Sure enough, the news that the Azaria Chamberlain death case has been resolved after more than thirty years brought out all the “a dingo ate my baby!” jokes, or at least references to them. Like most people living outside Australia, I knew nothing about the case before I saw A Cry in the Dark, the film version of John Bryson’s 1985 study, Evil Angels. The infant girl, just over eight weeks old, disappeared in August 1980 from a campsite near Ayers Rock. Though there was every reason to believe the child had been taken and killed by a dingo, a vortex of tabloid hysteria built around rumors that she had actually been murdered by her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. The Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists, and their obscure religious beliefs, combined with Lindy’s thorny personality — she refused to bare her feelings for exploitation — fueled preposterous stories about “Azaria” meaning “sacrifice in the wilderness.” There was also a lot of nonsense to the effect that dingoes, wild dogs often sentimentalized as symbols of Australia’s scruffy independence, were harmless to humans. An initial inquest cleared the Chamberlains of wrongdoing but left enough wiggle room for the law to take another run at the couple. Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of murder in 1982; Michael was convicted of being an accessory. The two were finally cleared of the charges in 1988, following the belated discovery of physical evidence corroborating Lindy’s account.
A Cry in the Dark was a knockout, an unflinching look at how two people who should have been allowed to heal after suffering a terrible loss were instead tortured by the legal system (Australian prosecutors, like their American counterparts, apparently never admit to being wrong) and ghoulish tabloid reporters. The film was directed by Fred Schepisi, who along with Gilliam Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), George Miller (The Road Warrior), Peter Weir (The Last Wave), and Bruce Beresford (“Breaker” Morant) was part of the initial wave of Australian filmmakers who made movies worth seeing in the Eighties, while American filmmaking was at a very low ebb. Schepisi had gone to Hollywood after making a splash with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and coming up from Down Under seemed to have given him the bends. A Cry in the Dark was a return to hard-edged form.
Unfortunately, A Cry in the Dark starred Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain, and coming a year after the disastrous prestige picture Ironweed it mainly served as an excuse to make jokes about Streep’s use of accents. Streep’s performance was superb, but a mangled version of a line of dialogue from the film became the pat reaction to any mention of the film. The joke is now firmly nested in pop culture, referenced in Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even those “Caution: Baby on Board” signs that used to clutter the windows of cars. “Caution: Dingo and Baby On Board” was the line, as I recall. As Roger Ebert noted at the time, Streep’s performance was very risky for a big-ticket Hollywood actress: in playing a woman who refused to be ingratiating, and thereby became the victim of hostile public opinion, Streep herself evoked hostility because she stayed true to her character. She was being knocked for doing her job well.
Maybe the word for Lindy Chamberlain’s behavior wasn’t “thorny” so much as “dignified.” She had the temerity to consider her family’s grief a private matter, but in the mass-media age a woman in her position is expected to play a role and satisfy television’s appetite for victim porn. For her offense, Lindy Chamberlain was the target of suspicion and mockery instead of sympathy. Maybe it would have been different if Azaria had been eaten by a wolf or a great white shark, but you know, dingoes. Funny name, right? It’s even funnier when you try it out with a nasal Oz accent. Put another shrimp on the barbie. A dingo ate my baby. Nyuck nyuck.
Lindy Chamberlain’s been on television a lot since the new finding was announced, and it’s clear she’s learned to present herself to the lenses in a conventional, acceptable way. It’s a lesson she never should have had to learn. I don’t know how a mother can live with the knowledge that her baby died in uncomprehending pain and terror, waiting for her mommy to rescue her from a terrifying monster. No parent should have to live with that.
I like bad-taste jokes as much as the next bozo, and my love of black comedy and gallows humor is a matter of record. But whenever I come across one of those “a dingo ate my baby” jokes, I am reminded that popular culture, like popular opinion, is capable of bottomless cruelty.