Evil Angels, a documentary in the form of a novel, covering the ‘dingo baby case,’ in which a seven week old infant was taken by wild dingoes from a campsite in the Central Australian Desert, whose mother spent two and a half years in prison for the babe’s murder, won three Australian literary awards and two British awards including the British Crime Writers’ Golden Dagger, became a Fred Schepisi film starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill, titled in the USA and Europe as A Cry in the Dark.
Versions of this paper were delivered to Schools of Journalism at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, the University of Technology Sydney, and to a forum at the University of Tasmania.
Along Australia’s East Coast during the 1970s and 1980s the outlets for non-fiction, which I would rather call empirical pieces, were the journals Nation Review, the National Times, the Bulletin, Arena Magazine, Quadrant, the literary magazines most of which were attached to universities, and the newspress Weekend Supplements.
We were in admiration of an American move, in short form feature journalism, towards a genre yet to be termed literary journalism. Among us, Morris Lurie seemed the earliest aware of this, because of his marvelously broad reading, his friendship with other broad readers including fine booksellers, his friendship with Books & Co staff in New York and with Esquire Magazine’s literary editor Gordon Lish, Captain Fiction. The movement brought some techniques of fiction, story shape, character, nuance, the close-up lens of dialogue, to use in feature pieces. We read Joan Didion, Tracy Kidder, Lewis Thomas, Richard Selzer, John McPhee. Tom Wolfe claimed this New Journalism began with him, which we might have believed, but we knew Britain’s George Orwell.
This was, then, the tradition of reporting I admired when, on August 17th 1980, a baby disappeared from a tent in the Central Australian Desert.I watched things from the same vantage point as most others, and from the same distance. I read the rumours of ritual and sacrifice and saw the Chamberlain parents on television. The first inquest went through, brightly illuminated, and I knew one of the faces in it, the coroner, who was once a trial lawyer in Melbourne when I was. The nation watched him exonerate the parents and, on television, apologise to them for the rumours, the public hatred and the death threats.
But more importantly I knew a little about Adventism, through the family of an old friend, and I knew that the popular beliefs about them, which were appearing then in the daily newspapers, were not true.
If the Chamberlains had slaughtered their baby, this was not attributable to their religion, but an aberration from it. If they had not, why were we all so ready to believe rumours? Either way, I now wanted to find out, and to report on it.
There was, just then, and undertow, a crosscurrent of rumour from a different direction. The exonerated Chamberlains were being investigated afresh, and no one in the Northern Territory Law Department would say why, or whether they might hold another inquest. Yet certain selected reporters were using leaks from inside the Law Department somewhere, and they seemed timed to keep public interest alive, until something happened. So what was going on?The managing publisher at Penguin Books was Brian Johns. I rang him. Penguin Books had already published a collection of short stories for me, and was waiting on enough feature pieces, to be collected from the National Times and Melbourne Age newspaper features, for another book. I told him I was minded to cover the Chamberlain case as a book, and he rang back in two hours. So I had a publisher, and a topic. And the publisher wasn’t in a hurry. The book could take years in the writing.
At the time Brian Johns rang me back with Penguin’s assent, I’d already booked an air ticket to Alice Springs in the central desert, and I enjoyed very much the mischief of being able to tell him my flight was to leave in an hour. I mention this because I’ve checked back through my diary and I’m surprised that the thing went off so quickly once the idea was started. I must have decided, early, that it was my book.
Time was too short for documentary research, right then. I remember I headed for the Alice Springs courthouse. The office of the coroner, Dinny Barritt, was in there, and I was at the courthouse steps before I realised this wasn’t the right way to go about the first contact. So I booked into a motel and rang him from there. We made a date for a drink at five. I thought I should lay it all on the line at the beginning, so when I arrived I told him I wasn’t in town to see him for old time’s sake, but to write up the case. He’s a blunt sort of man, and I didn’t have to hold my breath long. That’s all right with me, he said, where do we start?
I flew from there to Ayer’s Rock, and booked in to the same motel as the Chamberlains had in August. I asked to book the same room as they had, but the manager told me the police had frozen it. I wandered the same sites the Chamberlains had with their children, climbed the Rock as they did, tracked to the Olga Rangers, where they had wanted to go. I was a novice at this sort of long-form reporting, but it seemed a good idea to keep a diary about all this, in much the sort of descriptive and overwritten impressions as if this were for poetry, and I bought a small camera which took adequate snaps of people and locations and the topography and the flora. The camera cost me twelve dollars, duty paid, and the lens is of a standard that, if you cooked it, would make a passable creame caramelle, but looking back I can’t estimate it’s value, except to say that, without it, around a quarter of the book would have been beyond the reach of my memory.I flew back to Alice Springs knowing something was imminent, but not knowing what it might be. I booked from there on a flight to Sydney. I was at the terminal early enough to see the plane landing. The unloading passengers included Brian Martin. Martin was the Northern Territory Attorney-General. He was surrounded by reporters who had flown in from the eastern states. He wouldn’t say anything, except to confirm that he was right here in Alice Springs. His arrival was a problem for me, but it was my guess he wouldn’t say anything soon, and while the reporters were here I might be better off digging around where they were not. So, on the last call for the flight out I decided to head for Sydney.
My diary doesn’t remind me what I did there, but I recall I headed to the Mitchell library looking for texts on Adventism. I found an autobiography of one of the founders, Joshua Himes, but beyond that, nothing much. I was really searching for the American newspapers of the times, the 1840s. The library people had nothing of those, but thought the Baillieu library, at Melbourne University, might, which was a happy enough finding because I lived in a room not 300 metres from there.
Sooner or later every researcher into a newsworthy case makes for the best cuttings library in town, at the Fairfax building in Sydney. By the time I made it there, the reporters closest to the Northern Territory Law Department were running stories about the secret examination of the baby-clothes in London, and about an imminent application to quash the Barritt inquest, but the Chamberlain lawyers were being given less information than the reporters. It seemed to me that public opinion was being prepared for an event of some magnitude, for an unusual happening, in much the same way as news management is used by parliamentary parties before they announce new policies, or trading companies before they release an unfamiliar product.
I didn’t make a judgment, then, about whether or not I thought news management sat well with the system of criminal Justice, it merely made me uneasy. If the Chamberlains had slaughtered their baby, and were getting away with it, then no harm done, the outcome might be just. I was used to news management. Not long before I had headed companies which used it. I knew PR firms which had, on their secret payrolls, journalists who also worked for city newspapers, and sub-editors whose clandestine job it was to favour certain clients in the presentation of the daily news. What I thought I was watching wasn’t shocking, or even unusual, it was only the innovative use of a known technique, applied in a new jurisdiction. But sometime, it seemed to me, we would all have to decide if we liked its conquest there, or not.
I made my notes in the cutting-room at Fairfax, and wrote a paragraph that night which indicates something of the sense of unease. I used it in a small piece for the Melbourne Age soon thereafter, and I’m borrowing it back here for the moment.
Anyone researching a press coverage of any case goes, at one time or another, to the library of a city daily. I chose the one in the Fairfax building. The indexing room there is broad and open. Tables and chairs are the rejects of other more favoured departments, and the effect is that this location seems to be both temporary and of long standing. Serious women annotate and file. They’re careful to be quiet, for small sounds carry far here. The floor is laid with old linoleum squares and bounded, at the periphery, by blocks of filing cabinets and shelving which display, rather than letters of the alphabet, whole words (Macedonia to Macey’s, Mines to Murder) as if Scrabble had begun at the edges, but had not progressed to the more valuable squares near the centre.
A librarian rolls open a Cabinet drawer for me. Looking for the entry Chamberlain. She moves to another. As she does this I remember a librarian’s joke: Azaria Chamberlain, look under Dingo. She riffles through, perplexed, and calls to others at the desks. ‘Chamberlain, is it out?’
‘Look under DEAD,’ someone says.
Now, I’m not sure what disturbed me about that episode. When the file was found, the cuttings and the photographs were stamped, in harsh uppercase case, DEAD. But I don’t believe that was it. I do think it had more to do with the linoleum squares, really, with the game-board sense of what we were doing, the feeling that many of the moves would go according to rules that would take us a long time to understand.
It seems to me, now, that I was slow to understand this. All came a little clearer at the second inquest, where the evidence laid out the secret investigations of the past months, the blood tests, of infra- red and microscopic examinations of fibres and hairs, the botany, the geology, the diagrams of decapitation and the assumptions to be drawn from bloody hand-prints. These were the stories with which the reporters filled copy, and I was interested in them too, but what seemed to me to be the real drama, what truly held the breathless and hair-prickling attention, was what was not happening. The Chamberlains lawyers were not told what evidence they had to face, the Chamberlains were not charged, although the gathered evidence seemed damning, the Chamberlains were not called on to testify last in this inquest, as the usual rule required, so they were forced to go on blind, ignorant, while the nation, and while journalists who were better prepared than they were, watched them. It was all very, very clever.
I was new to this sort of reporting, but I had advantages. A lawyer, I knew this manner of forum. I knew some of the lawyers here. Andrew Kirkham, junior trial lawyer, wasn’t much help, then, because he was too busy to talk to me. I’d asked the Chamberlains, but they were still making up their minds who to talk with, and right then they seemed to be choosing reporter Steve Brien, whose book later did them down. But I knew Dinny Barritt, the first coroner, and I came to know some of the court room officials, so what was happening, and why, came gradually plainer.
This second inquest sent the Chamberlains to trial. The time between this inquest and the trial seemed best spent putting together a chronology of the happenings at Ayers Rock when the baby disappeared, a comparison of the evidence given so far, a moment by moment tabulation of the events, as the witnesses described them, of the night in the desert and the following days until the Chamberlains returned home to Mt Isa, and then the progression of the investigation, from then on, the police and the scientists, until I had some grasp of the very motion of the investigation, some idea of whose hand, whose vigor, was moving behind the scenes.
This was a labour, my notes of conversations with reporters, of happenings in the court, of anecdotes, all had to be worked through, and the transcripts of two inquests were already mountainous, but it was a labour I could afford because I was already struck by a plain fact about the writing: until the trial was over I would not know what the real story was, I wouldn’t understand what it was my readers must know. Until then, I couldn’t write a sentence that meant anything.
That point was reached late at night on the evening in Darwin when the jury convicted the Chamberlains, while the trial judge was aghast, while the defence lawyers couldn’t believe the contest was lost, or the prosecution believe it was won, while reporters who were, most of them by now, convinced that the police case was untenable, re-wrote, for conviction, the copy they had prepared for acquittal.
This was going to be a long book. It must treat every rumor, every false accusation, every fabrication, every botched test in any laboratory anywhere, if it were to be convincing to the general public. Its task was heavy, Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was still in prison.
I knew some of the form already. The reader begins by knowing the outcome, so the narrative pull must be strong and must, it seemed to me, be provided by an early sense of intrigue. And we would be dealing with forces in us, and the way we live, with patterns which set early the outcome of the events, much before we recognise them. Religion does this in recognisable forms, so it was best that the reader enter the story at its religious beginning, with the early days of the Chamberlains own religion, and looking back, now, I’m still a little surprised at the way this worked. The emotional form of the later story is all there in first chapter, with the beginnings of Adventism, the home-town distrust of them, the waiting for judgment, the imminent triumph, the Great Disappointment.
The form would need to be circular, to enforce, to re-enforce, the inevitability, to end much where we began, to get the metaphors right, so that the form and the function might be delighted with each other.
The facts set the rules, and it was fact that the Chamberlain case was afflicted with two inquests, an inconvenience because the night of the baby’s disappearance, a good deal of the police investigation, and the sleuthing of scientists, all make an appearance four times, once at the happening of it and three times repeated in court. So, plainly, the point of view of the telling and the retelling must change every time, and as it turned out this was a happy advantage, because facts alter according to who was watching, and this had a very great deal to do with the story. The trick was in the progression of, the choice of, viewpoints.
This decision carried an allied problem. I interviewed witnesses, police, journalists, lawyers, the Chamberlains, their relatives, their friends. But to cover every conversation, every happening I might want to give in detail, to use the close-up-up lens of dialogue, for example, called often for the reconstruction of scenes in greater detail than I had available. There’s nothing for it then except assumption, I mean the assumption of fact from one venue into another. The personal foibles, the mannerisms which a character exhibits in an interview whilst you watch, can be moved, with justifiable profit, to inform the scene or the episode the character appears in elsewhere. This comes close enough to invention, but here are some benchmarks we can use to keep it honest. Holding the character in precise voice is one, if you can get it. But just as important, it seems to me, is attitude. If we can isolate accurately enough the attitude of the characters we’re interested in, locate the moral and emotional stance that’s in them, and we stay true to that, we can pull off some triumphant verities of reconstruction, vivid and, with any luck, memorable.
A prime goal of this sort of reporting is to show the reader how astonishing the world is, and a prime goal in fiction is to have the reader carry away a memory of the characters as if they had lives beyond the page. Part of the ambition in Evil Angels was to roll these two together so the story might stay in the mind, and perhaps affect the readers enough to have some influence on the way we live our lives from here on.
Now, my written notes, my exercise in writing to you, stops right here, and the next task is the transition to the footnotes, the appendices, the hot discussion. I have some topics ready to fill any unwelcome silence, and suggestions to augment your reading list, should you wish.
Where would you like to begin?