DAMNED AT BIRTH: ‘My mother gave me to a sinister cult’
IN A Melbourne nursing home, suffering from dementia, lies the woman who founded Australia's most notorious cult, The Family.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne is 97 years old and reportedly shrunk and frail.
But her influence lives on in the lives of the children who were taken at birth, locked away, drugged with LSD, beaten, brainwashed and starved.
The children were given new names, dressed in matching clothing like a bizarre version of the Von Trapp family, many with their hair bleached to make them look like siblings.
Hamilton-Byrne, who told her indoctrinated followers and children that she was a female reincarnation of Jesus Christ, was raising a master race of children who believed she was their real mother.
For two decades she ruled The Family's two compounds - one in the Dandenong Ranges on Melbourne's outskirts and the other at a remote property on Bolte Bay, Lake Eildon, Victoria.
Hamilton-Byrne was born Evelyn Edwards in 1921, the daughter of a mentally ill mother and itinerant, possibly shell-shocked father.
She became a yoga teacher and tapped into hippie era desires for spiritualism and the occult as an alternative to comparatively staid Christian faith.
She acquired the children either via adoption or compliant cult mothers.
These women were known as "aunties" and obeyed Hamilton-Byrne's orders, such as punishing a child while the cult leader listened down the phone line to the screams from the beating.
LIFE INSIDE 'THE FAMILY'
One aunty was Joy Trevallyn, the birth mother of Ben Shenton who she "gave" to Anne Hamilton-Byrne when he was 18 months old.
Now 45, Mr Shenton has become an anti-cult campaigner and survivor, as well as author of a book about his time in The Family, Life Behind The Wire.
He recently appeared with other cult survivors on the ABC TV show You Can't Ask That, and on SBS TV's Insight program about people who grew up in cults, in isolation, and in the Amish community.
Ben Shenton told news.com.au that the women who gave away their children like his own mother were mostly well-educated professionals such as nurses and doctors, but who were seeking spiritual enlightenment in the 1960s and '70s hippie era.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne targeted vulnerable people who were "divorcees, had marriage breakdowns or who had lost a child".
His mother was vulnerable, but in a different way.
Joy Trevallyn, nee Movitz, had started yoga classes after suffering a major physical setback which virtually confined her to bed with a collapsed third spinal vertebrae.
"Joy was about to have exploratory surgery on her back," Shenton said. "Anne (Hamilton-Byrne) said, 'Don't do it, let me come around and help'."
Shenton's mother had already been given a professional opinion from the respected Mayo Clinic in the United States, which said there was no answer for her spinal condition.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne told Ben Shenton's mother Joy, "I will heal you if you follow me."
"Within weeks, Mum was out of bed," Shenton said. "This was a sign and a wonder. Anne was the real deal and my mother was hooked, absolutely hooked."
Hamilton-Byrne sent Joy Trevallyn to England where she met Peter Shenton, who was part of a religious group connected to The Family.
"They became an item. I was born in 1972," Shenton said. "Peter Shenton, who later changed his name to John Travellyn. was one of the inner members of the cult called The Family.
"My father remained part of it until his death in 2002.
"My mother is still alive and lives in England. She still thinks Anne is wonderful."
Ben Shenton grew up with the name Benjamin Saul Hamilton-Byrne believing Anne was his real mother.
With the other children, Mr Shenton followed a strict vegetarian diet, performed yoga and exercise and believed they would inherit the world when it collapsed - which was soon.
BUILDING A 'MASTER RACE'
Anne Hamilton-Byrne had formed the cult in the 1960s with academic Dr Raynor Johnson, a physicist interested in mysticism and spiritualism.
Charismatic, attractive and manipulative, she lured Johnson into what she first called the Great White Brotherhood and the Santiniketan Park Association.
She told him initiation must be done under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, like LSD and psilocybin or "magic" mushrooms, and that she was Jesus returned to Earth disguised as a woman.
"LSD was being trialled by the Australian Government to fix mental issues and it allowed certain psychiatrists to use it … it was used by some of Anne's cult members who were psychiatrists," Shenton said.
"LSD gave people a spiritual experience (which) Anne tapped into."
Anne attracted educated middle-class mothers whose children and money she convinced them to hand over.
"Anne was providing homes for single mothers. (She was) an angel of light and it appears to be good," Shenton said. "Only over time do you begin to realise the consequences of the ideology, that it strips the family unit.
"As soon as you remove accountability, control goes. Anne … had some major mental issues. She was seeking spiritual power.
"Anne's claim was the Christ spirit was in her. She was an avatar.
"When you create an environment where people reference off you? Absolute power corrupts.
"The hallmarks of a cult is there is a poster person, a leader who is supreme and there are rules in place to punish those who don't … follow them."
Shenton says his mother came from a wealthy Jewish family and like other devotees gave Anne Hamilton-Byrne money.
Hamilton-Byrne bought expensive clothes and wigs, underwent cosmetic surgery, drove luxury cars and told followers to hang a picture of her in a special "worship room" in their homes.
She said starting the group was a "divine order" from God.
Hamilton-Byrne connected up with the Siddha Yoga movement, which has ashrams in India and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, and adopted the name Ma Yoga Shakti.
She took some of The Family's children to New York to meet Siddha Yoga's guru, Swami Muktananda.
A rich Indian posthumously accused of violating his own rules of celibacy by sexually abusing devotees, Muktananda secretly invited the blond children to defect to his Indian ashram.
The children agreed because compared with the misery of being in The Family, "everyone around Muktananda was so happy".
Hamilton-Byrne, however, found out and later punished them for their disloyalty.
'UNSEEN, UNHEARD, UNKNOWN'
Back at the Lake Eildon compound, Hamilton-Byrne continued to wield incredible control over her acolytes.
If neighbours heard children screaming from beatings and called the police, the aunties provided the perfect foil.
Hamilton-Byrne had prepared them, warning them that bad forces were out to get her, stop her divine mission and "want me dead".
Ben Shenton's mother did not live at the Lake Eildon house, but other aunties controlled the children there.
When investigating police officers knocked on the door, the aunties welcomed them in while the children were ordered to shut up and hide.
The cult's motto was "unseen, unheard, unknown".
Shenton remembers how Hamilton-Byrne's taste for punishment, from wherever she was, Britain, Hawaii, New York, could reach from afar back to the children at Lake Eildon.
"She'd ring up and ask to listen to us receiving beltings," he said.
When a child committed some perceived offence, Shenton said "you are going to be dunked in … a bucket filled with water, and … have your head held under that for a period of time … to the point where you are asphyxiated, you're close on blacking out".
But the most important ceremony happened when a child turned 14, and they were formally initiated into The Family.
The LSD was administered by injection or by mouth during a ceremony reinforcing Hamilton-Byrne as Jesus Christ.
The child would then be left in a room alone and kept under the drug's influence sometimes for days until the cult leader was satisfied they worshipped her.
In 1987, one of the older and more argumentative cult children, Sarah, was expelled from the cult and met a private investigator who had been probing The Family's operations.
The 17-year-old was introduced to police officers and on August 14, 1987 they raided the Lake Eildon property and removed the children.
Ben Shenton was 15 when the police arrive. He told ABC that the house was suddenly surrounded by police officers and initially he panicked.
"We hear this running up the steps. Suddenly these police turn up. 'It's OK, it's all right, we're here to rescue you'," Mr Shenton said.
"So, in my mind, these people were removing me and I fought to stay."
But by the time he was being driven away from the compound, he realised he was escaping captivity.
"I remember saying, 'I'm free.'"
However, Mr Shenton would struggle with life on the outside.
After the raid in 1987, Anne Hamilton-Byrne and husband Bill did not return to Australia, but moved between the US and the UK.
A joint operation between British, American and Australian police culminated in their 1993 arrest by the FBI in a village in the Catskills, 160km north of New York.
The pair were brought back to face a charges of conspiracy to defraud and commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets.
"At 15, suddenly mum's not mum. That's a lie," Mr Shenton told You Can't Ask That.
"The police aren't evil - they're actually there to help.
"It's not reincarnation, there isn't a master … everything that I've taken as truth is a lie."
Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband were allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of making a false declaration and were fined $5000 each.
Seven of the aunties were nonetheless convicted and sentenced for having defrauded the federal government.
Shenton's mother, Joy Trevallyn, then aged 56, was convicted of falsely obtaining more than $38,000 between 1979 and 1988.
Having discovered who she was soon after leaving The Family, Mr Shenton tried to connect with her.
"Under the direction of the leader she rang me and said, 'Don't bother turning up on my doorstep, you'll be an embarrassment to me. I'll slam the door in your face,'" Mr Shenton said.
He has, however, since made contact with his mother in England, but as a teenager he was placed with a foster family.
"I really struggled. I was the weirdo. My nickname in high school was 'Psycho' and I was, I couldn't fit in, couldn't connect," Shenton said. "I was weird enough that three boys in my English class made me their project … to normalise me."
Ben Shenton told news.com.au that by age 17 he had to do something, or he was doomed to fail.
"I was a depressed young man. I had considered suicide," he said. "I was involved in some pretty dark stuff. I wouldn't have made it to a 25-year-old."
His life was one of a ready-made outcast, but his foster mother - a former heroin addict and alcoholic - had become a member of the Blacktown Baptist Church.
That church was, as he puts it, one of "accountability, where the type of leader is a servant leader" which served the individuals and families who attended the church
Shenton believes that was more than luck, it was Jesus Christ leading him to the right path.
He has since worked as a lay minister with a Christian fellowship, held down a long term job as a project manager at IBM and became CEO of ideology-busting organisation, Rescue The Family.
He has enjoyed a successful marriage and raised stable, happy children.
Shenton has written a book about his life in The Family, which he hopes will lead to him tutoring others about the danger of cults, and of modern phenomena such as social media.
Sarah Moore, formerly Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, the teenager who led police to The Family compound two decades ago, died in 2016, aged 46.
She had suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.
Sarah did reunite with Hamilton-Byrne in 2009, when the then 87-year-old said people who accused her of mistreating children were "lying b*stards".
Hamilton-Byrne said she had decided against suing her detractors and said if there had been any abuse, she blamed the aunties.
When she dies, Hamilton-Byrne's multimillion-dollar estate is left for her still devoted followers.