A Story too Tragic to Write?

How can a writer depict events based on real tragedies without becomng exploitative? A good example of a story that might be difficult to fictionalize is described in Oscar Schwartz’s story in the February issue of Wired. It recounts the sad case of Australian mother Kathleen Folbigg convicted in the crib deaths of her four children.

After a seven-week trial, she was found guilty of murdering Patrick (who died at eight months), Sarah (ten months), and Laura (nineteen months) and guilty of manslaughter in the death of Caleb (nineteen days). She was sentenced to forty years in prison, subsequently reduced to thirty years. Her time in prison is spent in protective custody, to avoid violence by other inmates.

From the beginning, Folbigg has maintained her innocence. Recent scientific advances support her “natural causes” defense, especially accumulating knowledge about how mutation in the CALM2 gene—a mutation Folbigg and her two daughters all carried—affects heart rhythm. Her sons also carried dangerous genetic mutations in the gene BSN and were known to have health problems. Autopsies revealed that none of the children showed any sign of being smothered.

In 2018, these advances in genetic understanding were presented to a New South Wales court, and the Wired article focuses on the sharp division within the scientific reviewers, one team based in Sydney and the other in Canberra. At the outset, Schwartz says, “the Sydney geneticists were looking for near certainty that a genetic flaw had killed the children, rather than merely reasonable doubt as to whether their mother was the culprit.” As evidence accumulated over time, the Sydney group didn’t budge. Eventually, the presiding judicial officer made his decision: “I prefer the expertise and evidence of [the Sydney team].” Prefer? That’s a strange way for a non-scientist to pick and choose among the facts presented.

The diaries Folbigg wrote when she was depressed and frantic about her children’s deaths didn’t help her, either. Though her entries were subject to many interpretations, again the prosecution had a “preferred” one. As of 2022, more than a hundred eminent scientists have signed onto a petition calling for Folbigg’s pardon, citing scientific and medical explanations for each of her children’s deaths.

In the original trial, the prosecution echoed the logic of the discredited statistical argument of pediatrician Roy Meadow, which long held sway in British courts, that “One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder, until proven otherwise.”

The use of faulty statistics in cases of multiple crib deaths was dealt with quite handily in Michael Carter’s The Mathematical Murder of Innocence. In that novel, a statistics-savvy juror eviscerates the prosecution’s case against a mother who lost two infant children. That book was based on the real-life cases of British women later deemed to have been wrongfully convicted. Sally Clark, the most famous of these mothers, never recovered from the psychological trauma of losing her children, followed by her unjust conviction, and died of acute alcohol poisoning four years after her release from prison.

Perhaps Carter made a good choice in putting the narrative burden on an outsider (the juror), rather than one of the more immediate participants. The mother’s point of view would be too heart-rending, and the lawyers might come across as biased, one way or the other. In the Folbigg case, even the scientists ended up taking sides. The problem with sides is that a story risks becoming too polemical, focused on constructing arguments, rather than understanding hearts. These are compelling stories, but difficult to handle well.