Anne Hamilton-Byrne has been labelled the epitome of an evil woman.
Hamilton-Byrne called herself the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and during the 1960s, 70s and 80s she led one of Australia’s most notorious cults, The Family.
Located in Lake Eildon outside Melbourne, Hamilton-Byrne spent decades stealing and then raising children as her own.
Since one of the children first went to the police in 1987, Hamilton-Byrne and her victims have been mostly silent. But, in a new documentary called The Family, which has been released at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the children brainwashed in the cult have spoken out.
Speaking to The Age, the director of the documentary, Rosie Jones points out that The Family is a story of a haunting nightmare.
“It’s got the children, it’s got the locations that are kind of dank and sinister but beautiful,” Jones said. “It’s sort of like a Grimm fairytale.”
Hamilton-Byrne, a former yoga teacher, first founded The Family in the mid-1960s with help from the physicist, Raynor Johnson.
“Raynor Johnson had connections to all sorts of people,” Jones said. “He and Anne recruited doctors, lawyers, architects. They only recruited really wealthy people, in fact, or people with status and skills they needed.”
Speaking to 60 Minutes in 2009, an ex-member of the cult said that he left his wife on the promises of Hamilton-Byrne.
“I was told to leave my first wife and go up to the hills,” the anonymous member said. “I did. I was told that I would have a baby with another woman, and I did.”
These children had at Lake Eildon were collected and Hamilton-Byrne raised them to believe they were her biological children. Along with this, she recruited teenage mothers to give up their babies.
Sarah Moore, (formerly Hamilton-Byrne), a child who was given away to the cult, says that the recruitment process was evil, as its leader.
“My mother was a 15-year-old girl whose doctor was a member of the sect, and the doctor organised the adoption, drugged my mother and took me away from her at birth.”
These accusations of members being drugged became typical of the cult, with harrowing stories of physical and emotional abuse, starved, and regularly drugged with LSD.
All the children who were acquired into The Family had their hair cut short and dyed blonde, dressed in the same outfits.
What drew people to the cult is something that continues to perplex the film’s director, but also what makes it so horrific.
“It’s a dark story, and it’s got a lot of human frailty,” Jones said, “How do people get involved in a cult, what draws them in, how do they do things that they would normally find morally reprehensible. It opens up a lot of questions that are universal rather than relevant only to this particular group.”
It wasn’t until 1987 when a member of the cult fled to the police, confirming their suspicions that children were being held there.
When the property was raided, they found six young children there, dressed in their infamous identical style, and bobbed blonde hair.
Despite the accusations of sexual abuse from some children, the new film doesn’t generally explore these elements.
“There were occasional mentions of sexual abuse,” Jones said. “…because it wasn’t the predominant experience and it wasn’t what everyone talked about.”
It’s thought that up to 28 children were held in The Family, but as Jones points out, more than 28 lives were destroyed.
“But there were also the children of members of The Family who were affected in some way. There are circles, ripples, different levels of damage in those kids.”
Today, Hamilton-Byrne lives in a retirement village, suffering from dementia. She has always maintained that no harm was ever committed to the children.
Despite her absence, the cult it still believed to exist with about 20 to 30 members, with parts extending to the US and the UK.
“It’s extraordinary how many people you talk to who were part of it. It’s much bigger than you think it is.”