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Convicted by her Own Words

Kathleen Folbigg was referred to by the media as ‘Australia’s worst female serial killer’ after being convicted of the murder of her four infant children and was sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years in gaol. She always denied the allegation.

Twenty years later, the judge who presided over the inquiry into her conviction said that there was now a significant body of evidence to suggest her children died from natural causes which culminated in her pardon and release.

Her conviction appears to have depended on two key factors. One is the now discredited line of reasoning called Meadow’s law which suggests that three or more infant deaths in one family was murder unless proven otherwise. The second was her diaries.

Journaling is a popular, low cost, low side effect, non-pharmacological intervention to improve mental health outcomes. It has two main forms used in psychotherapy, the first being expressive writing where a person is encouraged to record their ‘deepest thoughts and feelings’ while the second is a gratitude journal which focusses attention on positive aspects of a person’s life. A meta-analysis of the efficacy of expressive writing journals by Sohal et al (2022) concluded that this intervention resulted in an average statistically significant 5% reduction in patient scores on mental health measures compared with controls, with a greater benefit in anxiety (9%) and PTSD (6%), and lesser benefit in depression (2%).

Kathleen Folbigg’s grief counsellor suggested she use this tool and the diaries became ‘a place to dump all my negative feelings’, becoming ‘my therapist’. ‘Good advice that proved to be’ she is reported to have said.

Good advice it is in usual circumstances, but not in this context. The diaries became proof that she was a murderer with entries interpreted as admissions of guilt. One psychiatrist suggested that her response was not typical of a mother in grief and her approach avoidant which made her statements appear to be confessions. Despite a psychiatrist and psychologist attesting that her writing was reflective of a person experiencing grief and attempting to understand why terrible things had happened, her words condemned her. No verbal denial could erase the certainty that the written words produced.

Diaries are private spaces where a person can speak their darkest and most terrifying thoughts and fears and in doing so provide a place to make sense of them. Such content does not stand well in the world of logic and reason that is the justice system. The experience of Kathleen Folbigg makes us reflect on advice we give our clients. Strategies, advice, and intervention may begin in the privacy of the therapy room, but they do not remain there. They go out into the wider world of the person and how they operate and are understood by others should always be part of our consideration.


Sohal M, Singh P, Dhillon BS, et al. Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fam Med Com Health 2022;10:e001154. doi:10.1136/ fmch-2021-001154

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