I wasn’t expecting this documentary about the Melbourne suburban and Victorian rural sect The Family and leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne to pack such an emotional wallop. It begins as a blow-by-blow retelling of the investigation into the cult in the 80s and takes a while to build a coherent story but ends as a devastating insight into the repercussions for the children involved and the inability of investigators to breach the protective wall of privilege around the cult to obtain justice.
I remember hearing about The Family when their property in Eildon was raided in the late 80s. The images of the children with their matching clothes and blonde, bowl haircuts like Midwich Cuckoos has stuck in my mind. Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill created a sect in the 1960s with their headquarters in Ferny Creek in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges. Basing The Family on yoga and a mishmash of Eastern philosophies, the charismatic Hamilton-Byrne drew in influential professionals from the Melbourne establishment who saw her as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. This included Raynor Johnson, parapsychologist and master of Queen’s College at Melbourne University for thirty years, who provided the group’s Ferny Creek headquarters, Santiniketan.
Their motto was ‘unseen, unheard and unknown’ and over the course of a decade, Anne and Bill procured 28 children, claiming falsely that some were their own and others were the children of cult members. Dressing them alike, the children were kept at the property Kai Lama near Eildon in rural Victoria where ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ looked after them, preparing them as stewards of the Earth after the impending apocalypse. They were beaten, locked up, deprived of food and had to abide by rules that kept changing. Hamilton-Byrne would occasionally visit and the children would vie for her love and approval. The only rule was to do anything that she said and so they practiced obediently filing on to the spaceship that would save them from Earth’s destruction.
What emerges in the documentary is the extent of the abuse and brainwashing and the sinister manipulation of adult cult members. The children were regularly given Valium and occasionally also LSD when they were as young as eight years old. Cult members were told who to marry, when to have children and when it was acceptable for them to be treated badly by their spouses. The private psychiatric hospital Newhaven in Kew was used to give them drug and shock treatment and they were threatened with being committed if they didn’t do as they were told. Cult members would give Hamilton-Byrne money and property and their unquestioning belief in her divinity meant she was invulnerable.
The core of the documentary follows the journey of Victorian police detective Lex de Man and other detectives and journalists as they uncovered the cult and then tried to bring Hamilton-Byrne and other cult members to justice. Even after the children were rescued by police and Community Services, it proved difficult to prosecute; the influence of cult members in positions of power both then and now hampered attempts to draw a connection between Hamilton-Byrne and illegal activities.
What makes this documentary remarkable is the voice it gives to the now adult children who were rescued. Sarah, Ben, Roland, Dave, Anouree, Leeanne and Rachel talk to camera and we also see footage of their interviews in the 90s. They speak of the terrible childhood they had and build a picture of how devastating systemic abuse is for a child. The trauma did not end with the arrival of the police and all of them struggle to this day; to go on living, to be good parents, to let go of their devotion to The Family, to forgive the perpetrators. Most chilling is the current cult member who talks to camera, rationalising the treatment of the children and supporting the sociopathic Hamilton-Byrne. That’s right, I said current cult member, it still exists.
I’m not sure the documentary ever really gets to the heart of why the cult was and is supported by seemingly intelligent people. In many ways, though, it seems just like an extreme form of many wealthy churches; requiring unquestioning devotion and sacrifice and promising a privileged salvation. And vulnerable children still have no voice.
Bechdel test – pass