Tuesday, June 12th, 2012.
DARWIN, NT, Australia – “A fourth coronial inquest into the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain has ruled that a dingo was responsible for her death in 1980.
“Coroner Elizabeth Morris brought the 32-year saga to a close with a heartfelt apology to Azaria’s parents for the loss of their “special and loved daughter and sister”.” – ABC News, Australia.
A chapter of Australian history closed today with these coronial findings resulting from the most recent inquest into the death of nine-week old Azaria Chamberlain. But while the death certificate will be changed to reflect the coroners conclusion that the baby was indeed killed by a dingo, the history accompanying that tragic event cannot be erased, neither the memory of what happened to the Chamberlains after Azaria disappeared from the family campsite one evening near Uluru in 1980.
I was 13 years old back then. I vividly remember the case, and the attitude of the general public towards the Chamberlains and in particular towards Lindy Chamberlain. At around the same time most of Australia decided Lindy was “weird”, and her behaviour in public was “unnatural” and “emotionally detached”, we also made up our minds that even though we didn’t know her from Eve, we were sure she was absolutely capable of cold-blooded infanticide.
Apart from the outright vitriol directed towards Lindy Chamberlain, there were also the jokes. Dozens of dingo/baby jokes circulated around our school, but we didn’t make them up. We didn’t have to. We heard them from our parents. Then there were the T-shirts, the cartoons in the paper and the comedy sketches on TV. The Chamberlains, and their most horrible defining moment, had become a part of Australian parochial culture. When Meryl Streep, complete with cult-member haircut and slack-mouthed drawl proclaimed “Thaat deen-goe tewk moy bay-boi!” the whole world was turned on to our dilemma. Well..look at her. She’s odd, don’t you agree? Don’t you think she’s not quite right? Surely you can all see why we thought she could do something like that – you do, don’t you?
They told us it was all planned from the start – that Azaria was conceived by the deeply religious Chamberlains for the sole purpose of becoming their child sacrifice to their horrible Christian God. They told us her name meant “sacrifice in the wilderness.” They told us that Seventh-Day Adventists were actually a cult, and they lived on a closed compound somewhere out in the countryside. They told us that it’s in no way normal for a woman who just lost her child to appear so emotionless and composed right after the fact. They told us if she didn’t do it, why didn’t she rail and scream and flail about in front of the cameras? Why was she so calm and composed? They told us that people who have their babies eaten by dingoes on camping holidays just don’t act that way.
It wasn’t until the nineties, long after Lindy Chamberlain had been convicted of her baby’s murder and spent time in prison for it then exonerated, and after she and her husband Michael had divorced, that some of us actually started to say out loud “Er..I don’t think she did it.” Before that time, nobody would have dared say that in public. You’d have been shouted down. You’d have been uninvited to coffee mornings and barbeques and footy games. You’d have had people you considered to be intelligent, reasonable adults roll their eyes at you and spit “Of course she bloody did it!” And to this day, many vehemently defend this view. After all, the horse has pretty much bolted. Tasteless jokes have been told, and tasteless t-shirts worn. It’s difficult for those of us who changed our minds to understand why not everyone has, even in light of four coronial inquests. What makes those who still hold to that view do so, despite evidence to the contrary? What on earth was able to make us believe that to begin with?
How is it easier to believe a human mother could behave like a wild dog towards her own child than it is to believe a wild dog could behave that way?
As it transpires, legal appeal proceedings revealed details concerning the motivations of certain police officers investigating Azaria’s disappearance. It’s since been confirmed that evidence was suppressed, tampered with and misinterpreted, all to suit the attitudes and agenda of certain persons involved in the case. Also, it has since been shown that at least initially, public impressions about the Chamberlains were general formed on observations of how some fairly ordinary people behaved in some fairly extraordinary circumstances. We judged their behaviour as strange and bizarre, when we had no precedent for the way a person is supposed to behave when a wild dog steals their tiny baby away on a holiday. The fact is the Australia public met Lindy and Michael Chamberlain on the worst day of their lives. They had something happen to them unheard of in Australian living memory – well, in modern, white, colonial living memory. Reports from indigenous groups provided credible evidence that dingoes were well known to attack human children – credible, except that they came from indigenous people. This was the 1980’s, when we still called Australian indigenous persons “aborigines” and the Mabo case had all white Australians thinking that they would soon be forced to hand over the deeds to their freehold property holdings to traditional landowners.
Added to this, the Northern Territory was at that time (and to some, perhaps still is) largely considered a lawless wasteland, and the white men who bravely policed it were thought to be doing the rest of us a community service by stopping it and its inhabitants from encroaching on our south-eastern, middle-class, white privilege. Nobody wanted to question this particular breed of manly-man, crocodile-wrestling Northern Territory police officer who guffawed at suggestions a dingo dragged Azaria from her parents tent that night. Who were we in our cappuccino-sipping, Reebok-infested corner of Australia to question them?
When Lindy and Michael came back from their holiday without their daughter, nobody apparently even thought to treat them like a grieving family. They were scrutinised for every nuance of speech and expression. Wracked with suspicion, people wanted to know what the hell they were doing out there, as if there were something freaky about going on a camping trip to Ayers Rock with one’s children. Desperate to prove they adored their infant, the Chamberlains unrolled for the cameras a huge poster of Lindy holding tiny Azaria in her arms. But this too was misinterpreted – what kind of a weirdo needs to do that? What is she trying to prove? We’d already made up our minds. It seemed easier for us to accept the premise that the Chamberlains murdered their little baby for no reason, than it was to question why we believed they could have done so. But did we believe because it was easier? How is it easier to presume someone guilty of such a heinous act without any scrap of motive or evidence?
I was there, and I remember what people said. They said it was because of the way she behaved in public, that’s why she was hated so much. Lindy Chamberlain committed the vile crime of not behaving according to a script that was written for her. She was a woman who didn’t act like it was expected a woman should under those circumstances. But the script we expected Lindy to know hadn’t even been written. What exactly does one do when a dingo drags ones baby away from ones campsite and eats it?
Whatever it was she was expected to do, Lindy didn’t know how to do it.
Lindy was judged because she didn’t act like a woman who lost her baby. According to public opinion, she acted like a woman who tore one to pieces. What made us think this? ell, she just didn’t behave motherly enough. And just how is a mother supposed to behave under those circumstances? Cry. You’re supposed to cry. And make us believe it. And rail. And scream. And act all bereft, like. Lindy was supposed to break down and hang off Michael in front of the cameras like a hysterical mess. But while she very may have very well been an hysterical mess in private, she chose not to behave that way in front of us. And we hated her for it. Lindy was supposed to come to us sobbing, dishevelled and with a stricken, tear-streaked face, the absence of which incited a deep suspicion and hatred for her amongst women and men alike. Lindy didn’t come over as wanting our pity. She looked stoic. She looked very much like a woman in control of her emotions. But Lindy was not meant to appear like a woman in control, not of her emotions, not of anything. A woman who loses her baby should appear vulnerable, and, let’s face it, a little bit silly. How does a good mother allow a dog to steal her baby our from under her nose? Only a weak, silly woman would allow something like that to happen. And look at her – just look at her. That, right there, we said, is not a weak, silly woman.
That’s a smart woman. That’s a strong, smart woman – not the kind of woman who loses a baby just like that. That’s an unnatural woman – who ever met a woman not given to displaying her emotions over her own dead child? That woman isn’t a real woman. That woman is something else. She’s not acting like a victim. She must be a perpetrator. Lindy Chamberlain must be a murderer.
And in this way, we were able to be convinced in our own minds that Lindy Chamberlain killed Azaria, for no other reason other than it suited us to think it.
The Chamberlains life was wrecked on two fronts: firstly, by the death of their tiny daughter and the absence of a body for them to bury, cherish and honour. She would have been 32 this year – the girl, the woman, the daughter, perhaps even the wife and mother – Azaria Chamberlain. I find this the most poignant aspect. A person is missing. Missing. She has no grave, no resting place for her body. She was stolen away from her family in the darkness one night and died the painful death of a thousand horrible nightmares. Who would wish this memory on a mother or a father? The Chamberlains lives were ripped asunder the night a dingo took their little one away.
Secondly, their lives were wrecked by us. We who judged the Chamberlains denied them what they needed probably the most – our collective, willing and ready compassion. We robbed them of our own preparedness to share the experience of the horror and grief of what happened out there. We denied them community. Instead of seeing them as being just like us, we turned them into the weird, cultish others. Worse, we demonised them with our gossip and cruel humour into the kind of people who can do these things. Why? Were we really that callous? Or simply too lazy to care? We were their community. We ought to have been willing to bear up with them. We ought to have had the nightmares too. We ought to have imagined Azaria’s face we we nursed our own baby girls. We ought to have reflected on our own vulnerabilities, on our own need for strength and for God in times like these. We ought to have silenced the stupid gossips and jokers, and wrote letters on letters of support. But most of us did not enter into this empathic relationship with the Chamberlains. We chose instead to reinvent their chaos in our own imaginations, remaking it into some horrific, ordered story of our own, devilish telling. Whether we did it because it was easier than caring is no excuse. Whether we did it because everyone else did is also no excuse. We did it, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
It would be regrettable if nothing good could come out of what happened to Azaria and her family. We have learned that dingos do indeed attack and kill children even though we were told they couldn’t, because they have done so to much bigger human specimens than Azaria since. We have also learned that no matter what evidence is put before them, stupid people will still believe stupid things, simply because it suits them to. It never ceases to amaze me that many people still do not appreciate the power of their poor public opinion, particularly when offered en masse. This power we have to effect change ought never be used again in the way it was against the Chamberlain family. Imagine what would have happened if we had thrown our support to the same degree we threw our vilification? Their ruined lives, along with their incredible grace, ought never let us forget what we are capable of if we so choose. In the end, while a dog took little Azaria, the Chamberlains dignity in the face of the events of the last 32 years serves to remind us that even under the most horrific of circumstances, mercy, human dignity, and above all, justice, need never be taken away. The choice always remains with us. Poignantly, Lindy Chamberlain faced the press this morning after the coroners findings were handed down, drily remarking “I wasn’t going to cry…”. I doubt this time we will be judging her for that.