Still clutching the watch: how cult 'The Family' got in the way of ours

By Sarah Hall

 Simon at home in Ferny Creek, 15 months old. Image courtesy of Val. 

Simon at home in Ferny Creek, 15 months old. Image courtesy of Val. 

My friend came over and lay down on the hallway floor. There were some bed sheets, conveniently, folded up in a laundry bag beside her head, I lay them bunched underneath her for padding, but she didn’t have a fit.

The next day she had a fit, next door. Our two brains sousing in their hot houses, terraces in Fitzroy with no fans, as I am reading letters written 25 years ago by my deceased cousin Simon to the leader of cult ‘The Family’ which he and my auntie were, for varying periods of their lives, embroiled.

Extract from a letter from Simon to Anne Hamilton-Byrne, 11 November 1992:
In 1983 I mysteriously developed Grand Mal Epilepsy and suffered from regular seizures and endured a great deal of psychological debilitation. I was put on medication to no effect by Dr John Mackay, although John Campbell’s efforts with Reiki were very positive...        

The “no-effect” Dr John Mackay was a member of the Family and one of the psychiatrists who worked at Newhaven psychiatric Hospital in Kew, where he helped its leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, to recruit new cult members. The hospital specialised in the use of LSD, magic mushrooms, deep sleep therapy and electroconvulsive therapy. At least one member of The Family was given a frontal lobotomy at Newhaven.

I am also reading Helen Garner’s book The Spare Room and it is set near my house. Her character, Helen (but the book is ‘fiction’), has just run down to Piedemonte’s to get a rug for her spare room. I’ve just been at Piedemonte’s getting yoghurt! Is there anything in that? Scrambling for sequiturs, dots to join. I am reading Helen Garner because I have collected all of this information about the Family (also the subject of recent book and documentary of the same name) from my auntie Val; letters, newspaper clippings and interviews, that I can’t work out how best to piece together. But maybe this is the wrong Helen Garner book to be reading for pro tips. I should be reading This House of Grief or Joe Cinque’s Consolation.

Dear Anne Hamilton Byrne,

May I introduce myself – my name is Simon, son of Valerie and Stewart. From my Mother’s recollections of the Family I have learned a great deal and probably matured well beyond my years. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for your indirect influence, however this is not the purpose of my letter, I am writing to you on a matter of great personal importance. I seek your help, if possible, to just once meet my father face to face, person to person.

I write to you as a last resort, a final plea for help, at a time when all other avenues of pursuit have been finally exhausted in a long and lengthy struggle.


Please let me explain my circumstances.


I moved in here last month, but this house has been passed on from friends to friends for eight years. The walls are gritty with them. I remember wobbling around this room one night at a party, years ago, in one of its many iterations of lounge room, bedroom, dance floor.

The first time my auntie Val met her, Anne Hamilton- Byrne was teaching a yoga class. Val had previously been a student of the Gita yoga school, under Margrit Segesman – one of the first people to establish a yoga school in Australia. Anne looked down over Val, who was lying in savasana and said, “So you’ve come to look us over now have you? I want to see you after class.”

After class she told her, “I want you to see this psychiatrist”.

 Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Image from CBS News

Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Image from CBS News

“I was given the LSD then I remember having sexual feelings
I was taken back to when I was six years old
I was lying in a depression in the sand, under the banksia trees.
It was Seaford
I could feel the weight on my chest and these sexual feelings
It was dusk.
They used to say that I suffered from an anxiety state and all my life.
I never liked men kissing me.
But I had never been able to acknowledge that I had been sexually assaulted in my childhood
until that initial session with Howard Whittaker.”

Val went back to see Howard a second time and had another profound experience, a kind of spiritual awakening.

“Unless something’s happened to you personally, you can’t explain it to anyone. But I know what happened to me was perfectly real and true.”

It was after those two sessions with the psychiatrist that Anne Hamilton-Byrne swooped in, and “got in the business of manipulating people,” Val tells me.

“Anne knew when people were searching. In the sixties everyone was searching.”

 Val's garden, 2017. Image by Sarah.

Val's garden, 2017. Image by Sarah.

 Inside Val's house, 2017. Image by Sarah.

Inside Val's house, 2017. Image by Sarah.

I am visiting my auntie Val at her Ferny Creek home on a crisp spring day in 2010, the first time we ever talked properly about her life. I am fumbling my way through an interview for a University assignment, in my first years of journalism school. Her two thirds of an acre of garden is sloping, carefully planted out and borders the Mount Dandenong National Park on three sides. We look out over it as she recounts to me her story.

Subliminal control, that’s how she got them. Psychiatric drugs administered to vulnerable people in psych wards, children as well. In one of Val’s many ‘clearings’, after she was initiated into the cult, she was administered “psilocybin, LSD and I can’t remember what else. Then Anne somehow managed to project some kind of an image. I remember feeling burdened on my shoulder, I was carrying a cross, it was heavy. Anne came over and very quietly said to me, I carried that cross. And of course you know what that’s supposed to mean.”

It was through the Family that Val, a natural blonde, met Stewart, whose hair was light brown. There was some kind of friendly connection when their marriage was arranged by Anne.

“On our wedding night, we were booked into a small guest house in the hills and our room had separate beds,” says Val. “You know, there was something very strange about that.”

Gesturing with her hand a pregnant belly, Anne said to Val, “I want to see you out here.”

 Simon aged 19 with friends in Mt Waverly. Image courtesy of Val.

Simon aged 19 with friends in Mt Waverly. Image courtesy of Val.

Friends insisted on giving Val and Stewart a double bed. And thus was Simon. A beautiful baby.

When Simon was about 13 months old he had tonsillitis and had a convulsion – he went blue, and spent two weeks in the children’s hospital. The cause was said to be due to a reaction to the Sabin vaccine.

They went to England when Simon was 17 months old, sent by Anne to see the chief Druid (Dr Maughan, the Queen’s homeopath).

“It was around the time that Simon turned two that I said to Stewart, ‘I’d like to have another baby’. He turned to me and said, ‘No. I have proved my manhood’.”

“It was the cruellest rebuff.”
“Being ‘alternative’ [gay], was illegal at that time, you see,”
Val tells me, “although I was unaware of this then”.

One day Stewart was to drive a friend up to London and turned to Val, ‘after that I won’t be coming back’.
And he didn’t. Except when Anne ordered Stewart to send Val and Simon home from England.

“He had tears in his eyes when he sent us on the plane, but he never sent any money for his son.” Val and Simon scarcely heard from him again.

Back in Melbourne Val showed up at Winbirra, Anne’s house, and had the door slammed in her face, by Anne’s assistant who bellowed at her, “go away and marry a rich man!”

Val had no idea what she’d done wrong.

So Simon grew up without the Family, or a father.

His letter to Anne continues:
… in 1991, we discovered through therapy and my Mother’s recordings of the frequency of these fits, the emotional trigger of this disorder (Epilepsy). Not surprisingly my Father was the emotional cause. It would transpire something like this, I would receive a birthday, Christmas present or some other form of communication and several weeks would pass. During this time… the emotions would stew inside me and would culminate in the epileptic fit, as the only way to dissipate the energy.
Understandably during this time I had great emotional needs that only the meeting of my Father could fulfil, and accordingly we pressed my grandmother to at least divulge the whereabouts of my Father and possibly arrange such a meeting.

Simon and Val had stayed in close contact with Stewart’s parents. They had an amicable relationship until that point. But a letter from Simon to his grandmother or Mardie, which he called her, dated 1st October 1992, begins:

Dear Mardie,
I am writing to you to express the real way in which I feel. I am hurting very deeply, I am emotionally crippled inside, my life is on hold, I cannot achieve, I cannot take the next step. Do you know why? Because our relationship is an absolute farce, it is completely false and artificial. When I speak to you I have to control the real way in which I feel because I am intensely frustrated with the manner in which you have always, without exception, ignored all of my emotional needs. My Father primarily ignored my emotional needs and still does but you had the chance to repair some of the damage, but no, you ignored me also.

 At the time these letters were written, Simon had newly obtained a Bachelor of Arts, and was living with Val in Ferny Creek. He was offered to come back and study Honours in Clinical Psychology. He took the opportunity in this, his gap year, to try to get in contact with his father. And after numerous contact attempts, over a period of years, some meagre responses were yielded for Simon.

An answering machine message from Stewart to Simon dated 9 December 1992 said, “Simon, each time I’ve called I get nothing but this bloody answering machine, I’m not going to call again for days because I’m calling from a mobile phone and it’s even more expensive. There is obviously no crisis and I’m sorry you are bothering people like Laura [Simon had also contacted many of Stewart's peers in an attempt to get in contact with his father], I don’t know what you think you are doing, what do you think you are a mini United Nations? I’ve got nothing more to say at the moment, if you want to write, write…Father.”

When Stewart replied to Simon in writing, he said things like (extracts from letters below):

“Simon isn’t it wonderful all the help you have received, your loving attractive Mother having done so much for you in bringing you up... You have a perfectly understanding grandmother who on my behalf for all of these years paid for your music lessons and your extra tuition lessons to make you such a success.”

“Everything has been done for you.”

“Millions of children worldwide through wars and so on have never known their father but it is not like you; you have a father who is very happy with Cecille and who is very happy proud that you are his son.”

“Cecille and I both know you are circulating letters about me as we have read copies of two up to date, God knows what your step sisters will think of you if they ever found them or were forwarded on to them.”

He emphasised that now would not be the best time to visit as he and ‘Cecille’ were expecting another baby. Val suspects, and with good reason, that Cecille and the twins were a complete fabrication, made up to conceal Stewart’s homosexual identity. Mysteriously, no visitors of Stewart’s ever met his alleged family, even his own parents and his brother who travelled to Europe and the UK to do so. Stewart only ever arranged to meet them at a hotel or somewhere – alone.

 Val looking at an image of herself in her young 20s. Photo by Sarah Hall.

Val looking at an image of herself in her young 20s. Photo by Sarah Hall.

“What is it you really want from me.
             What is it you really want from life?
                                                                      love Father”

Around this same time Val received a phone call from Anne, who was living with her husband Bill in the Catskill Mountains, New York, asking after Simon.

“Are you still in the same house?”
                                          “Are you still blonde?”
                                                                    “Are you still beautiful?”

Then on 18 July, 1993, aged 22 and 3 months, Simon slumped off the chair in the sunroom, and died.

In that same year, 1993, Anne Hamilton-Byrne was arrested by the FBI for child abuse allegations and was extradited back to Melbourne.

I had just turned three.

Watching The Family documentary it became clear to me that many members joined the cult because they didn’t have strong support networks in their lives. And in an email thread discussing the documentary with my Dad, Val’s cousin, he says, “I can’t help but think that Val’s been let down by our family too.”

 When Simon passed, Val received this letter from Anne (abbreviated):

My Dear Val,

As a mother myself I know your grief losing physical touch with your very beloved son Simon – Simon is taking me by the light he is touched with at this moment in our time as we know it. Simon tells me to let you know he can see you – His Spiritual (guide) is your own father, Val, who was there as he came into the light of the new and wondrous world of glory he has always known – He always knew.
He is wanting to take you in his arms – Remember him as he is not as you think he was.
Simon’s grandfather said this is the real world of pure Spirit – Death is a truly Beautiful Doorway.

Your son tells me how very brave you are Val and don’t let go please of yourself – take this as a time to investigate and praise things for your own growth. Mother - please don’t mourn please don’t grieve I am with you and unless you let me go I cannot come back, my grandfather has my arm and is keeping me awake.

Please do not grieve me – Love to my dad, tell him the family all love him I wish he knew me as I now know him – He is a good man mother Stewart does love me and I love him and thank for being part of giving me life on Earth.

Thank you for taking such care of me –
Power diminishing.
Yes.
Love you mother of mine
I love you I am with you –
Simon

A month ago, Val and I sat at the table where Simon passed away, ate biscuits and drank tea, while she described to me the moment. He had been out late at a party the night before, and up early to the Camberwell markets looking for a watch, he was a collector of watches, and on this occasion had found a nice one. He was sitting at the table polishing it.

Val was upstairs finishing a book he was waiting to read.

My whole life I had grown up believing that Simon had died after hitting his head during an epileptic fit in the bathroom. But really – he just died, suddenly, still clutching the watch.

“If it’s epilepsy you know, there’s crashing and banging. But there was complete silence. He must have just slumped off the chair and landed down there, his head was only slightly bruised where it hit the window’s ridge. He was lying in a ray of sunshine through the window. He just died, very peacefully, very silently, with his cat Kim beside him.”

In the autopsy they couldn’t work out what had caused his death, they ruled out an epileptic seizure. They put his death down to Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (which has a very germane acronym- SADS). Peculiarly, two other young men died of SADS in the same area that week.

After Simon died, Val received a call from Stewart saying he was shocked, saying he wished Simon would have visited. He didn’t come home for his son’s funeral, or ever call Val again.

~


It is 2010, and my auntie Val and I are standing by Simon’s grave, in the bottom of her garden. She is graceful at 80 (and still now at 87), slender legs, a bush walker, purple bracelets and perfectly pencilled eyebrows. She has strawberry blonde hair, and is wearing sneakers. She is beautiful, there’s something eternal about her spirit. She is quick witted, eloquently spoken. She has perfect recollection.

We had sat and eaten crystallised ginger from a jar labelled with her finest cursive while rosellas pecked at the hand railings, “Oh shoo! Get out of here!”. They had practically demolished it.

“When you’ve got negativity, if you go out into the garden … within minutes, you feel fine. I always say this garden will either kill or cure. So far it’s done a bit of each - I have scars to prove it.”

Val is looking at Simon’s grave and I am looking at her, trying to reconcile everything we have talked about with her composure, her smile. She has told me about her life, what it’s been like to be involved in a cult for a decade, to have an estranged runaway husband, from an arranged marriage she didn’t want in the first place, to have raised a beautiful son on her own, and to have him to die. I see Val maybe once a year, at family functions and now it dawns on me that I am one of her closest living relatives. As I naively and clumsily interviewed her all those years ago, in my first years of journalism school, I had just begun to understand.

“Do you feel Simon’s presence?” I asked.

“I have on occasions, though not like a lot of people can. Once I was standing down by his ashes with the cat and he was there then. I remember thinking - now there are three of us.”

“Do you talk to him?"

                                                 “Yes sometimes I do, yes.”

“Do you think about him often?”

 

                                                                                        “He’s in every room.”

 

This is an edited extract from a longer work in progress.