Celebrity News

The Lawson quins speak out about their violent past

They were the babies who enchanted the nation, but at a young age their fairytale became a nightmare. Now 50, the Lawson quins have revealed the shocking truth about their lives in a new book.
The Lawson quintuplets

In 1960s New Zealand the Lawson quins were a national obsession. Only the third set of quintuplets in history to survive – and the first in this country – their birth on July 27, 1965 made news across the world, even leading to a message of congratulation from the Queen. And at first it appeared that parents Sam and Ann Lawson, big sister Leeann, and Samuel, Lisa, Deborah, Shirlene and youngest quin Selina lived a charmed life.

Showered in gifts and promised help with housing, childcare and housekeeping by the government, they were instant celebrities. But the quins had barely started school before the fairytale of the famous five took a dark turn.

Former beauty queen Ann split with the quins’ father when they were six, after he had an affair with one of her close friends. A few years later she married Gary Eyton, a violent alcoholic who made the family destitute while subjecting them to years of brutal beatings and eventually, sexual abuse. When the quins were 16, he shot Ann dead in front of Lisa, before turning the gun on himself.

The nightmare didn’t stop there. In the ensuing years the traumatised quins each battled demons –one was gang raped, another had an eating disorder, a third lost a baby to cot death; drugs and drink became an escape. The quins marked their 50th birthdays last month by documenting their incredible tale in a new book.

Stolen Lives, The Untold Stories of the Lawson Quins, by Paul Little, reveals shocking details about the five little tots who were once considered New Zealand royalty, and explains how after tragedy and despair, all turned their lives around. This exclusive extract begins shortly after Ann’s marriage to Gary in 1974.

It was Ann who endured the worst violence. The children took some time to realise what was going on as Gary avoided assaulting her in front of them or doing anything that would leave obvious or hard-to-explain-away physical traces. But they could hear the attacks and knew something very wrong was taking place.

From left to right: Gary Eryon and Ann on their wedding day, Ann shares a tender moment with Selina.

One night Shirlene woke up to the sound of her mother being beaten and decided to do something about it. Having tried and failed to rouse any of her siblings she went into the lounge alone.

“Mum was sitting on the couch holding her arms in front of her trying to protect herself,” says Shirlene, “and he was hitting her like a punching bag, slamming the crap out of her. I yelled out, ‘Stop!’ and he turned around and waved his fist at me. Then he went to punch me, but Mum got up and stood between us, and he stopped. I went back to bed and everything went quiet. Mum came and checked on me and she went to bed too.

“But when we woke up the next morning Mum was a mess – her face was swollen, she had broken ribs. We couldn’t believe it. And she was just standing at the kitchen bench, buttering bread for our sandwiches.”

The children went to school that day but were too upset to go in. They stood outside huddled together with their friends, crying.

On another occasion, Deborah saw Gary hold Ann over his head and throw her onto the floor.

Ann tried to cover up the assaults. Once when she emerged with a black eye and bruising on her face she explained that when she was in bed she had pulled the sheet up too quickly and hit herself in the head. No one believed her.

“For seven years the violence was part of our normal routine,” says Lisa. “Usually after he gave her a good hiding he would wake up in a good mood.

I would get up and clean the house – the pot plants that had been knocked over, the smashed glasses – so Mum didn’t have to do it. Then I would sneak into their bedroom and ask if I could take my horse for a ride. That was the thing that saved me. Gary often made me go and get the milk from the top of the driveway first – that was how he dealt with his dry horrors.”

The property was big enough for the children to have several horses over the years. These provided a welcome feeling of freedom for the girls in particular.

In order to maintain his reign of terror, Gary worked hard to isolate the children and Ann from friends and family. The last thing he needed was some kids blabbing to their father about what was really going on at home.

Gary couldn’t stop the children seeing their father altogether, but he did his best.

“It got to the point,” says Selina, “where Dad came down the driveway for our regular visit, in his little Mini or two-door BMW coupe and Gary would go out and say, ‘The children don’t want to come with you today.’ We watched as he went back up the driveway without us, and we were actually in our room crying.”

Things got progressively worse. On one occasion Gary chased Sam off the property with an axe. Eventually Sam gave up trying. “Weekends with Dad dwindled out,” says Selina. “He just stopped seeing us.”

Friends who called unexpectedly would be told simply to f**k off.

Gary wasn’t just directly abusive and threatening. His silent presence seemed to cast an air of menace over the family and anyone who came near them.

“He was sneaky,” says Selina. “And quiet. You wouldn’t know he was around. You wouldn’t hear him. You wouldn’t know where he was. You might think he was down at the bottom of the field doing his market gardening but then you’d turn around and realise he was in the house. If we had friends around at night and were sitting outside, we would have to be careful what we said because he would be listening to us. We weren’t used to that. It was just not normal behaviour.”

Gary’s taste for conflict turned out to be contagious and the children learnt from his example.

The quins at the beach with Ann’s mum Nana Menzies, Gary’s son Shane (second from right), and a friend (with dog).

“None of us fought with each other until Gary came into the house,” says Deborah. “We would play-fight and provoke each other, and we would rumble and tumble and chase each other around the house, but we never hit each other. Thanks to him, we got very stressed and agitated. We could all feel the tension and we took it out on each other.”

Gary was always keen to find new ways to make money – especially if he could put his family to work in it. He and Ann bought a takeaway bar in Ponsonby, Auckland. Leeann and the rest of the children worked there occasionally.

But the takeaway bar’s location brought them into proximity with [Ann’s father], Ponsonby resident Granddad Menzies. If Leeann called from the front counter, “Mum, Granddad’s coming,” when the children were there, Ann had to hide them because if he knew his grandchildren were around they would never get rid of him and customers would be scared away by the rowdy old man.

Gary and Ann also worked painting and papering and took the children along as unpaid assistants.

“I finished school at 15 and I worked for Mum and Gary for a while,” says Shirlene. “I used to smoke then and Mum bought me cigarettes because I never got paid.”

Perhaps because she regretted having lost Sam over his affair with Gloria, when Ann found out Gary was being unfaithful she did not end the relationship. Perhaps she felt such behaviour was inevitable and she was going to have to live with it like she had learnt to live with so much else. It was the children who uncovered and revealed the betrayal.

“It was at a party,” says Shirlene. “One of the guests was a tall redhead who Deborah and I caught Gary kissing. We went and told Mum. And that was it, it was all on. Gary threw us all in the car and from Bruce McLaren Road, along Lincoln Road onto the motorway he was speeding, and the car was all over the road. We got home and he beat up Mum. It was hell.”

At 21, from left, Selina, Lisa, Shirlene, Deborah and Samuel.

He kept her in the bedroom and continued the assault for 12 hours before the children could finally see her. The bedroom was a scene of carnage, with broken glass and blood everywhere. “He was quiet, and she was quieter and nothing was said,” says Lisa.

The violence was constant over all the years Gary and Ann were together and eventually it became impossible to hide. The consequences on the children – both short and long term – were disastrous.

“Once, when I was about 13, I came into the kitchen one day and Mum had been beaten up badly again, I spun out,” says Selina. “I wanted to kill him. Mum tried to hide it from us because she was worried one of us would try to do something. Sometimes I wish I had killed him. I’d be out of jail now and Mum would still be alive.”

Selina wasn’t the only one to harbour thoughts of murder. Ann was once heard thinking out loud about it. Shirlene had a plan too.

“I talked to Leeann’s boyfriend, Keith, about getting Gary done by putting drugs in his car so he’d get pulled over and charged. I didn’t know much about drugs then. I thought they were things that came in a bag that you could get arrested for. I knew Keith smoked marijuana and some kids at school did. Obviously that was never going to work – especially with a 13-year-old masterminding it.”

Normal teenage limit-testing turned into something quite different with Gary around.“I started getting defiant,” says Selina. “Mum would tell me to go to bed and I would say, ‘No I want to stay up watching TV.’

Everybody else had gone to bed and I would push the limits. One night she got out of bed herself and physically forced me to go to bed. I’m sure it was because she knew that if I didn’t Gary would probably get up and do something.”

Gary slowly and carefully laid the ground to begin sexually abusing the girls. An important step was getting the older and savvier Leeann off the scene so she couldn’t get in the way of his attempts on the children.

Her boyfriend Keith, who worked as a shepherd, was keen for them to marry and Gary was right behind it. Leeann herself was reluctant and tried to postpone it at least until she was 19 but finally was outmanoeuvred and the marriage went ahead.

At Selina’s wedding in 2000. Clockwise from centre: Selina, Lisa, Samuel, Shirlene and Deborah.

Controlling to the end, Gary insisted on giving her away and Sam did not even attend his daughter’s wedding.

The marriage was a disaster.

“He was the type who would say, ‘I’m going to get some milk’ and disappear for a week,” says Leeann, “no matter where I was or whether I had any money. We moved all the time from farm to farm because he would shoot through and get fired when he finally turned up again.”

She and Keith spent more time apart than together before a divorce was finalised in 1982.

“I’m coming too,” said Selina. And she went. Deborah begged Selina to take her too but she was left behind. She would make her own escape later.

“We knew she was okay,” says Shirlene. “It wasn’t that she was lost and kidnapped. We knew that she had run off with Leeann’s ex. But it was a bit of a worry.”

“Little did I know that I was being used by him as well,” says Selina. “He dumped me in Waihi. What was I doing? I didn’t know what I was doing. I ended up latching on to various people and it became a vicious cycle of drinking and drinking. They were using me because I didn’t know any better. I ended up at the Waihi pub where a girl latched on to me and took me home.”

The pair were watching TV when Ann Lawson, the mother of the famous quins, with a sullen Gary Eyton by her side, appeared on a news bulletin appealing for her daughter Selina to come home.

For anyone who had not seen her since she married Gary, the change in Ann’s appearance and demeanour was shocking and impossible not to notice.

The inner glow that had journalists constantly referring to her as “radiant” was gone and she had aged beyond her years. Five babies hadn’t worn her out, but one man had.

Stolen Lives: The Untold Stories of the Lawson Quins by Paul Little, Paul Little Books, $35. Available at bookshops or www.paullittlebooks.co.nz.

“Is that you?” said her new friend to Selina. “You need to ring your mum.”

Selina rang Ann and asked her to come and get her – without Gary. But when Ann turned up he was there too. By now, he hardly ever let her out of his sight in case she tried to run away herself, and he would have been concerned about what Selina might say about him during the long ride home if he wasn’t there.

Back in Auckland, Selina was taken to the police station where she had to make a statement. She told the police that she ran away because of the abuse at home but her report was never followed up.

One morning at breakfast Selina must have been unusually stressed and Ann noticed. “Selina, what’s wrong?” said her mother. “Gary’s been touching me,” she said. “I don’t know anything about this,” said Gary. “I don’t know what she is talking about.”

“And what about you, Deborah?” said Ann, knowing that Gary had tried to abuse Deborah too, because she had seen him. But Deborah was reluctant to face whatever that public revelation might lead to and she stayed silent. She was a teenager and she was confused.

“I knew I couldn’t lie,” says Deborah, “but I didn’t want to say anything. I don’t know if I thought I’d get in trouble – I don’t know, I just was a bit mixed up.”

“Yes, he tried to,” she eventually said. The truth was out. And with that door opened, Selina and Deborah found the strength to move out, although they soon found themselves in equally if not more harmful situations.

Photographs by: Lawson family collections.

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories