Saturday, July 21, 2012

How Did We Get it So Wrong?

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 21-22, 2012 

Where were you on the night Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murdering her baby daughter? I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car, and when the news came over the radio I gave a cheer of approval. I was only twelve, and I like to think I’d have behaved better if I was older. But I doubt I would have. I had the same fever most other people had. I wanted her to be guilty. 

The fever lifted, eventually. All that impressive scientific proof of her guilt melted away. It had been bunkum from the start. Without that evidence, the prosecution case was little more than a theory that defied belief. In June this year, the Northern Territory issued a death certificate confirming that Azaria was taken by a dingo. This gave official sanction to something that every Australian in his or her right mind had already come to believe. The Chamberlains didn’t do it. 

The coroner’s verdict has closed the case in the official sense, but it hasn’t relieved us of the obligation to ask ourselves how we got things so drastically wrong. The Chamberlain affair was Australia’s Dreyfus case, our McCarthy hearings. It was a bacchanal of groupthink and mass credulity. How did it get so out of hand? How can we make sure it never happens again? 

Michael Chamberlain’s new book, Heart of Stone, lets you know how the calamity felt from the receiving end. Tragedy isn’t quite the right word for what the Chamberlains suffered. Their story sounds like a novel that Franz Kafka stopped writing because it was too nightmarish. First their baby girl was eaten by a dingo. Then Lindy was accused of murdering her with a pair of scissors, possibly as a religious rite, and Michael was accused of helping her to dispose of the body. They were both convicted, and Lindy was sentenced to life with hard labour. No wonder we were slow to accept that these people were really the victims of the nightmare, not the perpetrators. The magnitude of the injustice is almost too awful to contemplate. 

Heart of Stone is an uneven book, but it has the merit of telling you exactly what Michael Chamberlain thinks. There is no ghostwriter here to apply polish or spin. What you get is the unvarnished Michael Chamberlain. He is quirky, cranky, and a wee bit tedious on the theme of religion. But his book has a raw authenticity that most books of this kind lack. Chamberlain has a reputation for reining in his emotions. In this book he lets rip. He is an angry man, and he has every right to be. 

Mainly he is angry at the government and people of the Northern Territory. He believes that Territory authorities knew all along that a dingo did it, but blamed the Chamberlains so that tourists wouldn’t be scared away. “The truth,” Chamberlain says, was that “in the heart of their National Park, dingoes [were] allowed to kill children.” These are serious charges, but we must remember that Chamberlain is a fastidious man. He doesn’t say such things lightly. 

Chamberlain is angry at the press, too. He has kept a clippings archive since the early days of the case, and he makes copious use of it in this book. Journalists who made sloppy mistakes thirty years ago are named and quoted. So they should be. The injustice began with a lot of small mistakes, which took alarmingly little time to combine into a wildfire of rancorous error. Once that blaze was raging there was no stopping it. It became hard to think calmly about the facts, and anyway who wanted to? Feelings were enough. 

When the next trial of the century rolls around, we need to remember all that. If we can demonise the Chamberlains, we can demonise anyone. We believed they were guilty because they didn’t behave the way we expected innocent people to behave. Well, we know now that they were innocent. At the very least, the case should leave us with a less narrow understanding of the way innocent people act. 

Michael Chamberlain has some illuminating things to say, so it’s a pity his publishers have released his book in such ragged form. The text is littered with distracting typos. It has been edited either poorly or not at all. There are more than a few sentences that could have used radical surgery. There are references to politicians named Bob Catter and Chris Publick. Some sections don’t even seem to have been run through a spell-checker. Exhoneration? Aboroginal? 

I bet Chamberlain will be mortified that these errors slipped through, because he is a stickler for accuracy. When he mentions a car, he almost invariably specifies its make and model. Describing a brochure about dingoes, he feels obliged to inform you that it was printed in A3 format. Denying the charge that he was an obsessive car-cleaner, he reveals: “The reality was that vacuuming and using a little soap and Armoral [sic], a vinyl sheen product, was about the extent of my interior cleaning.” The man is honest and informative to a fault. He seems incapable of telling you anything less than the truth. Quite often he tells you more of it than is strictly necessary. 

This must be one of the bitterest ironies of the whole case. The Chamberlains as murderers? How did that notion ever get off the ground? They aren’t even capable of telling a lie. At what point, during their thirty years in the spotlight, has either of them said something deceptive or evasive or untrue? Most of us aren’t above rejigging the odd fact to make ourselves look good. The Chamberlains have never done that. Their story has never wavered. They have always tried to describe things exactly as they happened, even when that fetish for precision harmed their cause. 

Rilke defined fame as the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around one name. The Chamberlains had the worst kind of fame. They were famous for something they didn’t do. For years they were obscured under a mountain of misconceptions. Michael’s book clears the last vestiges of all that junk away. He reminds you that there were real people under there all along. Instead of our opprobrium, they deserved our sympathy and respect. Before it happened to the rest of us, the Chamberlain case was something that happened to the Chamberlains – and to Azaria, who was really here too, until she wasn’t.