Anne Hamilton-Byrne was born Evelyn Grace Victoria Edwards in Sale, Australia in 1921. Sale is located two hours east of Melbourne. Her parents Florence Holie, and father Ralph Edwards lead what can only be described as a difficult life. Florence spent much of her life struggling with schizophrenia and was placed in an asylum. After moving through a few different facilities, she died still institutionalized in 1971. Her father once fled home because of an unpaid debt, and Anne ended up in an orphanage for a short time.[i] Overall her parents were distant and problematic, entering and leaving her life often. But Anne painted a different picture and honestly saw her parents as worldly and enlightened. Interestingly in the 1930’s, there isn’t a lot of information about her and what was going on in her life. It was speculated during this time she was helping to care for her siblings because of her lack of consistent parental support.
Around 1941 she married her first husband Lionel Harris, and they had a daughter Natasha. In the late 1950’s she began teaching yoga in Melbourne and Geelong, at the Gita School of Yoga. There she met Margrit Segesman who she told she was a physiotherapist and nurse. She was of course none of these things, and thus began a long career of fictionalization and lies. She was a self-proclaimed spiritual leader, and in the early days she was described by her students as an “excellent teacher and a wonderful woman.”[ii] But this was really her first training ground for the tactics she used during her time leading her cult, including manipulation and control. During this time, she preyed on many middle-aged women, convincing them to leave their husbands and families. During this time divorce was much less common so they ran to Anne for support and companionship. Then she would “have them for life.”[iii] This time she was pivotal for what was to come she honed her skills and built up her network. One of the first lessons she preached was “There’s no own family, only great love.”[iv] This illustrates her consistent tactic of pulling people away from their family of origin and drawing them to her and her network. In 1955 Lionel was killed in a car accident, and she used his tragedy to garner sympathy and support from people, especially men. She told a fictionalized account of what happened to a key member of the cult to pull him in a make him more open to her and her needs with her “sob story.”
A crucial time for the formation of the actual cult and Anne’s life came on December 22nd, 1962 when she met Dr. Raynor Johnson. At 61 years old he was a Queen’s College Physicist and the head of the department. At the tail end of his career, he turned towards metaphysics studying topics such as telepathy, poltergeists, mediums, and mysticism. Raynor was Anne’s first true believer and because of the power of his name, he was crucial to the establishment of the cult and recruitment of members.[v] In May 1963 a car accident involving Anne’s daughter cemented the early followers’ belief in Anne’s powers. Her daughter rolled her car fracturing her skull and damaging her eye to the point doctors said she might lose her sight. Anne organized spirit help and a week later her daughter left the hospital earlier than expected and in good shape.[vi] This was thought to be Anne’s first miracle by her growing group of believers.
In the winter of 1963, the first group of seven was initiated into the cult including Raynor Johnson, his daughter Maureen, wife Mary and four others. They were brought into what was then called the Great White Brotherhood of Initiates and Masters, which later morphed into ‘The Family.’ The use of drugs in the cult became part of the ritual, belief and a way to enact control on the members. Raynor often took psilocybin or LSD in Anne’s presence and would kneel at her feet gazing at her for hours.[vii] Yoga was also very important to Anne and this is what seemed to have really kickstarted the cult. But as with most of the sources she pulled from she took what she wanted, left what she didn’t, and changed it for her gain. She stole from many sources including Christianity, Hinduism, Hatha yoga, crystals, auras, light, color, magic, and extraterrestrial life. They built a brown brick temple in the hill called “Santiniketan Lodge” which became the center of cult life. The days they worshipped were Thursday and Sundays and Anne would deliver her message from a purple throne at the front of the lodge, encouraging her followers to “walk on, into oneness.”[viii] No matter how incompressible her messages were her members seemed to adore her and hang on her every word.
When in Australia Anne hid herself and her adult followers in the forested hills near Melbourne, the Dandenong Ranges, in an area called Ferny Creek. They lived in various houses near to each other so she could have them easily at hand for her needs. She had a strong belief that if the authorities or unbelievers came and tried to take her, or kill her that her followers would protect her.[ix] She was very concerned about her appearance and she frequently got plastic surgery.[x] She was always well dressed and used her clothes and jewelry to flaunt her wealth. She amassed lavish overseas properties in London and New York State, which she visited often. As time went on she spent less and less time in Australia and more time abroad. But there was another property situated near an artificial lake surrounded by mountains. She called this place Uptop her version of a monastery.[xi]
And in 1971…the children started coming…
It started with a group of seven children all around the age of three. Throughout the 1970’s the numbers would continue to grow. Many of them were given the Hamilton-Byrne name, but a group of fourteen fosters came whose names were not changed.[xii] It was said at first, by some, that the children were treated well. But it appeared that as more and more children came things became increasingly sinister. The children believed they were brother and sister and all had the same sinister looking dyed white-blonde hair. These children were “gifted” to Anne by cult members, or scouted for adoption by other members. Through the 1970’s and 1980’s the paranoia slowly increased and the cult moto became “unseen, unheard, unknown.”[xiii] They had a complex adoption scheme running that will be discussed in more detail later.
The children were looked after by a group of women called “The Aunties,” who were strict and whose punishments were cruel and abusive[xiv] Complete control was exacted on the children and the repercussions for disobeying even the smallest rule became more and more severe. The children were given a spartan vegetarian died, but punishment for even the smallest infraction could be three days with no food.[xv] They often scavenged for good and would eat scraps, grass, birdseed and leaves because they were so desperate and hungry.[xvi] As the got older they started to stray from the property and steal food from the neighbors. They once found a frozen pizza but had never experienced this so they ate it frozen, not realizing to cook it.[xvii]The Aunties struggled because they needed to look after so many children, and try to keep Anne happy as well. The mistreatment of the children continued to escalate and extended into willful neglect and chronic endemic abuse.[xviii] They were beaten with objects such as a cane, hairbrush, wooden ruler and were hit in the head repeatedly with a broom handle. Their heads were dunked into water to the brink of drowning, their hand held over the flame of a candle. Anne’s choice of weapon was the most heinous and extreme, she would beat the children with a stiletto high heel.[xix] When she was away traveling she would call to Uptop to hear the children disciplined. When they turned fourteen years old this would be when they were indoctrinated into the cult. They wouldn’t be told when this would happen, but when it did they would be locked in a dark room and given huge doses of LSD.[xx] In total there would be twenty-eight children who came to live at Uptop.
As time went on the children became despondent, engaged in self-harm and were suicidal.[xxi] All the children were mistreated and abused but girls were treated even more harshly. Girls bodies were viewed as disgusting, especially when the entered puberty, and they would be told this often. Feminine hygiene products were rationed to control the girls and because Anne didn’t want them to grow up and become independent. The children had frequent weigh-ins and the children would often vomit before weigh-ins so their food wouldn’t be rationed.[xxii]
The police started coming around Uptop in the mid to late 1970’s, and it 1979 the police started more formally gathering information. But it was said at that point in time ‘no further action is needed.’[xxiii] The Family was exposed to media coverage for the first time in 1980 with the disappearance of Kim Halm. Her father Hans Halm went to the police explaining that she had been born into The Family and told them about Uptop. When the Commonwealth Police went to look for Kim at Uptop she wasn’t located there. They found her in September of 1983 in Auckland, New Zealand using the names Jeannette Berger and Jeannette De Haven. Because this was abduction by Kim’s mother a formal investigation wasn’t launched into The Family, but this was still very bad for the cult because there was a large well-publicized court case around this incident that helped to start to air the cult’s dirty laundry.
How this story would play out into the 1990’s is both fascinating and shocking. This a complex story with many players needed for this to happen in the first place, let alone go on for as long as it did. It’s a strong example of how people can be manipulated into doing heinous things. In the next post we will investigate the psychology of cults and taker a deep dive into the people that were involved, and the intricacies of what happened in Uptop to these innocent children. Sometimes the stories we read aren’t as black and white as we think they are.
[i] Johnson, Chris, and Rosie Jones. The Family: The Shocking True Story of a Notorious Cult. Victoria, Australia: Scribe, 2016.
[vii] Johnston, Chris. 2017. “Family Ties.” Sydney Morning Herald, February 9. Accessed from http://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2017/family-ties/ on 7 July 2018