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American writer, Patricia Cornwell (b. 1956), was in foster care during her childhood.

Patricia Carroll Daniels was born in Miami, Florida. Her father, lawyer Sam Daniels, left the family when Patricia was 5 years old. She recalls:

The most powerless experience I ever had which changed me forever was Christmas Day of 1961 when I was five and I could hear the heavy steps of my father. When he turned into the living room he was holding a suitcase and I knew immediately what was happening. And as he headed towards the door, I ran after him and I grabbed him around the leg, just like a tree frog, just wrapped around his leg and I was screaming, “Daddy, don’t leave! Daddy, don’t leave! And he just kind of shook me off and went out the door (Desert Island Discs, emphasis in the original).

Patricia’s mother, Marilyn Daniels, struggled to cope. Patricia and her siblings would roam the streets on their own, resulting in the five year old being assaulted by a security guard.

“He started with the kissing and the touching and putting his hand in my pocket. He found a hole and he was just putting his finger through the hole when my brother rolled around on his bicycle. He was about to pull me into his car. We found out later that he was a convicted paedophile…” (Cadwalladr).

Because she was often hungry, Patricia

“…would go in the freezer and get out hotdogs and eat them raw because I was hungry…” (Saner).

Marilyn Daniels “became obsessed with the evangelical preacher, Billy Graham.”

“She decided to move us to where he lived because it would be a safe place to raise her children, in their ‘kingdom’. She packed their car up – three children, and their cat – and drove to North Carolina, with no real plan… And then years later, she tried to give us to the Grahams when she had a breakdown” (Saner).

Marilyn had

… two serious bouts with depression, at the age of nine and then when I was in the eighth grade at twelve, she was hospitalised for four months and I had to stay in a foster home which was something like out of Dickens, I kid you not, it was absolutely abominable (Desert Island Discs).

The foster mother restricted Patricia to the house, force-fed the chid and locked her puppy in the basement, only permitting Patricia to visit in order to feed it.

“She was cruel. I lived in a state of terror all the time” (Saner).

“When I was in that foster care situation, which was so dreadful I was literally held hostage there, my pipedream would have been for someone like Scarpetta to have shown up at the door…I created a character who would have rescued me as a child, who would have saved me. And in a way,” adds Cornwell, “she did” (Das, 2022).

Patricia Daniels had her own struggles with mental illness as a young woman studying at college in North Carolina. Ruth Graham was an important source of comfort during this time and encouraged her take up writing. Cornwell’s first book, A Time for Remembering (1983) was a biography of Graham.

Patricia Daniels married Charles Cornwell in 1979 but ten years later the couple divorced.

Patricia Cornwell became interested in criminal behaviour while working first as a police reporter for the Charlotte Observer and later for a medical examiner in Richmond, Virginia. She also undertook studies in forensic science, volunteered in the police force, and read endlessly in medical libraries.

Cornwell’s writing career took off when she developed the Dr. Kay Scarpetta character for Postmortem (1990), a self-portrait some say. The Scarpetta series became immensely popular with sales at more than 100 million copies.

Plans are currently in motion for a television series adaptation of Scarpetta starring Nicola Kidman.

Patricia Cornwell has written non-fiction books too, including Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper-Case Closed (2002). In this work, Cornwell claims the artist Walter Sickert was the 1888 London serial killer and reportedly spent six million dollars on research and books to establish this claim.

Patricia Cornwell has written outside the crime genre too, with the Ruth Graham biography, cookbooks, and a children’s book.

She has won many awards, including the Edgar Award (named in honour of Edgar Allan Poe), the Sherlock Award, the Gold Dagger Award and the Medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Reading and writing have long been a refuge for Patricia Cornwell:

‘I’d read and write stories, and in doing so, I could take myself somewhere else.’ Did she end up writing crime fiction as a way to right wrongs?

‘I think there’s a lot to that. Writing gives you a safe way to deal with emotions – anger, pain, sorrow, loss. But I also think some suffering is a privilege because it makes you stronger. I learned to escape into my imagination, and that’s served me well over the years’ (Das).


Cadwalladr, Carole. “Interview. Patricia Cornwell: ‘I grew up with fear’.” The Guardian, 1 November 2015.

“Patricia Cornwell.” Desert Island Discs, BBC Sounds, 29 December 2002.

Patricia Cornwell American WriterBritannica, 23 October 2023.

Patricia Cornwell Website.

Das, Lina. “Swindles, sex abuse – and why Patricia Cornwell is blasting into space at 63.” MailOnline, 6 October 2019.

Das, Lina. “Patricia Cornwell: ‘I never had children because I was terrified I’d be a bad mother’.” The Telegraph, 15 October 2022. 

Saner, Emine. “’I lived in a state of terror’: Patricia Cornwell on childhood trauma, her new novel and the search for Bigfoot.” The Guardian, 20 November 2023.

Image available here.