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Surviving Australia’s biggest cult, The Family

Jul 11, 2019 • 19m01s

Following the death of cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, surviving members of The Family reckon with judgement.

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Surviving Australia’s biggest cult, The Family

33 • Jul 11, 2019

Surviving Australia’s biggest cult, The Family

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am

In the 1960s, Anne Hamilton-Byrne set up Australia’s most notorious cult: The Family. Last month, she died. Martin McKenzie-Murray spoke to one of the survivors about living outside the cult and reckoning with her death.

[Theme ends]

Archival tape — Unidentified newsreader 1:

“Why did you start to take in the children?”

Archival tape — Anne Hamilton-Byrne:

“Over 21 years, 28 young people went through our hands.”

Archival tape —Unidentified newsreader 1:

“Why did you do that?”

Archival tape —Anne Hamilton-Byrne:

“I love children”

Archival tape —Unidentified newsreader 2:

“Now it was the biggest cult in Australian history.”

Archival tape —Unidentified newsreader 3:

“The Family was lead by Anne Hamilton-Byrne”

Archival tape —Unidentified newsreader 4:

“The sick and twisted cult leader collected children through adoption scams, she abused and brainwashed them, convincing her worshippers that she was Jesus Christ reincarnated”

Archival tape —Unidentified Victorian police officer:

“Of all the criminals I investigated in my time at Victoria police, she was the worst”

ELIZABETH:

Marty, let's begin with the family. What was it? How did it operate?

MARTIN:

It was most explicitly a cult with pretensions to New Age mysticism.

ELIZABETH:

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

MARTIN:

It formed in the 1960s and its leader was Anne Hamilton-Byrne who was... there’s this obliging word it's almost always used with cult leaders charismatic she did seem to be charismatic. I don't think it's gratuitous or irrelevant to point out that she was an exceptionally beautiful woman and I think a lot of men fell in love with her.

And she asserted that she was Jesus Christ reincarnated and many came to believe her.

A lot of these first meetings with her acolytes came through yoga and Anne Hamilton-Byrne kind of worked parts of society that were filled with quite wealthy, upper class, highly educated kind of lefty intellectuals and though then becoming highly credulous and excited about Eastern mysticism.

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified male:

“Far from the noise and pace of city life, in the cool, clear air of Rishikesh, North India, reports from the meditation retreat of Maharishi yogi”

MARTIN:

This is the time when the Beatles go and visit the Maharishi, who himself is later exposed as a fraud.

Archival tape — Unidentified male:

“That his brand of peace of mind could only be truly appreciated by intelligent men of the world, with rewarding activities and high incomes. Among his most valued disciples were The Beatles. Top of the pop pupils.”

[Music starts]

MARTIN:

But there’s this kind of excited experimentation with eastern mysticism with mind expanding drugs and so on a property in Victoria's ranges, in the Dandenongs, there was a very large property. She acquired more property through the kind of brainwashed generosity of her followers. And she also ran, wickedly, an adoption scam. And so there were fraudulent acquisition of children and also the kind of browbeating and exploitation of single vulnerable women to have their children taken from them. So she ends up acquiring this kind of small brood of children and brainwashed followers who work on the property.

Archival tape — Unidentified male:

“All willing to do the bidding of their master…

Archival tape — Unidentified follower:

"I was told to leave my first wife, and go up to the hills, I did. I was told that I was going to be having a baby with another woman, and I did.”

MARTIN:

The children in their time were held in isolation. They might be locked in cupboards they were starved, they were beaten and they were given LSD. On top of this was the kind of erasure of their past and who the parents were. Anne was extraordinarily controlling but especially controlling about what people said about her and especially controlling about relationships between the captives or the followers. And that included the children as well. So she was very careful to separate people and not allow friendships or bonds to form. And it lasted sort of functionally until 1987, when police raided the property.

Archival tape —Unidentified male 1:

“I remember as we go down the road, it began to dawn on me, this was actually the end of it.”

Archival tape —Unidentified male 2:

“At the weekend six children were seized from the property owned by The Family. Five of the children have appeared in the children’s court, under care and protection applications”

MARTIN:

When police raided the property they found incredibly emotionally odd and haunted children. But quite sharp intellectually, sharp and articulate children.

ELIZABETH:

How on earth was something like this able to go on in Melbourne in and around Melbourne from the 60s through the 70s and 80s? I mean it just seems like completely unbelievable.

MARTIN:

There was that credulous support of quite eminent and wealthy Melbournians. So there were academics you know, qualified psychologists and psychiatrists lending if not there in imprimatur. There was one psychiatric facility in Kew, which is a suburb in northern Melbourne that was lent to the cult. And it was there that illegal kind of psychological experimentation with electroshock therapy and LSD would be applied to people cult followers. Basically with the aim of brainwashing them. And she was an exceptionally gifted liar and so if some rumours managed to get out she played the victim with great articulacy.

Archival tape —Unidentified male:

“...he hit me with his hands, my head kept hitting the wall and I saw tears. Is she making that up?"

Archival tape —Anne Hamilton-Byrne:

“You know quite well they can.”

Archival tape —Unidentified male:

“They can what? Make things up?”

Archival tape —Anne Hamilton-Byrne:

"Kids can make things up. We’ve all been kids.”

ELIZABETH:

Did she ever face any kind of consequences or any kinds of criminal charges for her behaviour?

MARTIN:

Not really. There was certainly her public exposure following the 1987 raids. There were some small convictions for fraud, and this revolved around the adoption scam. So there's some sort of light charges about the forging of documentation but regarding the sustained, bizarre privation of these children. No.

ELIZABETH:

You first met some of the survivors of the family a couple of years ago. Tell me about the experience of meeting people who had been directly affected by her behaviour?

MARTIN:

Yeah. We met a few years ago. Ah...we had lunch before a public panel. This is associated with the premiere of a documentary of which there was a subject. Some were understandably suspicious of me. Some were really unguarded and very candid. Some had children, some didn't. All of them had shared this grievous history. All of them shared an affection for Lex de Man who also joined us. He was a now retired Victorian detective that was crucial to their freedom.

And I met Ben Shenton, who was 18 months old in 1974 when his mother effectively gifted Anne Hamilton-Byrne custody of him. And he was then taught that she was his mother. It was not until 1987, when Ben was much older that he was freed.

And I spoke with Ben this week and we spoke about a lot of things but one thing I was interested in knowing was how he had responded to this thing that he'd been waiting a long, long time for and that was the death of Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified newsreader 1:

“The leader of one of Australia’s most insidious cults and a woman described by detectives as pure evil has died in a Melbourne nursing home”

Archival tape — Unidentified newsreader 2:

“There are not enough evil words to describe Anne Hamilton-Byrne, but for a former detective, today there is only one that matters: dead.”

Archival tape — Unidentified policeman:

“May she rot. That’s all I can say”

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, this charismatic leader of the cult known as The Family has just died a few weeks ago, she was in her late 90s. You spoke this past week to one of the children who was raised by her within the cult, Ben Shenton. How did he react to her passing?

MARTIN:

He said he felt relief. He said a particular song came through his head, “Ding dong the witch is dead” from the Wizard of Oz. I write in this piece that he is a man of ardent faith, he’s a member of the Pentecostal church, he’s given to rumination on grace and generosity and he had this particular vision in his head. That was of her reckoning. So this was a woman that committed the ultimate blasphemy, that she pretended that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, when in fact she was a servant of the devil in Ben’s belief. And he had this image of Anne Hamilton-Byrne finally chastened, humbled before the Lord, bowing in her ultimate reckoning and having to confess. That she was a profound liar. And that she would then be condemned to hell.

ELIZABETH:

And how did Shenton describe his own faith in the face of what he'd gone through as a very small child and into his adolescence? How did he reconcile those two things?

MARTIN:

He can reconcile it easily much more easily than the other survivors. So Ben refers to himself as a born again Christian. His interpretation of Anne Hamilton-Byrne is not one of some deluded or dangerous criminal. It's not that she was a crook or a charlatan. It's that she was literally a servant of the devil and the devil had appointed her with occult powers.

The other survivors, because of what they went through, religion is largely repugnant to them and some of them said to Ben, look you've just left one cult to join another. And so that caused Ben a little bit of sorrow and a little bit of reflection. But he says the proof of the effectiveness and the truth of the word of the Lord is in his life. He's married, he has two kids, he seems quite content and relatively at peace with himself. And he says that his come through religion. And so as he says it: the proof is in the pudding.

ELIZABETH:

And does he have a relationship with his biological family? It that something that he was able to get back for himself in life?

MARTIN:

This is something we, we spoke at length about. So the cult is sort of functionally dismantled in 1987 but it still exists in that there's still a good amount of people who revere Anne Hamilton-Byrne and his mother was one of them. So in the weeks following the raid, Ben Shenton is 15, he gets a phone call from his mother. And she says Ben you embarrass me and I never ever want to see you again. And it's understood that this bit of cruelty was directed by Hamilton-Byrne, that she was still, and would for some time, after the ‘87 raid savagely influence her followers and still try to keep them apart. There was still this divide and conquer mentality.

So that was in the weeks following the 1987 raid. Both mother and son are close with Ben's grandmother or his mother's mother. And in 2005 they both accidentally find themselves on the same doorstep.

ELIZABETH:

But this is 20 years after the breakup of the cult by police...

MARTIN:

That's right. So his mother was true to a word, I do want to see you again. And they didn't. They never spoke.

So it's not until 2005 that they accidentally meet, and Ben is a man now. He's married, he's got two young children and so they never had any contact with their grandmother, so they all meet and he says it was strange to say the least; it was like meeting a stranger. But he was insistent upon some form of reconciliation.

So something interesting happens, which is this kind of creative rationalisation. That Ben's mother makes to get herself out of the promise that she had made to Anne Hamilton-Byrne that she would never contact her son ever again.

ELIZABETH:

Because she still devoted to Hamilton-Byrne when they have that chance meeting...

MARTIN:

Yeah, considers her, her master; is still under her influence, still reveres her. And so the creative rationalisation is this: that they have appeared on the doorstep at the same time, to Ben's mother seems like some divine intervention. And so it's like, okay, Anne is my master but perhaps a higher power has kind of intervened here and allowed or permitted a backchannel. And Ben was grateful for that because he's, like, okay well we can we can work that's like he could see her mother creating this way in which would be okay to break this promise with Anne.

Mother and son keep in contact. They agree to meet again in 2006 less than a year after this chance encounter. They take a drive down Victoria's coast and then that evening they sit together for dinner. And Ben says that he told her what happened: the starvation, the LSD, the beatings, the isolation being locked in a cupboard.

And she says well I knew of none of this. And he says she didn't call him a liar. She just said that I didn't know; she professed ignorance.

And he explained why she wouldn't have known how manipulative and concealing Anne was and how brainwashed he felt that she was.

So there's a great difficulty here. Ben needs some acknowledgment from his mother, but his mother needs to save herself. And if you have irrevocably harmed someone, no less your own child...

ELIZABETH:

There's a limit to how much you can admit to yourself...

MARTIN:

Oh yeah. If the truth starts jeopardising your own self conceptions the self conception about your basic goodness, self conception about your benevolence, it's very difficult to embrace that truth. So there was a sort of a stand-off of sorts and a lot of people said to Ben why would you persist with this if your mother cannot or is incapable of really listening to you and really acknowledging the profound suffering that occurred, why do you persist? And he says I want to know what her character is. I think that character is redeemable.

ELIZABETH:

After reconnecting with his biological mother, does Ben ever see Anne Hamilton-Byrne again?

MARTIN:

In 2012 Ben agrees to go visit and Anne Hamilton-Byrne with his mother. And his mother at this point still adores Anne Hamilton-Byrne but it might be adoration rather than reverence now. So just the control that Anne Hamilton-Byrne had over her mind and imagination might have diminished a little bit.

So 2012 they visit her. Anne Hamilton-Byrne at this point is effectively condemned to a nursing home ravaged with dementia, incredibly old, incredibly frail. And I asked Ben if this was confronting, this doesn't sound like something most people would probably leap at. But he said he had no qualms about it. And seeing was sort of confirmation for him like she was in such a state of decrepitude that it was easy for him to say yes, you have the devil in you. You are not the Lord reincarnate. So for him he likened it to a punctuation point, it was the full stop at the end of a sentence for him.

[Music starts]

So for Ben there is the ultimate justice which is since her death she would have bowed before the Lord and confessed her sins. But in terms of more earthly justice there was very little.

So what he would like to see now is whatever property and assets are remaining -- Some properties and she had properties not just in Victoria but internationally. He didn't know what the size of the portfolio was, what bothers him now is what happens with those assets and what does the Will look like. Because he certainly doesn't want any cult members to profit from her death.

ELIZABETH:

Thank you Marty.

MARTIN:

Thank you.

ELIZABETH:

Much of the archival tape in this episode comes from Rosie Jones’ compelling documentary from 2016, The Family.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

In Queensland, attorney-general Yvette D'Ath has referred the controversial "mistake of fact" defence to the state's Law Reform Commission, seeking advice on whether and how it might be repealed. The defence allows a person to escape conviction if they are unaware their actions are unlawful, and has been used in rape cases where the perpetrator has a mistaken but honest and reasonable belief that the person they assaulted was consenting.

And in entertainment, the actor Rip Torn has died. He was 88. Torn built a reputation as an irascible and unpredictable talent during the 1960s, before a later resurgence playing comic roles in blockbusters such as Men in Black.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

[Theme ends]

In the 1960s, Anne Hamilton-Byrne set up Australia’s most notorious cult, The Family. Last month, she died. Martin McKenzie-Murray spoke to one of the survivors, Ben Shenton, about living outside the cult and reckoning with her death.

Guest: Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Background reading:

She’s with Lucifer now – her master in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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33: Surviving Australia’s biggest cult, The Family