Feb 12, 2017

Family ties : What possessed people to hand over their children - and their lives - to infamous cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne?

Chris Johnston reports
The Age

February 2017

During the making of a new documentary and book about The Family – the notorious Australian cult led by the dangerous, charismatic Anne Hamilton-Byrne – former cult child Dr Sarah Moore died suddenly.

She was only 46 and at home in Melbourne after struggling with physical and mental health problems for decades. Sarah was a good person. She was compassionate and highly intelligent and loved by her friends and family – her real family, not the cult that said it was a family but never was.

The cult had long tentacles into political, academic, medical and judicial worlds. But its home bases were remote; in a secluded street among mountain ash gums in Melbourne's outer-suburban Dandenong Ranges, and on Lake Eildon, in Victoria's north-east. Beside the lake it had a house where it imprisoned 14 children from 1972 until 1987, when they were freed in a raid by police.

Sarah was among the oldest and she became the fulcrum for the children at the house they dubbed "Uptop". These were the kids dressed identically, and most with dyed blonde hair. ​Sarah had the same natural coppery hair colour as Hamilton-Byrne so was spared the bleach.

Just before the police raid, Sarah had been thrown out and with fellow cult child Leeanne helped direct the authorities to the house and what lay within: beatings, a regime of drugs, brainwashing and starvation.

With Melbourne filmmaker Rosie Jones, I have spent the past two years researching the inner workings of the cult, talking to survivors, lawyers, police and many, many sources who wished to remain anonymous.

We wanted to know why this was allowed to happen. We knew the during and after but what happened before? Who were the enablers? Why Melbourne? Why did so many smart adults give money, children and lives to this woman?

This last question was what intrigued us most. We're both interested in stories about what people are prepared to believe. I've written a lot about Jehovah's Witnesses, the bible sect Friends and Workers, extremists, fundamentalists and fringe dwellers. Rosie has made several films about religious communities and another about a UFO sighting in Melbourne. The Family was irresistible.

Rosie had been on the story much longer than I had and by the time we met she had developed strong relationships with many of the people Hamilton-Byrne tainted, including Sarah, Leeanne and other children (now adults) who she stole via shonky adoptions or got from compliant cult mothers. Rosie has directed a documentary and together we wrote a book. Both are called The Family.

Before she died, Sarah approved of the film but she had not read the book she helped so much with. She had always spoken out on behalf of the victims and, despite poor health, had done so again, for us, in more detail than ever before.

"Once I betrayed Anne," she said, "I had fulfilled the role of Judas."

Hamilton-Byrne told her followers and her captives that she was Jesus.

"Every Messiah has to have a Judas."

After leaving the cult, Sarah met her birth mother and enrolled at university but struggled with her past: taken at birth, locked away with changed names and beaten and drugged with vast quantities of LSD in a standard cult initiation when she was 14.

As a student doctor she worked in south-east Asia with refugees and the poor. But it was very hard for her. Sarah attempted suicide in 2008 and spent the rest of her short life in a wheelchair.

Her funeral last year had a Buddhist theme. Fellow child survivors – now adults in various stages of recovery – spoke on her behalf. Her death was a reminder that even though The Family formed in the '60s and was most active and harmful during the '70s and '80s, the consequences continue and will do for some time.

Hamilton-Byrne, meanwhile, lives on. She is 96 and is in a Melbourne nursing home with dementia.

When former Melbourne police detective Lex de Man, who initiated a task force to arrest Hamilton-Byrne after many years of police inaction, heard about Sarah's death he said to us: "Unjustly, she dies while the cult leader continues to live."

He considers Hamilton-Byrne "the most evil" person he has ever known.

De Man, who grew close to the survivors as he led the Victorian police taskforce that pursued Hamilton-Byrne after she fled overseas, says she essentially got away with it.

"Sarah was thrashed": cult survivors remember

When he finally managed to extradite her back to Victoria in 1994 he could only charge her and her third husband, Bill Byrne, with fraud offences to do with faked birth certificates. They were fined $5000 each.

She and Byrne did not face more serious charges – potentially including assault, kidnapping and the drugs – because of complex legal and ethical issues. One of the questions investigators and prosecutors asked each other was "should vulnerable survivors be retraumatised by forcing them through cross-examination?"

For de Man, a former arson squad policeman who stumbled on the case by accident, the issue of whether justice was served is a thorny one. His answer is yes, but also no. However, he says, "we were able to show that she was no one special".

Lex de Man: "We were able to show she was no one special."

One of the most profound moments for Rosie and me was meeting Hamilton-Byrne. She couldn't consent to us doing so and couldn't be interviewed because of her dementia but we were taken to see her.

By this time we had both been shocked by the things we had learned about her – the dictatorial way in which she meted out cruel punishments on the children, for example.

She would often phone the Lake Eildon house from afar (Britain, Hawaii or near New York, where she also accumulated properties) to order one of her cult lieutenants, called The Aunties, to beat or punish a child without hanging up. She liked to hear the screams down the phone line.

But what was the truth? We were not in that house or other cult houses in the 1970s and '80s and Hamilton-Byrne can not be questioned by anyone any longer. Instead we mined source after source of material, including tapes of Hamilton-Byrne speaking to her devotees.

One of her first followers, current cult member Michael Stevenson-Helmer, 68, agreed to help. He is the nephew of former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen and met Hamilton-Byrne in 1967.

But he denied she had dementia, deflected all blame from her towards The Aunties and painted survivors as victims of their own greed and ego. Still, we spoke to him for nearly two years to try to understand her power. "She has been inscrutable," he said. "She walks on."

And so we sat with Hamilton-Byrne in her tiny room in the nursing home, at his invitation. This once-powerful, dangerous woman has been reduced to a skeletal shell, snapping in and out of sleep, talking in riddles, cuddling a plastic doll and drinking through a straw surrounded by photographs of the children she said were her own.

On her wall is a print of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, the defining image of a grand betrayal about to happen. And this is what Hamilton-Byrne's story is about: power and betrayal.

She betrayed all those she sucked in. She took something of their souls while promising to save them. But then she was spectacularly betrayed herself by several of those in her inner circle – her disciples – who had had enough. Once that had happened, she gradually lost her power and then her freedom and her slide toward death, which she always said she could cheat, began.

The cult's motto was "unseen, unheard, unknown" and she used to make her followers recite a mantra promising loyalty. "For neither have I betrayed any secrets to thine enemies," it read, in part, "nor have I given thee the kiss of Judas."

Before she was the infamous Anne Hamilton-Byrne she was plain Evelyn Edwards, from country Victoria. She was born in Sale, two hours east of Melbourne, in 1921 and grew up in strange, unsettled circumstances. Her hometown back then was a small farming town with one main street.

As an adult she would change her name regularly. She would also change her appearance through cosmetic surgery, drive Jaguars and Daimlers and wear Chanel, wigs and expensive clothes. She had large collections of cats and dogs. Many people remember one particular red dress she wore to a 1970s cult party. She courted women with her mind and men with her body, some say. Her estate is estimated now at between $5 million and $10 million. It is controlled by cult interests and sources predict an unholy scramble for cash and assets when she dies.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, however, Anne was just Evelyn from Sale, the oldest of seven. Her mother, Florence Hoile, was a south Londoner transplanted to Gippsland. Her father, Ralph Edwards came from inner-city Melbourne and had been discharged from the army during WWII because of poor health.

Florence spent 27 years in mental hospitals and died in one. She was known in Sale as the lady who set fire to her hair in the street. She claimed to be a medium who could speak to the dead.

Ralph vanished for long periods. For a time he was on the run from an unpaid war veteran's debt. When Evelyn was three he had already abandoned the family and was living in a fishing port on Victoria's western coast. He gave his religion as "spiritualist" and his number of children as none.

Evelyn Edwards (later Anne Hamilton-Byrne) at Sunshine Primary.

By the late 1950s Evelyn had become "Anne" and had lost her first husband, Lionel Harris, in a car crash in Bathurst. Harris, a car salesman, was driving home to Sydney because he and Anne had been cleared to adopt a baby boy from Barnardo's Homes. The planned adoption proved to be a chilling portent of what was to come.

She became a yoga teacher in Melbourne. The classes were popular, attracting middle-aged women, often Jewish, from wealthier suburbs.

Anne began to tell her followers she was all they needed.

And some of the women began to be drawn into her web.

She started to preach a hybrid New Age philosophy – Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, all imbued with a cosmic promise of karmic cleansing and immortality – at a time when Melbourne's post-war suburban malaise was giving way to more esoteric thinking.

"Where you are now," she would say, "is a season of your unfoldment." Her teachings

"We all have mental scarring": cult survivors

In 1962 Hamilton-Byrne made her most important – and until now largely unknown – connection that would enable her to consolidate the cult that would shock Australia and elude authorities for the next three decades.

Through acquaintances at the University of Melbourne she heard of an eccentric, brilliant academic Dr Raynor Johnson, the head of Queen's College. He was 61, English and on the tail-end of a stellar career in physics. Approaching retirement he had turned his mind to eastern religions and mysticism – from physics to metaphysics. He was also very well connected in Melbourne society and politics. Now he was looking for a ''master'' or ''teacher'' to guide him through a journey into deep spiritualism.

Johnson lived on the grounds of the university. Hamilton-Byrne rang his doorbell on a Saturday – ''A day of destiny for me,'' he wrote.

Six months later Raynor was initiated into Hamilton-Byrne's cult, which was then called the Great White Brotherhood of Initiates and Masters.

She told him he needed to take hallucinogenic drugs (either LSD or mushrooms), which he called "sacred manna". Raynor wrote that Jesus spoke through Hamilton-Byrne at the initiation at her home in the Dandenongs.

She named him John the Baptist. She would use him, his standing and his connections to give her cult respectability.

Many early members were recruited via his Council of Adult Education (CAE) lectures around Melbourne. She told him she was Jesus returned to Earth in disguise – "I and my Father are one." He believed her, and he considered her "supernaturally beautiful". He wrote: "I had met my Master."

He moved to the Dandenongs, near Hamilton-Byrne, in a house she found and he bought from former deputy prime minister and chief justice Sir John Latham.

At the cult's peak, one street in the Dandenongs suburb of Ferny Creek was predominantly owned by cult members because she wanted strength in numbers and protection. "Left-hand forces" were out to get her. "They want me dead," she would say. She used to write her enemies' names down on tiny slips of paper and freeze them into ice cubes in a curse.

She had a chapel built in the Dandenongs and named it Santiniketan Lodge. Raynor's old house is across the road and the brown-brick Lodge is still there, on prime real estate next to protected forest that is owned by a trust on Hamilton-Byrne's behalf. This was where she would give her sermons or "discourses".

One day Rosie and I were let in. It was both a privilege and a shock to be there; it's one thing to read files and listen to tapes and talk to people about their memories but to be inside this place, even if it had fallen into disuse, was confronting.

The Lodge cemented the cult and gave it focus. It was where members were given instructions as a group to follow Hamilton-Byrne and Hamilton-Byrne only.

It was here they were told the Uptop children were being protected. It was here they were asked to turn their back on society and suspend disbelief.

Heavy orange curtains were drawn tight that day and the power was off but Anne's special purple chair was still up the front, dwarfed by a crucifix on the wall. An old "order of service" showed that Handel's Largo was played as she entered the Lodge, bathed in blue light, after group meditation. Every cult member was ordered to create a blue room, with a picture of her, at their homes to worship in.

At the cult's peak there were more than 200 cars parked outside the Lodge, shoes lined up in the entrance. Hamilton-Byrne was taking money from her followers and also acquiring property in the Dandenongs from them.

"I started [the group]," she said. "I had to start it. That was divine orders.

"That was the divine vision. You are the one being rescued."

Now, as she approaches the death she always said she could cheat, a small band of mostly ageing supporters look after her affairs and visit her in the nursing home. One does her washing. All are preparing to find out whether they will benefit from her significant estate.

Yet as Stevenson-Helmer told us over lunch one day in the Dandenongs, "People will say 'your guru is dead' and that will be true. But the lineage doesn't cut out. There will always be a Great White Brotherhood on this planet. Always."

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones (Scribe) rrp $32.99. The feature documentary The Family written and directed by Rosie Jones and produced by Anna Grieve will screen in Melbourne from February 23 with other states to follow.


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