Cults are ripe literary territory – last year saw Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm nominated for the Stella Prize and Emma Cline’s The Girls praised in the New Yorker – and even riper for investigative journalism. Documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones has been researching this case for a film; Chris Johnston is a senior journalist for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who’s been covering case developments for several years.
The book uncovers the roots of Victoria’s infamous cult known as ‘The Family’, exposing its structures and then following Operation Forest – the Victorian Police investigation tasked with tracking down leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her third husband Bill Hamilton-Byrne, and bringing them to justice.
Beginning in the early 1960s and preaching meditation and yoga, a mish-mash of Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism and the promise of spiritual illumination, leader Anne roped in doctors, lawyers, nurses, scientists and architects – notably Dr Raynor Johnson, a renowned physicist at the University of Melbourne and the head of Queen’s College. All would help form the intricate web that made false child adoption and a string of fraudulent activity possible.
Anne amassed such a following that at one point in the 1990s her estimated worth in properties, land and cash was AU$150,000,000. Ninety-six-year-old Anne has recently entered palliative care. She suffers from dementia and has resided in a suburban Melbourne nursing home since 2007. Under various holding companies and with her scattering of still-loyal followers, it’s estimated her estate is still worth around AU$10,000,000.
This book is an impressive work of narrative journalism, and there are a couple of points of difference here.
One, obviously, it’s Australian. Helen Garner has delivered some great investigative journalism with The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, but it’s a genre from which the most famous examples – think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote or Into the Wild by John Krakauer, or even Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation – are starkly American.
Second, Anne’s a woman: an angel-like, glamorous, captivating leader – starkly different to the rugged, Charles Manson-esque cult leaders that have inspired a plethora of critical and artistic interpretation before her. Ben Shenton, one of the Uptop children, describes: “When she’d walk into a room, the whole room would stop and she didn’t have to say anything.”
The book is a lot of interviews, and this is its real strength. It plays hard on emotions. From Lex de Man, the former detective who headed the charge of investigation and is clearly still tortured by it, to Dr Sarah Moore, one of the first children taken to Uptop with the help of false adoption papers (and who died last year at age 46 after long-term mental and physical problems) and Michael Stevenson-Helmer, who is still a devout follower of Anne’s teachings and a regular visitor at her aged care home. The high emotions and rawness are what make this book haunting.
Anne’s dynasty began to unravel in 1987, when the cult’s Lake Eildon property, dubbed ‘Uptop’, was raided. Here, a total of 28 children – both fraudulently adopted and the children of cult members – were raised in a haze of abuse and ‘treatments’ using LSD under the guise of adult cult members Anna christened ‘Aunties’.
The kicker for this story is that even after investigation, Anne was never really held accountable. Now, because of her health, she can’t be.
Both Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were fined $5000 after pleading guilty to the charge of making false declarations. Lack of evidence and a reluctance to have the already psychologically damaged children stand up in court mean to date no one has been charged with child abuse. This part of the story is a little vague.
But more than the facts and legalities, Johnston and Jones have delved a long way into the attraction and idolisation of a particularly prolific cult leader. Their book ruminates on how those involved traversed the landscape of good and evil, ideology and reality – and how they have found closure since, if they have left. It poses big questions around family and love. And asks the reader, are victims who become perpetrators still primarily victims?
The film, directed by Rosie Jones, premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in June and is out in Melbourne from Thursday 23 February.