In the 70s, an idealistic young man decided he would change the world. With high ethical and moral principles he joined a sect in WA’s South-West. Today, he looks back on those days with some regrets. So what went wrong?
Australia, the early 1970s. Garish fashions were “in”, the bra was being burned, consumerism was becoming the new religion, the drug culture had begun and the Vietnam War was further splitting society.
In this topsy-turvy climate a young Sydneysider named Stephen Carthew came to WA to help launch a utopian, New Age community. Calling itself the Universal Brotherhood, the community was led by a charismatic, white-bearded octogenarian named Fred Robinson, or “Fred”, and was soon making headlines.
The media relished Fred’s belief in flying saucers and the friendly outer space beings he called “Elder Brothers”, who would supposedly come to save the righteous from the world’s imminent end.
Mr Carthew didn’t buy all of Fred’s flying saucer theories but he did embrace the old man’s vision of a new society operating in peace and harmony, according to high ethical and moral principles. It was also a society with a ground-breaking concern for the environment and unlike the hippie communes springing up in eastern Australia, without drugs or free sex.
But though it was all very laudable, it wasn’t to last. By 1988 the oddball project was imploding amid some traumatic infighting.
Hence some lingering regrets for the now 58-year-old Mr Carthew, a father of two, grandfather of seven, and a PhD candidate and tutor at the University of South Australia’s division of communication, information and new media.
His doctoral thesis explores his Universal Brotherhood years and airs a disturbing realisation: that for all the good he had intended, he helped to create a form of cult which caused psychological harm to some of the members.
“I initially thought society was the cult and that I was getting out of the big cult,” he told Weekend Extra.
“By cult, I mean the way in which advertising and the power structures try to persuade and manipulate people. I thought I was moving away from the way in which society manipulates, moulds and shapes people into caricatures of their real selves.
“I was trying to create something new but I didn’t realise that by the very nature of groups, and especially small groups with beliefs that are marginal, you can’t help but set up another sort of power structure and that almost inevitably becomes a cult. One of my favourite quotes is that no person who is fully in a cult believes that they are in a cult.”
Mr Carthew was running a New Age information centre in Sydney when he first met Fred in 1971. Unsettling events like the assassinations of president John F. Kennedy, his brother, Senator Bobby Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, had given him a feeling that society was breaking apart. He was ripe for Fred’s message of a new society, in microcosm.
“Fred had been going to communes in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria where young people, who could probably be classified as hippies, were abusing drugs,“ Mr Carthew recalled. “He’d been telling them, ‘I understand your motivation — you want to get away from being sucked into the way the world has become — but this isn’t going to work unless you work with cosmic law’.”
Mr Carthew was so impressed he hired Sydney Town Hall so the gentle old fellow could preach to a first-up crowd of about 800. Then, on to Melbourne before Mr Carthew and a group accompanied Fred to Perth, where Fred lived with his wife Mary in suburban Armadale on a selfsufficient 2ha farm.
Mary’s background involved Quakerism and Scientology. Although a seemingly demure person by comparison with Fred — with his knitted headband, kaftans, multicoloured poncho and love of an audience — she would become the main power in the community.
In 1972, the brotherhood initially established at Coorow, south of Geraldton. About 90 members lived on a 4ha section of a farm, where they surrounded the farmhouse with a potpourri of old caravans and mudbrick houses.
At the time, Fred’s sincerity was palpable as he pointed at some brotherhood children at play and said: “These little ones will never know hate, lies, deception or discord. They are learning to live in harmony with nature.
“Instead of having facts and figures crammed into their heads, they are having their talents drawn out of them. By the time they are 14, they will be able to design and build their houses, design and make their clothes and grow pure, natural foods.”
By 1975, the sect had moved to a 128ha property, around a 16 million litre dam, in a picturesque valley near Balingup, about 250km south of Perth. It was funded by the sale of the Robinsons’ Armadale holdings and members’ donations. There were fields of wheat, oats, barley, rye and vegetable crops, an orchard, 40 goats and 40 sheep (for wool only) and 100 chickens.
A brick house built by the community for the Robinsons remains today on the same property, which has reverted to its original name, Brooklands. Some 22 people live on the site, in their own homes, but only a sprinkling of former brotherhood members remain, including Margaret and Terry Miskimmin. The Miskimmins live in the homestead once at the heart of brotherhood activities and now run a timber recycling business.
Mr Carthew told how the brotherhood in the 70s and 80s attracted “a couple of thousand” young and middle-aged “seekers” who came from all over Australia but many left after realising it wasn’t a crash pad for hippies. “There was actual work to do — farm work, and running a school,” he said. “We weren’t just a place for people to smoke dope, sit around and enjoy themselves.”
Others were made to leave because they failed to meet the community’s standards. “We had no objection to anyone leaving. It’s a free world but these people didn’t want to leave. They wanted to change the behaviour of the community, our home, so we refused to compromise our principles. We were full-on.”
But he said things still went awry because of a lack of understanding of group and organisational dynamics. “Our inexperience caused us to unknowingly employ unhealthy practices that amounted to psychological pressure to conform to what we called ‘brotherhood consciousness’. This unfortunately included the laying of ‘guilt trips’ on those wanting to leave.”
Anyone who had “drifted out of the consciousness” was interviewed at length by members of the brotherhood’s “Centre Core”. The bottom line was the threat of expulsion, “a really intimidating experience” for psychologically vulnerable people who’d invested great hope in their joining the community.
Mr Carthew regretted his part in such practices but said: “Mostly, it was little things that, when taken together, created the same sort of practices that go on in businesses and in every human organisation.
“However, they become more extreme when it’s to do with belief and when it’s a live-in, 24-hour-aday situation which you can’t get away from.
“Everyone knew and accepted that it was a hot-house for ‘soul growth’ as we used to call it.”
He also conceded he had too much responsibility and power for one so young. He was 23 when he became the Robinsons’ right-hand man and leader of the six-member Centre Core running things for the Robinsons, who retained their Armadale home until moving to Balingup.
“Mary was very sure of what she believed needed to be done, her ‘guidance’, but perhaps too strong at times for such a small community,” said Mr Carthew. “At one point, in the 70s, some members felt she and the Centre Core were not treating them as adults, and this and other issues led to a few people having nervous breakdowns. It was very intense stuff and very difficult for some people but it is not about apportioning blame, rather about gaining understanding.”
No outsider knew the brotherhood better than Bunburybased academic Patricia Sherwood,who in the 80s made it the subject of her doctoral thesis in social anthropology and spent time living in the community.
She told Weekend Extra the community differed from other communes because it had a religious world view and wanted to build the prototype for the “new earth” and show people how they should live.
“Fred’s inspiration came out of the Great Depression, not having enough to survive on, and he, in turn, inspired the 70s kids of the middle classes and wealthy,” Dr Sherwood said.
“These kids saw their parents with heaps of material goods and possessions but still having nervous breakdowns, being alcoholics, being violent, taking drugs, being unhappy, and said they didn’t want to be part of this economic order.”
She believed the project folded because Fred’s predictions about the end of the world and flying saucer visitations didn’t eventuate “and because people began to grow up, have families and resent the tight controls held by Mary, in particular, over their minds and lives.
“They were told how to vote, how to spend their money, what to eat, where to educate their kids, who to mix with outside the community, and more.”
Mr Carthew says Dr Sherwood’s work helped him to realise some of the unhealthy behaviours.
According to Dr Sherwood, the types of people who enter cults are often “terrified” of making an error and enjoy having a leader making decisions for them. But if the leader is discredited, or simply seen not to be infallible, after having had so much faith placed in them and their teachings, enormous psychological stresses results.
Such was the case with Fred Robinson but internal power play also came into it.
On that score, Mr Carthew admits he contributed to a decision to sideline Fred at one stage.
“In a sense, my loyalty to Mary had overtaken my loyalty to Fred and it was a really difficult time. I didn’t feel good about it.”
Fred died in April 1983 in Bridgetown Hospital with Mary at his bedside and was “fully reinstated”.
Later, a major rift developed between Mr Carthew and Mary. He claims she wanted him to be the new leader, with a more commanding style than he was prepared to adopt. He refused. He left the community in 1988, the year in which Mary died and was buried alongside Fred.
Mr Carthew denies he’s now trying to expunge feelings of guilt at having drawn so many people into the brotherhood.
“I was convincing only because I was so sincerely convinced,” he said, saying it would be unfair to put down the whole experiment. “Fred and Mary Robinson did their best along with the rest of us.
“Fred put forward his view of the world and, as members, we accepted a lot of it without much intellectual rigour — but I don’t think you can dismiss all cults simply because they are marginal. Important change often happens when small groups form around charismatic individuals.
“And I think we did some important things and we did help to bring about changes in culture such as in the area of healthy diet, organic gardening and ‘consciousness change’, all of which is, interestingly, a fulfilment of Fred’s self-proclaimed role as a ‘catalyst’.
“We certainly weren’t in it for the money and there was never violence, or sexual abuse. I am proud of that.”