Yoga-loving adults and 'adopted kids': The Australian 'family' cult

Anne Hamilton-Byrne was the leader of Australian cult The Family, a group full of yoga-loving adults and imprisoned children.

You might have seen an unsettling photo of the children – a couple of rows of identically-dressed kids with bleached blond hair – the result of Hamilton Byrne’s obsession with motherhood.

The obsession may have been partly to do with her own childhood. Her mother, Florence, was mentally ill at a time in Australia where mental illness wasn’t treated very effectively.

With her mother in care and her father largely absent, Anne spent some of her childhood in a Melbourne orphanage, likely dreaming of a much more privileged life.

Anne's disturbing story is the subject of the first episode of Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series.

Anne Hamilton Byrne arrives in court with her husband (left) in 1993. Source: Getty Images/ Fairfax Media
Anne Hamilton Byrne was obsessed with motherhood. Source: Getty Images/ Fairfax Media

She wanted – and got, thanks to her social-climbing skills - expensive clothes, nice jewellery, facelift after facelift, and children. Lots and lots of children.

Anne ended up only having one biological child, but with her arresting face, commanding voice, and an incredible knack for getting rich socialites to hang off her every word, she sourced more.

In Australia in the 1960s and 70s, Eastern Mysticism, New Age philosophies and the occult flourished in affluent suburbs, and Anne became a yoga instructor to bored housewives looking for something vaguely mystical.

Able to spout borrowed wisdoms from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity between downward dogs and meditations, her popularity grew in a tight-knit group of the social elite sprinkled with intellectuals, and she began promising life after death, enlightenment, and abs that won’t quit.

Anne also devised a method of initiation into the group, or ‘going through’, which was basically to take lots and lots of LSD.

A master of surrounding herself with useful people, Anne befriended a lot of medical professionals, becoming their guru.

This included high-ranking staff at the now-closed Newhaven Psychiatric Hospital, a facility that participated in then-legal LSD and electro-convulsive therapy for mental illness.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Source: YouTube/ The Family trailer
Anne Hamilton-Byrne was said to have a very engaging face and voice which drew people to her. Source: YouTube/ The Family trailer

Not only did LSD help patients experience high suggestibility and a feeling of closeness with those around them, it was also pretty useful if you wanted to suggest to your cult members that you were the Messiah, worthy of handing over lots of money, property, and children to.

One of the most disturbing features of The Family was how thoroughly its nefarious tendrils permeated the institutions it relied on for its survival.

The Family acquires huge number of children

The number of adopted children Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to secure for her own manufactured brood was due to the influence she held over those in a position to help.

Some were children of willing cult members who just handed them over, and some were – fraudulently, in a number of cases – Anne’s adopted children.

The children of the cult. Source: Supplied
The children of the cult shown in a well-known image that came to symbolise the group. Source: Supplied

From the 1950s to the 1980s in Australia, it was relatively easy to adopt a baby from a young, unmarried mother, and relatively difficult for those mothers to access counselling or be aware of their legal rights.

Women with mental health or substance abuse problems had virtually no chance of keeping their babies once they were labelled ‘unfit’, and it was handy that Anne had ready access to a grapevine of loyal mental health nurses, midwives, and people willing to forge documents.

Thanks to her followers’ donations, Anne was able to hide fourteen of ‘her’ children at a property at Lake Eildon called Kai Lama.

The children assembled in a group. Source: YouTube/ The Family trailer
The children were beaten, abused and drugged during their time with the group. Source: YouTube/ The Family trailer

Here they would undergo day after day of rigid schedules including home schooling, scant meals, chores, repetitive exercise, harsh punishments, and zero contact with the outside world.

The girls were dressed in identical demure, almost turn-of-the-century frocks, their long hair tied back with ribbons, and the boys were also dressed in exactly the same outfits as each other, with their striking bleached hair.

Rumours abound that Julian Assange was one of the children at Kai Lama - he wasn’t, but he clearly spent a little while at least unintentionally copying their look.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne giving an interview. Source: YouTube/ The Family trailer/ ABC
Anne Hamilton-Byrne said she loved children. Source: YouTube/ The Family trailer/ ABC

Children suffered beatings, cruel punishments

Anne was away from Kai Lama a lot of the time, so child-rearing and discipline was primarily left to cult members willing to take on the job.

Considering most of her followers would gladly do anything she commanded, there was a robust roster of women willing to live on the property and oversee the children.

They were nicknamed ‘Aunties’, but behaved like wardens.

As Anne considered childhood suffering to be an essential part of the process of clearing the sins of a past life, there were many reports from Kai Lama of punishments like beatings, being doused with cold water, and being made to sleep outdoors – for tiny crimes, like speaking out of turn or wetting the bed.

Not content with just punishing misbehaviour, Anne also tried to diminish it with behaviour-modifying drugs like Mogadon, Serepax and Valium, and when the children were old enough for their own initiation, LSD.

Julian Assange raises a fist. Source: AP
Julian Assange was rumoured to have grown up as a member of The Family. He didn't. Source: AP

Eventually two of Anne’s children managed to leave and went to the authorities, leading to a raid at Kai Lama.

The children's claims took a long time to investigate, with even more time spent trying to get Anne and her husband back into the country, as they tended to wander off to one of their international properties when the heat was on.

It’s said that when the feds turned up to arrest her at her front door in the Catskills Mountains in the US, Anne prioritised her own appearance over the safety of her children and asked if she could put a wig and make-up on before leaving the house.

The arresting officers said no. With most of Anne’s child victims either unwilling, unable, or regarded as too fragile to testify considering the lifetime of drugs and emotional trauma they’d been handed, the prosecution’s case against Anne wasn’t strong.

They couldn’t prove kidnapping, drug misuse, or child abuse. All they could prove was adoption fraud, and Anne was given a wrist-slap and fined $5,000.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne died in a nursing home in 2019, her brain stringy with dementia, having never paid properly for the awful life she dealt to a lot of children.

She serves as a useful reminder that, with almost no exceptions, anybody who tells you they’re the Messiah – probably isn’t.

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