Non-fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
“She is skeletal and pale, 95 years old and living in a nursing home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. There are dense layers of secrecy surrounding her, as there have always been. Her followers have been told since the beginning to protect her, and never betray her. To these followers, Anne Hamilton-Byrne is a reincarnation of Jesus, a living god.”
So begins The Family, a powerful work of investigative journalism, by newspaper journalist Chris Johnston and documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones, which looks at the cult Anne formed in the 1960s. Known simply as “The Family”, this cult hit the headlines in 1987 when police raided its property in the hills outside of Melbourne and rescued dozens of children who lived there.
The children, who had all been adopted by Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill, reported serious crimes of physical and psychological abuse. They had been raised to believe they were all siblings (they weren’t) and that Anne was their real mother. Their hair was dyed blond and they wore old-fashioned clothes — think frilly dresses and buckled shoes — hugely reminiscent of the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.
When it came to answering her accusers, Anne was nowhere to be found. It took police on three continents more than five years to track her and Bill down. The couple was then extradited to Melbourne (from their home in the Catskills in New York State) and charged with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets. They were fined $AU5,000 each after they both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of making a false declaration.
Their lives barely changed, while “their” children’s lives were left in tatters, none of them entirely sure who their birth mothers were or why they had been subjected to so much cruel and unusual punishment throughout their childhoods.
Painstaking police investigation
The book is essentially a police procedural. It follows Operation Forest, which was set up by Victoria Police to locate the Hamilton-Byrnes and to seek justice for the children.
It also traces the roots of the cult — how it came into being, the major players and the crimes they perpetuated to enable The Family to function — as well as Anne’s rise from obscurity to notoriety. As one of very few female cult leaders in history, she managed to wield a mysterious hold on all her followers, even when she was living thousands of miles away in the UK and the US.
Somehow she hoodwinked fine upstanding citizens to join her “spiritual group” and built a network of “insiders” — doctors, midwives, social workers and lawyers — to help her steal newborn babies and register them in her name (adoption in Australia in the early 1970s wasn’t highly regulated). A similar network of scientists and psychiatrists also helped her “treat” cult members, including her children, with LSD in a bid to make them believe she was Jesus reincarnated as a woman.
And on top of this she recruited a series of “Aunties” who lived with the children, looked after them and educated them. But they also mistreated them and doled out punishment — hitting the children, locking them up and starving them.
When I read this book — which has been pieced together in exacting detail and based on interviews with the children, Aunties, current cult members, journalists and police, and drags on slightly too long — the first question that sprang to mind was “why did the children not get the justice they deserved?” The Aunties who were brought before the courts got fined more than the Hamilton-Brynes, but no one did jail time for child abuse. Essentially, Anne got away with it.
“There was no justice. There was no acknowledgement that the children had been mistreated. The children saw the Aunties go to jail for fiddling the social security ‘but they didn’t go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us for three days at a time,’ says Sarah [one of the children]. ‘No one got in trouble for that.'”
Detective Lex de Man, the policeman in charge of Operation Forest, says the police deliberately did not charge the Hamilton-Brynes with child abuse because it would be too difficult to make the charges stick — there was no evidence, just reports by the children which couldn’t be legally verified — and he was wary of making fragile, psychologically damaged children testify in a court of law. It was safer to take a more oblique approach: to get Anne on fraud and perjury charges, which they were able to achieve thanks to Anne’s own solicitor turning whistle bower.
Lex claims his investigation, which took years of painstaking work and struggled to get the resources it required, was able to debunk the mysticism around Anne to show that she “was no one special”.
“She was basically a very cunning crook. […] She is the most evil person with the most evil set of crimes that I have ever investigated in my 18-year career with Victoria Police. If you want to know the definition of evil, you look at Anne Hamilton-Byrne.”
A one-hour documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, has been made to accompany the book. You can find out more about it on the BBC4 Storyville website and the official documentary website. It’s definitely worth watching if you get the chance.