BOOK AND FILM | THE FAMILY
Cult def: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.
A powerful light has shone through the gloom, the secrecy, and the layers of subterfuge and power to expose Victoria’s shame – The Family cult – which lives on, but chiefly flourished among the privileged class for two decades, stealing children and destroying lives.
Two formats telling the same story have been released concurrently – a documentary and a book – utilising the same material but offering two very different experiences.
Anyone who has lived or grown up in Victoria from the 1980s on will know something of The Family. For older members of the Uniting Church, the relationship might even be more intimate and go back to the 1960s when the cult began. Many original followers of The Family guru, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, came from established religious families, including Methodist and Jewish.
Her first believer and enabler was the then Master of Queen’s College, Dr Raynor Johnson. When he was initiated into The Family, he wrote that he had met his Master: “a mystic of a high order … unquestionably the wisest, the serenest and the most gracious and generous soul I had ever met.”
One former cult member said “I wanted to find God and I met Anne.”
Hamilton-Byrne – whose childhood was one of disadvantage not privilege or spiritual enlightenment from her mother, as she led her followers to believe – deliberately cultivated her aura and mystery.
The documentary and book provide evidence of LSD-induced initiations into the cult. Hamilton-Byrne would appear to the initiate in the midst of powerful hallucinations in a blue dream-like state, dressed as the risen Christ.
Her followers believed she was the reincarnated Jesus in the female form and were called to be her followers.
“A place where I belonged,” said former cult member Barbara Kibby.
Kibby’s husband Peter was The Family lawyer. As a whistleblower, he was interviewed by Victoria Police’s Operation Forest for months, giving detailed information about falsified documents, especially relating to stolen children and property.
Twenty-eight children were caught up in The Family, 14 of these children were passed off by Hamilton-Byrne as her own. Their names were illegally changed by falsified deed poll, and they were hidden away and home-schooled, starved and beaten, and paraded as angelic blonde siblings, for nearly 20 years.
Former Channel Nine journalist Marie Mohr was instrumental in tracking down the elusive Hamilton Byrne and her husband Bill after The Family was raided in 1987 and the children were taken away and put into care.
Speaking in the documentary, Mohr explained why she thinks politicians, the police and the public failed these children for so many years.
“No one could see past the veneer of respectability,” Mohr said.
Since the late ’80s, The Family has been the subject of lengthy police investigations, court cases, radio and television interviews, numerous books and tragic stories of lives destroyed. But the latest documentary and book are the first that attempt to reveal the extent of the cult’s spider web, from its very beginning.
Melbourne director Rosie Jones and producer Anna Grieve have spent years researching the mysteries of The Family. They won the trust of a number of former children who grew up in the cult. The pair also spoke to former members, a current member, police officers involved in Operation Forest, journalists who had followed the story. They sourced archival footage and audio tapes of Anne Hamilton-Byrne delivering sermons to her faithful.
They visited the key locations at Ferny Creek and Lake Eildon. The one interview they were unable to produce was with the guru herself, who is now 95 and suffering dementia.
The book, also titled The Family, is written by investigative journalist Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones. It is a perfect companion piece to the documentary, providing the detail, particularly relating to the police investigation, the drug use, the child abuse and the depth of manipulation of people’s private lives by Hamilton-Byrne.
Only one current cult member agreed to be interviewed. Michael Stevenson-Helmer expresses no compassion for the children, now adults in their 30s and 40s. “They keep bringing it up, like regurgitating a foul smell from their stomachs,” he says. “They are on a victim-fuelled rocket to nowhere.”
His comments hit like a punch in the stomach for the audience. We have just heard account after account from the mouths of these survivors – one who is Hamilton-Byrne’s biological granddaughter, another who is Bill Hamilton-Byrne’s biological grandson. They have spent their adulthood grappling with addictions, trying to make sense of life, track down their real families and working out how to be parents themselves.
Australia has many dark secrets. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who forensically work to lift the lid and reveal the stench, the deceit and the resilience. The Family, the book and documentary, is a gripping crime story, unfortunately it is all true.
The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones, Scribe, 2016, is available widely.
The Family (M) directed by Rosie Jones, is in selected cinemas.