, , , , , , , , ,

On June 12 this year, a very long legal case finally came to an end, when coroner Elizabeth Morris ruled that Azaria Chantel Loren Chamberlain had been taken by a dingo on August 17 1980. Azaria was nine weeks old when she died, and June 12 was the day after what would have been Azaria’s thirty-second birthday, had she lived.

The disappearance and death of baby Azaria in the Northern Territory was a case which generated mass hysteria, divided the nation, and led to a cruel media-driven witch hunt against Azaria’s grieving parents, Lindy and Michael. It remains an ugly stain on our national psyche, and a lesson in not being too ready to believe the worst about the latest media “villain”. A lesson we unfortunately never seem to learn.

The Chamberlains had been on a camping holiday at Uluru (Ayers Rock) with their three young children when Lindy screamed that a dingo had taken her baby from their tent. Witnesses at the time believed her implicitly; there were warning signs everywhere about the dangers of dingoes, and six weeks earlier, a three year old named Amanda Cranwell had been dragged from her parents’ car by a dingo and had to be driven off. Azaria’s brother Aidan said that he heard a dingo in the tent with them, and Aboriginal trackers reported that she had been dragged by an animal.

A coronial inquest found that Azaria had been taken by a dingo, but her missing body disposed of by unknown human means. That should have been the end of this family’s tragedy, but instead it had just begun. For reasons unclear to me, the Northern Territory police refused to accept the findings, and charged the Chamberlains with murder.

Michael was a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. People didn’t know much about this minority religion, and mistrusted the Chamberlains as somehow “different”. Lindy maintained the calm dignity of someone who knew she was innocent and believed that God was on her side. This was taken as unnatural – why didn’t she shriek and cry hysterically like a proper woman? Why did she never squeeze out at least a few tears? Why did she seem so assured when she was only a housewife?

Wild rumours began to circulate, and the media gleefully reported each one. One was that the Chamberlains’ religion demanded a child sacrifice, and they had gone into the outback with the express purpose of murdering their baby daughter. Another was that they weren’t Christians at all – they were Satanists, devil worshippers or into black magic; being religious was just a front. Another notion was that perhaps their religion forbade medical assistance (it doesn’t), and that they had killed a terminally ill Azaria rather than let her suffer a slow death. One of the sickest was that Azaria’s brothers Aidan and Reagan, then aged six and four, had killed her and her parents covered it up.

It is shocking and heartbreaking that people in modern times could be so ignorant, gullible and superstitious; it beggars belief that anyone could think a mother would kill her daughter in front her other children, and have the audacity to do so in broad daylight surrounded by witnesses, washing off all blood and disposing of all evidence within ten minutes. However, so convincing was this view of the evil, unnatural Lindy that she was found guilty and sentenced to prison in 1982. Four years later, some of Azaria’s missing clothing was found in a dingo’s lair, and Lindy was released.

The Chamberlains’ marriage did not survive and both remarried. The fate of Azaria was still listed as “unknown”, and her story became urban legend; she was part of the horrors of the outback, she was our nightmare and our collective guilt. She was a meme, a joke, a rumour, a punchline, a subject of gossip, a tee-shirt slogan, an industry which brought out books, tea towels, movies, TV shows and even an opera.

Last week Azaria’s extraordinary story ended, and she was at last declared officially dead and given a death certificate. The coroner offered her heartfelt sympathies to the Chamberlains for the loss of their daughter and sister, however the Northern Territory government refuses to apologise for the events which followed that loss.

Azaria is a variant of the Hebrew name Azariah, which means “Yahweh has helped”; however Azariah is pronounced az-uh-RY-uh, and most people say Azaria a-ZAHR-ree-uh. Despite Azariah being a male name in the Old Testament, Azaria is more commonly used as a girl’s name.

During the hysteria surrounding the Chamberlain case, it was falsely claimed that the name Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness”, with the obvious conclusion  that the Chamberlains had marked their daughter from birth for ritual infanticide. (I would have thought that if you actually were planning to do that to your baby, you’d choose a name that drew less attention to your nefarious scheme).

The original coroner made a finding that Azaria did not in fact mean “sacrifice in the wilderness”, making it one of the few times in legal history when a court has made a ruling on the meaning of a name. Lindy found the name in 1001 Unusual Baby Names, where it was identified with standard baby name book laxness as the feminine form of Azariah, meaning “blessed by God”. The current edition of the book is called The Complete Book of Baby Names, now boasts over 100 000 entries, and has updated Azaria to mean “helped by God”.

Azaria’s name was an unusual name when she was born, and it is still uncommon. I have seen the name a few times in birth announcements, using both the Azaria and Azariah spellings, and given to both girls and boys. Azaria has been on the US Top 1000 since the mid-2000s, suggesting that the name is on the rise internationally rather than being an Australian phenomenon.

The first time I saw the name given to a new baby I gave an unconscious start of shock, but then rationality kicked in and I could see that the name deserves to be used again, and it would be ridiculous to avoid it. Until I saw Azaria with the middle name Chamberlain. Maybe it was a family name, maybe it was honouring an unfortunate victim, but even 32 years later, for me it was too soon.