For the first 15 years of his life, Ben Shenton lived in a doomsday cult that thought the world would soon end. Instead the police arrived one day and plunged him into a new and unfamiliar world… the real one.
Tucked away in their home on the shores of Australia’s Lake Eildon, behind heavy foliage and barbed wire, seven children in matching outfits and bleached blonde haircuts were finishing their morning hatha yoga practice when they heard a commotion on the stairs.
Suddenly uniformed police officers stormed into the room and gathered the children up. Moments later they whisked them away from the five-acre compound, into a new reality that would take 15-year-old Ben Shenton years to fully understand.
Up to that moment in August 1987, his world had been shaped by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a glamorous and charismatic yoga instructor who, in the late 1960s, had persuaded her followers to join a cult she called The Family. Members believed that Anne was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that when the world ended they would be responsible for re-educating the survivors.
Ben and the other children were told that Anne was their mother. She taught them to avoid outsiders and if any approached them – on the shore of the lake perhaps – to follow the mantra Unseen, Unheard, Unknown. “It was very much a thing of: you do not tell any outside person who is not a sect member anything,” Ben says. “If I had any interaction with them, I would check through what I said to make sure that I hadn’t revealed anything.”
Members of Anne’s inner circle, known as “aunties”, helped look after Ben and the other children. They woke at 5am in dormitory-style rooms and followed an unchanging routine: yoga, meditation, lessons, yoga, meditation, homework, bed. Though there were only a handful of children when the police arrived in 1987, there had once been 28 of them.
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They ate meagre vegetarian meals and were frequently punished. “Aunties” held children’s heads under water and hands above candles to the point of burning, while Anne, when she wasn’t away travelling, sometimes beat them with her stiletto heels.
“Watching it was enough to leave some serious emotional scarring,” Ben says. The atmosphere was one of “naked fear”.
One way Anne exerted control over the cult members was through drugs. Children were kept on a steady stream of sedatives such as Mogadon and Valium. Adults and older teenagers were obliged to take LSD at regular ceremonies called “clearings”; Anne thought that by this means she could strengthen her followers’ devotion to her.
While Ben did not enjoy his upbringing, it was all he knew. “When you create a reality for a child, they have no reference points,” he says. “There was no competing narrative.”
That instantly changed the day the police arrived.