Life under Australia’s only female cult leader
A new documentary by Rosie Jones – and book by Jones with co-author Chris Johnston– paint an eerie, powerful portrait of one of history’s only female cult leaders. The works also raise questions about how authorities allowed the Melbourne-based sect to prosper for more than three decades. By Grace Jennings-Edquist
In 1963, a glamorous yoga teacher by the name of Anne Hamilton-Byrne founded a sect in outer Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges.
Anne, a voluptuous blonde whose regular facelifts kept her looking perpetually young, first became popular with the wealthy middle-aged mothers in the area, where yoga had become a trendy pastime. Her blue eyes, flirtatious manner and commanding voice made for an irresistible combination – which she used to her advantage, befriending prominent Melbourne figures including academics and doctors.
“People say that when she spoke to them one-on-one, she made them feel special,” Rosie Jones tells me. “She poured love on them, and helped them through their grief. Then she demanded total loyalty in return.”
Some of Anne’s followers thought she was Jesus; many were drawn to her after a major trauma in their lives. She favored well-to-do middle-aged women because of their wealth and vulnerability.
“Before long, they found themselves isolated from their real families and acting illegally on Anne’s behalf,” Jones says of Anne’s followers, who numbered 500 at the sect’s height. “They were afraid that she would retaliate if they left the cult, and gradually they became more deeply entrenched.”
While the controversial new age group started with just seven members, who followed a hodgepodge of Christianity, Hunduism and Eastern religions, it grew into an increasingly dangerous apocalyptic cult that remained active for three decades. From 1968, the group acquired 14 children — either born to cult members or adopted in often coercive circumstances, Most had their hair dyed blonde and their names changed by deed poll or through false documents, and were raised as Anne’s future “master race”.
In a compound two hours from Melbourne, the children were dressed identically in old-fashioned clothes and sometimes forced to act in propaganda films, where hugs and friendly interactions with adults were staged, escapees told Jones in interviews.
But when the cameras were switched off, the children endured an unthinkably cruel existence. They were forced to go without food for days; beaten with stiletto heels; and dunked (“this was when an errant child’s head was forced repeatedly, to the brink of drowning, into a bucket of water,” explain Jones and her co-author in the book). Along with frequent dosing with psychiatric drugs, the children were also allegedly forced to endure a terrifying “initiation ritual” involving LSD.
Anne, whose obsession with appearances allegedly led her to encourage the cult’s female members to have facelifts and wear wigs, also told the female children their developing bodies were impure. “She would go into these incredible rages and psychotic outbursts towards us girls,” one ‘child’ survivor told Jones, “where she’d talk about cancerous tumors coming out of female genitals, and she would accuse us of walking in a way that would be trying to attract men. This was at age five.”
After an escaped child tipped off Victorian police, the Family began to dismantle in the late 1980s. But despite an international search involving the FBI and Interpol charted impressively in Jones’ book, Anne, who fled Australia after police raids, has never been held to account.
Today, she lives in a Wantirna nursing home, suffering from dementia and housed comfortably beyond the grip of the law. She has only one criminal conviction to her name, and her estate has been estimated to be somewhere between $10 million and $50 million. (The cult’s holding company, Life For All Creatures, is administered by surviving cult members, writes Jones’ co-author Johnston.)
The Family is also a testament to the courage of the sect’s survivors, who spoke candidly to Jones for the documentary and book — and, indeed, to the commitment of Jones, who sometimes spent months talking to the escaped children of The Family before they agreed to be interviewed on the record.
“I was bowled over by their honest, brave and heartfelt responses. They are an inspiring bunch of true survivors,” says Jones. “It is hard to ask questions that bring up past trauma, but they knew we needed to and they were courageous enough to agree.”
Feature illustration: Grace Jennings-Edquist