Arts / Untangling the letters to Lindy

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, left, with actress Jeanette Cronin, who plays her in the play, and playwright Alana Valentine.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, left, with actress Jeanette Cronin, who plays her in the play, and playwright Alana Valentine.

LINDY. It seems like a common enough name, but in Australia it can only refer to one person – Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, the central figure in one of our most-protracted and publicised murder trials.

Even now, everyone knows the story of the woman convicted of killing her nine-week-old daughter Azaria while camping at Uluru in 1980, who steadily maintained that a dingo had taken her baby.

Eventually after spending three years in prison for murder, she was released and, along with her then-husband Michael, exonerated. But not before many trials, much spurious evidence and a national orgy of finger-pointing at the woman who just didn’t seem soft and motherly enough.

It was the story of the ’80s, when dingo jokes abounded along with the notion that Azaria meant “sacrifice in the desert” and theories about Seventh Day Adventists like the Chamberlains. There are those who still say “she did it”, notwithstanding a coroner’s report in 2012 that identified a dingo as the cause of death.

Australian playwright Alana Valentine has written a play on the subject, largely based on the 20,000 or so letters held in the National Library of Australia and on her own interviews with Lindy.

Commissioned by Merrigong Theatre Company and directed by Darren Yap, we’ll see “Letters to Lindy” at The Playhouse straight after its premiere season in Wollongong.

I caught up with Margy Burn, assistant director general of Australian Collections at the library, who knows the history of the Lindy collection and who worked closely with Valentine while she was there as an NLA Fellow.

“When the Lindy archives came to us in 1992, our first estimate was 10,000 letters, but the number has grown and, as Alana has indicated, they keep on coming,” she tells “CityNews”.

“It was 30 years between the camping trip in 1980 and the final inquest in 2012, and she was always in the news.”

So who wrote the letters?

Burn catalogues the writers. Ordinary Australians, women, fellow-Adventists, people concerned with the justice system, Aboriginal Australians who knew about dingo behaviour and a lot of touching letters from children. Many writers said they’d never written about anything public before.

Much worse, Burn adds, Lindy also received vile, profane, pornographic letters accusing her of the most horrible things. But Valentine found that Lindy had categorised the letters according to a star-rating system, where the vilest got seven stars.”

That could play into the hands of those who see Lindy as a pathologically unfeeling woman, but she proved far from it.

When two NLA staffers were first sent yo the Chamberlain home in Cooranbong, NSW, in June, 1992, to look at the papers, they could see the importance of the collection in reflecting ideas and society in the ’80s, but returned to Canberra to report that collection was “a little bit disorganised”.

By November that was no longer so, for Lindy, though preparing to leave before going to the US, had enlisted her family, including 10-year-old daughter Kahlia, to get the collection into shape.

When they returned in November, the NLA staff found the letters in folders, with summaries and descriptions, filed in Sanitarium-brand sultana boxes.

“She made a huge commitment to imposing order and documentation… nothing had been left out,” Burn says.

“What I find interesting as an archivist is that no remains were ever found of the baby, so there is nothing left except the memories, including the wrist tag from hospital… this collection is a memorial to the lost child.”

“Letters to Lindy”, The Playhouse, August 9-13. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700. Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton will be in conversation with playwright Alana Valentine at the National Library, 2pm, on Sunday, August 7. Bookings to nla.gov.au/bookings or 6262 1271.

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