A new feature-length documentary tells the harrowing story of the years of mental, physical and sexual abuse at Bert Potter’s Albany commune – and asks why it took so long to bring him to justice.
This review discusses the sexual abuse of children.
The single true moment of levity in TVNZ’s documentary about the horrific abuse committed by cult leader Bert Potter comes around 15 minutes in. Fellow New Zealander Swami Hansa is recounting an early-70s meeting with a young, pre-Centrepoint Bert Potter at the Rajneeshee ashram in Pune, India – the community whose own extraordinary story was told in the 2018 Netflix series Wild, Wild Country.
Hansa’s first impression of Potter? “He struck me as…” The now white-haired swami pauses and looks into the middle distance, the years falling away. “Um, quite a fuckwit really.”
It’s a laugh out loud moment, and a reminder of how unlikely a guru Bert Potter – a pudgy, platinum blond former pest exterminator from Christchurch – really was. In fact, of the four former adult Centrepoint interviewed by producer/director Natalie Malcon for Heaven and Hell, none can properly explain what it was about Potter that elicited years of emotional, sexual and financial devotion. About the best they can come up with is the quality of his gaze: his eyes were apparently really very, very blue.
But that’s the point, of course. A cult leader doesn’t need to be particularly charismatic, or intelligent, or inspiring. He just needs to be extremely good at exploiting weaknesses, at taking already vulnerable people and manipulating them until their sense of self – and of right and wrong – evaporates into thin air.
The abuse Potter inflicted on his followers at the Albany commune he ran for 13 years is nothing short of sickening. So many shocking revelations are included in Heaven and Hell that it can be hard to comprehend them all, they go by so fast. The first wtf moment is when former member Barbara visits the cafeteria where, at Centrepoint’s height, hundreds of members would dine together every day. Barbara points to a bright, sunlit corner of the room, noting that it’s the spot where she first gave birth – in front of the entire community.
She clearly sees nothing strange about this, and why should she? Radical openness was the name of the game at Centrepoint, and any kind of physical inhibition was savagely disdained. From primal scream therapy to public nudity to mixed-gender, wall-free toilet and shower blocks, every part of the Centrepoint lifestyle was geared towards being “stripped bare and rebuilt by Bert”, as one interviewee puts it. Potter routinely encouraged couples into partner swapping and orgies, and – surprise, surprise – made sure that an encounter with him was seen as the ultimate sexual prize. One of the more whimsical anecdotes tells of young women waiting in the bushes for Potter’s wife Margie to leave the house each day, then breaking into a mad dash to be first in line to service him.
But the truth about Centrepoint wasn’t whimsical at all. At the heart of Heaven and Hell are the heartbreaking stories of the young girls who grew up there, and who were subject to years of horrendous sexual abuse at the hands of Potter and others. It’s not easy to listen to Kate, Caroline and Ella, three women who spent much of their childhoods in the commune, talk about the abuse they suffered, and their awareness that they had been abandoned to this place of depravity and pain. But the strength and grace they show now – and their striking perceptiveness about the world they were thrust into by the adults in their lives – is both striking and inspiring. After failing the children of Centrepoint for so long, New Zealand has a responsibility to hear them now.
And make no mistake, fail them we did. Shocking as the stories from inside the commune are, almost as upsetting are the details of the botched attempts and lost chances to bring Potter to justice. The dogged police work of Dene Thomas is rightfully highlighted – though it has to be said that the re-enactments of scenes from his investigation are the documentary’s weakest elements – but the true star is Albany local “Barbara B”, whose crusade against Centrepoint opened her up to accusations of nimbyism and prudery (even now, former member Susan can’t help a dig at “repressed” outsiders who were likely jealous of Centrepoint members’ own sexual openness).
But of course, Barbara B had Potter bang to rights from the very start. Not long after Centrepoint opened, she and her husband attended an open day there. She remembers Potter as an unremarkable person with a remarkable power over his followers, who seemed to express their devotion by mirroring his every gesture. “It was like Potter with a hundred heads,” she says. “It was horrifying!” Bless you Barbara B, and here’s to the people who refuse to stay silent when they know something is very wrong.
Why the members of Centrepoint didn’t do more – or anything, really – to protect the children in their care is the question that runs through Heaven and Hell. Benign neglect is the most generous reading of the situation; the worst is that the community consisted mostly of selfish narcissists who prioritised their own pleasure over the safety of their children. While all four former members who appear on camera should be commended for their bravery – they were the only ones who agreed to do so, out of more than 60 ex-Centrepoint residents the production contacted – it’s hard not to squirm when they talk about how fulfilling and freeing it was to live there.
It’s only Simon, an 11-year member of Centrepoint, who expresses clear regret for the abuse of the children, and their culpability in enabling it. Bert Potter was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, mostly unremarkable monster – one who prowled in the daylight. Heaven and Hell does a wonderful job exposing the awful truth that so many at the time were too blind to see.
Heaven and Hell: The Centrepoint Story is streaming on TVNZ OnDemand now.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.