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Disney+ releases series on Victorian cult, based on In the Clearing

A Melbourne-based author will see his award-winning novel inspired by the true story of The Family, the infamous Australian cult led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, come to life on screen.

JP Pomare’s 2019 best seller, In the Clearing, will be the first scripted Australian original series for streaming giant Disney+.

Starring Teresa Palmer (Discovery of Witches), Miranda Otto (The Unusual Suspects, Homeland) and Guy Pearce (Jack Irish, Mare of Easttown), the “barely fictionalised” storyline of The Clearing is a local production filmed in regional Victoria.

Director Jeffrey Walker knows he has got a winner on his hands.

“The atmosphere and mood of this piece is so unique, I truly hope that it captivates, enthrals and thrills the audience,” he said.

What was The Family?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who convinced people she was Jesus Christ reincarnated, led a doomsday sect with husband Bill Hamilton-Byrne on a property at Lake Eildon from 1963 to 1987.

They accumulated young children through adoption scams, then drugged them with LSD and beat and brutalised them.

The cult finally was exposed after prolonged investigations by police and the media. Images of children with bleached blonde bowl cuts emerged and the full extent of their doomsday cult came to light.

Otto plays Hamilton-Byrne, who died of dementia in 2019.

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Hamilton-Byrne adopted children illegally and raised them as her own throughout the 70s and 80s. Photo: Twitter

Former detective Lex de Man spent six years investigating the cult, and told the ABC that Hamilton-Byrne was the epitome of evil.

“Normally when you hear of a death there’s a period of sorrow, I couldn’t be further from that today,” Mr de Man said at the time.

“Today, to me, is a good day because one of Victoria’s most evil persons no longer breathes the same air that I’m breathing or, more so, the same air that many of her survivors are now breathing.”

Mr de Man recalled the terrible situation at the cult’s property seemed unbelievable to some.

“It’s not some bizarre American cult, this is a Melbourne-based cult.

“What it boils down to is it’s about money and, I believe, money and power for Anne,” he said.

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Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s followers are now grown up with their own children. Photo: Twitter

‘Twisty, disturbing thriller’

Disney+ describes the eight-part series as “an emotional and psychological thriller that follows the nightmares of a cult and a woman who’s forced to face the demons from her past in order to stop the kidnapping and coercion of innocent children in the future”.

“The series burrows under the skin and inside the mind, blurring the lines between past and present, reality and nightmare, in a truly unnerving way,” it wrote.

Pomare, who grew up on a horse-racing farm near Rotarua in New Zealand, wrote about his sixth novel, and second thriller in a 2020 piece for newsroom.co.nz. He said he became obsessed with Hamilton-Byrne.

“She was perhaps the most famous female cult leader in history, and certainly one of the most successful … 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?” he wrote.

“The family employed a range of tactics to keep members from defecting. Think of Scientology, but with yoga and enormous volumes of LSD.

“As the children grew older, they … experienced sustained periods of physical and psychological abuse.”

Hamilton-Byrne, who had contacts in the medical world and in government circles, managed to bring in huge donations from followers.

Pomare said the result of a police sting operation that brought The Family down – how she fled to New York and was eventually extradited back to Australia – was that she “magically got away with a small fine and time served”.

“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?

“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.”

Book review website, pilebythebed.com , said Pomare uses a “barely fictionalised version of The Family as the basis of this twisty, disturbing thriller”.

“When writing In The Clearing, I continually found myself returning to the same questions: Why did these people follow Anne Hamilton-Byrne?” Pomare said.

“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?”

He said he referred to the book, The Family,  by journalists Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones when writing, which helped to answer many questions except the ones he was asking.

“I fear most of the answers died when she did, so like any writer I tried to invent some plausible ones myself.”

Star original series, The Clearing, debuts with a two episode premiere on May 24 on Disney+.

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