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Miranda Otto (left) in The Clearing. Disney+

The Clearing’s investigation of The Family invites us to ask: what’s the appeal – and risk – of crime stories based on real events?

There’s a scene in the Disney+ series The Clearing in which Amy, a 12-year-old girl, readies herself for punishment at the hands of her minder. Amy has failed to control the behaviour of seven-year-old Asha, her new “sister”. Her family is a doomsday cult, and the cult has only recently abducted Asha from the side of the road.

We watch Amy’s face closely as she grimaces and contorts with each vicious strike of the minder’s paddle. The shot pans from Amy’s face to a phone handset, laid out on the bench. Then we cut to another scene: Adrienne — Mummy, Amy calls her — sits perfectly coiffed in a wing chair, drinking from fine glassware and chatting nonchalantly. In her hand she holds a phone handset to one ear; through it she listens to the beating, Amy’s distress audible down the line.

As I watch the scene, a block of chocolate half-eaten by my side, I flinch with each paddle strike, too. Next to me, my partner sips his tea, his own face drawn into a grimace above the cup. And I’m suddenly reminded, in the comfort of my living room, that this story is based on one that’s true.

The Clearing is based on a true story. Disney+

‘Where lies the truth?’

The Clearing is based on the 2020 novel In the Clearing, by Melbourne-based New Zealand author J.P. Pomare.

Pomare’s book takes as its base the non-fiction book The Family (2017), written by journalists Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones. (Jones has also made a documentary about the group.) So, viewing the series means watching an adaptation of an adaptation (Pomare’s novel) – and the original non-fiction text is itself an adaptation from real life.

True-crime texts – and their fictional counterparts – allow audiences to vicariously experience the darker aspects of humanity, venturing into the grimmest facets of what it is to be human. And whether they come packaged as a podcast, reportage, novel, or television series inspired by real life, true-crime texts operate by narrativising events: by turning them into stories.

Watching The Clearing prompts me to wonder: what happens to these stories when they undergo variation after variation? Johnston and Jones write in their non-fiction account:

Where lies the truth? Each child had their version; everyone in this story has their version of the truth.

What happens to these versions when we move away from investigative journalism and into fiction? And does getting further from the facts necessarily mean moving further from the truth?

The attraction of true crime

In her TED Talk on ethical true crime, Lindsey A. Sherrill discusses the eudaimonic attraction of true crime.

Eudaimonic motivation is based not on pleasure-seeking — we rarely feel good, she explains, when watching true crime — but a desire for knowledge. It’s a motivation that turns on the excitement of learning something new. Journalist Jana G. Pruden adds, “When a crime or tragedy happens, we want to know what happened, why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, and what its effects are.”

The story behind the Australian cult of The Family (not to be confused with the US-originated Children of God cult, also known as The Family) was first assembled into a true-crime narrative by newspaper journalist Chris Johnston (The Age) and documentary-maker Rosie Jones, who teamed up when they realised they were working to expose the same group.

Their book contains first-hand accounts and anecdotes from former cult members and people who had contact with the group. It also contains considerable testimony from Lex de Man, the police officer who fought to pursue its leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, on criminal charges such as fraud, false imprisonment, assault and drug offences – including the administering of LSD and psilocybin to children. (LSD was something of a sacrament in the cult, with guided drug trips known as “clearings”, a name that would inspire the title of the novel and television series.)

The book details alarming stories of abuse from the former children, whom the group kept at various properties, including Uptop, a property near Lake Eildon in Victoria’s Central Highlands – from 1971 until 1987, when police raided the property and removed them.

Johnston and Jones write:

The Hamilton-Byrne children all thought they were brothers and sisters as they were growing up, but of course they were not. Some had been scouted for adoption by cult insiders at Melbourne hospitals and taken for Anne with fake paperwork. Or they were gifted to Anne by parents who were involved with the cult. These parents felt it was an honour to give over a child: their son or daughter would be raised by the hand of God.

Hamilton-Byrne preached a type of new-age spiritualism that mixed elements from Hindu, Buddhist and Christian teachings. She cited the Maitreya, a female Buddha from Tibetan mystical literature, claiming she herself was an avatar sent to rescue her followers from the wheel of birth, death and suffering.

With this perceived gravitas, Hamilton-Byrne was able to order couples from her flock to separate and re-pair with others, to donate their assets (as well as a portion of their salaries) to her, to commit fraud, surrender their children, and subject those children to gruelling regimes and punishments, all on her behalf.

A trailer for Rosie Jones’ documentary film, The Family.

The book offers an account of the culture and circumstances that enabled the crimes and abuses enacted at the behest of Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill, attempting to make some sense of this bizarre, misguided and cruel group of people.

Read more: ‘Have I just joined another cult?’: Daniella grew up in The Family, then joined the army – where she experienced toxic control, again

Turning fact into fiction

Writers have long turned to fiction to make sense of social issues. In the acknowledgements section of his novel, Pomare writes: “the seed of the story [In the Clearing] was born out of my fascination with the cult [of The Family], the resilience of the children survivors, and the enigmatic leader”.

Gary Rolfe is a researcher who argues practitioners in the helping professions (nurses, teachers and social workers) benefit from the emotional and affective notion of “truth” fiction provides. “The writing of fiction is itself a form of social research which provides access to a particular kind of truth,” he writes.

In the scientific sense, all of art, including fiction, is a lie, since it is not derived from empirical research, but from the imagination. But this lie enables us, as Foucault pointed out, to “induce effects of truth” by resonating with our inner feelings.

Writers pursue this truth by mixing research with imagination and lived experience.

Recently, Emma Cline’s novel The Girls (2016) took the Manson Family as its base to explore the power of seduction and the lure of connection through Evie, an unmoored teenager hungry for community. In Beautiful Revolutionary (2018), Laura Elizabeth Woollett reimagined the events that led to the Jonestown mass deaths, closely examining the descent of its protagonist, Evelyn, into perversity under the influence of leader Jim Jones.

In In the Clearing, Pomare imaginatively refigures the cult of The Family to explore its legacy for childhood survivors. In the book — which the screen adaptation more or less follows (at least, in the early episodes I watched) — Pomare intertwines the reality of documented life inside the cult with an entirely fictional plot.

We follow the quest of Freya, who is triggered by her traumatic childhood to find out who is inhabiting the mysterious van parked by the lake near her house. And to find out who has been speaking to her child from the other side of the school fence, and who (without giving away any spoilers) is responsible for a terrible crime. Her present-day quest is just one narrative thread; we eventually discover how it’s connected to the Family-like doomsday cult.

This quest is the terrain of the psychological crime–thriller, which turns on the suspense of withheld information and its layered uncovering. But it’s the mix of plot and affect, of story and circumstance, that, as Sue Turnbull points out, crime novels manipulate as vehicles to engage with larger social issues.

Read more: Religious lies, conmen and coercive control: how cults corrupt our desire for love and connection

Crime as entertainment

The ethics of exploring true crime through entertainment is prickly. Can coding the most horrific events of a person’s life into a narrative and packaging it as entertainment ever be ethical? The simple answer is: it depends.

But the conditions of that “depends” are a shifting, complex, context-specific spectrum of circumstance. And the further we venture from reportage into fiction, the more fraught this context becomes.

At its best, true crime can thaw cases long gone cold, overturn wrongful convictions, even prompt justice reform. In August last year, for instance, Chris Dawson was found guilty of murdering his wife Lynette Dawson, in a four-decades-old cold case revived by the true crime podcast The Teacher’s Pet.

True crime can also prompt us to think about biases of class, gender, sexual orientation and race, by giving a voice to members of the community who might not otherwise find a platform. Indeed, this platform has given a voice to the child survivors of The Family, whose abuse was never validated or answered for in the justice system. And true crime can provide a community for victim–survivors, who might find solace and empowerment through engaging with the stories of others.

But at its worst, true crime can be exploitative and prurient, produced for titillation – ignoring its impact on victim–survivors or those close to them. True-crime creation and consumption exists within a commercial realm. And this is perhaps the most icky part of it.

Most recently, the debate of public interest versus private injury flared over Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Family members of Dahmer’s victims, who say they weren’t consulted during the show’s production, publicly aired their grievances.

Their voices grew louder when Evan Peters, who played Dahmer in the show, won a Golden Globe – and when Peters, the show’s creator Ryan Murphy, and Netflix enjoyed considerable success from the project. Some commentators called for remuneration for the families of Dahmer’s victims, arguing that “the integration of advertising into true crime feels particularly craven”.

Remuneration debates aside, I think exploring crime through storytelling can be in the public interest – whether we engage with the investigative framework of a book such as The Family or with a fictional interpretation of real events, such as the novel or screen adaptation of In The Clearing.

Media scholar Sue Turnbull explains that while a show like Dahmer or a film like Nitram (which depicts the events that led to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996) might on one level be exploitative, on another

it may be revelatory in terms of the psychology and context it explores. When did things start going wrong? What makes a serial killer? At what point could he have been stopped and at what point do the failures occur?

Is a film like Nitram exploitative – or might it be revelatory? Madman Entertainment

Sometimes events are owed public attention. Certainly, a group such as The Family, whose legacy of trauma continues to impact its childhood survivors today, is worth our collective attention. Indeed, understanding how and why this cult could inflict such damage for so long is arguably in the public interest. Examining how and why these events unfolded might help us to recognise this behaviour in its early stages.

Read more: True crime entertainment like The Teacher's Pet can shine a light on cold cases - but does it help or hinder justice being served?

How stories invite us to feel

When we engage with a series, book or film – or a podcast – we enter into an unspoken contract with its creator(s). As reader response scholar Amber Gwynne writes, “we intuitively recognise the rules of engagement”.

We understand, for instance, that the events depicted in a novel are based on imagination. This contract stands, too, when we engage with fiction that claims to be inspired by a true story; we appreciate that details will be enhanced, omitted or invented to serve the demands of a satisfying story.

The truth of fiction, then, turns not on depicting scenarios that unflinchingly, exactly depict real events, but on prompting affective and emotional responses – instinctive reactions and the emotions we construct from them. In other words, when we engage with fiction, we feel something.

Research has shown that the more emotionally invested a reader is in a story’s character or world, the larger the impact that story will have on their social cognition. (Which is the process of using the information we get from our social contexts to affect our own behaviour.)

When we engage with fictional storytelling like The Clearing, we feel something. Disney+

This empathetic identification, Turnbull explains, can “help our moral development in two main ways: it can educate the emotions, and it can educate our perceptions in a way that an argument cannot”.

In the Clearing considers coercive control, corruption, child abuse, misguided loyalty and manipulation, and their long-lasting, intergenerational effects on adults who experienced trauma as children.

In this way, Pomare’s novel invites affective and emotional engagement, delivered within a plotline that satisfies the conventions of crime fiction. We come for the plot, but stay for the feelings it generates – or the complicated immersion in a particular social circumstance. (Okay, we also stay for the plot resolution.)

In the screen adaptation, The Clearing, the showrunners take a slightly different approach, sparring with slightly different social processes from the novel. For example, Adrienne, the cult leader based on Hamilton-Byrne, features more frequently in the screen version than the novel. This shift in focus sharpens the lens more clearly on her particular approach to coercion.

But both versions depict a search for answers, within in a context that generates feelings we might not experience in our everyday lives.

Read more: Trauma is trending – but we need to look beyond buzzwords and face its ugly side

Fiction: a ‘lie that helps us see the truth’

Both the novel and Disney+ series begin with the abduction of Sara (soon renamed Asha) as she walks home from the bus stop. This fictional event doesn’t mimic any real-world modus operandi of the cult — they never abducted children in this way. The names used in the book and show are fictional. Freya and Billy’s world is entirely imagined. The Family never had an obsession with keeping exactly 12 children, as these fictional versions do.

But does any of this matter?

I suggest it doesn’t. Consider the scene in which Amy is being punished. Johnston and Jones’s research tells us Hamilton-Byrne had her followers terrorise the children: their weapons of control included dunking children’s heads in water troughs and withholding food. We know she used a variety of methods to coerce and control the members of her cult, convincing them she was an incarnation of Christ and that her word was divine. The adults did her bidding on her instruction.

Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones’s research tells us that Anne-Hamilton Byrne had her followers terrorise the children in The Family. Disney+

Because of this knowledge, we can understand the scene in which Adrienne is listening to Amy’s beating over the phone as metaphorical. It almost doesn’t matter whether this scene played out in exactly this way; it’s how we feel about it, as viewers, that matters. This is what Rolfe was talking about when he wrote about fiction being a “lie that helps us see the truth”.

We need to really think about how crime-fiction texts depict characters and events – and whether the framing is fair. In these interpretations of The Family and Hamilton-Byrne, I’d say the framing is fair. In fact, the exposure of a group whose motto was “unseen, unheard, unknown” – across a documentary, a book of reportage, a novel and now a streaming series – feels particularly reparative.

But readers and viewers will balance their own scales.

Fiction can be good in any number of ways. So I use the term “good fiction” here as shorthand for texts that prompt us to ethically engage with pressing social issues. “Good” crime fiction crafts a quest for truth around affect, or the feelings it prompts us to feel: entertaining us while inviting us to empathise and engage with the social world.

Good crime fiction communicates weighty social concerns to an engaged audience. And good crime fiction, in that sense, can serve as a platform for debate and discussion about the human experience at the heart of its events. This is the truth we can excavate with fiction’s tools.

For the facts and figures of true events, we must look to reportage. But you already knew that.

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