Magazine article The Spectator

'The Family', by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Family', by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones - Review

Article excerpt

When I was 22 I met a man called Yisrayl Hawkins who said his coming had been prophesied in the Book of Isaiah. Yisrayl (born Bill) lived with his many disciples and several wives in a compound carved out of the red dirt scrub near Abilene, Texas. His cult was called the House of

Yahweh, and as a sign of their commitment, his 400 followers had all changed their names to Hawkins.

Yisrayl was a narcissist, as most cult leaders are, and this made him tremendously boring. As he droned on about being chosen, and his conviction that Satan was in fact female, I watched the ferrety little Hawkins children dart between mobile homes and Airstream caravans, and his wives, the many Mrs Hawkinses, all in headscarves. They were good-looking women, and educated too. What on earth had drawn them to Yisrayl? What kept them with him?

This new, heartfelt, complicated investigation into The Family, one of Australia's craziest and most infamous sects, by Chris Johnston, a senior writer for the Sydney Morning Herald , and Rosie Jones, a film- maker, answers questions about cults that have nagged at me for decades.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, now 95, began to gather her Family around her in the late 1950s in Melbourne. Like Yisrayl, Anne was psychotically vain and changed both her own name and often her followers' too. Unlike Yisrayl, she was beautiful, and even those who didn't believe her claim to be a reincarnation of Christ admitted she was mesmerising. She taught a yoga class and her great trick was to find unhappy women, often middle-aged ones neglected by their husbands, and offer them affection and spiritual direction. She'd give them LSD and say, 'There's no own family. Only love. Great love.' This love dictated that they left their husbands and became, effectively, her servants. Barbara Kibby, once a Family member, says: 'She knew if she could get [women] to leave their husbands, their families would disown them and she'd have them for life.'

Trish was perfect fodder for Anne. In 1967, Trish's son died in a car crash. Two days later, Anne was at her door offering solace. A few months after that, Trish was told to go to the Royal Women's Hospital and pretend to be a 'Mrs Webb', come to adopt a child. A doctor in league with the Family delivered a baby from a terrified teenage mother and then handed it straight to Trish. This was Anne's most diabolical trick: stealing babies from disgraced mothers too vulnerable to question the doctor.

The growing collection of Hamilton-Byrne children, the heart of the Family cult, was tucked away in a backwoods property called Kai Lama, near Lake Eildon, Victoria. …

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