Academic journal article Antipodes

Sacred Violence in the Chamberlain Case

Academic journal article Antipodes

Sacred Violence in the Chamberlain Case

Article excerpt


In the early 1980s, many Australians demanded their say about "Lindy Chamberlain." On radio, in letters to the media, over coffee and on television, we exposed our wisdoms about mothering, matricide, inappropriate family holiday destinations, religious sects, the dressing of children in black, the desert, the law, and the requirements of justice. Australians - not for the first time - eagerly devoured tales of uncanny happenings in the desert. In the heart of the county, at Ayers Rock as it was still called, a sacrifice of some kind had occurred. "Why would you take a child out there?" "As if a dingo could do that!"

At the center of the maelstrom was the small, determined figure of a woman. The factors that signaled out Lindy Chamberlain from the very beginning were her gender and her religion. Her gender, or the way she was perceived to perform it, was seen increasingly as truculent, not sufficiently grief-stricken, not meek or repentant in the face of growing media and legal accusations against her. Further, the Chamberlains' membership of what mainstream Australia saw as a "strange," imported religious group, The Seventh Day Adventists, soon became a source of intrigue and some derision to the general public. Not seen as a cult, quite, this barely understood American religious group and the Chamberlains' membership of it was deemed different and suspicious.

Within this context of increasingly flamboyant media constructions - a gothic, violent outback setting that even today lives within myths of frontier lawlessness, paganism, and racial atrocities - the figure of Lindy Chamberlain rose up as scapegoat. Woman as good or evil Mother, as strong or hardened, as one of "us" or a stranger in our midst - no image of Lindy Chamberlain was produced which could not be twisted into the shape of its opposite. In the gathering clouds of "hearsay" and "judgment," Australian society was, perhaps half-knowingly, enacting a sacred and ancient ritual, offering up one for the whole.

In 2004, Di Drew, director of the two-part miniseries Through My Eyes, based on the Chamberlain case, reported that when she spoke about Lindy Chamberlain to groups of friends, or to the extras on set, asking whether they thought Lindy (as many called her) guilty or innocent, "the response was usually the same: the group divides 65/35 per cent, with the majority verdict being guilty." For Drew this was amazing, and she reflects on the ways in which myth accrues around history and everyday normality: "It was all about that landscape and that place. It was about spirituality and it's been about religion, and a baby's name, and behaviour that's not typical" (Enker 4).

However, for John Bryson, author of the book-length study Evil Angels, also later made into a film, such behaviors were not atypical; nor were the many so-called scientific biases and mistakes made across the years since that night, 17 August 1980. They are for him the product of culture. In a sharply positioned piece in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1995, after the belated inquest into the whereabouts of the body of Azaria Chamberlain, Bryson wrote:

Once the laboratory mistakes are all swept away, the witnesses left standing have human faces . . . this third finding is a product of its culture, as are judgments of any kind. In that culture, we watch a fascinating mechanism at work: it's something like an inability to retrace one's steps, whatever the cost, or however wrong the path was (Bryson 21).

This essay explores the nature of this "fascinating mechanism," asking how culturally typical was the behavior of those intimately involved in the Chamberlain case, and of those more far-flung but still somehow drawn into the drama. The case reminds us of the potency of myth, and of ritual, the uses to which they are put in supposedly secular, political contexts. Myths - and stereotypes - about women in many cultures-damned whores and god's police, Mary the mother of God and Mary Magdalene, in myth a prostitute; women as dirty, and women as pure, or at least sent to clean. …

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