A harrowing memoir of domestic violence and mental illness in 1960s and ’70s Australia.
O’Leary writes that, beginning when she was a toddler, she suffered abuse at the hands of her late father. She recalls him tossing her into the air, playful and fatherly, and then suddenly dropping his arms to his sides and letting her hit the ground. When she was 4, she writes, she first glimpsed one of her father’s multiple personalities: while playing at her paternal grandmother’s house, she saw a “grotesque figure” in black boots, a grey wig, and pink lipstick. The person, who turned out to be her father in disguise, looked like her grandmother, she says, but threatened to cut her with a razor. The following year, O’Leary writes, she watched her father brutally and inexplicably murder three people. The domestic violence then escalated, according to O’Leary, who says that her father chloroformed her, buried her, tied her up, and sexually abused her; her favorite pets died horrible deaths, and her toys were lost or destroyed. Her father, she says, killed again, several times, with her as a witness; she endured this in order to protect her mother and three brothers, she says, whom her father regularly threatened to kill. The family lived in the Australian bush with no phone and little recourse, as the police refused to get involved in domestic cases. The sections of the book portraying the abuse are powerful. In them, O’Leary shows a child who couldn’t make sense of the strange figures she saw, the handkerchief that made her black out, or a trench where she was imprisoned. The confusion, uncertainty, and sickening foreboding ring true and offer vital insights into the experience of abuse, including the fact that victims had few options, especially in the 1960s. Other sections, however, including descriptions of events well before the author’s birth, are written like a novel, providing precise details and dialogue as well as the thoughts in the characters’ heads. Although the book is billed as an autobiography, O’Leary reveals little about her adult life, such as how her childhood experience affected her relationships with her own five children or how it feels to finally disclose the perpetrator of so many unresolved murders.
A terrifying and telling memoir, but one that leave unanswered questions.