McCann Case: The 'Dingo' Mom Speaks

Lindy Chamberlain came running out of her tent on a camping trip in the Australian Outback, crying that a dingo—a local wild dog—had taken her 9-month-old baby, Azaria. The strange tale (and her apparently affectless demeanor) drew wide publicity and suspicion. In 1982, two years after the baby's disappearance, Lindy was convicted of murder. But four years into her life sentence, she was set free. The "evidence" against her hadn't held up. Traces of "Azaria's blood" found in her car were found to be the remains of a milkshake and of local mining residue.

The ordeal of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain captured worldwide attention, including a movie starring Meryl Streep, 1988's "A Cry in the Dark." The couple lived under a spotlight of suspicion like that now shining on Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine disappeared from a Portuguese beach resort in May. Two weeks ago, the McCanns were made official suspects in her death, with reports that Madeleine's DNA was found in the trunk of a car her parents had hired. Yesterday, The Times of London reported Portuguese police had found no new evidence against the McCanns, though investigations were continuing. In an interview with NEWSWEEK contributor Kendall Hill, Lindy Chamberlain says what it's like to watch another mother endure a torment like hers. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How strongly do you see the parallels between the McCanns ordeal and your own?
Lindy Chamberlain: There are more and more parallels emerging. The thing that really concerns me is the fact that the majority of the parallels, as with our case at the same stage, are rumors that people are adding to continually. The Portuguese police aren't giving any concrete facts or talking about it, but you hear these leaks about finding blood on the car keys and DNA in the car, and the mother doesn't look right, she looks hard. And all those things were said in our case—all of them not true—to a greater or lesser degree. The parallels that are coming through in the rumors certainly make me shudder.

What does it feel like as a parent to be one minute grieving for a lost child and the next to be a murder suspect under the full glare of public suspicion?
I actually hadn't followed the case until recently when I heard they were going to charge the mother. And then a whole flurry of news followed—the pictures of them, the press hounding them everywhere, and I thought, "Oh no, not again."

That's what I said verbally, but I can't describe to you my feelings. You would have had to have been through what I've been through to understand that it's nothing that I can describe. It's nothing that people are even remotely familiar with. It's like trying to describe chocolate ice cream if you've never had anything cold in your life and never tasted chocolate. The imagination can't conceive the reality.

Can you describe then what it feels like to be caught up in that whirlpool of public suspicion?
No, I can't. It's the same thing. It's just so overwhelming. The only way that I can describe the process that you might understand is a quote of my husband [Rick Creighton] saying, "It's like learning to swim while drowning." You just hope you don't get too many mouthfuls of water. You are gulping huge quantities but hoping you will still get a bit of air in between.
Maybe that description will get you slightly close to the feeling, but even then it is very inadequate.

You can't react normally. Your facial muscles just won't obey you, so people think you are hard. If you happen to smile in the wrong place or in front of the wrong person, well, then you don't care. You're supposed to live a normal life for your remaining children, but if you do the public say, "Oh look, they've forgotten her already." It doesn't matter what you do, you can't win.

I expect to see [public attention] start on the way the McCanns dress shortly. And if they look at one another with a frown, they will be fighting and having marital troubles. Everything becomes huge and out of context and that adds more pressure. It's just unreal.

What do you make of the McCanns' actions and demeanor, as someone who was criticised for her own behavior in similar circumstances?
I've only seen them four or five times on the news in little glimpses, and the little glimpses I have seen, they look like intelligent people, and I have heard since then that they are doctors. They are English, and their reactions are not what other Europeans relate to. It's a different emotional mind-set. Not everybody wears their emotions on their sleeve. These are intelligent people trying to deal with it, to cope with it, and to be private about their grief.

As doctors, we expect them to be calm in a crisis, not deal in histrionics. And because they are now acting rationally in their personal life, people are browbeating them over it. And it's not right. People say, "I wouldn't react like that," but I can tell you, you will have no idea how you will react until you go through it.

I had always thought that if anything happened to my children I would blame God, and that would be the end of any form of religion, Christianity, whatever. And within split seconds [of Azaria's disappearance in August 1980], I knew I wasn't going to get through it without God. Each of us has no idea how we will face these things until they happen. To me, to look at the McCanns, they are reacting as very normal, grief-stricken parents.

Has your opinion of them changed during the course of events?
Yes, I feel more sorry for them now than I did before, because they are going through so much more than private grief. And whereas I knew I had a lot of the answers—I knew what took my daughter even though the public thought it was a big mystery, the eyewitnesses who were there and I all knew what had happened. Its tracks were there, we had heard the noise, I had seen it going from the tent and Aborigines had tracked the places where the dingo had put her down. I knew what happened. These people, all they know is that their daughter has gone. They don't know any more than that.

And here we have a mother, and there's talk about her being charged for murder, and once again they haven't got a body, they've got no facts … I'm hoping Madeleine is still alive. And I guarantee her parents are hoping the same thing. The big crime of all this is that while people are going, "Oh, the mother did it," the authorities and the public will stop looking. And if they stop looking and that little girl is still alive, then whoever took her is going to get away because the pressure will be off, and they'll be able to move freely from wherever they are. That's the true criminal point of view in this case.

Do you worry that intense public interest in the case increases the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice?
It certainly can, because any potential jury has got their minds made up. They don't understand—even with all the media coverage—the difficult intricacies of forensic medicine. It goes right over their heads.

In our case, even the judge admitted that the forensic evidence was very difficult, and he directed the jury to acquit. But then the jury came in and said "guilty" because they had had newspaper reports every day, and rumors for several years before it actually went to court, and they interpreted the judges word to mean "convict."

These people are likely to go through the same thing, and what's even worse is they are going to be judged by people in another country. At least I was in my own country.

Do you think the pressure to resolve such a high-profile case can force authorities to jump to the wrong conclusion?
With the public heavily pushing police to give them answers … the police are certainly pressured to get results. There were certain police in our case pressured and obliged to get results.

When I hear that there was Madeleine's DNA in the car, immediately I wonder how many tests you do in a hire car to come to that conclusion. Secondly, there's nothing to say that, if there is DNA in there, that it isn't simply from packing your clothes up to take them home. Because I think we can be fairly certain that the parents didn't throw all her things out; we know that her mother was taking Madeleine's cuddle toy with her, so It's a lot more complicated than looking at an episode of "CSI" and what the public imagines it to be. It's not cut and dry.

And as for those rumors saying that Madeleine's DNA is in the car, perhaps it's from a hair on the mother's jacket that fell off in the car—it doesn't mean they're guilty. But rumors are very powerful in the public arena. They're very harmful.

What do you think of the role and behavior of the media in the McCann case?
The public forgets that the news is a business like any other business. These days, when you are competing against so many other people to have your news product be uppermost in their minds … it's not pure news. There's a thread that goes through each story, but the padding that surrounds it can be very different.

It's our responsibility, as the public, to demand accuracy, and not this padding—and not to blame the media, saying it's all [their] fault. As the public, we are equally responsible because they are giving us what we are demanding of them.

But in this instance, the media were crucial to the first months of intensive searching for Madeleine. The McCanns made very deft use of the media to raise awareness of her disappearance….
And because of that, there is now a public that wants to know what has happened. So now the media are filling that gap in, where really we shouldn't be hearing anything other than that there is no news.

I think that's where the news is dangerous, where it picks up rumors and runs with them. The whole of society would be far better off than in this slow and horrible whirlpool that is pulling us in.

We seem to think that things like this, that happen in real life, are reality TV for people's entertainment, that we can go home each night and chat about what's going to happen next and how it's going to happen. But it's not reality TV for the people going through it—it's their life, and it shouldn't be other people's entertainment. That's not right, and yet that's how it is.

We've been taught to have the crime, have the research, and have the conclusion in an hour, just like an episode of "CSI." And when we don't get that quick conclusion we become annoyed and we turn on the people because they haven't done what we wanted them to. But it's not our life. We need to butt out, and we need to be responsible in how we look at the news, and not just use it as a fairy tale.

What advice would or could you give to the McCanns right now to help them?
I'd give them a hug and tell them to hang in there. That is about the best support you can give them. To the public, I would say give them a chance. They are battling enough without your interference. The only thing that the McCanns can do is look into themselves, know what the truth is to them. Nobody else can walk up and say they can look in your eyes and tell that you're innocent or guilty. As nice or as nasty as either of those viewpoints are, they are just speculation.

To actually know, and Kate and Gerry McCann know what their involvement was, they must hang on to that fact and believe in themselves and not let anybody else tell them different. To me it was essential, and I can see it is essential to them, to keep their belief in God, as well. Everybody else doesn't matter. It will come out in the end, one way or the other.

Even if they end up spending time in prison like I did, truth takes a long time to get its boots on while a lie goes around the world, but it's got huge boots. Eventually, the truth is known. Unfortunately some people aren't interested when it gets to that, and you can't convince those people any different. But you can live with yourself.