All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Kathleen Folbigg by Matthew Benns

on May 26, 2020

Kathleen Folbigg: Australia’s Worst Female Serial Killer
Matthew Benns
Penguin Random House AUS
2019, 368p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

This revised and updated edition of WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS is the true story of Australia’s worst convicted female serial killer, Kathleen Folbigg. She killed her four children over 10 years.

This is the true story of Australia’s worst convicted female serial killer, Kathleen Folbigg. Kathleen’s children, Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura Folbigg, died one by one over a 10-year period in similar circumstances — suddenly, unexpectedly and while sleeping. Each time, it was Kathleen who raised the alarm to her husband, Craig.

When the Folbiggs’ marriage fell apart after the death of their fourth child, Craig was devastated. He discovered Kathleen’s diary in her bedside drawer, filled with ramblings about losing control with the children and her ‘terrible thoughts’. The diary was the crucial evidence detectives had been searching for and in 2003 Kathleen Folbigg was jailed for forty years.

After her conviction she and her supporters fought hard, protesting her innocence. At her trial she’d allowed her diaries to speak for her. They did, damningly. But what if she were able to explain her entries? Medical and legal experts brought pressure on the NSW attorney-general to order a judicial inquiry into her conviction. Finally, in 2019, Folbigg had the chance to speak for herself.

This updated book takes us from the discovery of each of her children’s bodies, through Folbigg’s own tragic past, to her long-awaited explanation of what happened to Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura. The outcome is a searing look into the mind of Australia’s worst female serial killer.

I always knew that when picking a true crime book for my participation in Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out’s 2020 NonFiction Reader Challenge, it was probably going to be a tough read. But this was disturbing on so many levels.

Most Australians with even a passing interest in the news probably recognise if not the name Kathleen Folbigg, then the case. During a 10 year period, she and her husband Craig buried four babies – sons Caleb and Patrick followed by daughters Sarah and Laura. For a long time, it seemed like they were the most unlucky of couples. Their first son Caleb was ruled a death by SIDS – sudden infant death syndrome, when an infant dies with no discernible cause, of suffocation or asphyxiation. When Caleb was born, SIDS was probably only just becoming something that there were developing guidelines for, in order to help prevent it. When they introduced things like always placing your baby on its back to sleep, not covering it with anything that could be pulled over its face, reducing smoking in the home, not co-sleeping, no bumpers in cots (this is an Australian guideline, but doesn’t exist in other countries like the US), the deaths dropped dramatically. And it wasn’t known to have any genetic or family factors so the Folbiggs would try again, welcoming baby Patrick. But then…..Patrick suffered not one, but two episodes of being found unresponsive by his mother. The first time, attending ambulance officers were able to revive him, although he would suffer brain damage and ongoing seizures from the lack of oxygen to his brain. The second time, he could not be revived. For one death of SIDS in a family, would be tragic. Two? That would be incredibly unlucky. So when baby Sarah arrived, surely….surely… could not happen again.

Except it did. And then again, to Laura, their final child, who was 18 months when she too was found unresponsive by her mother during an afternoon nap. However a detective following up on the death was suspicious – and he began looking into the previous deaths, eventually coming to the incredible and shocking decision that the Folbiggs had struck these monstrous odds of losing four children not by chance, but because the children’s own mother was smothering them in their sleep. Kathleen Folbigg was charged with four counts of murder, one count of manslaughter on the first baby and charges of grievous bodily harm for the failed attempt on Patrick, that rendered him brain damaged. She would eventually be found guilty of the manslaughter of Caleb, the murder of Patrick, Sarah and Laura and guilty of the GBH charge on Patrick.

Crucial to the conviction of Kathleen Folbigg were the diaries she kept when her children were born, which seem to contain somewhat chilling admissions that she was the reason the previous babies were no longer with them. After the death of Laura, their fourth child, the marriage of Craig and Kathleen broke down and Craig found one of the diaries that she’d left in the house. Grief stricken and confused, he took it to the same detective that already had his suspicions about the deaths. For that detective, the diaries just confirmed what he already believed. That unable to cope with the babies, Kathleen had smothered each of them.

Disturbingly, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between babies who do die of SIDS – an unexplained death in their sleep and babies who are smothered. In fact you’ll find all sorts of experts who disagree over cases, including this one. For experts for the prosecution that analysed autopsy reports and claimed there were no other mitigating factors in their deaths to ones for the defense that pointed out this thing or that thing that could’ve been. An expert calculated the odds of the one family having four babies die in their sleep in this way and it came back at 1 in 1 trillion – a number so big you might as well make up any random number. There were several things that didn’t fit the SIDS profile – a lot of the babies were outside the parameters of when SIDS mostly strikes which is between 3-6 months. Caleb was 19 days old. Sarah was between 10 and 11 months – not outside the realms of possibility but again, quite unlikely. Laura was almost 19 months old. In each case, they were always found unresponsive by their mother, who raised the alarm. On several occasions, her story changed. On at least one occasion, her story didn’t match her husband’s story of what had been happening at a certain time.

I have two children and both were excellent sleepers on the whole, but also had their moments. I remember a day when my eldest was probably about 4 months old maybe? I was alone, my husband was at work for about 12 hours and he would not feed or sleep and he screamed most of the day. I was at my wits end and remember thinking to myself I have to take a break. I put him in his cot with nothing else in there and went out the front of the house and took I don’t know, somewhere between 5-10 minutes to regroup and regather myself before I went back in and got him and tried again. Babies can test you mentally in many ways and there’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And it seemed like the bulk of the care was left to Kathleen as a lot of the time Craig was working and he was a heavy overnight sleeper who did not wake when the babies cried. But there were definitely other factors at play too.

Kathleen required very strict routines and she disliked it when Craig upset them, wanting to play with the children or rile them up at bedtime (with Sarah and Laura, who were both older when they died). Look in some ways I can sympathise with that. Caring for a baby all day is exhausting and demanding and sometimes, what gets you through the day is the thought of bedtime. Knowing that they’ll go to bed and silence will reign and you can have a shower or eat a hot meal or just….sit down. And do nothing. Having someone come in and disrupt that, even their own father, can be infuriating. But Kathleen took routines to the extreme and often saw the babies as restricting her ability to go out and see her friends or go to the gym and there were disturbing reports that she bounced back from the death of each baby very quickly, seemingly getting on with her life as it had been before babies, while Craig would be drowning in grief. She would often tell him she’d leave him if he didn’t “snap out of it”.

A lot of disturbing things about Kathleen’s early life came out in the trial and honestly, it was quite horrific. I feel as though there were extenuating circumstances in a way – not that it’s ever an excuse for what she did, nor do I understand it. But there were definitely things about her life that had impacted on her in ways that no one could’ve predicted or understood. And sometimes I felt to myself, why did she keep having babies?! WHY? But I honestly feel that she thought each time would be different. She would be older, more mature, better able to cope, to not ‘lose it’ as she often put it in her diaries. I think she genuinely believed that it would turn out different….and maybe she doesn’t even fully comprehend what she did. She certainly maintained her innocence and I think, still does. But having read everything, I find it impossible to believe those children died of natural causes with no intervention. In particular, Sarah and Laura.

This book is an updated version of a previously published book because in 2018, there was an inquiry into the convictions in response to a petition by supporters of Kathleen Folbigg, 15 years after her conviction and sentencing. The result of that inquiry was damning for Kathleen Folbigg with a 500 page report from the judge stating that he had no cause for any reasonable doubt as to her conviction. If anything it reiterated the decision, rather than raise any questions over it. She remains incarcerated in a high security NSW prison and will be eligible for parole in 2028.

This made me sad, both for Kathleen due to her own childhood and also for those four children. For Craig, who was alerted five times by terrible screaming, that something was wrong with his children. For anyone who had loved them and cared for them. For the ambulance officers and/or doctors who would try to resuscitate them in vain. And I can only imagine that for the detective who charged Kathleen, it was a long difficult investigation. Proving that a mother killed her children when there were no actual injuries, is not easy. And it also raises questions when other babies die of unexplained causes. These babies were all autopsied and it seemed that even after three of them it wasn’t really viewed as anything more than an inexplicable tragedy by most people. If some did have a few doubts, no one did anything until the fourth baby died.

Apart from an overly emotional prologue, this book seems well researched and gives a clear picture of not just the events surrounding the babies’ deaths but also Kathleen’s upbringing, her time in foster care, her marriage to Craig and her state of mind at various times.


Book #94 of 2020

I chose this book deliberately for my participation in the 2020 NonFiction Reader Challenge hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. I’m using it tick off the True Crime category and as my 6th book completed for the challenge, it actually means that I achieve the goal I originally set out for myself when signing up. However I’m going so well that I’m going to try and cover all 12 prompts.

1. Memoir

2. Disaster Event

3. Social Science

4. Related to an Occupation

5. History

6. Feminism

7. Psychology

8. Medical Issue

9. Nature

10. True Crime

11. Science

12. Published in 2020

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