Bert Potter, held aloft by his followers at Centrepoint: "I wanted to be in on the cult," writes Luke Elworthy, "to be loved." Photo supplied by TVNZ

The author who survived Centrepoint and Christ’s College

In the summer of 1975, I rowed out in a small dinghy with my dad at Waikanae beach, north of Wellington. I thought his idea was to lay a setline for snapper and rig and whatever else we could snag, even though Dad rarely bothered with the dinghy, instead taking the line out through the surf on a lilo, or swimming out, before dropping its weighted end to the sandy bottom.

There was no setline that day, and the reason for the dinghy, Dad explained when we were beyond the break, was he wanted to talk to me about something. Talking would not have been easy with both of us clinging to the lilo, but I only thought that afterwards.

Writing this now it occurs to me that I’ve been talking a lot about my dad in the last few weeks – a heap of stories about the debonair and clever and sometimes diffident dude, too fancy in his way for the farm he grew up on – and hardly any stories about my mum, who made the craziest true stories, starred in them, spat and polished them, and seemed to love it when I stole them. But I’ve not been telling Mum’s stories so much lately. I’m trying to understand why that is.

But back to the boat. Dad said that the new school year would be starting in a few weeks, that he and Mum had talked and would I like to go to boarding school in Christchurch? I burst into tears. This was a crazy idea, entirely unexpected from parents who seemed to regret their own boarding school experiences, so I was startled and scared and I couldn’t understand why he was suggesting it. All that confusion explained some of the tears, but maybe I also cried because I felt pretty special.

“What about my sisters? Will they go to boarding school?”

“They’re going to live with your mother.” Dad probably gave me a squeeze on the shoulder. A full-on proper hug might have upset the dinghy – but also, although we were close, and still are, Dad and I weren’t and aren’t big huggers.

I don’t remember more of our conversation that day, but in the days and weeks that followed, my parents said that my sisters, for reasons my parents did not really explain, would be better able than me to cope with the “disruption” of life with my mother, after her earlier separation from Dad when he fell in love with someone else. They weren’t wrong about Mum and the disruption, and while I did end up going off to boarding school, over the next 18 months the girls lived with Mum in Nelson, moved back to Wellington with Dad, then to Auckland with Mum again, to a bungalow in Mt Eden before a big communal living place in Epsom’s Gillies Ave. Then, around 1977, Mum and the girls became “foundation” members at the newly established Centrepoint Community Growth Trust, on beautiful bushy land in rural Albany. I don’t think the girls were ever asked if they wanted to live at Centrepoint, it wasn’t like they chose it; it just happened.

Luke Eworthy, aged 18, with his sisters and step-siblings in Birkenhead in Auckland in 1982, the year his mother and sisters left the Centrepoint community

But when I first heard about half the family’s move to Centrepoint, there was really no reason to think it much more consequential than Mum’s previous shifts and, in one of the school holidays in 1977 I too went there for the first time, after spending the first half of the holidays in Dad’s house in Auckland, with my step-mother and two step-siblings. My Centrepoint sisters split their holidays the same way, mostly, and that was the pattern for me for the next four years. I left school at the end of 1980, going to Auckland University and continuing to visit Centrepoint off and on until the older of my two sisters left around mid 1982, on an American field scholarship. When Mum left unexpectedly around the same time, my younger sister remained at Centrepoint for a further six months to finish intermediate school. So, she stayed there on her own, aged twelve. That this extraordinary situation apparently seemed ordinary at the time is difficult to understand now, as with much about Centrepoint and our time there.

Life in a nuclear family hadn’t worked for Mum, just as it hadn’t for lots of families who ended up at the community. The ones who made it there felt lucky. In some ways they were. There were freedoms, real ones: for kids to run around and play and be wild, for adults to be open about their emotions and desires, to discover more about themselves, to learn to cope with situations and anxieties often beyond them “outside”, and to experiment sexually. Was all of New Zealand messed up about sex in the 1970s? Bert Potter certainly thought so, and some of the solutions he proposed to problems around sex and sexuality – the serious, somehow abstract and academic-sounding ones – seemed convincing to me. Ultimately, however, Potter had worse answers than the ones the faltering nuclear families there already knew. There were plenty of sexual hang-ups in life outside; as in the community, there were real problems to solve, but that, as we’ve learned since, wasn’t the end of Potter’s “solutions”.

But I spent my time wondering about more prosaic stuff, worrying how to fit in and worrying even more that I wasn’t: my extreme reluctance to take a shit in the open air, no-door toilets, my preference for sleeping in Mum’s converted car-case shack over the communal sleeping house, the fact I often hid when the bell announcing the start of Saturday’s “spiritual” meeting sounded, too frightened by the inevitable exchanges of emotional “feedback” required there, exchanges that usually ended with some in-your-face primal screaming. You needed to embrace everything, suck the full experience up to the max, and when you didn’t you felt you’d failed. I felt I’d failed Mum too.

Finally, of course, it was the adults who failed the children, as adults so often tend to do. My sisters were let down, and put at risk, and each of them has dealt with those experiences in their own way. The older sister has spoken about her experiences at Centrepoint in a recent documentary, and other accounts of Centrepoint survivors have come out over the years, until much about the climate of sexual and drug abuse there is pretty well-known.

I lost my virginity at Centrepoint aged fifteen, to someone a year younger than me. Older women propositioned me a few times – “do you want to go off with me?” – I always ran away. Their behaviour was predatory, it seems to me now, and declining their offers made me feel awkward and confused. Sometimes I did want to go off with them, but looking back I’m so glad I didn’t. Nothing about it felt right, but it didn’t amount to abuse.

Nor did I suffer sexual abuse at the cult that was boarding school. But there were beatings, and there was cruelty. The sick-scared feeling of sitting at evening prayers, the 6th formers behind us gently kicking the backs of our wooden bench seats, before bending forward to whisper in our 3rd form ears: “Study 10, afterwards.” There must have been beatings when we got there – punishment for infractions likely so ridiculous I can’t remember them – beatings sometimes carried out, strangely, with a slide rule. But it’s the anxiety and fear of what might come that sticks with me. Similarly, when my year-group mates would decide it was my turn to be taken down a peg, and the taunting would begin. The actual jibes seem trivial now – pokes about how you wore your trousers, a stammer or the shape of your nose – and more often I was taunting not taunted. It was pernicious, you protect yourself from cruelty by being cruel, you become a kind of sociopath.

Some truly suffered. A brother of a good friend testified recently to the royal commission into institutional abuse about his rape at the school in the 1970s; a few years ago, I learned that another friend was lured into an unwanted sexual encounter with a boarding house tutor, a non-teaching employee whose responsibilities to the boys included delivering pastoral care. There was bravery and resistance, but years later there are former pupils still in my acquaintance who’ll say: “But it was just what happened, we got over it.” We did, often, but it’s still so messed up. Centrepoint and Christ’s College. Establishing some sort of equivalence between the two institutions is at once too facile, kind of glib, yet also bang-on: the devotion of the followers to the cult leader/headmaster and the belief systems they impose – the power and influence wielded by the elites that surround and support the leader, the way the coercion and control and bullying employed by the leadership – enforcers/prefects – filters down through all the layers of the hierarchy.

At Centrepoint Mum started on the top layer. But she was unstable and bipolar and struggling, and eventually she became a target. Still, she remained defiant, and brave, and for the most part fiercely protective of her daughters. She questioned Potter, challenged him, made sure she was a pain in his arse. She was the ONLY person I ever heard stand up to him, and she was hated for it. I hated her for it. Because I wanted to be in on the cult, to be loved, to feel I belonged there and not to her. She was beaten up once. I never saw it, only found out about it last year. I really wonder what I’d have done if I’d been there. I was angry with her too, but now I hope that I’d be enraged with her attackers, and that my truest, bravest self would emerge and I’d avenge her…hmm.

I still hold a decent hatred for some of the bullies there. Potter had a special gang of acolytes around him, and most of them were total cunts. I wanted to smash them. Rather I wanted to want to smash them. Potter I didn’t want to smash so much as imagine getting him in a slow throttle, to squeeze that smug look out of his face, and choke out the secret thing you always felt he knew about you. I was thinking about this and some of the characters I’ve written in my fiction, who sometimes fantasise about committing acts of violence. On my book tour this week I had a verbal fight with a writer friend, bi-polar like my mum, travelling with me. He was in a lot of physical pain, exhausted after a seven-hour drive and I had needlessly pressured him to accompany me to a local live music pub for dinner when he wanted to go to bed. Eventually he snapped, then yelled at me, and I screamed back at him. I felt pop-eyed and explosive. If I turned the scene into fiction, I would say I wanted to punch him, and make it really hurt. This desire for violence not executed – a non-violence, really – comes out of me in fiction, through a character, in a way that feels almost like I’m being violent. As with my failure to tell stories about my mother, that’s something I need to understand better. There are plenty of stories about a woman a bit like my mother in my novel, so perhaps I can claim to be starting to “do the work”, but there is more I need to understand about my anger.

As a baby with his parents in India, 1963

Centrepoint is no more, and private boarding schools like mine have doubtless changed. Friends whose children have gone are overwhelmingly positive about the experience, for them and their kids. They’re also heavily invested. Just as I was. I still say it was a pretty good time overall, but even today I’m still invested.

I’m for public education and, broadly, I’m not for communal living situations. We did consider boarding school for our kids. Perhaps surprisingly, we made earnest attempts to encourage each of our children to try it out, just as Dad did successfully that day with me in the dinghy off Waikanae. I’m glad now that our kids firmly declined the opportunity. I think kids are best staying with their parents at home. Communes and boarding schools: the people who end up with the power in these places always seem to be the ones you’d least want wielding it.

The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem by Luke Elworthy (The Wairau Diversion, $35) has made the best-seller charts these past three weeks, and is one of the best novels of 2022.

Luke Elworthy started working in book publishing in 1988, and his first novel, The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem, was published in August 2022. With four others, he' a trustee of the Godfrey Cheathem...

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