After Escaping Australia’s Most Depraved Cult, A Survivor Opened Up About His Horrific Experiences

For the first 15 years of his life, Ben Shenton was part of a cult known as The Family. But despite its seemingly innocuous name, the group is said to have carried out some wicked practices on its members. And now, after finally escaping the sinister community, Shenton has bravely spoken out about the horror that he claims to have endured at its hands.

If you met Shenton now, it would be hard to believe that he was once part of one of Australia’s most insidious cults. The 45-year-old leads a seemingly normal existence, after all. For one thing, he’s a practicing Christian, and he has a reliable job, too. Plus, Shenton shares his life with his wife of 26 years and their two children. And while that doesn’t sound like too much to ask for, things could have turned out very differently for him.

Yes, once you hear what Shenton – and numerous children like him – allegedly endured within The Family, you may be amazed that he leads anything remotely resembling a normal life. The New Age group started out in 1963 and was led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne – a glamorous yoga teacher, whose followers apparently believed that she was Christ reborn. Not only that, but they thought that when Doomsday came, it would fall to their leader to re-educate the population.

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It seems as though Hamilton-Byrne’s unnerving power can be traced back to 1962, when she encountered Dr. Raynor Johnson. A physicist and head of Melbourne University’s Queens College, Raynor apparently began allowing Hamilton-Byrne to hold meetings at his home, during which they would discuss religion and philosophy with attendees. Then once the gatherings became more and more frequent, this newly formed group moved into a property next to Raynor’s house. And so, The Family was born.

In order to build their cult, it’s said that Hamilton-Byrne and Raynor started drafting in members from the nearby Newhaven Hospital in Melbourne. This psychiatric facility, you see, was run by already-existing members of The Family. And disturbingly, it seems as though the duo were able to sign up vulnerable patients, reportedly making use of methods as extreme as shock therapy and hallucinogenic drugs.

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Even more shockingly, Hamilton-Byrne began recruiting children for her new cult next. Targeting single mothers, it’s believed that the yoga teacher convinced these women to pay her to take their offspring, promising that they would inherit the world following the apocalypse. In fact, between the years of 1968 and 1975, The Family reportedly took in 14 minors.

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But this wasn’t the only questionable way in which Hamilton-Byrne allegedly found new members for her group. Reports suggest that the cult leader began “adopting” infants by manipulating social workers, lawyers and even doctors into handing them over illegally. And with the help of such officials, the yoga instructor created false identification documents that made these children look as though they were her biological offspring.

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Meanwhile, other young recruits came in the form of children born to existing members of The Family. But although the minors entered into Hamilton-Byrne’s care through various avenues, they were all given her surname. And as a result, the infants – Shenton included – were led to believe that the glamorous yogi was their real mother.

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Presumably to create the illusion that all of the children were related, The Family instilled a strict dress code, too. Their hair was also dyed a striking shade of blonde and cut into the same distinctive style. And while the minors referred to Hamilton-Byrne as “mother,” other adults in the group were known as “uncles” and “aunties.”

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But despite the appearance of an idyllic community, The Family’s life sounds far from pleasant. Each day ran to a strict schedule, with the children rising from their dormitories at 5:00 a.m. sharp and starting their days with yoga and meditation. Then, they would attend lessons before partaking in yet more yoga and meditation. And after that, the kids would complete homework and go to sleep – ready to do it all again the following day.

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According to reports, children of The Family had very little contact with the rest of society. In fact, Shenton and his “siblings” were confined to the group’s residency: Kai Lama, which was around 150 miles northeast the city of Melbourne on Lake Eildon. And it was here that the members were homeschooled and taught to fear anyone who was outside of the cult.

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Yes, The Family’s guiding principle was “unseen, unheard, unknown.” And they’re three words that Shenton still recalls all too well to this day. In August 2019 the cult victim opened about how the phrase had impacted him and the other children. He told BBC World Service, “You do not tell any outside person who is not a sect member anything… If I had any interaction with them, I would check through what I said to make sure that I hadn’t revealed anything.”

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Clearly, fear of the outside world played an important role in how The Family controlled its members. Harsh and violent punishments, however, were also allegedly used in a bid to keep children in check. And horrifically, it’s believed that some of the group’s preferred methods of discipline included brutal beatings and food deprivation.

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In fact, Shenton claims that he was subjected to some unthinkable forms of abuse. In February 2019 he told News.com.au, for instance, of “water torture, beatings, missing out on meals for days on end” and “fingers being held over candles.” What’s more, he says that cult members were encouraged to tell on others in the group during inquisition sessions.

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Apparently, it was often the “aunties” who carried out these terrible punishments within The Family, since Hamilton-Byrne herself traveled frequently. When the leader was around, however, she would reportedly use her high heels to inflict beatings on the children. Shenton said to BBC World Service of the experience, “Watching it was enough to leave some serious emotional scarring.”

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But abhorrent punishments apparently weren’t the only way in which Hamilton-Byrne exerted control over members of The Family. For example, it’s said that children were administered drugs such as Valium and Mogadon. Adults and teenagers, meanwhile, were compelled to dose up on LSD during ceremonial events known as “clearings.” You see, it was Hamilton-Byrne’s belief that such rituals would increase her followers’ faithfulness to her.

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Believing these appalling reports, it would be fair to say that Shenton’s childhood within The Family was not a happy one. And yet as a boy, he knew no different. Shenton explained to BBC World Service, “When you create a reality for a child, they have no reference points… There was no competing narrative.”

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Seemingly, in fact, the one escape that Shenton had from his nightmarish reality was the library at Kai Lama. In contrast to the rest of their regulated lives, the children were apparently permitted to read books from there freely. And it was through this access to literature that Shenton began to grow suspicions of the scenario in which he found himself. You see, when he started reading about World War II, he determined that he was living in a concentration camp of sorts.

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Yes, some of the restrictions that were reportedly placed upon members of The Family echoed those at the concentration camps about which Shenton was reading. He told News.com.au, “We didn’t leave the compound and had to be secretive [and] weren’t allowed to go anywhere without a chaperone… All these things began to register: this wasn’t what other children went through in life.”

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And Shenton wasn’t the only young member of The Family who was starting to realize that life outside the group wasn’t like theirs. On one occasion, after some of the girls had been allowed to go to a dance lesson, they came back gushing about sleepovers and other childhood fun. Shenton revealed, “We were very aware how different our lives were.”

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In the end, it was one of Shenton’s “siblings” that would blow the whistle on the sinister goings on within The Family. That person was Sarah Moore, who had been taken in by Hamilton-Byrne in 1969. But as she’d grown older, she’d developed a rebellious streak. And after allegedly answering back one too many times, Moore was exiled from the cult in 1987.

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After escaping The Family, Moore came into contact with a private investigator, who had already spent years looking into the cult. And it was then that Moore discovered she’d been adopted and was in fact not Hamilton-Byrne’s biological child as she had believed. Eventually, the teenager agreed to cooperate with police, who finally made their move on Kai Lama in August 1987.

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Shenton, who was 15 at the time of the raid, remembers the morning well. Apparently, the day had begun much like any other within The Family. But as he and his “brothers” and “sisters” were finishing up their yoga class, pandemonium broke loose. Suddenly, police officers charged into the hidden community and gathered the youngsters together.

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In Shenton’s interview with News.com.au, he described the “kaleidoscope of activities and emotions” that came next. First, unsurprisingly, the teen was scared when he saw the police. After all, here were strangers – the very people whom the children had been taught to fear – threatening to take them away into the unknown.

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And so, as the police raid on The Family’s compound unfolded, Shenton stuck to script just as he’d been taught. Later that night, he went over every word that he’d said to the investigators, ensuring that he hadn’t given anything away that could have resulted in punishment from Hamilton-Byrne. But it was apparently then that it dawned on him: he was never going back to the cult leader; his ordeal was over.

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With this revelation, then, it seemingly became clear to Shenton that he no longer had anything to hide. He told BBC World Service, “I think for the first time in my life, I realized I was free.” But while Shenton no longer had to fear retribution from The Family, his troubles were far from over. The real world, as he would find out, has its own challenges.

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After Shenton was removed from The Family’s premises, he faced a number of difficult truths. For one thing, Hamilton-Byrne was not his mother. No, Shenton had actually been born to another member of the group: a woman named Joy, who he didn’t like. He also discovered that he was 15 – a year older than he had previously thought. But perhaps most hard to swallow was the realisation that Hamilton-Byrne was in fact not Christ reincarnated, as the teen had been led to think.

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Given that most of what Shelton had ever believed to be true now seemed a lie, he struggled to find his place in a free society. Explaining his mindset during this confusing time, Shenton told BBC World Service, “I’m trying to work out, ‘Well, this world I’m in, what are its rules? How do I function? What do I do?’”

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Attending a regular school, for example, was a particular challenge for Shenton. Forming bonds with other children wasn’t something that Shenton had done during his time in The Family, after all. In fact, the group had allegedly discouraged friendships by keeping apart youngsters that were becoming close. And so when a group of popular boys tried to befriend Shenton at his new high school, he rejected them.

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Besides, even if Shenton had known how to make friends, what on earth could he have talked to his peers about? Growing up in a cult isn’t exactly a regular topic of conversation for most people, after all. He explained, “Often when you build a friendship with someone, you have common grounds, common interests or common opinions on things… I had none of that.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the year after escaping from The Family was tough for Shenton. Now in a children’s home, he suffered from depression and even experienced suicidal thoughts. And this low point apparently came to a head in 1988, when the teenager was in central Australia on a school trip. Shenton says that a teacher found him crying and offered some poignant words of advice.

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You see, the teacher explained to Shenton that the other kids had had head starts when it came to making friends. And so, the teen needed to have patience when it came to fitting in. According to Shenton, the man had told him, “It’s going to take time. You’re going to have to learn how to relate to them… They’re open to that, but the job’s on you.”

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These words of wisdom seemingly stuck with Shenton. And as a result, he says that he began taking note of how others around him interacted and learning how to socialize. Around the same time, Shenton also moved into a foster home and started attending church. And little by little, the young man began to adjust to the new world in which he now found himself.

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According to Shenton, as he grew older, he developed a relationship with his maternal grandmother, even calling on her every so often. And on one of his visits, he ran into someone else from his past: his mother. It was 2006, and it had been almost 20 years since he’d laid eyes on Joy, who at that point apparently hadn’t wanted to see him. But now, it seems, Shenton’s mom was open to getting to know him.

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Reportedly, in the two decades following the breakdown of The Family, Joy had maintained a relationship with Hamilton-Byrne. And as far as Shenton’s concerned, this explained his mom’s initial reluctance to stay in touch with him. He told BBC World service, “She had given [Hamilton-Byrne] her word not to connect with me.”

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Supposedly, however, as the years had passed, Joy had become more relaxed in her ways. And thanks to his Christian faith, Shenton was open to forgiveness. Plus, he doesn’t believe that his mother’s loyalty to Hamilton-Byrne had any bearing on how she cared about him. He said, “That didn’t mean there was no concern, desire to have a relationship or love.”

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In fact, it was through Shenton’s newfound relationship with Joy that in 2012 he wound up visiting Hamilton-Byrne. By this time, the former cult leader had apparently developed dementia and was being treated in a care facility. And remarkably, she had never served any jail time for her part in The Family; her only debt, it seems, was a fine for falsifying official documents.

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So, Shenton paid a visit to Hamilton-Byrne – the woman who he’d once believed was his mother and the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. At the nursing home, the ex-cult leader was apparently friendly to his mother but didn’t seem to recognize him at all. But Shenton did stumble upon a photograph album, which, incredibly, was filled with snapshots from his time with The Family. And this was the last interaction that the man would have with Hamilton-Byrne: she passed away in June 2019 three years shy of her 100th birthday.

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But while Shenton told BBC World Service that he won’t be “dancing on [Hamilton-Byrne’s] grave,” he did admit to feeling a weight lifted from him following her passing. And as far as he’s concerned, the cult leader held onto her beliefs right up until the day that she died. Shenton said, “Seeing her create a lie, perpetuate a lie and damage people… I knew that she was probably beyond what we call repentance.”

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With Hamilton-Byrne having passed on, you might think that The Family is a closed chapter in the history books. But for survivors like Shenton, the cult will always be a part of their lives. He told BBC World Service, “You try to unpack what happened and why and make sense of it all… I’ve calibrated my life to reality.”

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