Centrepoint: Albany’s Lost Cult
By Alana McConnell (she/her)
| Illustration by Yi Jong (she/her)
c/w sexual abuse
Alana McConnell talks with two former members of Centrepoint, a largely forgotten closed community that existed in the heart of Albany until its demise at the hands of sexual abuse and rape allegations.
When you think of cults in New Zealand, Gloriavale may spring to mind. There've been documentaries, articles (including one in this issue of Debate) and jokes, its mark leaving a strong imprint in popular culture and conversation. But what has been slowly fading into obscurity over the years is Centrepoint, a community which operated in Albany beginning in 1977.
Like many cults, Centrepoint is now known primarily for the rampant sexual abuse that went on, mainly towards young girls in their teens. Additionally there was also neglect of children, corporal punishment, bullying and psychological manipulation within the commune. Beginning with high ideals and countercultural lifestyles and beliefs, Centrepoint formed as an offshoot of the encounter groups in America, specifically California. Unlike other cults such as Jonestown, which attracted those who lived on the outskirts of society, Centrepoint was made up mainly of middle-class white families. Many community members had professional jobs in healthcare, pharmaceuticals and law. The reasons for joining tended to be similar. It attracted people who felt a lack of community in New Zealand society at the time, and families that needed more support with childrearing and interpersonal relations.
But Centrepoint was a paradox, one that drew people in with the promise of enlightenment and connection, but resulted in rupture and trauma. I had never heard of Centrepoint before, not until I signed up to be an extra in a documentary about the community. I was just a background actor desperate to make a bit of extra cash, playing the role of one of the community members, wearing 70s attire, my curly hair brushed into frizzy oblivion. It was a fascinating experience because the documentary was filmed in the actual location of the commune, now named Kawai Purapura Retreat Centre. I had actually been to the retreat centre before the filming, on a meditation course with my dad. Situated right next to the bustling Albany mall, the retreat centre felt like a stark but welcome contrast to the concrete of its surroundings. The space has been well preserved, with the native bush remaining untouched. But the painful and complex history of the commune has not fully left the retreat centre, and there are still many areas which hold significance and meaning to ex-Centrepoint members.
Bert Potter, Centrepoint’s founder, travelled to the north of San Francisco in the 1970s, the birthplace of the Human Potential Movement. A counterculture group formed in the 1960s, the Human Potential Movement was formed around the concept of tapping into the extraordinary potential that is largely lying dormant within individuals. Bert attended the Esalen Growth Centre in California for three months, and then travelled back to New Zealand, where the idea of Centrepoint was born within a villa in Gillies Avenue. I interviewed two ex-members of the Centrepoint cult, Victor and Miriam.
Both of them arrived with their different families, with different partners and children, but since 1990 they have been romantically partnered. Victor first arrived in Centrepoint in 1980 with his family. At age 26 he was raising six kids and struggled with the responsibility at a young age. Miriam entered Centrepoint with her husband and two young children, in an attempt to bring them together more as a family, ultimately having the opposite effect. “My husband wanted to go in one direction and I wanted to bring us together.” Victor and his family stayed for 2 ½ years before leaving the community for a few reasons, one of those being relocating for a new job. “My first wife wasn’t fond of the open relationship structure at Centrepoint,” he told me.
By encouraging everyone to be sexually and romantically open, this allowed Bert to have the pick of anyone in the community for himself, including girls as young as 13.
Polyamory was encouraged and even pressured in the community, and if you chose to be monogamous you would get external feedback from others in the group. Miriam said to me “at the head of it was Bert Potter, who didn’t encourage people to work out their conflict within their relationships. He encouraged people to be with someone else, and to look outside the relationship.” What Bert said was law. There was even a common phrase called “Bert Says”. There were malicious intentions behind these “Bert Says” ideologies, which seemed initially like forward-thinking and progressive views on relationships and community living. By encouraging everyone to be sexually and romantically open, this allowed Bert to have the pick of anyone in the community for himself, including girls as young as 13. Bert claimed that children should be exposed to sexual activity from a young age as it is a natural behaviour. Bert fit the definition of an archetypal cult leader, polarising his community members by demonising society as the “out-there”, remaining unaccountable to anyone and claiming to be the authority, being extremely charismatic and influential, and dictating how the community members should act and exist.
On the outside the community appeared to be idyllic. Everyone coexisted together, working alongside one another, raising their children together, and developing their self and their mind. Victor spoke of sleeping in ‘longhouses’ where there were no rooms or walls with up to five families, no doors or privacy on toilets or showers to normalise human functions and to show that all bodies are normal. These things were at odds to the culture they grew up in and were a stark contrast to what was socially acceptable. Drugs were used freely, but not for recreational purposes. They were used in facilitated group settings for exploration and growth, and Miriam had her first experiences with LSD and MDMA at Centrepoint, after years of being told that drugs were evil and dangerous. A stark contrast to the War on Drugs campaign operating within the world at that time, in the safety of the group the drugs were used as a beneficial tool, able to transform experiences and states. Many single mothers gravitated towards the Centrepoint community, feeling drained from the pressures of society which provided little support. But Centrepoint was no better, as neglect of children was widespread, and corporal punishment was commonplace. For a community which preached connectedness and alternative living, the discipline of children was extremely hardlined and even violent. This was one of the main reasons Miriam left the community, when she witnessed a male community member discipline her young daughter in nursery harshly.
The sexual abuse came out to the public after drug charges were made against members of the community. Victor mentioned one specific young woman who reported the sexual abuse to the authorities, and six community members were charged with sexual abuse as a result, including Bert Potter and his wife. However, the young woman who reported the crimes was also one of the young teen girls who had been in a sexual relationship with someone in their 20s, but the person she was linked to was never charged as she had provided evidence against others, not them. I asked Victor and Miriam if it was more than just those six people who had committed the sexual abuse, and they said without a doubt. It was commonplace in the community, and it had become so ingrained and normalised into daily life. Victor said when he found out about a 40 year old having a relationship with a 13 year old, he couldn't believe it. It was something so foreign to him that he struggled to understand it. I tried to understand how once news of the sexual abusehad come to light, Victor and Miriam still lived in the community.
“Sexual abuse wasn’t something in my world at the time, and I wasn’t able to comprehend it,” said Victor. Miriam said “I couldn’t see that, I was only 25 when I first went there. I didn’t see and didn’t know about that stuff.”
This may be one of the reasons why many ex-Centrepoint members don’t feel comfortable recounting their experiences, as the inevitable question is raised about what their role was within the community and the abuse that went on in it. Hindsight allows us to examine the past in a measured sense, able to draw on all the evidence, but it isn’t reflective on living through something, where it can be difficult to identify injustices or things that are not acceptable. Whether that be in cults, workplaces, or friendship groups, we don’t always see things for what they really are until after the bomb has dropped. Victor and Miriam were lucky; their children were very young at the time of Centrepoint, and do not seem to have been deeply affected by their time there. But while Miriam’s daughter is open to talking about Centrepoint, Victor’s children couldn’t be more embarrassed, refusing to even mention it.
In 1990, Bert Potter was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to three and a half years in jail. This eventually led to the sexual abuse charges. In 1991, Centrepoint was subject to a police dawn raid, where six men and two women were arrested on indecent assault and rape between the years of 1978 and 1984. Bert himself was sentenced to a further seven and a half years in prison in 1992, one of his victims being as young as three and half years old. In 2012 Potter died at the age of 86. Potter’s son John spoke at his funeral and said “By committing himself to a radical ideology promoting the sexual liberation of children, Bert got it badly wrong and people were damaged as a result. Sadly he never accepted his social experiment and failed in this respect and he believed in the end that he’d done no harm.”
For some ex-Centrepoint members, their time in the commune is one they’d like to forget, being unable to accept it as part of their story. For others like Victor and Miriam, it’s able to be talked about freely, with the understanding that it is a part of who they are and they can’t deny that. But it does bring up complex emotions and memories, and perhaps a fear of scrutiny from the outside world who don’t know what it was like to be a part of Centrepoint. “To share my experience with others will always be measured against what I think would be their judgements. Judgements of living in a place which seemingly sanctioned sexual abuse of children, which used psychedellic drugs, which encouraged polyamory and which was a cult with a charismatic figure,” said Victor. I asked Victor and Miriam how Centrepoint affected their lives. “I would never have met Miriam if I hadn’t been at Centrepoint,” Victor said. Miriam gave birth to her son in Centrepoint, and it is a place which does hold significant and special memories amidst the painful memories. Victor also spoke about the personal development that came from this integral life experience. “I think I’ve gained a certain resilience, openness, courage, self-acceptance, and attitude to life which I’m not sure I would have otherwise achieved through conventional living.” The desire to go outside of what is traditional and widely accepted is risky and won’t always be a smooth journey. Especially if something that had progressive ideals turned out to be much more sinister than initially intentioned. But the way Miriam and Victor spoke about their experience showed the complexity of what it was like to be part of a cult, one which is marred by the likes of sexual abuse, neglect and drug use.