has been perfect for us – we all have our ups and downs – but life does move forward and the past becomes more distant with each passing day. My brothers all have happy lives as adults and have been successful in their chosen careers.
There will undoubtedly be those who are perplexed by the system’s reluctance to assist your family or question why your mother did not leave Patrick sooner. Can you describe for those people the difference in climate during that time as it pertains to domestic and criminal violence?
The laws in the 1960s and 70s did little to protect those in an abusive situation. Many child abuse cases were swept under the rug, as there were not laws in place to protect children. Domestic violence was prevalent, and wives were expected to do what they were told by their husbands. The Catholic Church frowned upon divorce, and people were scared of social repercussions. My mother was a Catholic and believed you married for life, for better or for worse. Once she became conditioned to his abuse, she could see no way out of the situation. Fear paralyses people who are domestic violence sufferers.
I didn’t write this in the book, but due to the desperate nature of her situation, my mother tried to commit suicide twice during this time. She swallowed some pills and, luckily, she vomited them all back up again and didn’t succeed. She also tried to drive head into a telegraph pole. I remember this event because we were all in the backseat of the car. She revved up the engine and started to drive really fast towards the pole. Then she slammed on the brakes and we all went flying off the back seat, hit the front seat and fell onto the floor. We were all crying and then we realized mum had her head on the steering wheel and was sobbing uncontrollably. She said later she couldn’t go through with it and I am glad she didn’t.
Many people who suffer traumatic childhoods are often unaware of the severity of their situation until reflecting upon it later in life, as such conditions are all that they know. Would you place yourself in this category?
Definitely! We thought our life was normal. I thought every family was the same. At school, we were told to honor our father and mother and do what we were told. I was a severely traumatized and frightened child, but I thought I was selfish and a sinner for not being thankful for what I had. It was the 1960s and as Catholic school children, the Mercy nuns showed us films of African missions and Project Compassion. As I got older, I began to realize my family was dysfunctional, but I still felt luckier than those living in a war zone or starving in Africa.
Patrick never murdered a member of your immediate family despite constantly spewing such threats. Obviously, it is very difficult to fathom the mindset of a madman, but why do you feel he seemingly preferred to torment you by forcing you to witness his heinous acts?
They say that serial killers keep tokens to remind them of their kill; well, I think I was his token. I was his living, walking memory of the horrendous deeds he inflicted on others. Every day, he could see the horror in my eyes and the fear on my face. He used to laugh at me and ask, “Why are you afraid of me?” in a sing-song voice and then laugh and make a warning gesture, like pretending to cut his throat or snap a neck. As for killing us, I honestly believe if we had stayed a day or even a week more we would have been killed. I think in all his madness he believed the housekeeper was my mother.
To say you were compelled to “grow up fast” would be an understatement. In the book, you write about everything from feeling like your mother’s protector to juggling three jobs as a teenager. How did this instilled sense of responsibility affect you upon reaching adulthood?
Maybe my sense of responsibility is a way of me trying to have some control over my life. As a teenager, we were still very poor and I knew I needed to work and earn money to buy things I needed for school. I started teaching in a school when I was fifteen and had to pretend I was older and I was always worried I’d accidentally say or do something wrong. For this reason, I became focused on trying to get things right and trying to succeed at what I do. I have always been a bit of a workaholic and I suppose you could say I keep myself busy so I don’t get dragged back into the past.
You state in The Blood on My Hands that your father’s stalking lasted until the end of his life. How did you cope with such a heavy mental burden for so many years?
I slept with a hammer under my pillow and a knife in a drawer by my bed for years. I also made sure I had bars on every window and deadlocks on the doors. I never left anything sharp around like scissors, in case he broke in (in fact, I only had butter knives, never sharp ones in the house). I made sure my children had seen a picture of him and were warned about never talking to him. Like many people in a stalking situation, you learn to accept the stalking as part of life. You live your life looking over your shoulder and trying to watch your back. You create thousands of “What if?“ scenarios and escape plans, just in case. This doesn’t make life any easier, but it gives you a kind of false comfort and maybe the hope you’ll get away some day.
Many readers will likely be mystified as to how Patrick was able to perpetrate such horrendous crimes without being detected. What would your response be to them?
My father was clever, charming and methodical. He was also very intelligent in spite of his madness. He went to church every Sunday and was a volunteer firefighter. He made sure his victims were random people without families so that no one would look for them. The Australian National Parks are covered in dense bush land; it was easy for him to dispose of bodies in the 1960s. He also lit fires to cover his tracks. I told people what was happening, but they didn’t believe me – after all, I was just a child. That’s why he got away with it.
You were raised in the Catholic faith, but speak in the book of being conflicted about religion during your teen years. How do you feel about the subject of God and faith today?
Faith is a very personal thing. I am a very spiritual person and believe that everyone has the right to believe in whatever makes them better people here on earth; be it God, evolution, philosophy, or a spiritual essence. Hate is a wasted emotion and we should try to live in harmony and not cause chaos and destruction.
Your love of music and the arts has resulted in great success professionally and is clearly something that helped balance your life during awful times. Can you discuss what these passions have meant to you over the years?
My love of music and the arts has been my lifeline. It gives me the ability to cut away from the past, to aspire to new things and create things of beauty and reflection. The beauty of being creative is that it can take place in a noisy, energy-filled environment or in solitude. Music is a great healer and so is the written word. The two together are a formidable mix. The out-pouring from my soul allows me to see things more clearly, to make definitive decisions and to see my life from different angles. Through writing songs and making films, I have learned to listen to other people. I love to hear people’s stories and I truly believe that every person has a voice and they can teach you something. This is because life starts as a blank canvas and it becomes more textured, convoluted and rich as we grow.
The Blood on My Hands examines the possibility of some of Patrick’s crimes being resolved. Do you feel there is hope that any of his victims will one day have recognition?
That is a really hard question. As the years slip by, though, I feel hope is fading. It happened so many years ago, but I do hope if anyone knows anything that they will come forward. I would love for them to be recognized and for their families to have some closure.
Patrick died in May 2009. Can you describe what his demise has meant for you during the past seven years?
It was surreal at first. I wrote in the book it is a bit like pushing against the wind and then the wind drops. At first I felt confused and upset for his victims. I was glad it was over, then realized it could never be over because of his victims. I felt like there was no resolution for the victims and this made me angry. I still sometimes have nightmares but they are nowhere as bad as they were before.
How are things in the world of Shannon O’Leary today? Are you happy?
Yes, I am happy. My children are all happy and making their own way in the world and I have a wonderful partner who is always there for me. My mother is well and we all are in good health. Life is definitely worth living and you never know what wonderful things are around the corner.
In closing, is there anything else you wish to say to readers?
If you are in abusive relationship, please get away from the abuser and seek help immediately. The laws are different now and there is hope for you and your children. The future is always one step away from the past. Keep moving forward to a safer and happy future.
Thank you for your time, Shannon. I greatly admire all you have overcome in your life and wish you the very best moving forward.