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Real Life

One woman's crusade against Centrepoint

Commune leader Bert Potter and his followers were Barbara's neighbours from hell

By Rebekah Hebenton
In the 1970s, Albany was a small rural town made up of lifestyle blocks and sprawling orchards. On Auckland's North Shore, it was the kind of tightknit community where no one locked their doors and neighbours were always there to lend a helping hand.
But in 1978 the conservative town was forever changed when a free-loving commune moved in down the road.
Centrepoint touted the ideals of communal living and alternative therapies. But under the leadership of self-proclaimed guru Bert Potter, the utopian dream transformed from a paradise to something much darker.
A new documentary, Heaven and Hell – The Centrepoint Story, airing on TVNZ 1, sees survivors of Centrepoint share their harrowing stories of life inside the commune, many of them the vulnerable children exploited by the adults who were supposed to protect them.
Potter managed to turn public opinion to his favour, while directing a campaign of hate on Barbara.
The documentary makers also speak to residents of Albany who fought for years to have the collective shut down. One of those women is Barbara, who does not wish to have her last name shared.
Barbara moved to Albany with her husband to give their four daughters a rural upbringing. When she heard that a commune had moved in down the road, she was thrilled. She thought their ideals of sharing possessions and raising children as a collective made a lot of sense.
"I was probably the only person in Albany who, apart from the Centrepoint people themselves, thought they were a great idea," she says.
But when she went to an open day at Centrepoint and saw the power Potter exerted over his followers, she knew it was not the idyllic commune locals had been promised.
"I was shocked by the power that this one person had over people," she recalls. "He controlled them – you could see they were in awe of him. He was God. And that really upset me. I thought, 'This is going to turn wrong.'"
Barbara, with her loyal pal Indie, wished Potter's downfall had come much sooner.
People were drawn to the former vacuum cleaner salesman. Many former members of the cult talk about his piercing eyes and charm. Some members even viewed him as a Christ-like figure. But Barbara could never figure out what his followers saw in him.
"He was a most unattractive little man with shifty eyes, and I took a great dislike to him. But that was all mixed up with my feelings of the power he had over other people. He obviously did have some quality that lured people in."
Over time, the commune grew stranger. Barbara laughs as she recalls visiting their plant nursery with her family and seeing two adults having relations in a field nearby as if no one was watching. But when rumours of child abuse surfaced, she decided she had to take action.
"There were stories of the children at school being dirty in dirty clothes and they had to share everything. A boy was in tears because his family had just joined Centrepoint and he had to give his bicycle away because it had to be all communal."
A friend told her about a five-year-old girl who'd said, "I'm frightened because I'm old enough to go to the big house and I know what they're going to do to me."
Barbara started working with neighbours who were also upset over the group's rapid growth and the disturbing stories, but she didn't agree with everyone's motives.
"I found myself united with quite a wide group of people, some of whom were quite bigoted. I mean, they suspected that they were having sex without being married."
The conservative voices in the group made it easier for Potter to twist the public perception around their objections and the story created a nationwide furore. Barbara and her comrades found themselves "trying to swim against the tide of public sentiment".
She tells, "I was very conscious of the fact that our opposition had been turned against us by Potter. He was very clever and he tapped into a lot of nice liberal-minded people's feelings, and as a liberal-minded person, I found this very painful."
This was happening at the same time as the highly protested 1981 Springbok tour, a movement that Barbara was also a vocal member of. She was soon facing hate from both sides of the political spectrum.
"I had people on one side calling me a Nazi for speaking about Centrepoint and the other a communist for protesting the Springbok tour."
"If people are brave enough to speak out, especially people who have been through that place, I should be brave enough to share my bit."
Doco confessions: Despite the intimidation, Barbara says she stuck to her guns for the sake of the Centrepoint children.
For all their teachings of peace and love, Barbara says the members of Centrepoint "became very confrontational. They didn't try to win over people – they just tried to be
in your face."
Despite the large group that had formed against Centrepoint, Barbara bore the brunt of their wrath. Of all the people she fought alongside, none of them ever experienced the level of intimidation that she faced. To this day, the 86-year-old doesn't know why she was singled out, but she will never forget her fear. Along with intimidating phone calls, where Centrepoint members threatened to "destroy my house and destroy my family", there was also physical threats.
"The worst was when I was walking my five-year-old to school. They used to deliver a van full of their children to the school every morning and the van was making its return trip. When the guy driving saw me, he rolled up onto the footpath and stopped right in front of me. I thought he was going to run us down!"
She rang the police but was told she was simply experiencing intimidation and there was nothing they could do. Barbara became isolated, losing life-long friends and mentors she admired who thought she had given in to mass hysteria. Understandably, she began to question her commitment to the cause.
Bert Potter
"I felt, 'Am I damaging my family? Am I damaging my children? Am I sacrificing them? Am I charging at a windmill like Don Quixote?' But there was something terribly wrong, so I stuck to it. Just because they weren't my kids, I didn't think that precluded me from trying to protect them."
In 1991, a police raid of the commune resulted in the arrest of Potter and several other high-ranking members on drug charges and numerous abuse charges. Their crimes were finally revealed to a nation that had supported their right to live an alternative lifestyle.
Barbara is emotional as she remembers hearing the news of his arrest, her pain for the victims as raw now as it was back then. She says her first thought was, "It's too late. At least it's happened, but it's too late. How much damage has been done?"
When the team behind Heaven and Hell saw Barbara in archive footage during their research, they knew they needed to hear her story. And after a long search – Barbara had changed her name – they finally found her.
Producer Natalie Malcon personally hand wrote a letter asking Barbara if she'd be part of the doco. Barbara admits that when she read the letter, she wanted nothing to do with it. "My initial reaction was, 'I can't face that again.' And then I thought, we need to try and correct some impressions I'm sure are still around, that there was this good man hounded."
Even speaking to the Weekly was a big decision for Barbara. "I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm not going to have a bar of this,' and I woke up the next morning absolutely determined I'm going to nicely tell Natalie I've done enough. Go away!"
But again, her sense of duty won out.
Watch Heaven and Hell - The Centrepoint Story, Sunday 30 May at 8.30pm on TVNZ 1

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