Mar 3, 2017

The Family review: Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones investigate the sinister cult

Simon Caterson
Sydney Morning Herald
March 4, 2017

"If you could look into her eyes you would understand" was how one former cult member attempted to convey a sense of the mesmerising presence of Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The Family is unusual among modern religious cults in having a female leader, though in other ways the group follows a familiar pattern of bizarre ritual, paranoid exclusivity and ruthless exploitation.

For this compelling account of one of Australia's most notorious cults, Johnston, a senior writer for Fairfax, combined forces with filmmaker Rosie Jones, whose documentary about The Family premiered at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival and is due for general release later this month.

The authors trace the extraordinary life of a woman who operated "at the edges of human belief". That Hamilton-Byrne succeeded in gaining so many wealthy and well-educated followers among Melbourne's post-war elite is testament to her personal charm as well as the fact that a privileged upbringing is no assurance of common sense.

Born into rural poverty and family dysfunction, Hamilton-Byrne found a way to enter the Melbourne establishment through the careful cultivation of certain individuals. Her first major acolyte was the Oxford-educated physicist Raynor Johnson, who for 30 years served as head of Queen's College at the University of Melbourne. Johnson occupied his position in charge of a respected Methodist educational institution notwithstanding his open enthusiasm for the occult.

After she had visited his office at Queen's College in 1962, Johnson became convinced Hamilton-Byrne not only had the powers of a clairvoyant and faith healer, but that she was also, as she claimed, the divine reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Johnson became an influential supporter of The Family, as did Dr L. Howard Whitaker, a prominent psychiatrist based at a private clinic in Kew that was the first in Victoria to administer LSD to patients.

The Kew clinic would be used as the venue for indoctrination sessions in which hallucinogenic drugs were used on the children brought into The Family through a series of fake adoptions. This and other shady aspects of cult business were facilitated by another well-connected member of The Family, a solicitor by the name of Peter Kibby.

The Family's early meetings were held in the affluent suburb of Brighton before a permanent base was established in the Ferny Creek area of the Dandenongs. There the children procured for The Family were home-schooled with many of them having their hair dyed bleached-blonde. According to survivor accounts, starvation and beatings as well as terrorisation and brainwashing were part and parcel of a child's life within The Family.

Recently Johnston and Jones went to see Hamilton-Byrne, who is aged in her 90s and resides at a Melbourne nursing home. They describe her as "confused, rambling, and very old – but, it must be said, quite radiant".

With her current net worth estimated by the authors to be in the region of $10 million, Hamilton-Byrne has never been charged with anything more serious than fraud. Despite being diagnosed with dementia and thus placed beyond the reach of the law, she retains devoted followers, chief among whom is a man identified in the book as the private school-educated nephew of a past Governor-General.

Even following decades of revelations of horrific child abuse and massive fraud perpetrated in the name of The Family, there is at least one member of the Melbourne establishment still willing to publicly support and defend Australia's most infamous cult leader.
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