From the outside, The Family may have looked something like a fairytale. Hidden away in a lovely but isolated countryside home lived a family of many obedient blonde children, all dressed alike. Their “mother”, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, raised the children with the help of several devoted “aunties.” Those who knew the truth would later reveal that the so-called fairytale was decidedly more akin to Brothers Grimm than Disney. Hamilton-Byrne, a polished, charismatic yoga teacher, was responsible for a cult movement that spanned decades and created devastating psychological effects for the children involved.
Emerging in Melbourne during the 1960’s, The Family doctrine was a combination of eastern mysticism and doomsday terror merged with Hamilton-Byrne’s desire to create a master race of children. Hamilton-Byrne evangelized that she was “Jesus Christ reborn as a female,” inspiring many adult members of The Family to gift their children to her, considering her tutelage an honor. The Family also relied upon their network of professional members to assist in the process of procuring children. Doctors would coerce single mothers to surrender their children to the cult while lawyers would assist in hastily creating adoption papers. With the help of Dr. Raynor Johnson, physicist and former Headmaster at Queen’s College, The Family was able to develop a network of likeminded doctors, nurses, midwives, lawyers, and social workers to attend the regular meditation sessions and sermons conducted by The Family. These professional members misused their authority to further the goals of the cult while harming those that they were supposed to help.
Once in the care of Hamilton-Byrne and the aunties, the children were stripped of their identity. They were raised as siblings and were taught to regard Hamilton-Byrne as their mother. Sometimes their biological mothers were among the aunties, but the children remained unaware of this truth. The motto preached to the children was to remain “Unseen, Unknown, Unheard,” which seems to be an eerily apt description of their lives. The children were being trained to become the “perfect race”; the ones who would survive the end of the world, which The Family leaders saw as imminent. Subdued by daily doses of Valium and Mogadon (a benzodiazepine often used to treat anxiety and insomnia) along with the threat of abuse, the children were expected to behave exactly according to the demands of Hamilton-Byrne. The survivors, now adults, reported allegations of sexual abuse, starvation, physical assault, and forced drug use as punishment for not submitting to the strict rules imposed upon them.
In order to recruit and control members, The Family leaders utilized many practices common to other cult movements. Hamilton-Byrne and Johnson regularly administered very high doses of LSD to adult members (and child members once they reached the age of fourteen), often resulting in psychedelic trips that endured for days at a time.
Members were promised spiritual fulfillment for serving The Family. Those who surrendered their children were promised that the children would become the “perfect race” and would withstand the collapse of society. Members were told that they were personally selected by Hamilton-Byrne because they were “special” and that adherence to her rules was necessary if they wanted to reach their full potential. Child members lost their identity and were physically and emotionally abused until they obeyed Hamilton-Byrne.
The abuse may have continued indefinitely had an adult survivor not reported her experience with The Family to the Melbourne police in 1987. A subsequent police raid discovered six children living in Hamilton-Byrne’s home while an additional fourteen children were found living in a separate home belonging to The Family. Hamilton-Byrne left the country to avoid arrest following the raid and has never faced charges for the abuse. The only sanction she has ever received was a monetary fine levied against her in 1993. She was fined for Conspiracy to Defraud given her involvement in creating falsified birth certificates for children of The Family.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne is now 96-years-old. She lives with advanced Dementia in a Melbourne nursing home. Her own personal history is filled with sadness; a mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and confined to an asylum while Hamilton-Byrne spent her childhood in orphanages. One has to wonder how these events contributed to the woman that Hamilton-Byrne eventually became.
As for the children who grew up inside The Family, two recently released projects have offered an opportunity to share what they experienced. A documentary and book, both titled The Family, were created with the participation of the survivors. Through their involvement in these projects, the survivors are no longer the “unseen, unknown, and unheard” children of Hamilton-Byrne’s bizarre cult.