IT was May 2013 and I was in the National Library of Australia, having secured both the special permission of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and a Harold White Fellowship to spend the next three months looking through a unique assemblage of letters, and to turn what I found there into a stage play.
From the entry in the NLA catalogue, these letters promised to be a unique insight into the way in which Azaria Chamberlain's disappearance had resonated with and polarised an entire nation, and, indeed, provoked responses from across the globe.
The first thing the librarians did was to take me to see the 199 boxes.
They stretched for endless steel reinforced shelves, a tempting but also intimidating congregation of paper, fabric, card and other various materials. Inside those boxes was the most extraordinary panoply of human nature. Poets, supporters and vicious detractors. People sending apologies, advice, theories and frequent admonishments.
People who had been touched by God to write, had been moved with fury to write, had had their lives changed or indelibly affected by their encounter with Lindy and her story.
Pornographers, eccentrics and hundreds of children. People who spent thousands of hours writing to newspapers and politicians and raising funds. 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.
Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from a tent near Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now more commonly called by its Anangu name, in 1980 but it was 32 years before the Northern Territory coroner found conclusively that a dingo was responsible for the tragic death of this small and beloved child. In the interim, both Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were accused, convicted and, in Lindy's case, jailed for the crime of murder.
She served almost four years before being released, exonerated and compensated, such as it was, for her lost years and public derogation.
My practice as a playwright for several years had been to write works based on oral histories and historical research, so I was used to organising large amounts of transcript material and condensing it into a compelling two hours of traffic for the stage. But unlike, say, a biographer, I had never tried to get my brain around such a vast collection of disparate, conflicting written sources and I must admit that the first few days of my residence at the NLA were spent thinking about the practicalities of how to file and organise the observations and material I would now begin collecting.
The job was made easier by the meticulous and remarkable filing arrangement by which Lindy herself had catalogued the collection. Every correspondent had their own separate file, and every file had a small yellow post-it note which précised and annotated the contents of each and every letter. In addition to that, there was also a star rating system and a series of handwritten comments on some letters, which meant I often had Lindy's own perceptions as a guide and catalogue companion through the long hours of digesting this material. Her incredible feat of filing is itself an insight into Lindy, and the respect and thoughtfulness of her own relationship to this material, "to control what she could control", said one perceptive NLA librarian.
Lindy remembers that the Library first approached her about acquiring the letters in 1986, just a few weeks after she got out of prison.
I was in the backyard, Lindy recalled. Apparently they'd knocked on the front door and I hadn't heard them so they'd thought, we'll try the back. And there I was standing next to a big 44-gallon drum burning letters. And they didn't say hello or anything else; they said, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'I'm burning letters, why?', and they said, 'Well we're from the National Library and we'd really like to have them'.
There were 11 filing cabinets to begin with that had been filed but that didn't include the four or five tea chests, the letters under the bed, in every drawer of the house, on the veranda. They were everywhere. So I said to the NLA people, 'You can have them but I need to sort them. I'll call you when I'm ready'. But then it was not until after I had first published my autobiography in 1990 that I called them and said, 'OK, I'm ready to give them to you now'.
I interviewed Graeme Powell, curator at the time of the acquisition of the papers in 1992, soon after I began my research in 2013. He takes up the story:
The first time we went out there it was this chaotic heap of paper. But when I came back a few months later, it was transformed. Lindy had devised this filing system and she didn't like the idea of even one bit of loose paper. I spent two or three days there and, if she came across a loose piece of paper, she'd immediately grab a file, do one of those yellow stickers, summarise and find the right place for it. And she drove us all very hard. She had the children all working on it. And her parents at one stage. One afternoon, I was sitting on the floor and I had Kahlia helping me. I was thinking, this is absurd - my job is so simple that a 10-year-old can do it.
As my reading of these letters progressed, I began to mentally group letters into "types". It is these groupings that form the basis of this very personal examination of the collection. It has not been my ambition to be authoritative or comprehensive - call it artistic prerogative or poetic licence. Instead, I have given myself to the contents of about half of the material - around 100 boxes in total - and I have been drawn to stories of shared suffering, vituperative accusation and spiteful conjecture as well as the breathtaking kindness of complete strangers.
An academic looking at these boxes may produce a different selection, a psychiatrist different again and a law student's engagement might be as radically different from mine as is possible.
I have not included any letters from Michael Chamberlain, or Lindy's parents, who all wrote frequently. There are several important activists and advocates whom I have completely ignored. This is not a measure of their worth but a function of my artistry.
I am a dramatist and my interest has been the fragility and resilience of human nature, both Lindy's and the letter writers.
In this collection, I was intrigued by what people reach for in times of confusion, trouble and helplessness, how human beings might struggle to understand the experience of someone whose situation is so different from their own.
In a tragedy such as that of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, so radically outside the frame of the experience of any other living person, is it even possible to comprehend her? The poet, WH Auden, asked, "And how reliable can any truth be that is got, By observing oneself and then just inserting a not?"
So what in our collective consciousness helps us to understand such a story? Mythology? Classical literature? Sacred texts? I sought to examine the kinds of words a person might send to someone they felt was suffering wrongly. I wanted to understand how human nature is inspired to compassion under such circumstances.
I was not looking here only for the well expressed, the lucid sentiment, the colourful, humorous or engaging turn of phrase, though I was always thrilled when I found it. I was in fact looking, as keenly or even more keenly, for the clumsy, humble, sometimes tendentious, sometimes vapid platitudes that people also reach for when they just don't know how to - or don't believe they can find a way to - express their deepest feelings of empathy. "Even madmen manage to convey unwelcome truths in lonely gibberish," says Auden.
What is it in human nature that makes someone push past their own inarticulate, choked abilities and write to someone whom they have never met? The fact that they do is surely cause for genuine hope, a characteristic of our species to give us sincere and durable reason for optimism. Is the beauty of this mercy, this tenderness, not a remarkable thing - even when it is crude and ill-shaped and gauche? Even more intriguingly, what is it in Lindy's nature that has made her compile this remarkable collection? Was she a saver, a filer, a hoarder all along, or is this almost obsessive retention of every single piece of paper evidence of her having been marked by her experience?
This was a collection that included even a credit card receipt that Sam Neill had torn up and thrown into a bin, as well as the wrapping paper with which Meryl Streep had wrapped a gift to her. Nothing that had even the smallest relevance to this story had been discarded. Why?
Even in our first conversation, I noticed a passion for detail, an almost juristic certainty about specifics that I thought might be a product of what she had been through. But I found evidence that Lindy was a forensic filer long before 1980 - carefully preserved copies of lists associated with her wedding, originals of academic assignments, old letters and birthday cards, details of every aspect of Aidan and Reagan's births, achievement certificates from both her own and her children's schooling - which led me to believe that Lindy's ordeal has amplified aspects of her personality rather than introduced them.
Publicly, Lindy is at pains to assert her enduring faith, her magnanimous forgiveness and her commitment to moving on. Her refusal to behave as a victim in the years since the tragedy has irritated even some of her greatest supporters.
Lindy has been cruelly punished for her particular individuality, an individuality that continues to wriggle out from any box anyone cares to put her in. But it is the intense beauty of this individuality that I, as a writer, find utterly dynamic and intriguing.
I say beauty but what I mean is an unusual clarity. I say individuality but what I mean is a difficult uniqueness. I am persuaded and compelled by this story and yet, through several years of research, I remain detached from the need to judge or analyse, as so many others have.
In fact, my strongest response to this collection is an appreciation of it as some kind of giant kaleidoscope of our nation, which can be turned and turned so that different patterns fall into place, revealing the recurrences and repetitive shapes in the multiplicity of voices. Like modern, visual art that takes its power from duplication and rhythm, the patterns I have discerned here are nothing less than the peculiar patterns of Australia's recent past.
This is an edited extract from Dear Lindy: A Nation Responds to the Loss of Azaria by Alana Valentine, NLA Publishing, $39.99, out now.
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