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The Family: the shocking true story of a notorious cult Paperback – 24 Nov 2016
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'The Family is remarkably clear-sighted. The writers have a gift for temperate yet compelling prose that unflinchingly reveals the delusions and unreflective righteousness of much of what emerged from the counterculture. In this book, the best of what journalism should be -- honest, unsentimental, incisive -- is combined with the craft and storytelling skills of born writers.' --Christos Tsiolkas
'It's a remarkable [story]: hair-raising, unfathomable and deeply disturbing.' --Irish Independent
'The Family is remarkably clear-sighted. The writers have a gift for temperate yet compelling prose that unflinchingly reveals the delusions and unreflective righteousness of much of what emerged from the counterculture. In this book, the best of what journalism should be -- honest, unsentimental, incisive -- is combined with the craft and storytelling skills of born writers.'(Christos Tsiolkas)
'Harrowing but humane. An extraordinary story, impeccably researched.'(Martin McKenzie-Murray)
'Immaculately researched ... This important book looks at how (and asks why) these abuses happened, defying the cult’s motto: "unseen, unheard, unknown".'(Readings)
'It's a remarkable [story]: hair-raising, unfathomable and deeply disturbing.'(Irish Independent)
'A powerful work of investigative journalism ... pieced together in exacting detail'(Reading Matters)
‘[A] compelling account of one of Australia’s most notorious cults … The authors trace the extraordinary life of a woman who operated "at the edges of human belief".’(The Saturday Age)
'Everyone loves a good cult story. And they don't come much better. This is the gripping story behind one of the strangest, most fascinating episodes in Australian history.'(GQ) See all Product description
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To begin with, we read of Anne Hamilton-Byrne; born Evelyn Grace Victoria Edwards in Australia in 1921. Anne’s mother, Florence, was born in Wandsworth and spent twenty seven years in mental hospitals. The eldest of seven children, her father was largely absent and this was, obviously, very relevant to later events in her life. For example, she was a fantasist and made up stories about her parents and, later, many of the children she forcibly adopted had mothers who also had treatment for mental health issues. Although I would have expected Anne’s early life to be simply told in a documentary; here I would have liked far more information about her early life. We know that she had one daughter who, understandably, does not wish to discuss her mother – but there is really very little information about her childhood, her siblings or anyone who knew her.
We really get to know Anne in the 1950’s when she is teaching yoga and is targeting middle aged, mainly wealthy women, and begins to make some influential contacts. She was considered by her followers to be a reincarnation of Jesus and was glamorous and charismatic, whose third husband became a co-conspirator in her cult. Gradually, the cult began to target children. Anne and her followers helped organise adoptions and the children were told that they were siblings and, bizarrely, had their hair dyed blonde (or most did). As the children got older, it seems that Anne and the ‘aunties’ that were largely in charge of them began to lose control. Previously, they had wielded iron discipline – with strict time-tables, physical punishment and the withholding of food as forms of control.
The book then goes on to the police involvement in the cult, the allegations of the children and the attempts to bring justice to the victims. However, the book lacks a coherence and is emotive, rather than presenting any real facts or evidence. Obviously, it is difficult to get to the bottom of the allegations and the police, and legal case, against the cult were badly handled. Still, I really felt at the end of this book that I still really had very little knowledge about why Anne Hamilton-Byrne felt the need to control so many people, in particular children, and yet was rarely actually there. I did feel that much of the reasons behind her behaviour lay in her childhood and yet this was not properly explored. Overall, an interesting, but frustrating, read.
I first heard of Anne Hamilton-Byrne (one of the few female cult leaders and one of the only - so far as I can see - female cult founders) and "The Family" several years ago. I found the information available at the time fascinating...Fascinating, but incomplete.
This book, written by a journalist and a filmmaker is considerably more thorough, taking information from her current followers (long, rambling speeches that testify - even while they deny it - the deeply confusing and traumatic effect Hamilton-Byrne has had on human minds), police officers and journalists who hunted her for decades, and the children she stole and raised (dyeing their hair blonde, calling them "Hamilton-Byrne" and drugging them with anti-psychotics and LSD).
It's more thorough. But it's not complete. Much of Anne Hamilton-Byrne's childhood (spent mostly in orphanages, abandoned by her mentally-ill mother and ne'er-do-well father) is unknown. While we can applaud their journalistic integrity that Johnston and Jones aren't tempted to infer what may have happened in those lost years, not knowing what happened to form Anne Hamilton-Byrne's character (the need for control, the lust for Jaguar cars, the preoccupation with eternal youth, the determination to be worshipped as special by Australia's VIPs) is frustrating.
Where "The Family" is most thorough is on the treatment of the children, the unfortunates taken from their parents (their mothers drugged and forced to sign their baby over having never seen them, or cult members who "gifted" their child willingly to their leader) and ensconced at Lake Eildon. Denied food as punishment, the children were so hungry they raided the bins of neighbouring properties. Drugged daily with drugs such as Valium to keep them docile, at the age of 14, they had to undergo an LSD trip that lasted several days. Anne Hamilton-Byrne (distant for most of their childhood, allowing them to be raised by "Aunties") was always there for their LSD initiation, ready to drip-feed ideas into their suggestible heads: like they were a reincarnated Martian, or there was a snake coming out of their eye.
This is a fascinating story of how some of the most respectable, educated professionals in Australia (including doctors, nurses, and lawyers) were convinced to do the unthinkable by a woman who taught (among her "kitbag of delusions and known theosophical tropes") that she was the female reincarnation of Christ.
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