When I was in middle school and high school, it wasn’t uncommon to hear raucous laughter coming from a band of boys. That, and a fake Australian accent exclaiming “The dingo ate my baby!” The line has been bandied about in American TV shows and other pop culture outlets.
When I was younger I asked an adult what that even meant. Was it a movie quote?
“Yes.” They said. “Oh, and it actually comes from a true story.”
“Hmm. Wow.” I replied.
At one point I headed over to the trusty ol’ Wikipedia and confirmed that this was, in fact, derived from reality. That’s as far as it went.
Years later I arrive in Australia. The line came to my mind, and my mouth, unbidden. (Note: never repeat “The dingo ate my baby” in a car with a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old. They will chant it over and over and it will be YOUR FAULT! Sorry, Bongers family.) Chalk it up to American ignorance if you like, but it never occurred to me to connect what I consider a famous quote with actual emotion or experience.
“Have you heard that phrase?” I asked Ian.
“The dingo ate my baby” is connected to a movie starring Meryl Streep, “A Cry in the Dark.” That movie is the result of tragedy. An Australian family, the Chamberlains, lost their youngest child while camping near Uluru (Ayars Rock). The suspected their daughter, Azaria, had been taken by dingoes. The mother, Lindy, was accused of murder. After being sentenced to life in prison she served a few years before further inspection of the case, and her release. In 2012, more than thirty years after her daughter’s death, public recognition came via a coroner’s speech and the family received a death certificate listing the true cause of death.
When Ian said he’d heard the phrase and it was about Azaria, I had no idea what he was saying. Meaning I didn’t register Azaria as a name. Here’s an interesting note. Ian’s mom and a few other Aussies I talked with also mentioned Azariah almost as soon as I’d asked about “The dingo ate my baby.” Most immediately state how sad it was – and is. Both Ian and his mom, Carolyn, emphasized the injustice of the story that Wikipedia only alludes to.
Azaria died in 1980. At that time in Australia, the Seventh Day Adventists were somewhat new and were largely regarded as a sketchy cult. Prejudice was a huge contributor to Lindy being thrown in prison without much investigation. (Azariah’s clothes were later found in a dingo’s “lair” near the family’s campsite.) Carolyn told me that people said Lindy had sacrificed her baby because of her Seventh Day beliefs, so there was obviously little sympathy. Carolyn also said that the first investigation found blood in the back seat, but one of the boys had recently had a bloody nose while sitting there. Thinking about the case is a little infuriating.
The fact that people here (at least the ones I talked with) think of the baby, by name, when they hear “The dingo ate my baby” is a good thing. It’s like continual memorial to Azaria and small bits of healing to her family, especially her mother.
Was “the dingo ate my baby” actually said during the trial, or in the movie? I’m not sure. Either way, how did my culture turn a horror-filled exclamation at the panic of sudden loss of a person’s baby into a funny phrase? What would it be like to be one of Azaria’s family members traveling in the US – sitting at a restaurant late at night, when voices are loud and inhibitions low, hearing a group of college kids obnoxiously shout “The dingo ate my baby!” Or to be watching American TV only to be jarred out of your down-time as you hear a character exclaim the same? You’d suddenly be covered in that sadness of death and the injustice of wrongful imprisonment, and the disrespect of thirty years passing before a real death certificate was issued. How awful.
I encourage you to think of Azaria and her family whenever you hear the phrase, and to speak up when those around you are using it in jest.
—Do you know any other phrases have seeped into American pop culture but have a tragic past, especially if they’re from another country?
Thur. – “Boys and Love and Stuff” (just that)
Fri. – “Whereupon God Speaks and I Don’t Want to Hear it” (News for you, faithful reader)