The Family: a moving documentary on a bizarre religious cult that preyed on social utopian ideals and yearnings for a better life

Rosie Jones, “The Family” (2016)

For over 20 years, the quiet town of Eildon and the Melbourne suburb of Ferny Creek played host to a bizarre religious cult led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her de facto husband Bill. Initially teaching a syncretic mix of Christianity and mystical Hinduism, the cult adopted and developed a set of beliefs that taught that a global apocalypse caused either by human hubris or a natural disaster would wipe out most of humanity and there would be only a few survivors. Those survivors would be led by select leaders and the cult’s goal was to supply those leaders by finding and cultivating young children. To that end, Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s cult, known as The Family, recruited members from Newhaven psychiatric hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Kew and collected children from cult members or through adoption organised by doctors, lawyers and social workers associated with the cult. Between the mid-1960s and 1980, The Family had gathered as many as 28 children, all of whom were kept secluded from the outside world, told that Anne was their biological mother, home-schooled and forced to undergo a severe upbringing that included frequent beatings and physical abuse, irregular schedules that Anne changed at whim, and dosing with dangerous psychiatric drugs and hallucinogenic substances like LSD and psilocybin. Only after one of “her” children was expelled from the cult for rebellious behaviour did Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her sycophants come to the attention of Victorian police. Despite limited resources, the tireless detectives raided the buildings at Lake Eildon where the children lived and released them in 1987. Little did they know that after years of beatings and brainwashing that their true ordeal was to begin as Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne fled to the United States.

The documentary proceeds through the use of interviews with the now adult children who endured years of hell, with ex-Family members (and one current member) and with the two police investigators Lex de Man and Peter Spence (?) who poured all their own physical and mental resources in chasing leads to get arrest warrants for the cult leaders and who themselves suffered immensely due to lack of support from their own employers, to trace the history of The Family, how it gained popularity among the upper middle class in Melbourne during the heady days of the late 1960s, coming out of a stultifying and repressive post-World War II culture, and Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s background of childhood poverty, her own institutionalisation and her ability to prey and capitalise on people’s yearning for alternatives to a repressive Christianity and the Sixties’ flirtation with Hinduism. The story is not told chronologically – it does jump back and forth from past to present and back again – and viewers need to piece much information together for themselves. Unfortunately the film gives rather scanty and hodge-podge information about The Family’s teachings which are a mix of apocalyptic Christian beliefs – cult members are told that AH-B is a reincarnation of Jesus – and Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma; it may be that the cult’s beliefs changed a great deal over time, more and more favouring AH-B as the messianic fount of all knowledge as she became more controlling and sociopathic. AH-B’s obsession with collecting children with blond hair might indicate an underlying obsession with racial hygiene.

While the film tells us very little about the psychology of AH-B herself, and how she was able to hold so many intelligent and educated people spellbound over several decades, viewers can get some (but not much) idea of the social / political context in which The Family arose and managed to last for so long. Australia in the 1960s was coming out of a long period of social isolation and repressive religion, and the country was exposed to new ideas and beliefs about alternative living and value systems from overseas. There was experimentation with mind-altering drugs as forms of escapism, spiritual awakening and release, and therapy; more sinisterly, the same drugs were being used in mind-control experiments sanctioned by the CIA in North America. One reason that The Family may have lasted as long as it did was that the cult had allies in prominent social and public life in Melbourne who did all they could to stymie police and media investigations going as far back as 1971. The detectives interviewed in the documentary speak of inadequate resourcing and time given to their work, their request for a Royal Commission being knocked back, and an internal police culture that refused to deal with the stress and the trauma of seeing so many people badly affected by years of physical and mental abuse. Ultimately though the film says nothing about whether The Family constitutes a bizarre aberration in Australia’s social and cultural history or if something very like it could appear again in the country. Through AH-B’s own childhood experience of an unstable family life, her crazed attempts to recreate that life and her own institutionalisation in a way that she could control, and how her ideal unravelled so disastrously, we might question the place of institutions like family and notions of what constitute proper parenting in a society where these institutions and beliefs are continually challenged by rapid technological, social and cultural change.

The film pays tribute to Sarah Hamilton-Byrne (later Dr Sarah Moore) who after being expelled from the cult in the late 1980s alerted Victorian police to its existence and activities. Dr Moore continued to experience mental health issues as a result of her upbringing and died in 2016. The documentary is very moving and often depressing as individual cult members describe their experiences. Ultimately though, more questions arise than the film has answers to meet them, as the cult still survives and its victims have not all been compensated or healed.

 

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