Sunday 26 March 2017

Inside the cult known as 'The Family'

Non-Fiction The Family, Chris Johnston & Rosie Jones, Scribe Books, trade pbk, 288 pages, €17.50

Some of the 'Hamilton-Byrne' children lined up in their best clothes to be baptised at St Mary’s Catholic Church in 1978
Some of the 'Hamilton-Byrne' children lined up in their best clothes to be baptised at St Mary’s Catholic Church in 1978
Anne Hamilton-Byrne and one of her children, Leeanne
The Family by Chris Johnston & Rosie Jones
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The story of the woman behind the adoption and ­brainwashing of 28 children makes for a hair-raising and disturbing read.

Cult leaders are known for being delusional, arrogant, narcissistic and, especially, having a grotesquely inflated sense of their own importance. In the annals of these Machiavellian villains, Anne Hamilton-Byrne surely ranks near the top of the charts in terms of the sheer scale of hers: she believed herself to be nothing less than the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Or so she claimed, anyway. One of the tricky things to figure out about cult leaders is whether or not they sincerely believe what they say. Hamilton-Byrne may have genuinely thought she was the modern-day "avatar" - her word - of Jesus, or she may have simply been a chancer who faked it exceptionally well.

We'll probably never know, because the co-founder and leader of a notorious Australian cult called The Family is now 95, suffers from advanced dementia and has spent the last dozen years being cared for in a Melbourne nursing home. But either way, as demonstrated again and again in this book, she was a dangerous, manipulative and exceedingly strange woman.

The co-authors are Chris Johnston, a newspaper reporter, and Rosie Jones, a filmmaker. The story they tell has also been made into a documentary, which airs from Tuesday on BBC4's 'Storyville' series under the title The Cult that Stole Children - Inside the Family. And it's a remarkable one: hair-raising, unfathomable and deeply disturbing.

Hamilton-Byrne was born Evelyn Edwards in 1921, growing up in a farming community a few hours from Melbourne. Her father was often absent, and her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic: English-born Florence was committed to psychiatric care for 27 years after setting her own hair on fire. The young Evelyn spent time in orphanages - a possible explanation for the weird travesty of a family which she would later construct around her.

She married young and had a daughter - long since estranged - before her first husband died in a car accident. By her mid-thirties, now calling herself Anne, she developed an interest in Eastern religion, mysticism and esoterica. Having taken up yoga, she began teaching it to Melbourne's bored suburban housewives.

Like all cult leaders, Anne had a compelling, even hypnotic personality: the book is dotted with testimonials from former (and, amazingly, a few still current) devotees about this "wonderful", "divinely beautiful" woman, an "enchantress" who could "look into your soul". And a certain type of well-heeled Melbourne resident - seeking something "spiritual" that wasn't being met by mainstream religion or consumer comforts - was easy pickings for a ruthless megalomaniac.

Anne cobbled together a hodgepodge of Indian/Eastern beliefs, quasi-religions like Blavatsky's theosophy, a dab of Christianity and a lot of wishy-washy "New Age" stuff that was so vague and meaningless, it's amazing that anyone bought it. (Of course, this could be applied to every other cult in the history of mankind.)

Anne also hooked up, platonically, with Dr Raynor Johnson, a Leeds-born physicist based in Melbourne University. Remarkably, this man of science seems to have been an even bigger flake than Hamilton-Byrne, and together they founded The Family, basing themselves in a rural area just outside Melbourne.

At this point, things turned even more bizarre. Anne and her husband Billy Byrne would go on to adopt 28 children. Their hair was bleached blonde and styled the same, making them look like real-life versions of the horror movie Children of the Corn. Home-schooled and brainwashed, they were assured the world as we know it was coming to an end and they would be the master-race rulers of a new one. They were told Anne and Bill were their real parents. The kids were also abused in more horrific ways: physically beaten by Anne herself or a team of "Aunties" (fanatical cult members), psychologically and emotionally tortured, starved of food and any semblance of normality.

They were even subjected to heavy doses of LSD from their early teens - part of some wackadoodle idea Anne had about initiation rites. Naturally, they suffered huge mental damage from all this, though some went on to live healthy, productive lives.

There's a persistent rumour that Wiki­Leaks founder Julian Assange was one of the Family kids, though he denies this, saying that his mother's boyfriend in the 1970s was in the cult but not them.

It's probably just the blond hair and general air of weirdness Assange gives off, but so off-the-wall surreal is The Family's story, you'd be prepared to believe anything.

One of the strangest aspects is the fact that Hamilton-Byrne never really paid for her crimes. In the late 1980s, after years of rumours and accusations eventually became too loud to ignore, the cult was raided and the children freed.

Anne and Bill were abroad, at one of their many properties, and wouldn't actually be arrested until 1993. In the end, she was hit with relatively minor fraud charges and fined AU$5,000 (€3,500) - this despite having amassed an estimated fortune of AU$150m (€105m).

How did she get away with it all for so long? The same reasons, presumably, as applied here in the systematic abuses within the church, state bodies and industrial schools: people turned a blind eye, they refused to believe what a child tells them, the powerful abusers are charming and persuasive.

And sometimes - maybe this is a defence mechanism of some kind - people just don't want to admit what's right in front of them. Staggeringly, a schools inspector who regularly called to The Family's compound noted in one report, "There was no evidence of dogma, rigid programming or indoctrination."

Beyond belief.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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