I’ve gone an read another book that’s made me angry. If there’s one take away message from Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones’ ‘The Family’, it’s that sometimes life is incredibly unjust.
Anne Hamilton Byrne, now approaching 100 years old, is currently in palliative care in a nursing home in Melbourne, Australia. She’s only ever been convicted of minor fraud charges, but she’s guilty of so much more.
Anne has the honour of being one of Australia’s most notorious cult leaders, serving as the guru and self-professed reincarnation of Jesus for The Family, or The Great White Brotherhood. Starting with not much more than a yoga club in the 1960s, The Family came to wider public attention in the late 80’s when the police raided a cult compound near Lake Eildon, on the outskirts of Melbourne, and extracted over a dozen children who had been subject to astounding levels of both physical and psychological abuse.
Johnston and Jones investigate how the cult developed from a small group of spiritualists into something much more sinister; and how Anne then managed to escape with little consequence. The key to expanding your cult-like operation is befriending very powerful people to act as your backers. Anne had both charm and tenacity in spades and was able to rope in prominent physicist and head of The University of Melbourne’s Queen’s College, Raynor Johnson. He, in turn, was able to connect her to other powerful people in his social circle. It becomes so much easier to convince people to buy into your bizarre Christian-Hindu-Blackmagic-kitchen sink philosophy if you can load them up with LSD and send them away for a weekend at a psychiatric hospital. Good thing Anne had been able to charm not just the owner of the Newhaven psychiatric centre, but a handful of psychiatrists who were performing experimental LSD treatments too.
Her professional friends and followers also proved useful when she and a core group of cultists decided they wanted to raise a race of perfect children to inherit the world. Those with connections to the medical profession were able to scour hospitals for vulnerable young women who could be coerced into giving up their newborn babies, while those with a legal background were able to falsify documents to facilitate their disappearance. And because she wasn’t going to look after those children herself, she had her cult people do that too. Years later, demonstrating that her ambition had no bounds, she made a bid to usurp the founder of Siddha Yoga and try and take control of his power base. (That failed. The Guru was not infallible.)
The book reads like a police procedural, incredibly information dense and clipped in tone. One of the strengths of the book is that when it interviews people involved in the cult and in the later investigation, it gives them room to speak on their own terms. Even those people who are still involved are allowed to freely speak without too much overlaying commentary. But the rapid pace and dense nature of the book can make some scenarios seem almost surreal. In the first third of the book, which deals with the lives of the children at Lake Eildon, the details of the child abuse are told so thick and fast, it’s incredible. But it’s no joke – those children really were all bleached to look alike, starved, near drowned and hit with chairs. This is not how you would expect to groom children to lead the world. Something more sinister is only ever hinted at – one blond child looks a lot like another blond child. And Anne had an ample supply of falsified documents.
The narrative also goes through a series of jump cuts in some sections, especially when dealing with the aftermath of the raid and Operation Forrest. This sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of who is who and what they’re involved in. It doesn’t help that many cult members, including the some of the children, go by multiple names. These sections have to be read with care, and I’m hoping later editions might add an appendix.
There are many depressing parts of the narrative of the cult children. While the raid didn’t occur until 1987, suspicion had been raised years earlier, but no one seemed fit to act on it. And while there where many reasons the Australian Police were unable to make any substantial charges stick to Anne, the biggest one was that no one was comfortable making tortured children testify. But for me, the worst part was learning that one of the first children to turn against the cult and leave, Sarah Moore, passed away during the writing of this book. It’s really upsetting to find out that she’s died while Anne herself stubbornly still refuses to shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s only a very slight consolation to learn that while Anne never really faced serious criminal charges, several civil suits from former cult members have been successful, and The Family never really recovered after the raid at Lake Eildon.
This book is absolutely worth a look at if you’re into reading about true crime or have a special interest in cults. Additionally, if you ever see a copy of Sarah Moore’s (then Hamilton Byrne’s) book Unseen Unheard Unknown, pick that up as well, as it is sadly out of print. However, both go into detail about some pretty horrific abuse, so be warned.