ReadingRoom is devoting all week to the best-selling book in New Zealand right now, In The Clearing, the brilliant new thriller by Ngāpuhi author JP Pomare, inspired by creepy Australian cult The Family. Today: the author backgrounds his interest in the story.

A few years ago I become obsessed with a woman. At the time she was in her mid-nineties, rendered incapacitated by dementia, but in another life she founded a famous Australian cult, The Family. She was perhaps the most famous female cult leader in history, and certainly one of the most successful (success, in this case, measured by influence, power, progress toward an ultimate goal). I’d become acquainted with the story of The Family years earlier. Like many others, I’d seen those haunting, children-of-the-corn family portraits and with a mixture of anger and intrigue, wondering what sort of psychopath would do this?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne was described by her followers as sort of demigod who could control minds and tell the future. She moved through the world with an undeniable aura that rendered subjects powerless to her commands. Others speak about her beauty and her presence, and use other equally vague terms to justify why they carried out such heinous actions under her charm. “In ancient times we hear about enchantresses who could enslave people with one glance,” said one follower. Once caught, few escaped her web. The family employed a range of tactics to keep members from defecting. Think of Scientology, but with yoga and enormous volumes of LSD.

Hamilton-Byrne also drove around in Jaguars and wore the finest clothes. She allegedly wore wigs and had cosmetic surgery in an attempt to stave off the inevitability of aging and thus illustrate to her devout followers that she may be mortal after all. When a police sting operation brought The Family down, she was tipped off and fled to New York, where she had a number of contacts. Eventually she was arrested, extradited back to Australia and magically got away with a small fine and time served.

The children of The Family were often handed over by members of the cult or “acquired” by other means (falsified adoption records, snatched away from birthing units) to be raised at a bush retreat by “Aunties” – women charged with carrying out Hamilton-Byrne’s brutal agenda. As the children grew older, they were overdosed on LSD and experienced sustained periods of physical and psychological abuse.

Existence in this setting required absolute uniformity to the Eurocentric ideals of Hamilton-Byrne, enduring peroxide treatments of their bob cut hair, their bodies routinely scrutinized so they remained thin, malnourished and largely underdeveloped. When the children were liberated it was almost impossible to determine their respective ages – children suspected of being teenagers had scarcely developed past the age of seven or eight.

The property where the children were kept was tucked away in the bush but close enough to roads so that occasionally they might hear a loud car or a truck in the distance. The locations where The Family were active were all within a radius of a ninety-minute drive from Melbourne. I headed out there one day and quickly realised the cult was barely removed from the rest of civilisation. It was possible for hikers to stumble upon them, or neighbours to hear screaming and shouting. Not only that, I realised the members often lived in elite suburbs and moved in upper-middle class circles.

It’s easy to look at The Family and wonder, how do secretive cults interact with the outside world and how do they go by without attracting the wrong kind of attention? Hamilton-Byrne acquired loyal followers in many branches of government and recruited influential leaders in the medical world in Australia and abroad. She accumulated millions if not tens of millions in cash and property donations from her followers and was one of the most powerful women in the country by the mid-1970s.

Then came questions about how life changes when members leave a cult, particularly those who grew up with almost no interaction with the outside world. The children had varying degrees of success adjusting to society outside and, sadly, many have had issues with drugs, commitment and maintaining relationships. Some committed suicide young – a cruel development given the fact Hamilton-Byrne died in 2019 at the age of 98. Some of the children went on to have relatively normal lives and modestly successful careers but always carried the trauma of their youth.

When writing In The Clearing I continually found myself returning to the same questions. Why did these people follow Anne Hamilton-Byrne? Why didn’t anyone stop to help the children? What happened to all the money? What was the ultimate motivation of the cult and Hamilton-Byrne? The book The Family by journalists Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones was a fantastic resource when writing, it helped to answer many questions but not these. Now I fear most of the answers died when she did, so like any writer I tried to invent some plausible ones myself.

In the Clearing by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.99)

JP Pomare (Ngāpuhi) grew up on a horse racing farm near Rotorua, and now lives in Melbourne. He is the author of two thrillers, the widely acclaimed Call Me Evie (2019), and In The Clearing.

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