“The Family” was a doomsday sect in Australia, formed in the mid-1960s, which taught a mixture of Christianity and Hinduism, proclaiming its leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, as the Messiah, or the female reincarnation of Jesus. There have been and there continue to be many delusional leaders of religious groups who believe that they are either superhuman, reincarnations, or prophets coming to save people. Aside from the adults who blindly followed Hamilton-Byrne in “the Family,” her group consisted of small children, “adopted” and raised by her as their leader and mother.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne adopted 28 children, 14 of whom believed that she was their birth mother. She loved the idea of children but not raising or educating them. They were taught that there would be a World War III, a nuclear war, and that the apocalypse would come, so their task would be to start all over again, refresh the spirit, and spread the belief that their “mother” was, in fact, Jesus reincarnate. The children lived isolated from the rest of world, in a property near Melbourne, by Lake Eildon.
Anne was born as Evelyn Edwards, in 1921. She didn’t know her father and her mother, who spent most of her life in a psychiatric hospital, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. While in her mid-30s, the future sect leader discovered yoga. She already had one marriage behind her, a husband whom she lost in a fatal traffic accident, and a miscarriage. She was also a soprano singer and played the harp, but was searching for a greater meaning in her life. She became a yoga teacher at the perfect time—in the early 1960s when Spiritualism spread throughout academic and intellectual social circles. Feminism, too, was fast becoming very popular.
As a yoga teacher, Edwards tactically established her studio in the rich corners of Melbourne, working exclusively with middle-aged women, most of them unhappy in their marriages, with grown-up children, looking for their daily purpose. While divorce was still a taboo at the time, their yoga teacher encouraged these women to leave their unhappy lives and join her. She also recruited gay people who were at the time still legally and socially unaccepted. Edwards was seemingly offering love to anyone who needed it.
She was said to be irresistibly charming and charismatic, so it wasn’t hard for her to persuade people to join her. In 1961, she met Raynor Johnson, who, by then had been the Oxford physician and master of the Methodist Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne for 30 years. He was deeply interested in spiritualism and had even published books on the subject. He was about to retire and searching for something to dedicate his time to and took hatha yoga classes with Edwards. He started bringing her more and more people. Johnson even offered his property, “Santiniketan,” outside of Melbourne, for philosophical discussions between the group that he and his yoga teacher now called “the Family.”
Their profiles became known in the elite circles in Melbourne and soon many rich people joined the Family. Edwards was on LSD when she became convinced that she was the reincarnation of Jesus and she changed her name to Anne Hamilton-Byrne. At the Newhaven hospital in Melbourne, many of the doctors and the staff were members of the Family, so many of the patients were treated with LSD and later recruited as members of the sect.
In 1968, Hamilton-Byrne started adopting children with her new partner, Bill. Fourteen of them were infants, some natural children of the sect members, while others were acquired through adoption procedures in which the doctors, the social workers, and the lawyers were all members of the Family. “You had babies born in cult hospitals, delivered by cult midwives, handed over to cult social workers,” said Lex de Man, one of the two detectives who worked on bringing charges against Hamilton-Byrne. At the time, adoption policies in Australia were poorly regulated. Also, as the status of a single mother was still socially unacceptable, many young, single mothers were easily persuaded to hand their children over to the Great Mother.
Unfortunately, Anne reportedly didn’t care at all about the children. Although according to their recent claims, they all adored her and would have done anything for her love, she never returned the love they longed for. The worst part is that many of the children only knew of Anne and Bill as their parents, the only people from whom they could seek love, but sadly, they never got it. Instead, they were beaten for the smallest disobedience, were kept hungry for days if they accidentally forgot to turn off a light in a room, and were given Mogadon and valium on a daily basis so that they would be more obedient.
Even worse, at the age of 14, the children went through the initiation ritual of the sect that involved giving them LSD for the first time, but certainly not for the last. After their initiation, the kids were given huge doses of the drug that was too much even for the adults. Quite often, while on LSD, the children would be locked in a dark room, with only Anne, or some of their “aunties,” to visit them.
In total, Hamilton-Byrne acquired 28 children. They were deprived of their right to childhood, happiness, care, and love. All of them lived a constant trauma that was increased throughout their teenage years. Many of them developed depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. Some of their brave confessions can be seen in the documentary The Family, by Rosie Jones, a film on which she worked for more than two years.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Hamilton-Byrne also acquired millions in money and property. Members of the Family were passing their properties to her without any hesitation. She was their goddess and guide of their lives. Even though there have been speculations and suspicions, and investigations about missing children, nobody has ever been able to convict the sect and its leader of charges in the children’s disappearance. However, in 1987, Anne’s “favorite daughter,” Sarah Hamilton Byrne (later Sarah Moore), was expelled from the family due to her rebellion and lack of obedience at 17.
Soon after, Sarah met with a private investigator, Helen D., who had already spent a while investigating the sect. It was Helen who told Sarah who “her mother” actually was and that she wasn’t biologically related to her at all. The girl was central to the destruction of the group. The Victorian police released all the children from the property where they were kept, while Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill escaped to the States, where she also had a lot of property in her name. They were finally arrested in 1993 by the FBI and brought back to Australia. Unfortunately, the only charges brought against Anne were defrauding and conspiracy related to the falsified adoptions.
Now living in a nursing home in Melbourne for 12 years, aged 97 and suffering from dementia, she is at the end of her life. The whole story was enlivened again thanks to Rosie Jones, who made the documentary about the horrors that occurred in the Family, and Chris Johnston, who also investigated the subject and co-wrote a book on it with Jones.