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Since the death of cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, survivors of The Family are reckoning with loss and meaning. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

‘She’s with Lucifer now – her master’

The leader of The Family cult, Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
Credit: Supplied

Ben Shenton had been waiting a long time for her to die. A devout and contemplative Christian, given to rumination on grace, he even had his wife wondering if he had been waiting a little too earnestly. But when the news finally came three weeks ago, he felt relief – and satisfaction that Anne Hamilton-Byrne would finally face judgement before God. The leader of the luridly destructive cult The Family had died, aged 97.

Shenton was just a toddler when, in 1974, his mother conferred him to Hamilton-Byrne. He was raised believing she was his mother. Shenton’s biological mother had met Hamilton-Byrne through yoga classes, and became convinced that the cult leader had divinely cured her chronic back pain. Soon she became convinced of Hamilton-Byrne’s grander claim – that she was the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

And so, with more than a dozen other children, Shenton suffered years of bizarre and extreme privation – beatings, solitary confinement, doses of LSD. Created in the 1960s, The Family was fuelled by the charisma of its leader and supported by the credulity of wealthy intellectuals. Psychiatrists and renowned academics lent their credibility. Shenton was 15 years old when police raided the cult’s property in 1987.

“Within an hour or so of hearing that she had died, the song ‘The Wicked Witch Is Dead’ hit my mind,” Shenton says. “My wife said, ‘That’s a bit harsh’, and I said, ‘Well, think of the damage she’s done.’ ”

What mostly occupied Shenton’s mind was the image of Hamilton-Byrne – the destructive blasphemer and false idol – appearing before God. “The Bible says: ‘Every knee shall bow before me, and every tongue shall confess to God,’ ” Shenton says. “Anne will now be kneeling before Him, confessing that she was not Christ – confessing that she had committed the ultimate blasphemy.

“I’m figuring she didn’t change her mind on this side of eternity, where she had the opportunity to do so, and refused Jesus payment for her own sin. So she’s most likely going to spend eternity separated from God in a place created to punish all the fallen angels with Lucifer – her master.”

 

Even as a 15-year-old, Shenton was articulate. Police noticed this about many of the other children, too – how emotionally remote but intellectually sharp they were. Shenton says that before their physical liberation, a mental one was made possible with books.

“Anne was very controlling about what was said about her, and about how people related to each other,” Shenton says. “But there was little control over books. We were encouraged in fact to learn about politics and history. Books became a world that created a reality that was outside the one I was in. I would open a book, and step into a world behind the cupboard like Narnia. But then I’d come out and have to process the world I was in. I knew there was a world out there, though, and I’d join it one day. There are things inside you that you don’t realise are there. The books told me that things shift, pages are turned, there are chapters. Anne created my reality, but I understood that there was another one.”

Shenton is, in his words, a born-again Christian. A member of the Pentecostal Church, he says his faith has helped him interpret his experience – and Hamilton-Byrne herself. For Shenton, she was not a crook or a charlatan. She was, literally, a servant of Lucifer – and had been invested by him with occult powers. “Anne perpetrated a lie,” Shenton says, “and used demonically accessed power to validate her claims [that she was Christ]. The Devil is always looking for warm flesh to inhabit, and he doesn’t care who he gets.”

Shenton’s ardent faith after leaving the cult upset some of the other survivors, for whom their experience had made religion repugnant. “Their response, understandably, was that I’d gone from one cult to another,” Shenton says. “I’ve had to process that. They were unhappy with the direction I took with life. I understand why. But you have to keep living life, and I believe that my life is proof that it works. I’m doing very well. I have a family; we’re building a new house. People throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think of all of us that I’m one of the most fortunate. I take my hat off to the others, with love and respect. But the proof is in the pudding.”

When Shenton says books gave him a sense of episodes – a sense that life could change within and without, and that there were markers along the road – he also sees the existence of The Family as one tiny chapter in the ancient story of the universe. That story is a simple one: a contest of Good and Evil, of God against the Devil.

But this contest, Shenton believes, does not relegate humans to mere audience members. He agrees with a decree made by the Vatican in 2000: “The action of God, the Lord of history, and the co-responsibility of man in the drama of his creative freedom, are the two pillars upon which human history is built.” This resonates with Shenton, who has a strong libertarian streak. He believes man has agency, because how else can faith be meaningfully attained? The Lord of history has drawn tramlines for our existence, but those lines are many and divergent. We have choice. Sometimes, influenced by the Devil, those choices lead to war, cults, the worship of false idols — and in this way, the ugly results of our agency can obscure God’s existence. But this is deliberate. Our faith can’t be automatic. It should derive from contemplation and suffering. It should derive from the gift of our freedom.

“Western civilisation is built on the premise of man’s free will; however we rightfully have the responsibility for the consequences of our actions,” Shenton says. “Anne created a community that was totalitarian, that pulled people in through promising to meet their emotional, physical and spiritual needs but never delivering on them in full. And when people woke up to the lie, she did all she could to destroy them. God never violates our free will. It’s been said, ‘He never makes us do His will, but He can and will make us regret that we don’t!’ ”

Ultimately, Shenton says, we will all be held accountable for our choices – just as Anne Hamilton-Byrne is. “To think that Anne actually set herself up in Christ’s place, promised that she would pay for initiates’ past ‘karma’ [or] sin and if they obeyed her they’d incur no more karma and that when they died they’d be one with God, is the ultimate arrogance and lie,” Shenton says. “It rejects God’s truth and then cuts others off from receiving the only way under heaven by which mankind can be right with God. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but through me. I lay my life down…’ God tells us that we are all appointed to live once – then comes the judgement.”

Shenton has written his own book. It is a memoir, titled Life Behind the Wire.

 

The reunion was accidental. Almost two decades had passed since the police raid – and since Shenton had spoken with his biological mother. Her last words to him, in the weeks following the raid, were unthinkably cruel: she told him he was an embarrassment, and that she never wanted to see him again. This cruelty was directed by Hamilton-Byrne, who, despite the cult’s exposure, was still influencing her followers.

Shenton’s mother’s involvement in the cult brought shame to their family and, feeling she could no longer live in Australia, she moved overseas. She was still close to her own mother, however, who lived in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, and would periodically fly back to visit her. Shenton was also close to his grandmother. In 2005, entirely by accident, mother and son found themselves on the same doorstep. Shenton was with his wife and two young children, who had never known their grandmother. “It was like chatting to someone I’d never met before,” Shenton remembers. “It was very formal. There were no hugs. I introduced my family. There was no avenue to be warm, and that’s not an indictment on her. She’s still then under the control of Anne, and at that stage still a member of the cult. Anne was still her master. There’s still a directive from Anne not to ever speak to me. But she said to me that this chance meeting was divine providence; and thinking that, I think, allowed her a back channel out of her promise to Anne to never speak to me again.”

Shenton worked that back channel, eager to reconcile in some form. But there is a point at which most of us won’t tolerate the truth. It’s the point when we’ve caused irrevocable harm, and the truth of that endangers our faith in our own basic goodness. That’s when the truth is stubbornly denied, or creatively eluded, and no amount of evidence can compel our acknowledgement of it – even if others require it. There is a limit to what we’ll admit.

So it was with Shenton’s mother. It was 2006, less than a year after their chance encounter, and mother and son sat down for dinner in a restaurant. Shenton knew her acknowledgement was unlikely. She had too much to lose. His mother still revered Anne, but that reverence couldn’t be separated from her conscience. Her belief in Anne’s divinity was, in part, an alibi – a shield against the truth that she had condemned her child to years of abuse. Yet here he was sitting opposite her, testifying to it.

“I told her about my experience,” Shenton says of the dinner. “She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t say I was lying; she just said that she didn’t know about it. And I told her why she wouldn’t have known, how Anne controlled the narrative. I had to respect her opinion to a point, but also assert my truth. For a relationship to work, you have to be honest.

“I had let go of the debt she owed me. When people violate relationships, we say something’s been stolen. A future, money, whatever it is. And we say: I’ll make you pay. I think that’s how humans function; it’s what I’ve seen anyway. So when we sit down, that letting go of the debt will set me free. God will help me, and Mum won’t. I’d understood that she did this because Anne said that she would give me a better life. So I’m not trying to hold her to account. That’s for God.”

Shenton was trying to chart a passage through terrible waters. People asked him why he bothered. He says he wanted his mother to have an opportunity to respond to his truth. He says he wanted to understand her character. “Character” is a word Shenton uses a lot. “Socrates said: ‘Speak so that I may know you’, and I had to let her speak so that I could see her character. And so I had to create a safe space for her to do that. A space where she didn’t dominate the narrative, and in which I could speak of my experience, but where she feels safe to speak. To reconcile with someone is to ask, ‘What’s their perspective?’ ”

It seemed a herculean act of patience, and delicacy. Shenton’s additional problem was his children. Having been denied his own family so cruelly – Shenton didn’t know who his father was until he was an adult, and by then the man was dead – he wanted his children to have the freedom to choose a relationship with their grandmother. Simultaneously, he wondered how damaging this could be – especially given his mother’s continued reverence for Hamilton-Byrne.

“I’ve monitored the relationship between them,” Shenton says. “She’s been generous enough to send Christmas cards, birthday cards. There have been Skype calls. That’s diminished over time. I’m comfortable that I haven’t cut that connection, but I think I’ve managed to filter it. She’s not an evil lady. She’s happy when they do well. And I think stealing people from family is despicable and I don’t want my children to say later: ‘Dad, you stole something from me and I resent that.’ ”

As part of this “process” with his mother, the two of them visited Hamilton-Byrne in 2012. She was by then in her 90s, confined to a nursing home and ravaged by dementia. Shenton says he had no qualms about seeing her. “She had no recollection of me,” he says. “It allowed me to confirm what I knew Anne to be. It gave a neat dot at the end of a sentence.”

This process of reconciliation has now lasted almost as long as the estrangement between Shenton and his mother. He says it’s still imperfect. “It’s not ideal at this stage, but we’re still working through it. At great cost, my mother bet against God. But I believe she is redeemable.”

 

Ben Shenton’s story is not representative of the survivors of The Family. Each of them carries and conveys the trauma differently. I first met Ben a few years ago, along with four other survivors, the detective who helped free them, and the director of an excellent documentary about the cult. We had lunch together, before assembling for a public discussion that followed the film’s debut.

Each of them shared a grievous history and an obvious affection for Lex de Man, the former detective so crucial to their freedom. But it was just as obvious that there was no uniformity to them. Some were understandably anxious about appearing in public, especially when Hamilton-Byrne still had a handful of devotees. I was fearful one stubborn acolyte, who considered the survivors traitors, would appear in the audience and hijack the event. But others were excited to appear in public, and once onstage spoke earnestly. Some were confiding, others guarded. Some had children, others didn’t. They had varied relationships with each other, but often spoke with the rough candour of siblings.

Of Hamilton-Byrne’s death, each will feel differently. In researching this story, I know that some – understandably – resent the fact her death has inspired a revival of media interest. They know our interest is fleeting, contingent and relatively shallow. Theirs is permanent. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "‘She’s with Lucifer now – her master’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.