COLLETTE Wolfe has been on several journeys to hell at this stage.
The grief and anguish she suffered when her teenage daughter Leanne died by suicide in 2007 has been well documented. It is a story we are sadly familiar with, due to the fact Collette has taken the courageous step of becoming an activist, speaking on radio, appearing on television, and giving talks at schools and other gatherings, trying desperately to change the culture of bullying that drove her daughter to such desperation.
Now, in her newly published memoir,, we learn for the first time of Collette’s other journeys to hell.
Born in 1961, one of 11 children, she grew up in Ballyphehane, but as she tells us in the book, her childhood ended at the age of eight when she was sexually abused by a man known and trusted by her family — abuse that would go on for the next three years.
She writes: “He said that if I told anybody, they wouldn’t believe me and he would beat the living daylights out of me. After he was finished, he’d call me a dirty bitch. He filled my head with lies until I came to believe it was my fault, that I’d made him do it.”
The young girl lived silently with shame, fear, self-loathing and the brainwashed sense of guilt and responsibility. She learned not to trust anyone, but despite her wariness, she was to visit hell again at the age of 17 on a night out with her friend Catherine, who went for a walk with a chap while Collette took a stroll with another man. In an isolated spot their kissing became heated and he ignored her when she said no. She tried to escape but when he caught up with her he grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the ground, beat her and raped her.
This time, she couldn’t keep it a secret, as she arrived home bloodied and bruised and with only one boot on. The guards were called and it was six weeks before she could return to work due to her injuries. She hated that everyone knew about it.
“The worst part of it was my abuser knowing. I still saw him regularly, and I could see he was gloating, telling me with his smile that I’d got what I deserved. It made me sick to my stomach”, she writes in her book.
At the time of the rape, she was on a break from her fledgling relationship with Anthony, the man whom she would go on to marry and who has been her rock throughout her turmoil. But even he had to wait a long time to win her full trust and love.
“I met him when I was 15. He was a decent young man but I didn’t trust him”, she says, recalling how her guard was always up.
It wasn’t until Collette’s beloved sister Frances was dying of cancer at the age of 40 (she passed away on Leanne’s 11th birthday) that something changed. Anthony was due to go for a pint on St Stephen’s Day with the lads, as was his tradition, but he declined due to Frances’ condition. “He didn’t go. He said, ‘Nah, why would I go up there? I’ll spend the time with Frances’. I saw that compassion and love, and also what it meant to her. My sister said, ‘He really loves you’, and that’s the day I fell in love with my husband.”
This was just seven years before Anthony answered the phone in their Lanzarote hotel room, taking the call that shattered their lives; learning that their darling daughter Leanne had died by suicide less than two weeks after turning 18.
The family was engulfed in further horror, when on the morning of Leanne’s funeral her secret diaries were found, outlining in detail the relentless bullying she had suffered for five years. She had instructed that certain pages were to be read out at her funeral and named each of the bullies — girls from Cork city; schoolgirls Leanne had got to know when the family lived in Glanmire, although the Wolfes had since moved to Rathcormac and were only 12 weeks into living in Carrigtwohill when Leanne died.
For a long time, Collette was tortured by the thought of Leanne silently enduring the bullies, trying to understand why she hadn’t confided in any of her family who would have tried to protect her. In her book, she reflects on this: “Why had she kept so silent? I looked back on my own childhood and found the answer. She’d said nothing for the same reason I’d said nothing. She thought she deserved it.”
At Leanne’s funeral Collette made a promise to herself: “I didn’t know how I was going to get through the rest of my life, never mind the rest of the day, but I did know one thing: I would never live in secrecy again.”
Secrets had always been a part of Collette’s life. Not only did she keep her experience of childhood abuse from her husband for a long time, she had also kept from him for ten years the fact that she couldn’t read or write. Later in life she came to realise she was dyslexic (her book is ghost-written by Brian Finnegan), as was Leanne, who should have been exempt from Irish in the Leaving Cert that she never got to sit.
Months had passed, with Collette in a state of anger and rage at the bullies, and consumed by grief and depression. All the family (they also have son Ant and daughter Triona) struggled to cope in their own ways. One saving grace came in the form of Mark Ryan, the garda who had attended the scene of Leanne’s death, who had befriended the family and introduced them to his Christian faith. Although having a Catholic upbringing, God hadn’t featured in Collette’s life.
“I never looked for God; I never brought the children to mass. I wasn’t anti-God but I didn’t think he was real. Actually He was always there. I was the one that was lost,” she says.
In Collette’s darkest moment, she seriously considered making death a reality, but experienced a form of divine intervention.
“The pain was so bad — and the emptiness. I just wanted to feel something that wasn’t Leanne... You just want to close your eyes and stop the torment. I was sitting in the car and crying and I said, ‘I know you’re real but you need to show me you’re real’. Then I felt warm, as if I was being held. The love I felt in that car, I can’t express, but I carry it with me every day. The joy that filled me, it overflowed.”
Since then Collette has continued to attend the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) at Inspiration House near the Kinsale Road roundabout, although she is keen to tell me that, “a church is not a building, it’s a body of people coming together”. Our conversation constantly swings back around to the subject of God.
“If someone saved your life, would you tell everyone?” she asks, before clarifying, “I don’t do religion, I have a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The journey she has been on and the peace she has found means that Collette has now learned forgiveness.
“I’ve forgiven Leanne’s bullies — and my abuser was easier to forgive than them. If we don’t forgive, God doesn’t forgive us. I pray for those people” She says she sometimes feels sorry for them, although she suspects they are not haunted by what happened and that they have never shown any remorse. She declines to say if they should be prosecuted.
Collette considered calling her book. She explains: “When someone loses their husband or wife they are called a widow or widower. When someone loses their parent they’re called an orphan. There’s no name for me. I battled mightily with that. It’s not normal; you’re not meant to bury a child.” Another title she contemplated was .
In telling her story, Collette seeks to show that there is always hope. Every year she and Anthony organise the Concert of Hope at City Hall, the seventh of which will take place on September 19. And Leanne will always be in her heart.
“I was very blessed to have Leanne for 18 years. Outside the bullying she had a wonderful life. I can’t turn back time. I can’t bring Leanne back to me but one day I’ll go to Leanne. I’ve no fear of death.”
is published by Hachette Ireland.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this interview here are some support numbers:
The Samaritans, free confidential 24/7 helpline on 116-123 or email j o @ s a m a ri t a n s . i e
Or contact Pieta House National Suicide Helpline on 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444
Sexual Violence Centre Cork: firstname.lastname@example.org, Freephone 1800 496 496 or Text 087 1533393.