Kathleen Folbigg, Lindy Chamberlain, and being the ‘wrong’ kind of mother.

For almost two decades, the name Kathleen Folbigg sat bitterly in the mouths of Australians. 

Convicted in 2003 over the deaths of her four children, she was referred to as our nation’s ‘worst female serial killer’, Australia’s most-hated woman, and a cold-hearted monster.

Then, earlier this month, she was pardoned courtesy of scientific developments that pointed to possible natural causes for her children’s deaths. 

Her name is now muttered with sympathy, even compassion. Poor Kathleen Folbigg, we say. What that woman must have gone through. 

The relief is writ large. 

The same was true in the case of Lindy Chamberlain, the mother who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, at an Uluru campground in 1980.

Watch: Australian Story: Is Kathleen Folbigg innocent? Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

Once the target of a nation’s hatred, Lindy is now widely appreciated as a victim of one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in Australian history. 

While these women’s convictions have been blamed on a complicated tangle of factors (including highly questionable expert testimony and circumstantial evidence), one of the knottiest threads was their very status as mothers. 


They were accused of a crime that ripped at our understanding of the core relationship in our culture: that between mother and child.

Not only that, in the wake of the accusations made against them, they simply didn’t behave the ‘right’ way; they didn’t behave like we’ve been told a mother should. 

They didn’t reflect our horror back at us.

The worst kind of killer.

Approximately one Australian child is killed by their parent or step-parent every fortnight. 

And according to a 2019 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, these crimes are committed by men and women in roughly equal numbers.

Yet as Dr Xanthé Mallett, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Newcastle, notes, society tends to react uniquely to female perpetrators.

“When a woman is charged and convicted of harming their own children intentionally, there's outrage. There's no punishment that's harsh enough for a woman that could do something so abhorrent,” she told Mamamia. “We just don't see that same visceral response when it's a male.”

Dr Mallett has seen that response up close.

As an experienced criminologist, she regularly appears in the media to offer insight into high-profile court cases. But only two have resulted in her receiving threats from members of the public: the case of Kathleen Folbigg, and that of Keli Lane — a former Australian water polo player convicted in 2010 of murdering her infant daughter.


While Dr Mallett passed no judgement on the guilt or innocence of these women, she stated her expert opinion that the evidence against them did not stack up beyond reasonable doubt. 

As a result, she received abusive and threatening messages on social media, voicemail, and email. Some, she said, included sexually violent threats.

“The only violent [messages] I've had have been about those two cases,” she said. 

“There's something about cases where women are accused and found guilty of murdering their children that strikes a chord that is so strong in the public psyche.”

The strength of the reaction to cases such as these speaks to our cultural understanding of gender and motherhood, Dr Mallet said.

“Men are seen as potentially more prone to violence; women are meant to be nurturing. And therefore, when a woman doesn't fulfil that social character that people expect, they respond very extremely to that,” she said.

“I do think that affected the way the Lane matter was investigated, reported upon, and prosecuted; as well as Folbigg and Chamberlain. I think there's a pattern here.”

What a guilty mother looks like.

Even before they were jailed, Kathleen Folbigg and Lindy Chamberlain were condemned in the court of public opinion. Largely, because of the way they appeared to deal with their grief.

As Dr Xanthé Mallett explained, when we think of a genuinely grieving mother, we think of a woman overwhelmed with outward displays of emotion. 


We demand it as evidence of her innocence.

“We assume that there are going to be tears. We assume an emotional response. We assume that we’re going to see a more ‘feminine’ reaction,” she said. “But all of these women were very stoic; they were very together. And I think that offended that sense of emotion that we expect.”

After a dingo snatched Lindy’s daughter from their tent during a family camping trip, Lindy gave a series of press interviews with the aim of warning people about the dangers posed by the animals. 

Among them was a now-famous television interview in which Lindy described, in a detached, almost academic fashion, the gruesome way dingos attack their prey. 

It played a pivotal role in turning the tide of public opinion against Lindy. She was criticised as callous, cold, entirely too unemotional for a grieving mother. 

But as her barrister later explained, what went to air was the seventh take of that interview. Previous takes had ended with her “choked up in distress”. 

According to Dr Ken Krispin QC, Lindy had been explicitly urged to “get your emotions under control” before answering the interviewer’s questions.

Dr Mallett argues that cultural expectations about how a mother should grieve seep into the courtroom as well, and that prosecutors know exactly how to leverage them.

“I think the judicial system has been guilty of highlighting and even [perpetuating] those stereotypes, and suggesting that these women are not behaving as they should,” she said.


Kathleen Folbigg’s diaries offered exactly that opportunity.

Discovered by her husband, Craig, after the death of their fourth child, the diaries were integral to the prosecution’s case that Kathleen had smothered her children. 

Caleb, Patrick, Sarah, and Laura Folbigg, whose ages ranged from 19 days to 18 months, were each found unresponsive in their cots between 1989 and 1999. 

In Kathleen’s diaries from this period, she wrote about struggles within her marriage, frustration with the division of labour in their household, and battles with body image.

She also wrote about her difficulty coping with motherhood, lack of maternal bond with her first three children, and occasional feelings of anger toward each of them. She also expressed responsibility for their deaths. 

“All I wanted was to shut her up and one day she did,” she wrote of Sarah in one entry.

“I feel like the worst mother on earth. Scared that she’ll leave me now. Like Sarah did,” she wrote of Laura in another. “I know I was short tempered and cruel sometimes to her & she left. With a bit of help.”

Though passages such as these are undoubtedly alarming when quoted in isolation, the diaries didn’t contain any clear confession to murder. Nor was there physical evidence that the children had been smothered, or physically harmed in any way.

The prosecution asked the jury to interpret the evidence by drawing on their understanding of ‘normal’ mothering, and labelled these diaries as “the strongest evidence that you could possibly have” that she was a murderer. 


Normal mothering. But what is normal for a mother who has experienced the death of four children? Few were encouraged to consider that question. 

The diaries were presented in court without any expert psychological evaluation. The same was true for much of the reporting about them in the media. 

Listen to True Crime, On this episode, We’re unraveling how a young woman went from mother to wrongly convicted murderer, and why the story of Azaria Chamberlain’s disappearance continues to fascinate us to this day. Story continues below.

Folbigg, who staunchly maintained her innocence, served 20 years in prison for murdering three of her children and the manslaughter of another. 

She was pardoned earlier this month following a second inquiry into her conviction. 

The inquiry was prompted by scientific developments that raised the possibility at least two of her children could have died from natural causes linked to a genetic abnormality. 

Announcing the pardon, NSW Attorney General Michael Daley also acknowledged the findings of multiple experts who had examined Kathleen’s diary, stating an entirely different interpretation to that popularised two decades ago: “evidence suggests they were the writings of a grieving and possibly depressed mother, blaming herself for the death of each child”.


“They’re suffering enough”: the case for kindness.

The pardon gives Dr Mallett hope that next time a woman is accused of a similar crime, the public, the courts, and the media, will adopt a more considered, open-minded approach. 

“People grieve in different ways, and they express emotion in different ways,” she said. “I think we've got a lot more understanding about that now than we did when these women were charged and successfully prosecuted.

“Hopefully the right people will go to prison when intentional harm has occurred. But equally when there's no evidence of intentional harm, then people should not be going to prison because, frankly, they're suffering enough after the loss of a child.”

Lindy Chamberlain spent more than three years behind bars for Azaria’s murder, during which she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Kahlia. The discovery of a crucial piece of evidence (Azaria’s missing matinee jacket) helped secure her release, and later led to her conviction being quashed and the awarding of $1.3 million in compensation.

While Kathleen Folbigg is free from prison, her convictions are still in place. 

It remains to be seen if she will attempt to have them quashed via the Court of Criminal Appeal.

For now, perhaps Australians’ newfound compassion for her grief, for her trauma, for her whole extraordinary plight, can serve as another form of justice.

Feature Image: Getty, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Daily Telegraph and The Sun archives 

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