She was a founding member of Centrepoint, and its chief propagandist, before finally realising her community was rotten to the core. Leaving was hard - but for Barri Leslie finding a path to redemption has been even harder.

Published: June 7, 2022
The Commune is a 12-part Stuff podcast produced and edited by Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham. GET THE PODCAST

The Commune contains discussion of themes that some people may find distressing. Click here for a list of support services and helplines

T letter img he first time Barri Leslie met Bert Potter, she was, frankly, underwhelmed.

In the growing, groovy group-therapy scene of 1970s Auckland, Potter was getting a name for himself.

“He had a reputation for being brilliant at that kind of therapy,” Leslie says on Stuff’s The Commune podcast. “He had this incredible concentration in his eyes and paid attention to fine detail.”

Potter’s therapy also strayed into places others didn’t. There were hot tubs, and massage, and sex. Lots of sex.

And, so, by the time Leslie’s new partner encouraged her to come and meet Potter, she’d heard a lot about him.

At that time, Potter was living in a large house in Auckland’s Gillies Ave, with a group of people who would form the basis of the Centrepoint commune.

Leslie walked in the door expecting a lot. “I had this big build-up about who he was.” 

What she saw “was this man … sitting glumly in front of the television set.”

They exchanged a few pleasantries, but Potter was soon slumped back in front of the TV.

“And so I was sort of like, ‘What do people see in him?!’”

What she didn’t know at the time, was that Potter was going through a messy relationship break-up. 

It was a blip, a rare moment of impotence. By the time Centrepoint began, he was back on his feet, the all-powerful leader, assuming the position of guru.

centrepoint magazine
In black and white: Barri Leslie started the Centrepoint magazine as a place to publish Bert Potter’s speeches, but it grew into a rich (if slanted) record of the commune’s life and times.

Later still, after courting controversy for years, after taunting the authorities, after convincing many of his followers to forget what they’d learned about sexual morality and to ignore the law, Potter would end up going to prison for drugs, perjury, and sex crimes against children.

The reputation of Centrepoint – a community that set out with good intentions, a place that wanted to find a better way of living – would be in tatters.

And Barri Leslie was there for it all. She was a founding member of Centrepoint, became Potter’s propagandist as long-time editor of the community magazine, and publicly defended the community from child sex allegations.

Then, after years of ignoring her gut instinct that what Potter was teaching about sex was wrong, Leslie turned. She set out to stop what was going on – initially from the inside.

Eventually, she left – but continued her campaign, and played a crucial role in bringing down the community she had helped found.

Her story is a central thread to The Commune, Stuff’s new 12-part documentary podcast about Centrepoint, the sex-obsessed community that was based at Albany, on Auckland’s North Shore, from 1978 to 2000.

In a lot of ways, Barri herself is the Centrepoint story: a middle-class, educated person who was looking for something more out of life, then found herself living in a cult under the thrall of a misguided guru, before finally realising her dream had turned into a nightmare.

“You sort of look back and go, why didn't I leave at that point? You know, there's all these points where you just look back and go [why didn’t I leave]?”

Barri Leslie is a central character of The Commune, a Stuff podcast you can listen to now GET THE PODCAST


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B letter img arri Leslie grew up in a Presbyterian home, always curious about spirituality. She studied psychology at university, before becoming a teacher, getting married and having two children.

Her relationship was in trouble, but, in conservative 1970s New Zealand, Barri says, she was trapped.

“Divorce wasn't something people did, so I was reading and reading and reading and decided community living would get me out of this nuclear [family] trauma.”

Community living was the broad term for a movement which was flourishing on the edges of mainstream society at the time: a group of families or individuals would pool their money and find somewhere to live.

Together with others, Leslie and her husband set up a commune based around a school in west Auckland. The community, Timatanga, is still going today.

Leslie had found what she was looking for. 

“What I just loved about it is what I call the ‘women at the well’. When you're in your nuclear home with your two babies, you're so alone. But what was absolutely wonderful [was] being able to sit and nurse your baby or talk. That – I absolutely love about community living.”

But Leslie didn’t last at Timatanga – her marriage didn’t improve and she ended up leaving and falling into another relationship, this time with a man called John Sweden.

It was Sweden, a former advertising executive with a talent for ceramic pottery and an interest in group therapy, who introduced her to Potter.

Soon, Leslie was trying out the group therapy, and then, when talk of forming a community began, she knew she wanted in.

“It was just like, oh, yes, I can't live in my foundation community – here's another community and my ‘women at the well’, the part that I loved.”

I letter img n 1978, when Centrepoint officially began, Leslie was a founding member. And soon after, she and Sweden married, and had a child.

Five women were pregnant at the same time she was: she was well and truly back amongst the ‘women at the well’; living communally, striving for a better way of life, and getting into the group therapy sessions under the guidance of a leader who told them: “We on the inside were special, more loving than the rest of the world.”

Potter encouraged open sexuality even when couples were married – which could lead to awkward conversations back in the communal dining area, when people came back together after a day of working around the community. 

“So you'd be standing there waiting to get your meal and your partner would arrive and go, ‘I went off with so-and-so in the afternoon.’ Your stomach would be lurching, and then you'd be sitting with your partner and with all these eyes on you.”

Being uncomfortable was one thing. But soon Leslie would witness incidents that were much more troubling.

babies at the commune community
Child’s play: Centrepoint in 1981 – it would be more than another decade before rumours of child sex abuse were finally proven in court. Auckland Star Photo Archive

Early on, Potter was totally brazen about the fact that he was having sex with girls as young as 12 or 13, and he was encouraging other members to do the same. He argued that the children of Centrepoint needed to be raised sexually “free” so they could avoid the sexual hangups that supposedly plagued older generations. 

Looking back, Leslie acknowledges that it seems crazy she didn’t push back.

“It's hard to explain to anyone ... just how naive we were, or I was – I'll own that for me. Growing up in a Presbyterian home, and then I trained as a teacher – there was no mention of childhood sexual abuse. I just did not have a concept in my head or words about it.”

E letter img ventually, Leslie would come to recognise the existence of child sexual abuse, and understand the enduring harm it causes. But unlike those members who quit in disgust very early on, Leslie’s journey to enlightenment was slow. Time and again, she would decide to leave Centrepoint then find herself pulled back into the community, and once again defending it from outsiders.

After she finally left in the 1990s, Leslie studied the psychology of cults at university. She says academia finally gave her insight into why it had been so hard to leave. She learnt how someone’s personal identity can be overtaken with a cult identity, and how cults employ “love-bombing”, “thought-stopping cliches” and economic coercion to control members.

Yet even with this fresh understanding, she still had to reckon with her personal complicity in supporting a system which had left children unprotected against predators. 

In The Commune podcast, Leslie is extraordinarily candid about the mistakes she made, and about how in the early days after leaving Centrepoint she struggled with self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.

“You can't undo the harm that was done to your children and the family. It’s really hard to live with.”

One of the remarkable things about Leslie, though, is that she then decided to take her guilt and shame and do something useful with them. In The Commune she explains the dramatic steps she took to try to atone for her past mistakes. 

Bert Potter at the commune community
Bert says: Centrepoint’s guru delivering a speech to the community in 1983. Note the lapel mic capturing every word for publication in the commune magazine. Auckland Star Photo Archive

She says redemption “became quite an important word for me – it's a profound human concept [...] When you mess up, do something to redeem what you've done.”

The big dramas around the destruction of Centrepoint are now in the past, but Leslie believes she still has redemptive work to do – including counselling young people who are trying to move on after leaving modern cult-like organisations. It connects to a concept she once read about – that of “the wounded healer”.

Because of Centrepoint, she’s been to the same places as the ex-cultists she counsels, and understands what they’re going through. 

“All this knowledge – hard-earned, horrendously-earned knowledge – didn't need to be wasted or rejected. It could be used because other people are going through that as well.”

The Commune is a 12-part Stuff podcast produced and edited by Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham. GET THE PODCAST
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Words Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham
Illustrator Phil Johnson
Design and layout Sungmi Kim
Editor John Hartevelt

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The Commune contains discussion of themes that some people may find distressing. Click here for a list of support services and helplines

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