CHRIS JOHNSTON and ROSIE JONES The Family. Reviewed by Lou Mentor
The Family is a chilling account of how a cult arose that would leave a legacy of damage in its wake.
What is true? What is false? In the quest for enlightenment what does it take to convince regular – often well-educated – members of society to abandon the norms of conventional living and cross the bridge of suspended disbelief?
Documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones teams with journalist Chris Johnston to cover this disturbing terrain in their factual account of the Melbourne-based cult called The Family. Precisely researched and filled with anecdotal evidence, the book ties in with Jones’s documentary of the same name. It explores the tenets of The Family with an earnest search for the truth behind the cult, bravely covering cult sex, partner-swapping, brainwashing, LSD use, accumulated wealth, and the mystery of its charismatic female leader.
Most active from the 1960s to the 1980s, the ‘Great White Brotherhood’ as it was initially referred to, had over 500 followers at its peak. The cult was spearheaded by the enigmatic Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a woman shrouded in mystery. Several aliases and various versions of her past made it difficult for people to get a concrete handle on her. Yet this self-proclaimed spiritual master engendered loyalty and personal sacrifice from her followers, who regarded her as the reincarnation of Jesus, a living god, and their master. Her message was ephemeral and extreme. As one ex-cult member put it:
‘Anne offered her followers a message of eternal life and hope. She took it all from many sources – Christianity, Hinduism, hatha yoga, and New Age journeys into crystals, auras, light, colour, LSD and magic mushrooms, and even extraterrestrial life. She used to always say it was a warning when the flying saucers came in spring.’
To understand Anne, the authors analyse her upbringing, a history pocked with incongruences. Anne was the oldest of seven children, the daughter of an itinerant father and mentally unstable mother:
… Florence Hoile was from Wandsworth, in South London. She spent 27 years in mental hospitals in Australia, and eventually died in one. Florence was rumoured to have set her hair on fire in the street in Sale in the 1920s. She claimed to be a medium and psychic who could speak to the dead …
During her childhood, Anne spent time at the Melbourne Orphanage. This experience – during the formative years of her life – no doubt later influenced her adoption of children who were to become known as the ‘Uptop children’. However, it wasn’t until 1971 that children started arriving at Uptop, a secluded lake house Anne had bought in Eildon. First, Anne needed to lay the foundations for her cult.
She built her empire from humble beginnings, targeting members of the yoga classes she taught:
She gravitated towards teaching middle-aged women in wealthy suburbs. The women were going through a mid-life crisis …
Then, in 1962, Anne forged a unique friendship with Dr Raynor Johnson, a respected physicist and academic and head of the University of Melbourne’s Queen’s College. He was to become one of the first initiates into her cult, and one of her most important and influential recruits. A year later he introduced his friend Howard Whitaker, a psychiatrist, to Anne. Whitaker was impressed by Anne and was initiated into the Family’s inner circle in 1964. Whitaker took an oath, which he was told:
… was so secret it couldn’t even be written down. ‘The oath and obedience and secrecy is repeated over and over,’ he said. ‘That’s the hold Anne has on people. After May 1964, quite quickly Anne started to tell me what to do with my life …’
With Whitaker came easy and respectable access to LSD and psilocybin, which were administered to cult members to aid spiritual enlightenment. Drugs were also used on the Uptop children to control and sedate them.
Anne and her third husband, Bill Byrne, combined their surnames to Hamilton-Byrne. This name was given to some of the children Anne adopted over the following years:
The Hamilton-Byrne children all thought they were brothers and sisters as they were growing up, but of course they were not. Some had been scouted for adoption by cult insiders at Melbourne hospitals and taken for Anne with fake paperwork. Or they were gifted to Anne by parents who were involved with the cult. These parents felt it was an honour to give over a child: their son or daughter would be raised by the hand of God …
Many of the children had their hair dyed white-blonde, a sinister sign of their forged ‘shared’ identity:
… she [Anne]dyed the children’s hair to make them look like one family … ‘I wanted them to look like brothers and sisters. We never told them they weren’t ours. We didn’t do that …’
The children led a strange regimented life interspersed with unpredictable punishments. Anne and Bill were rarely at Uptop, travelling internationally to spread the influence of the cult. They also spent much time at a property they had purchased in the Catskills, New York. In the absence of Anne and Bill the children were cared for by the ‘Aunties’, women who had joined the cult on various pretences – many of them trained nurses – who were forced into a surrogate parenting role. Anne claimed that the harsh punishments she ordered them to inflict on the children was part of their ‘training’, their spiritual path:
Anne and Bill would visit Uptop from afar like dignitaries – a holy pair coming back to the doomed fairytale they were creating. ‘She would appear, like a magic queen,’ says Sarah Moore, one of the first to be adopted and go to Uptop …
The cult’s wealth came from membership fees, as well as properties and estates donated by cult members. The amassed property portfolio included property in London, and in the Dandenong Ranges – where most of the adults lived and where Anne presided over spiritual gatherings at the Santiniketan Lodge on a purple throne. Her power was undeniable and dangerous.
The Family is a chilling account of how a dubious jigsaw of philosophies flourished, giving improbable rise to a cult that would leave a legacy of damage in its wake.
Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones The Family Scribe 2017 PB 288pp $32.99
Lou Mentor is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. You can connect with her on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/LouMentor101
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.