The Family by Chris Johnston & Rosie Jones

I’m fairly certain that books about cults have their own genre (and devotees) and I’m also fairly certain that The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones is the first book I’ve read about a cult.

I read The Family because of its relevance – the story of the secretive cult led by yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne plays out largely in Melbourne and surrounds, and it was also in the news when I was growing up. Although I didn’t discover it until many years later, I went to school with one of the children released from the cult and I’ve followed the story since.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, charismatic and glamorous, believed she was Jesus Christ.

“You knew there was always going to be some kind of excitement or horror when she was there.”

She recruited many wealthy professionals – doctors, academics, lawyers, nurses and scientists, and she illegally acquired children and raised them as her own, bleaching their hair to look like siblings. The group became associated with LSD use, child abuse and strange spiritual rituals.

In 1987, police raided The Family’s compound on Lake Eildon in regional Victoria, removing the children. Hamilton-Byrne escaped overseas (she had properties in England and USA) and was eventually extradited on what were relatively minor fraud charges, for which she was fined. Hamilton-Byrne was never tried for child abuse or anything else related to the cult, mainly because evidence relied on testimonies from the children and it was felt this would be too traumatic.

The book struggled on two fronts (certainly in comparison to the documentary). Firstly, the story is not told in chronological order so it was difficult to get a sense of how Anne gained power and how the cult gathered momentum. This was compounded by the fact that there were a lot of players – cult members, whistle-blowers, police, journalists – and it was hard to keep track of who was who.

Secondly, there was very little about Anne herself. Most of the book is about cult members – granted, they were the people who were interviewed for the documentary and book, but more about Anne and her history would have been interesting.

What the book exposes is how multiple systems failed these children – spectacularly. Tragically, once these failures were identified, the ‘system’ went into protection mode, creating even more difficulties for those few people determined to get the truth.

“The hospitals had not detected the fake adoptions. The police had failed in previous investigations to get anything done. The government was never interested in probing too far.”

I was fortunate to go to a screening of the documentary earlier this year, which included a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers; one of the children (now in her 40s); and Detective Lex de Man, the policeman in charge of the investigation. I was shocked at how visibly broken Lex de Man was – the investigation is long over but he remains deeply traumatised, and feels justice for the children has not been done.

Hamilton-Byrne is alive, has dementia and is reportedly in palliative care. She still has a handful of devoted followers (and a vast property portfolio).

2.5/5 Best for readers with a particular interest in cults.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 28): Belfast 11°-16° and Melbourne 8°-14°.

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7 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. Astonishing that she managed to convince so many people. It must have sent a chill down your spine to discover that someone you’d been at school with had been involved in such a dreadful situation.

    • What’s amazing is that people got sucked in so quickly, handing over property, their children etc within weeks of meeting her.

      Regarding the person I was at school with, I think I (and others) knew instinctively that they’d had a very tough time. What I didn’t know then was that after school, while we were going swimming or to music or doing homework, they were spending endless hours in interviews with the police. The stress must have been extraordinary.

      It’s sickening that Anne H-B has essentially got away with it and I hope that when the time comes, the children seek compensation from her estate.

  3. I’m a sucker for a book about cults, but this sounds like it missed the mark. Up until today, the weather here has been AWFUL. Cold with heavy rain. I really hope it picks up soon!

  4. It would be interesting to know whether Hamilton-Byrne believed she was Jesus Christ, started out pretending and ended up believing, or was engaged in a con all along. (I’m assuming she wasn’t JC).

  5. It’s truly terrifying what she managed to do, and how the systems failed so spectacularly. I can completely see how a non-chronological approach is problematic – it would have been useful to see how it built up into what it became.

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