I was 11 years old and living in Sydney on 17 August 1980 when a dingo took 9-week-old baby, Azaria Chamberlain, from a tent in which she was sleeping during her family’s camping trip to Uluru. I was 13 in October 1982 when Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was found guilty of murdering her daughter and sentenced to life in prison. I was 16 in February 1986 when new evidence came to light supporting Lindy’s long held claim that a dingo took her baby and she was released from prison. And I was 19 in September 1988 when her conviction was quashed and she was declared innocent. For a case that spanned my teenage years, I retain surprisingly few specific, personal memories of learning about or watching these events unfold (apart from the odious dingo jokes that became the school playground’s reporting). But like many other Australians, I feel I know all about the case. Such is the power of collective memory.
Social memory researchers, such as myself, track the ways in which we remember together within our social groups and networks. People share memories and beliefs in conversations, online, letters and through other means such that over time our individual memories are transformed into “shared renderings”. Combined with broader forces such as media reporting, “official” accounts, scholarly commentary and memorials, our shared remembering and forgetting helps to shape collective memories of larger groups and even nations. These private and public conversations and negotiations about what to think and how to feel about important national events can influence not just those who were there and experienced it but also those who were never there and only heard about it.
In her compelling stage play “Letters to Lindy”, award-winning playwright Alana Valentine argues that “There are three things that have divided this nation right down the center. Conscription, Whitlam and Lindy Chamberlain.” The dramatic dismissal of the Whitlam Government, which happened in 1975 when I was 6, played out in the national arena and had long lasting political, societal and personal impacts. We expect collective memories of such events to form and weave their way through individual memories. But the death of Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru started, at least, as a personal tragedy and not necessarily one we’d expect almost every Australian to know about and have an opinion on. “Letters to Lindy” returns to centre stage the person at the heart of our collective memories of the death of Azaria and shows us her savage persecution.
The play draws on a selection of over 20,000 letters that Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton received while on trial or in prison as well as transcripts of legal proceedings and extensive interviews between the playwright and Lindy. Lindy saved and carefully catalogued each and every letter, which Alana Valentine argues served Lindy as a “resting place for Azaria”. But they serve also as a fascinating archive of an evolving collective memory: of what Australians (and others) knew, believed and felt about Lindy and her case.
Now stored in the National Library Of Australia, the letters range from vicious denunciations of Lindy’s guilt to expressions of pity and offers of comfort to jokes and tales that lifted her spirits during years of incarceration. “Letters to Lindy” uses actors to give voice to these letter writers who felt part of this event and her story. The play skilfully juxtaposes the collective point/s of view of Australia and Australians (albeit shifting over time as the case unfolded) with the dignified, often disbelieving and sometimes despairing point of view of Lindy.
The play opens in the present day with Lindy (performed by Jeanette Cronin) cataloguing the still arriving letters. She then takes us back in time and through the disappearance of Azaria, subsequent searches, investigations, inquests, trials, incarceration, appeals and finally to her release and exoneration. We hear from the letter writers: some shouting, others singing, some kind, others threatening. We also hear from Lindy who tells us her side of the story.
At one point in the play, as one “everyman” asserts Lindy’s guilt, another challenges “how do you know, you weren’t there!” And here is the gap between what we feel we all know or remember as a group or collective and what one individual, Lindy, actually experienced, knows first hand and cannot help but recall in painful detail.
The play is at its most powerful when it presents facts we all “remember” about the case and shows them again through Lindy’s eyes. For instance, we might think we know about the bloodsoaked baby jumpsuit found in the desert and interpreted as evidence of foul play. But soon we see it as Lindy sees it: as the shockingly tiny jumpsuit that held her beloved, lost daughter. Likewise, we might think we know about Lindy’s sons, Aidan and Reagan (who were just 7 and 4 when Azaria died) and the conjecture about their roles in her death. But soon we feel as Lindy feels: a mother’s sense of helplessness and rage when from behind bars she cannot help her little boy Reagan who is injured and bullied and needs her most.
In “Letters to Lindy”, Alana Valentine offers a deeply moving, confronting and long overdue conversation between Lindy and the Australian collective and our memories. It is interesting and important to consider why this particular case – of a child lost, of a miscarriage of justice – made such a mark on us then and why it continues to resonate in memory now.
However, “Letters to Lindy” is a plea to remember that the tragedy was individual and belongs mostly to Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and her family. As Lindy said: “a real case, with a real child and real family behind all the court cases and media attention”.
“Letters to Lindy” is being performed at Sydney’s Seymour Centre from 2 to 10 September 2016.
Note. Many thanks to Professor Katherine Biber for inviting me to see the play and for her insightful feedback on an earlier version of this review!