It’s been over 30 years since the Australian New Age cult known simply as The Family made headlines when their compound was raided. Dozens of children were tortured, drugged, and brainwashed by their parents at the command of one domineering woman who convinced them she was a vessel for Christ — Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
One man can’t forget the beatings. He tasted freedom at the age of 15, yet the memories of his childhood in the grips of the Doomsday cult prevented him from swallowing reality for decades. So, in his attempts to find closure with the dark days of the past, he confronted the woman who he was forced to believe was his mother…
On Friday, August 14, 1987, Ben Shenton and 14 other kids he believed were his siblings were blindsided when police busted into their isolated home in Lake Eildon, Australia. They’d been warned that this day would come.
At 15 years old, Ben and the other children were carted off to St. John Home for Boys and Girls. Soon, they learned every part of their lives were a total fabrication. They were victims of a New Age cult founded by the woman they called Mother.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne was a yoga instructor and, more importantly, a master manipulator. With the help of parapsychologist Raynor Johnson, she lured her clients, many of whom were medical professionals, into believing she was Jesus Christ come again.
Calling themselves The Family, they looked for vulnerable people to recruit to the cause. The manager of Newhaven Hospital and the majority of the attending psychiatrists were Family members, who pumped patients with drugs and spread the good word of their leader, Anne.
Single mothers from well-off families, including Ben’s biological mother Joy Travellyn, were a popular target for Anne, who looked to grow The Family with adopted children. Parents handed over their kids to their new Mother, assuming the roles of aunties and uncles. Effectively, they were abusers.
Couped up in isolation on The Family’s property christened Kai Lama, the children’s hair was bleached and cut into matching bowl cuts so they’d resemble one another. Haircuts were just the beginning of how Anne psychologically broke them down.
Sydney Morning Herald
Drugging was a tool Anne relied on heavily, from the oldest Family members to babies. The youngsters were pumped full of Valium and Mogadon. When they were deemed old enough, they started the kids on heavy doses of debilitating drug-laced cocktails.
The New Daily
Once they reached adolescence, they joined the rest of The Family for rituals called clearings. Anne led weekly meetings where her hundreds of followers would take LSD and listen to her hammer home the details of how, as a God on earth, she was building a master race.
For any misstep, or really for no reason at all, the children of The Family suffered constant physical abuse. From holding their hands over the flame of a candle to Anne’s habit of striking them with the heels of stilettos, daily existence for the kids was grim.
Of all their teachings, a combination of Christianity and Hinduism with mystical diversions, the most important rule of was you keep your mouth shut. Ben remembered, “It was very much a thing of: you do not tell any outside person who is not a sect member anything.”
Sunshine Coast Daily
So when Ben and the other children of The Family were taken from the compound, they were defiant. Ben was reluctant to accept that everything he believed was a lie. “When you create a reality for a child, they have no reference points,” he said.
Slowly Ben started to digest the truth, on top of his getting freshly plucked from the grips of a cult, he had to endure the difficulty of high school. It took years for him to feel semi adjusted, years filled with depression, loneliness, and mistrust.
Eventually Ben left the other children from The Family, requesting to enter foster care instead. In their cult bubble, they were discouraged from forming friendships, and the ones that did were quickly separated, so he had no qualms saying goodbye.
In his recovery, Ben connected with his biological grandmother. Through her, he received updates on his estranged mother, Joy. She was still deeply involved with The Family, who remained active after the children were removed, devoted to the leader who hardly faced consequences.
After police raided Kai Lama, Anne scurried off to the United States to evade criminal charges. No time served, the only consequence for the lifetime’s worth of trauma she inflicted was a $5,000 fine for falsifying three birth certificates.
Solace for Ben came through time and religion. He even found it in his heart to forgive his mother, who promised Anne she’d refuse any contact from her son. Over time, Joy softened in her beliefs and started visiting with Ben in 2006.
Six years later, Ben had adjusted to spending time with his mom as an active cult member. Still, Joy’s request that they go visit Anne together caught him off guard. Walking into the nursing home and seeing the aged woman who denied all the pain she caused wasn’t easy.
Nevertheless, he walked into her room and saw a frail old woman who didn’t remember him at all. Anne’s dementia had progressed so that Ben was wiped clean from her memory, though she still recognized Joy. Ben left the facility feeling like closure would never come.
Rescue The Family
“Seeing her create a lie, perpetuate a lie and damage people…I knew that she was probably beyond what we call repentance,” Ben said of Anne’s opportunity for forgiveness. What relief looked like, he wasn’t sure, but he needn’t wait long.
At 97 years of age, Anne Hamilton-Byrne died. She left behind a still-active group of followers that vehemently believe in her divinity. In the years since she lost her compound of children, she held tight to her innocence and vocally confirmed her lack of remorse.
Today, if you met Ben, you’d never guess that he grew up in Australia’s most notorious cult. He’s been married for 22 years, is the father of two adult children, and works for the tech company IBM.
Ben wrote a book about his experiences called, Life Behind The Wire, and launched a website Rescue the Family which provides incite and information on what it was like as a member of Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s toxic sect.
Stanthorpe Border Post
Understanding what drove people to The Family isn’t a priority for Ben. “You try to unpack what happened … sense of it all. I’ve calibrated my life to reality.” That reality is a cult member looks like anyone: a friend, neighbor, or even your daughter.
Beachfront homes and the excitement of Los Angeles was the childhood backdrop for young Lynette Fromme. The daughter of an aeronautical engineer, she grew up enjoying the Santa Monica sun. But in the blink of an eye that would all change.
San Francisco Gate
Before Manson made her famous, she had other ambitions. Her school nights were spent perfecting routines with her traveling dance team, the Westchester Lariats. They had grander ambitions than your average community ballet class.
With her team, Lynette glided her way on to television screens for the first time, appearing on the Lawrence Welk Show. Once, they even received an invitation to perform at the White House!
Welk Musical Family
But, somewhere along the way, Lynette leaned away from traditional pursuits. The Fromme family points to their move to Redondo Beach, California, when she was 14 years old. That’s when they noticed her behavior changing.
In her new town, Lynette’s abrupt shift concerned her parents. They spouted the common line, that Lynette took up with “wrong crowd.” Drinking and drugs became routine. By her first year of college, they’d kicked her out of the home.
Lynette, homeless, head brimming with her family’s criticism, sat on the beach to mull things over. Enter at stage right a wild-eyed, stringy-haired man who sat on the sand beside her and listened to her troubles — Charles Manson.
From that first interaction, Lynette was starry-eyed for Manson. He told her to forget about normal structured life: “don’t want and you’re free,” he said. “The want ties you up. Be where you are, you got to start someplace.” These nonsensical encouragements struck a cord. Lynette joined the Manson Family.
Following their ex-con leader, Lynette joined the ranks of Manson’s other devotees, Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner. She was one of the many young women with middle-class roots to fall into the web of hallucinogenic drugs, theft, and eventually murder.
In 1968, the large band of Manson Family members found a new home base at the Spahn Movie Ranch. Foregoing rent payments, the cult compensated the 80-year-old landlord, George Spahn, via sexual arrangements with his pick of any of Manson’s many “wives.”
It was Spahn who christened Lynette with her new name, Squeaky, after the sound she made when he unexpectedly pinched her thighs. Later in life, she remembered fondly her contribution as unofficial wife to the ranch’s owner, all to benefit the family.
But like most cults, the honeymoon stage didn’t last. In 1969, Manson was arrested for the Tate Labianca murders. This time, Lynette wasn’t connected to the crimes. She was free to stand guard outside the courthouse during the trial and support her homicidal leader.
The most devoted of the Manson Family wore their loyalty literally on their foreheads. Carving a small X into the skin, similar to the hateful Nazi swastika that Charles Manson revered, showed their symbolic allegiance to the murderer.
Many Manson Family members took Charles’ incarceration as a lucky pass back into society. Lynette was one of the few still that remained loyal. After his death sentence, which was overturned to a life sentence after California nixed capital punishment, Manson was transferred to Folsom Prison.
When Manson moved, so did the family. Squeaky and Sandra Good moved to Sacramento to be closer to Charles. During this period, Squeaky penned an early draft of a memoir detailing her life as a member of the Manson Family.
Taken from a draft of the unpublished memoir, she described her teenage longing to “[shed] all the guilt feelings…to find something exciting and do something that felt good…I didn’t, I wouldn’t, adjust to society and the reality of things…I’ve made my own world…It may sound like an Alice in Wonderland world, but it makes sense.”
After listening to the advice of another convicted Mason Family murderer, Steve “Clem” Grogan, Lynette agreed her memoir was potentially incriminating. So, she shelved it, for a few decades at least. Besides, she had other things on her mind…
By the skin of her teeth, Squeaky avoided a murder conviction in Sonoma County, California, with other Manson affiliates. You see, the bodies of James and Lauren Willett were found on the premises of a group of Manson Family and Aryan Brothers members.
Never wavering, Squeaky insisted she was innocent. In what the group called a tragic misfire due to a Russian roulette style game, they claimed no responsibility. All the others connected to the deaths were convicted, but it wasn’t Squeaky’s time.
Police accepted her alibi that at the time of the murders she’d been on the road, traveling to visit Manson in prison. They let her go reluctantly after 2-and-a-half months in county jail. She fled back to Sacramento, right into the arms of Manson Family member Sandra Good.
Distance and iron bars only strengthened their faith in Manson. One major sign of their increased retreat from the rational world was when they changed their names. Red, for Squeaky’s beloved California Redwood trees, and Blue, for Sandra’s connection the ocean.
Flipping through channels one afternoon, Squeaky stopped on a news program. Her ears perked up at the mention of the California state capitol. President Gerald Ford would be speaking there, and at that moment, all the newly christened Red saw… was red.
At the time, President Ford requested Congress rollback provisions of the Clean Air Act, which was unpopular among environmentalists and hippies like Squeaky. The news listed the date, September 5th, 1975, and conveniently, the state capitol grounds were just a short ride down the road.
Cloaked in her trademark red hood with a red dress to match, Squeaky arrived in the crowd gathered outside on the 5th of September. Concealed on her left leg was an antique .45 caliber Colt pistol left leg.
The red-caped Squeaky pushed through the onlookers until she found herself face to face with the man himself. Seconds ticked by and without emotion, she pulled the gun from her leg holster and pointed it right at Gerald Ford’s stomach.
Reports can’t confirm it, but witnesses claim to have heard the faint click of a finger pulling a trigger. What they were certain of was Squeaky’s confused muttering of “it didn’t go off” as Secret Service agents threw her to the ground.
After years of lurking on the fringes of awful crimes, Squeaky was marched off in handcuffs. Immediate inspection of her weapon showed the gun was loaded with 4 rounds, but no bullet was in the chamber. Manson’s most loyal follower had botched her plan from the outset.
For Ford, the attempt on his life didn’t have a visible effect. Most people confronted with def might be a tad rattled, but not Jerry. He continued on with the meeting, remarking after, “I thought I’d better get on with my day’s schedule.”
The justice system jumped into action, holding the trial less than two months after Squeaky’s attempted assassination of a U.S. President. Ford himself submitted a videotaped witness testimony, marking the only time in history where a sitting U.S. president testified in a criminal trial.
Prosecutors made quick business of convincing a jury. She was caught red-handed and her courtroom etiquette didn’t help her case; at one point she angrily threw an apple at attorney Dwayne Keyes.
Squeaky refused to cooperate at every level. She wouldn’t walk, so U.S. Marshalls were forced to carry her into the courtroom each day. This behavior just fueled the flames, and her guilty verdict was delivered on November 19th, 1975.
Handed a sentence of life in prison, you’d think that would close the book on Squeaky’s criminal plots. But in 1987 she managed to escape, attempting to visit Manson after his testicular cancer diagnosis. She was captured after 2 days on the run.
Tons of Facts
The stunt resulted in added time to her sentence; somehow she maintained eligibility for parole. So, after 34 years in prison, Squeaky reentered society as a free woman in 2009. Along with her boyfriend, another convicted felon, she retreated to the quiet town of Marcy in Upstate New York.
Since then, she’s kept a low profile. She’s been spotted about town with her boyfriend, a man who plead guilty to manslaughter in 1988, Robert Valdner. Though she did end up publishing that long-awaited potentially incriminating memoir in 2018, titled Reflexion.
In 2019, the ABC documentary series 1969 interviewed Squeaky for their episode titled “Manson Girls.” In her first statement in decades, she confirmed her allegiance remains strong, “Was I in love with Charlie? Yeah,” “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh, still am. Still, am. I don’t think you fall out of love.”
Neighbors say they keep to themselves, but still, the cars from curious passersby idle by and whisper about the woman who through murder, prison, and ample time to reconsider, still loves Charles Manson.