A Look Inside Australia's Most Notorious Cult, the Family
VICE Meets filmmaker Rosie Jones and journalist Chris Johnston who've been investigating the sect for years.
For a look at Islamic black magic in Melbourne, or the Japanese cult that allegedly detonated a nuke in WA, check out Your 2017 Guide to Cults and Fringe Religions
In 1961, a yoga teacher named Anne Hamilton-Bryne showed up, unannounced, at the home of Dr Raynor Johnson, the Master of Melbourne University's Queens College. The two had never met before but, over the course of tea, Anne was able to convince Raynor—a distinguished psychologist—that she was a spiritual being who could see into the future.
Over the next three decades, she would convince many others of the same thing, eventually building a religious sect who believed she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as a woman.
This became a cult known as the Family.
The cult is the subject of Rosie Jones and Chris Johnston's new book, The Family. Both had been separately investigating the group for years—Rosie for her documentary, also called The Family, and Chris for a series of articles for The Age, trying to unpick the vast fortune Anne amassed from her followers, which may have numbered as many as 500 people.
Now a 96-year-old woman living in a Melbourne nursing home, Anne has never been prosecuted for her alleged crimes. Suffering from dementia, she will never be able to answer the lingering question of why: Why was she so cruel to the people who revered her? Not least the 28 children she kidnapped, fed LSD, and raised as her own in a secluded property called Uptop.
In Rosie's documentary, many of these children talk candidly about the abuse they lived through. Most were adopted into the sect with false papers, snatched from hospitals just after they were born: it's estimated a quarter of the Family's members were nurses or other medical professionals. In fact, before meeting Anne, many cult members had been regular, professional people—lawyers, doctors, and powerful political figures brought into the fold by Raynor Johnson. Others had been recruited from Newhaven, a private psychiatric hospital in Kew, which was owned by a cult member, Marion Villimek. Under her spell, many of Anne's followers handed over their money, their homes, their marriages, and even their children, who Anne raised as her own.
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Isolated from the outside world, the children of the Family grew up under the strict supervision of cult members known as "the Aunties" who often starved them and beat them. Even when she was travelling overseas, Anne would call home to Uptop to hear the children be "disciplined" over the phone. The psychological manipulation was intense.
The most iconic photo of the Family is that of the children dressed in matching outfits, their hair cropped and dyed platinum blonde—this was actually designed to convince them that they were all brothers and sisters. Now adults, the survivors recount being indoctrinated into the Family when they were 14 years old—locked away in a dark room for days at a time, and given huge doses of LSD.
The story of the Family has so many elements: the group's liberal use of LSD, its roots in new age philosophy, its ties to powerful Melbourne figures, the rumours that Julian Assange was a member (he's not), the fact it's one of the few cults led by a woman. But reading the book and watching the documentary, the enduring image is one of needless suffering. Even in middle age, Anne Hamilton-Bryne's "children" still live every day with the horrors they survived. They are still trying to put the pieces back together—tracking down their birth parents, coming to terms with their childhoods, and raising families of their own.
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