ReadingRoom

The creepiest book of 2020: Part II

ReadingRoom is devoting all week to the best-selling book in New Zealand right now, In The Clearing, the brilliant thriller by Ngāpuhi author JP Pomare. Today: Steve Braunias interviews journalist Chris Johnston, who has written extensively about the creepy cult which inspired Pomare's novel.

When I looked up Melbourne journalist Chris Johnston, the co-author of an investigative book about the The Family, the cult which inspired JP Pomare's novel In The Clearing, I was surprised to find that he followed me on Twitter. No one in Australia has ever heard of anyone in New Zealand apart from the New Zealanders who they regard as Australians. But it turned out that Johnston is a Kiwi, a hack from Christchurch, and every New Zealand hack knows every other New Zealand hack. It was a strange coincidence though that the three people who have written probably the best stuff concerning The Family, an entirely and weirdly Australian phenomenon, are Kiwis - Johnston's co-author Rosie Jones is from New Zealand, and JP Pomare (Ngapuhi) was raised near Rotorua. I raised the point when I interviewed Johnston over email. It was conducted in real time and the transcript is as follows.

Mate thanks very much for your time. Let’s start at the end – that is, I gather you went to visit the leader of The Family, Anne Hamilton-Byrne,  who claimed she was Jesus reincarnated, when she was nearly 100 and dying in a rest home with advanced dementia. Can you describe the scene?

It was one of the more intense experiences I've had as a reporter. She still had a certain charisma despite being very old and frail and demented. She was immaculately dressed, with pearls. Her hairline was right back almost at the back of her head because of her lifetime of facelifts.

Her room was covered with pictures of her as a cult leader, the children she stole and orchestrated abuse upon, her third husband Bill, and herself, of course, in various regal poses.

Hard to gain any kind of insight about a person who is demented I suppose. But you can at once be a sweet little old defenceless lady and someone who caused the most horrific damage to people. Is she a study in evil?

She had a print of the Last Supper next to her bed which struck me like a thunderbolt. She portrayed herself as Jesus, and was betrayed by those closest to her. Just like in the famous old painting.

In terms of being evil, I don't know. But she is certainly a study in psychopathic narcissism.

JP Pomare’s book begins with him imagining one of The Family’s abductions – they snatch a girl off the side of the street, and take her to some creepy secluded place. Is that the sort of thing they actually did?

No they took them all from hospitals in Melbourne. Well not all but most.

There were two subsets of cult kids. 28 in total - 14 were stolen from hospitals from young mums who were having the baby adopted out. These ones took the Hamilton-Byrne surname and (later) had their hair dyed. They lived in the lakehouse north of Melbourrne. The other set of 14 were the kids of cult members who essentially gifted them to the cult. These ones lived in cult homes in a cluster of neighbourhoods in the hills near Melbourne.

What was the purpose in taking those kids? We’re used to cults like the Bert Potter commune where the motive or purpose of it all seemed to be sex - it answered the need for deranged men to have sex with children. Then there was Charles Manson and his insane concubine. But sex seems absent in the Family, is that right? Was it about something else – power, the Messiah complex?

Yes, good call. Sex was largely absent except for Anne using her sexual power to groom smart, wealthy men to join up and do things for her. We think it was about a number of things. Power, control. A deluded and inflated sense of one's majesty. A desire to escape from or reinvent a very strange, isolated and dysfunctional childhood. But most of all power, control and the accumulation of money: ie, greed.

The kids themselves were being groomed as world leaders after the apocalypse. They were supposed to be the ones who would teach those left on Earth.

Well we all have to grow up to do something with our lives. The terrible thing though with these kids though is that I gather there was a rotating roster of aunties who beat them, starved them, and drugged them with LSD. They also gave the kids weird peroxided super-white haircuts. The cult was originally named the Great White Brotherhood. Was this some kind of white supremacy thing? Was it race-based, anti-black, like Manson?

No, nothing racial in it. The "white" in that early title was to do with spirituality and purity, that sort of thing.

The kids were initiated with LSD when they turned 14. Not just a bit but massive doses of liquid acid straight from the Sandoz lab. Before that they were on a regime of tranquilisers to keep them docile.

Did you and JP Pomare correspond at all?

No. I contacted him on Twitter after reading that his book was based on The Family. Would really love to meet him. He's from Rotorua!

Well that’s the thing. You’re a Kiwi living in Australia, and wrote the book on The Family with Rosie Jones, a Kiwi living in Australia; and JP Pomare, whose novel is based on The Family, is a Kiwi living in Australia. I wonder if our emotional distance from the place allowed you, Rosie and Josh to feel especially fascinated and drawn to something so freakish?

Ha. Nice question. Maybe you’re right. I remember when I first heard of The Family years and years ago - in Melbourne, through The Age, who I ended up working for - I was transfixed by it. It just sort of played out and then no one followed up until Rosie and I did - we didn't know each other before joining up to investigate this story - so you might be onto something there. Also we're from Christchurch, the weirdest city on earth.

What about Timaru? All those big houses with small, tiny windows and twitching curtains….You were allowed to visit Anne thanks to a cult member called Michael. Doesn’t he claim The Family is a going concern, that they hold weekly meetings at their headquarters, the Santiniketan Lodge in the Dandenong Range? What do you reckon? Can a faith like this survive without its crazy facelifted Jesus?

Timaru is odd yes. I spent a lot of time on Oamaru as a kid. Still un-nerves me.

I’ve been to the Santiniketan Lodge, the cult's temple, which still stands. Michael took us there. A very odd experience but brilliant material for the book.

Steve sorry mate I have to go do actual work for an hour! I really want to tell you about Michael, can we continue this a bit later?

Okay.

*

[An hour passes in which Johnston hives off to interview a scientist about superbugs and I use my time with equal journalistic integrity and vigour to review the latest episode of The Bachelorette.]

Are you there mate? If so here’s a question: Anne, the  Jesus of Melbourne, is dead now. I gather there’s going to be legal contest over her substantial estate valued in the multiple millions. Are you following the money?

Yes. Although the estate has dwindled somewhat now. I started this yarn by following the money and establishing there was a bent charity looking after her affairs. Same bent charity is still looking after her affairs. There are two court cases looming.

They have been doing a fair bit of asset stripping as far as I can see. Three elderly rusted-on cult cronies are living in her house in the hills.

Is this the Lodge you mentioned you went to? Can you describe it?

The Lodge still stands. It's on prime land next to a state forest in the hills. Unremarkable from the outside - red brick, kinda brutalist. Michael let us in and gave us a tour. Why I don't know, but he did. Massive gates all padlocked out the front. Inside, it's like a church hall. Anne's special chair and table were still there, as was the audio set up that played her taped sermons to cult people when she was away. Michael told us the Lodge was still in use but when we went through it didn't seem that way. However there is film of it at its height, covertly filmed by a news crew, with a full carpark and people scurrying out with blankets. It's pretty cold in winter in the hills.

Again, on the subject of following the money - you told the Guardian, “The tentacles of this cult were incredibly wide. There were tentacles into pretty much every aspect of Melbourne society through the 70s and 80s, and there are people out there who probably have a lot to answer for.” Answer what, do you mean?

There are people who were key to the cult that will never be found. We - through police and legal sources - identified the detail of many of her enablers such as her lawyer, her real estate agent, her government-linked psychiatrist who got all the LSD in from Switzerland. However there are so many questions. Why did the police take so long to investigate this? And even when they did why did they devote so few resources to it? Why did a Premier of Victoria not act on information he was given very early on? Why were the hospitals so easy to infiltrate?

“…her government-linked psychiatrist who got all the LSD in from Switzerland” – isn’t journalism great, the way it inspires such sentences. Hey actually you never addressed my question whether the Family is still a going concern, and if a faith like this can survive without its crazy facelifted Jesus.

It exists in the form of this fake charity called Life For All Creatures which is shuffling money and assets around and is administered by a group of cult men and women. Some of those are very old, including an old bastard called John Mackay, a GP and psychiatrist who was Anne's personal doctor and dosed many of the kids. Also his son, Tim.

It probably exists in the minds of some of these people too; they would still say that Anne was The Teacher, that she held the secrets. They would deny in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was a harmful, abusive cult. They would say the survivors have a victim mentality.

The Lodge stands, many of the properties still stand. Anne's daughter (her only real child) is also dead, her husband is dead.

So - no, but also yes. I would say many of the old-timers still alive would still have a picture of her in their blue room. There was a fellow angling for leadership a few years ago. Michael was also hoping to become the Messiah.

But really I reckon all they're doing is feathering their own corrupt nests from the estate.

I mean I guess you could say it exists symbolically in the minds of all those who suspend belief and cling onto false gurus in search of ...a better life.

Ooh – Michael - you said earlier you wanted to tell me more about him? What sort of guy wants to become a Messiah? He's a nutter, right?

Interesting guy. Nephew of a former governor General of Australia. Second son of an extremely wealthy Melbourne Jewish family - absolute Toorak establishment. Went to Scotch College and Melbourne University. Then one day he went to see the Maharishi in Melbourne, can't recall the date but it's in the book, and one thing led to another. Fancies himself as an artist and at one stage had a gallery. He gave me two paintings of my aura. He also worked in healthcare as some sort of medical orderly.

Insisted on lunching at shitty Toorak cafes he thought were good. Invited us to his house maybe three or four times. A very bitter man with a vicious tongue. A true believer, but one who found himself on the outer. Now he doesn't even have an administrative role.

Befriended us, eventually, and spoke at length over a year or two which we think fed his ego: Anne's mouthpiece. His brother is also a case - a former investigative journalist based in Russia who - he says - had to leave the country because he knew too much and was in danger of nasty death at the hands of some oligarch or another.

Their sister was found naked and dead at the bottom of a high rise carpark. Michael says she fell. Others say she was pushed by the cult. Coroner couldn't decide.

“He gave me two paintings of my aura”! Classic. Penultimate question: What happened to the kids?

The kids are scattered far and wide. Mostly aged in their late 40s now. Sarah Moore, the unofficial leader of the kids and the one who became the face of them, died just before the book came out. She was making good progress but in the end she couldn't sustain it.

We personally dealt with eight of them. One is a born-again pastor in Perth. Some are in terrible shape. Some are in good spirits with their own children.

Final question: in all your dealings with this story, have you ever dreamed of Jesus of Melbourne, Anne Hamilton-Byrne?

Ha, awesome question. Rosie may have. I have not. For a while I had one of Michael's paintings in our dunny, but my wife has banished them both to the shed. I have a few of her belongings actually, in a drawer in our office. She gifted a former cult member a Bible and some other stuff and it was sent to me: photos etc. Trinkets. But no.

The most haunting thing was her voice on all those tapes we got hold of: her sermons. Amazing and scary. The ice-cold tone, the revenge she often talked about, the way she would talk about people who had displeased her. Also she had this ridiculous plummy posh accent…It just gave me the chills. I’ll never forget her voice.

The Family: The shocking true story of a notorious cult by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones (Scribe, 2017 ); In The Clearing by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.95).

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