Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Cult, By Morag Zwartz, Parenesis Publishing, $19.95
In the public imagination, cults are usually associated with the wacky and the surreal: fortified compounds in isolated locales, flying saucers, suicide pacts, children with dyed blond hair or leaders commanding sex from vulnerable followers. Thus, the idea of a cult emerging in the moneyed, eternally verdant suburbs of Balwyn, Canterbury, Kew and Camberwell seems absurd. Even more so when the members are successful doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers and ordinary church folk. And yet, as Fractured Families reveals, cults can take root in and among the most unlikely places and people.
Because of this unusual setting and subject matter, Fractured Families by freelance journalist, Morag Zwartz, promises fascinating reading. The book tells the story of a para-church group, the Fellowship, which draws its members from well-to-do Anglo-Celtic families in Melbourne’s inner east. For about 60 years, those in the Fellowship were dispersed around local Presbyterian and Anglican churches, meeting during the week and on weekends to hear sermons, confess their sins to one another and strive for holiness.
At some point in the 1990s, for reasons not entirely clear, membership was consolidated into three Presbyterian churches, including Trinity Presbyterian church in Camberwell. Prima facie, none of this is particularly remarkable. Para-church groups are commonplace in Christian circles, running family camps, holiday programs or campus bible studies. However, it was during this late ’90s parish exodus that many in the wider church community suddenly became aware of the Fellowship’s religious excesses: semi-arranged marriages, exclusivity, shunning of non-members and intense secrecy.
Drawing on an impressive range of sources, Fractured Families offers a thorough, if somewhat haphazard, account of this group’s origins, theology and activities. To declare a Christian group a cult as Zwartz does, is a serious and brave charge, particularly given the outward normality and respectability of Fellowship members. In the early chapters, Zwartz defines the parameters of cultish behaviour, marshalling persuasive evidence to substantiate her claims about the Fellowship. This impression of cultishness is consolidated in the last section of the book, when the author presents the stories of those, mostly ex-members, whose lives have been profoundly affected by the Fellowship. Her treatment of this material is particularly sensitive and makes for moving reading.
Those seeking a populist, accessible read will, however, be disappointed. For the most part, the book offers a (Presbyterian) religious insider’s critique of the Fellowship. Thus, significant sections are devoted to exploring doctrinal and theological aspects of the group and the ways in which these are at odds with the orthodox teaching of the Presbyterian church and the Reformed tradition. In these sections the book is disorganised and polemic. Moreover, the author’s presumption that the reader will uncritically side with her own religious perspective will not assist Fractured Families to find a larger audience.
Other factors also mitigate against the book’s accessibility. Though the writing and research are excellent – particularly for a small press publication, the organisation of the book is decidedly non-linear. In this regard, a strong editorial voice would have helped. For example, in passing, Zwartz mentions several times that the Fellowship “regrouped” and intensified some time in the late ’90s. Clearly, this is a pivotal moment in the life of this cult, but further explanation, though necessary, is almost entirely absent, save for some perfunctory comments at the end.
Nor does Zwartz attempt to provide a cogent answer to what many would perceive to be the most interesting question, namely, how could such a thing happen in the leafy suburbs? Fellowship members are not impoverished, desperate or uneducated. So why are they in a cult? It would seem that a mix of family connections, group psychology, unorthodox religious teaching, forceful personalities and the lure of money are responsible.
While Zwartz amply documents the damage this cult has wreaked, her failure to clarify why it has succeeded is a significant oversight. Arguably this is the most important question, especially in light of the uncharacteristic nature of the Fellowship’s educated, middle-class locus and membership.
Andrew Singleton teaches in the school of political and social inquiry at Monash University.