[Series Review] THE CLEARING
Editor’s Note: This review is based on the first three episodes of THE CLEARING

There are some cults that are so bizarre and disturbing that you can’t help but think, “There’s no way this is real. It has to be some urban myth/campfire story/late-night b-horror-influenced fever dream.”

In Victoria, Australia during the ‘60s, a yoga teacher named Anne Hamilton-Byrne (born Evelyn Grace Victoria Edwards) started a New Age cult called The Family, preaching a combination of Hinduism and Christianity and proclaiming herself to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and a living god. Two of The Family’s main recruiters were parapsychologist Raynor Johnson, who referred people in a philosophical discussion group he ran to Hamilton-Byrne’s yoga class, and Marion Villimek, who owned and managed a private psychiatric hospital, where many of his staff—including doctors—were also members of The Family. Psychiatric patients were recruited while staying in this hospital, and some were administered LSD under the direction of Family members and attending psychiatrists Dr. Howard Whitaker and Dr. John Mackay.

That’s not even the worst thing this cult has done.

Between the years of 1968 and 1975, Hamilton-Byrne illegally and unethically adopted fourteen children, some of whom were the biological children of members of The Family. The kids’ birth certificates were falsified, and they were all told that Hamilton-Byrne was their biological mother. They were raised in seclusion on a property owned by The Family, were given identical clothing to wear, and some even had their hair bleached blonde. They were also severely abused, starved, and drugged with various psychiatric medications. When a child became a teenager, they would go through an “initiation” involving an LSD trip and isolation…with Hamilton-Byrne as one of the only people they would have contact with.

I really wish I could tell you that The Family is just an urban myth. Sadly, the story is true. It’s also the subject of the upcoming eight-part limited series called THE CLEARING.

Courtesy Hulu

Based on J.P. Pomare’s book IN THE CLEARING, the series is heavily inspired by the events surrounding The Family. THE CLEARING opens with the kidnapping of a young girl named Sarah. She is taken to a compound where a gaggle of other children are told that she is their sister, and is renamed Asha. Her hair is dyed blonde and the adults at the compound start the brainwashing process. Or at least they try to. Sarah is a headstrong spitfire of a kid. The oldest girl at the compound, Amy, is put in charge of her.

At the head of the compound is the enigmatic, manipulative, and calculating Adrienne, whom the children call “Mummy.”

We’re also introduced to Freya—a single mother to the young Billy. A news report of a little girl’s disappearance causes Freya to start spiraling into paranoia and overprotectiveness of her son as she’s forced to revisit her traumatic past.

THE CLEARING is horrifying, even without the knowledge that it’s inspired by an actual group. The dynamics of the compound (the “family”) are chillingly believable, especially if you’re familiar with cult tactics. The episodes are simultaneously uncomfortable to witness and so well-executed that it’s impossible to look away.

The writing by Elise McCredie, Matt Cameron, and Osamah Sami packs a serious punch and is brought to life by a strong cast. Julia Savage and Lily LaTorre deliver intense and compelling performances as Amy and Sarah, respectively. Teresa Palmer’s portrayal of Freya is deeply sympathetic; Kate Mulvaney and Anna Lise Philips bring their roles of cult elders Tamsin and Hannah to life in a way that’s equal parts infuriating and intriguing. Miranda Otto, stepping into the role of cult leader Adrienne, is simply terrifying.

Directed by Gracie Otto and Jeffrey Walker, THE CLEARING was produced by Disney+ and will premiere on May 24, 2023, on Hulu and Disney+. It’s perfect for fans of “Yellowjackets,” “Sharp Objects,” and “My Favorite Murder.”

TV Reviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *