Our response to the loss of Azaria

Our response to the loss of Azaria
Alana Valentine looks at the Lindy Chamberlain collection and finds drama in the detail
1 November 2017

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton with Alana Valentine

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and Alana Valentine at the National Library

I am sitting in the ground floor cafe of the National Library and Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton is showing me how to sew a leg o' mutton sleeve. She is drawing on a piece of scrap paper, and she is very carefully indicating how to divide into segments the top of a conventional sleeve pattern so that the sleeve will puff evenly all around the top of the arm. I am a competent home sewer and she is a certified tailor and was a professional wedding dress couturier. Her concentration is meticulous and she is taking pains to pass on the requirements of the task with absolute precision. And I am listening intently, genuinely curious. I had seen leg ‘o mutton sleeves on the wedding dress she wore for her marriage to Rick Creighton in a photo from her collection of some 20,000 letters, cards and personal memorabilia at the Library.

Both of us should be upstairs working on that collectionshe with the Special Collections archivist on instructions about her latest instalment of correspondence, and me on continuing to select, transcribe and understand the contents of these 199 boxes. This astonishing collection contains the outpouring of public letters, messages and material related to an event that happened 37 years ago but that remains one of the most shameful miscarriages of justice in Australian history. But we are sitting down here instead, taking another moment away from the intensity and demands of the public. What I am absorbing, along with the very useful sewing instruction, is the character and values and perspective of the woman at the centre of this maelstrom of paper and opinion, known to the public as Lindy.

The Lindy Chamberlain Collection

The Lindy Chamberlain Collection

Lindy's daughter Azaria Chantel Loren Chamberlain was taken on 17 August 1980, but it was 32 years before the Northern Territory coroner found conclusivelythat a dingo was responsible for the baby's death. In the interim, both Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were accused, convicted and, in Lindy's case, jailed for the crime of murder. She served more than three years before being released in February 1986.

During those years, and right up until today, Lindy has received thousands and thousands of letters from Australian and international correspondents, which together represent an extraordinary panoply of human nature. Poets, supporters and vicious detractors. People sending apologies, advice, theories and frequent admonishments. People who have been touched by God to write, have been moved with fury to write, have had their lives changed or indelibly affected by their encounter with Lindy and her story. Pornographers, eccentrics and hundreds of children. People who donated their savings and their time and every ounce of their energy. Many of these letters, the ones I was particularly attracted to, were sent to her from strangers.

Spread from Dear Lindy

A letter from Dear Lindy featuring dried flowers

But it was not the compelling diversity, the nasty perversity or even the shared adversity of the letter-writers that made me think that I could turn this national treasure into a stage play, Letters to Lindy, and now a book, Dear Lindy. Certainly, I was inspired by every remarkable letter I read, and there are letters in the book that will make you choke with laughter and gag with horror and sob with relief at the kindness and complexity of our humanity. The moment I knew that I could make work(s) of art from this material was when I saw the filing arrangement by which Lindy herself has catalogued the collection. Every correspondent has their own separate file, and every file has a small yellow post-it note that summarises and annotates the contents of each and every letter. There is also a star rating system and a series of handwritten comments on some letters, which meant I had Lindy's own perceptions as a guide and catalogue companion through the long hours of digesting this material.

Spread from Dear Lindy

A page detail from Dear Lindy showing nasty correspondence

Here was an archive that spoke volumes about a person who had intrigued, divided and confused the public for so many years, who had inspired wretched vitriol and misunderstanding but also passionate support and overwhelming empathy; here was a grieving process made tangible in written form and a way to make sense of the unimaginable cruelty that life hands allof us in different ways. If I have learned anything from reading all these letters it is this: we all suffer, we are all connected and a kind word can make a world of difference. But more than anything this collection is testament to the truth that injustice can and must be resisted.

The woman who sat before me, carefully drafting a sewing template, was the same woman who had sat in a court and had every detail of the night of 17 August 1980 forensically re-examined, every detail of Azaria's birth and life and the lives of her family disputed and derogated. But, sure of her own innocence and brought up to speak her own truth, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton would not be bullied into self-doubt, not even by the highest court in the land. Lawyers may say that the devil is in the detail, but in this collection, in this book, I hope you will see faith, forgiveness and resilience in the details of a nation responding to the loss of a tiny and beloved child.

Spread from Dear Lindy

Lindy and Azaria at Uluru in Dear Lindy

Dear Lindy by Alana Valentine was released by NLA Publishing, the National Library of Australia's imprint, on 1 November 2017.