Last week, an Australian coroner declared the infamous August 17, 1980, death of Azaria Chamberlain to be the result of a dingo attack, finally putting an end to any lingering speculation about the possible involvement of Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain. An incredibly reality-check-esque op-ed by Julia Baird in last week’s NYT, encourages us, who scoffed at the audacity of Lindy’s claim that a dingo killed her baby, to take a much-needed look in the mirror.
Why did it take three decades, tens of millions of dollars, a criminal case appealed in Australia’s highest court, a royal commission and four inquests to establish Lindy Chamberlain’s innocence? In that time, Australia’s population grew from 14.5 million to almost 23 million. The case has been a spectacular example of poor forensic science, anxiety about “evil mothers” and suspicion of religiosity — the Chamberlains are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was wrongly portrayed as an infant-slaying cult. Rumors circulated that Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness” in Hebrew, not “blessed of God.”
Most Australians thought the dingo was a flimsy excuse. Few people, except park rangers, believed a dingo would attack a baby, and the evidence indigenous trackers gave about drag marks near the tent was brushed aside. In a 1984 poll, 76.8 percent of Australians said Lindy Chamberlain was guilty, and the investigation did little to change their minds.
Then there was Lindy Chamberlain herself. She was thought too “sexy” and “cold”; she walked into court with a face set like concrete under large black sunglasses and severely cut black hair. Much was made of her bare, tanned shoulders, her expansive wardrobe and her stoicism. When she did not weep on cue, no one suggested she might have been suffering from shock or trauma. Even worse, she was accused of playing to the cameras that were constantly thrust in her face. She was, we were told, more interested in looking pretty than in the death of her child.
This was a woman, as the prosecution put it, who could murder a baby with nail scissors in the front seat of her car before stuffing the body into a camera case. When a forensic expert claimed there were bloodstains in the front of the Chamberlain’s car, those harboring suspicions were triumphant. Guilty! People spat on her as she walked into the courtroom. It took years before it emerged that the marks were from a chemical spray and old milk.
Though we may want to shrug the Chamberlain episode as an odd tragedy particular to Down Under, we all know that at one point of another, we’ve been the voice in the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” This delusional desire to condemn is classic sublimation. Like the rest of the clamoring shouts around us, we delude ourselves by leveling our personal disgust on others. Jesus knew that we have a propensity to focus on the speck of sawdust in our brother’s eye and forget the plank in our own. We hope that by calling attention to the faults of others, ours will be minimized and appear “not that bad” after all.
Like Peter and Paul, we reject and condemn. Moreover, like both, we experience shame when our true colors have been exposed. As Baird notes, a “surprising display of grief and shame in Australia” emerged after the coroner finally confirmed the role of a dingo in Azaria’s death. This shame is the “sickness unto death”. But the story doesn’t end with shame. It ends with hope. The Cross brings forgiveness and grace to those who need it most–us! Perhaps, it is that story of redemption that has inspired Lindy to write a book on forgiveness.