'Every day is a battle': Breaking the cycle of sexual abuse

Having her own daughter convinced Eileen to ‘end the cycle of abuse’ in her family, writes Liz Dunphy
'Every day is a battle': Breaking the cycle of sexual abuse
Chairperson of the Referendum Commission Ms Justice Tara Burns. Photo Clive Wasson

Having her own daughter convinced Eileen to ‘end the cycle of abuse’ in her family, writes Liz Dunphy

Eileen Follette who waived her right to anonymity so that her abuser could be named in a court case last month.
Eileen Follette who waived her right to anonymity so that her abuser could be named in a court case last month.

At just 13, Eileen Follette's life was almost destroyed by her cousin's repeated sexual abuse.

In her first interview since her abuser was convicted, Ms Follette has told the Irish Examiner that the experience left her so "crippled with shame and guilt" that she would tear open her own skin to try to escape her asphyxiating emotions.

The abuse would tear her family apart, damage her mental health and drive her far away from her home in Tralee to forge a new life in America.

But after having her own daughter she wanted to “end the cycle of abuse” and took her cousin to court 25 years later.

Padraig Tangney Jnr, 39, received a suspended prison sentence on June 18 for sexually assaulting his younger cousin.

Tangney pleaded guilty to abusing Ms Follette at his family home in Meadowlands Estate, Tralee, Co Kerry on unknown dates in 1995 and 1996. He was 16 and she was 13 at the time.

“I’m 38 now and I have no ovaries or uterus. I lost all my lady parts to endometriosis. Doctors told me it could have been caused by the introduction of foreign cells to my body before it was ready.

“I’m so lucky to have my wonderful 13-year-old daughter but I’ll never have another child."

Justice Tara Burns said that at the time of offending Tangney was legally a child himself which had to be considered as an aspect of sentence mitigation.

A late guilty plea (on day three of the trial but before evidence was given) and apology for his behaviour also mitigated his sentence.

But Justice Burns said that not condemning him to jail should not be seen “as vindication” or as a lessening of the “enormous impact” of his assaults on the victim.

“When my 13-year-old asks, ‘what happened? Is he in jail? I have to say ‘no’,” Ms Follette said.

This man took away so much and he took total advantage of my innocence and left me crippled with shame and guilt that resulted in me not having the strength for many years to break the secret.

“I struggle daily with these feelings, some days I cannot get out of bed as I cannot bear to face my reality. I started self- harming at the time of the abuse and I still tear my skin when the pain becomes too much to bear."

Ms Follette said that the abuse was so damaging that it drove her to spend time in a psychiatric unit, caused her to have psychological counselling for years and medication to cope with depression.

She still experiences regular nightmares, leaving her unable to sleep.

“I wake up sweating and my heart racing and I feel extremely anxious," she said. "I still get flashbacks and sometimes it feels like I am reliving the abusive experiences. I will feel sweaty and thoughts start racing through my head. I have to reassure myself on an on-going basis that I am now safe.” Ms Follette disputes the authenticity of her cousin’s remorse expressed in court, believing its sole purpose was to reduce his sentence.

“He waited to plead guilty so don’t tell me he did that for me. He was hoping he’d get away with it and when he realised he couldn’t he changed his plea to get a lighter sentence.

“And he never reached out before. So to be so apologetic in court at the end was only because it suited him.

“He threatened me for years not to tell anyone. If I did, he said my mum would die of a heart attack. She had a mitral valve prolapse and was going up to Cork for treatment at the time so I believed him.

Chairperson of the Referendum Commission Ms Justice Tara Burns. Photo Clive Wasson
Chairperson of the Referendum Commission Ms Justice Tara Burns. Photo Clive Wasson

“I was contacted by someone to say that he had written an apology but I’m not going to give it the time of day. We all know they’re empty words. I’m not reading it, I’ve given him enough of my time and my tears."

Ms Follette finally mustered the courage to tell her mum about the abuse when she was 13 and her immediate family rallied around her.

“They brought me down to the Guards but no charges were pressed. I was petrified.

“My mum, dad and sister were the only family that stood up for me and acknowledged it.

“It was Ireland in the 90s, that thing brought shame on the family, so their mindset was, ‘best sweep it under the carpet.’ “There was this attitude that sex abuse happens in every family, it’s passed down the generations and people don’t talk about it. But when I had my own little girl I had to do everything I could to make sure it stopped so it could never happen to her.

"If that meant losing my family then that was something I had to face."

Ms Follette’s childhood was destroyed by the abuse. It ripped the family apart, and caused the borders of her hometown in rural Ireland to close in on her, shrinking her ambitions and smothering her self-worth.

Unable to concentrate, her school work suffered.

“I left school early. I found it really difficult to concentrate and often experienced flashbacks,” Ms Follette wrote in a victim impact statement read to the court.

“I felt dirty and ashamed and believed I was the only one this had happened to and it must have been my fault.

“I lived with the constant anxiety of seeing my abuser or family members.” Ms Follette moved to America in a bid to escape her demons aged 20. Although they followed her there, she forged a new life. Her husband, brother-in-law and the ‘fort of amazing women’ she met in the US gave her the strength to pursue the case against her cousin.

But Tralee is now tainted for her.

“His family was my family. He took home away from me,” she said. “And he’s still robbing from me. My dad won’t fly so it’s hard to see him.

“When I heard that he couldn’t be named in court unless I was also named I was sickened. In Ireland it always seems to be the victims that have to fight hardest for their rights.” In her victim impact statement, Ms Follette told the court: "A part of me wishes I could stand up look you in the eye and not shake from fear, and say that despite your abuse my life has been fine, that I don’t think about what you did every day and struggle to stay alive, but I can’t because my reality is so much different.

“Every day is a battle, I am triggered on a constant basis, it could be a smell, a word or thoughts that remind me of the sexual assaults, and I am flooded with anxiety and panic," she wrote.

“I struggle to breathe and the fear that I will fall to pieces and not be able to function.

“I often feel suicidal and believe that my family would be better off without me. I know that some of my thoughts are not rational but in that time of panic surviving becomes so difficult."

Ms Follette said that the "ripple effect" of the abuse has impacted many lives - affecting her daughter, her relationship with her husband and her own mother who has 'grappled with guilt because she could not protect her.'

“But the support I’ve had from my mum, my sister, dad, husband, brother-in-law, all my friends here and from Detective Sergeant Gary Carroll has been phenomenal. They are my rocks," Ms Follette said.

“My new chosen family make up in leaps and bounds for the family I lost. And my daughter is my bright light.”

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