She bought ammunition, camping gear, a water purifier and boxes of canned food. Then, Tyler’s mother started wearing a holstered pistol around the house, convinced that 10 days of unrest and mass power outages were coming.
The chaos would culminate, she assured her son, in former president Donald Trump’s triumphant return to power on March 4, the original Inauguration Day before the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1932.
Tyler, 24, had been living with his mother an hour north of Minneapolis since he graduated college in 2019. The paranoia and fear that had engulfed his home had become unbearable in the months since Trump began to falsely claim that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
“Any advice for dealing with a qanon parent who thinks ww3 will happen during the inauguration?” Tyler asked last month on r/QAnonCasualties, a fast-growing Reddit group for those whose loved ones have been consumed by the bizarre and byzantine universe of baseless conspiracy theories known as QAnon.
“Do they have weapons?” one of the site’s moderators asked.
“Yep. A lot of them,” Tyler replied. “I would leave, but I don’t have anywhere to go.” He said he couldn’t imagine cutting ties to his mother.
In Washington, rioters, inflamed by unfounded allegations of a stolen election, had stormed the Capitol leaving five dead and triggering the impeachment of a president. Far from Washington, the falsehoods that had whipped so many into a frenzy were wreaking a different sort of chaos; one that was tearing families apart.
Family members spoke of their loved ones as if they were cult members or drug addicts, sucked in by social media companies and self-serving politicians who warped their views of reality. They begged and bargained with parents and partners to put down their phones for just a few days in the hope that the spell might be interrupted and they might return to their old selves.
To some it seemed as if the United States was gripped by an epidemic of conspiracy theories.
The anguish was playing out behind closed doors in therapists’ offices, where overwhelmed family members were seeking advice. And it was painfully clear on QAnonCasualties, the Reddit group where Tyler had turned for support.
The group offered a rough barometer of the growing turmoil. Since last summer it had grown from about 10,000 members to more than 130,000 in the days after Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Each day there was a flood of new posts:
A woman in Chattanooga, Tenn., was just days away from moving out of the house she and her partner bought five years earlier. “I feel like I’m in a twisted black mirror episode that’s lasting WAY too long,” she wrote. “I feel hopeless that we will ever get back to the beautiful life we shared in our lovely home.”
A woman in Palm Beach, Fla., had gone two weeks without speaking to her mother and was starting to wonder if the rift was irreparable. “I grieve for her every day as if she is dead,” she wrote.
A teenager in Annapolis, Md., worried that she no longer “knew” her father. “I’ve come to the breaking point,” she confessed. “My heart goes out to everyone else in this situation. It really sucks.”
Tyler, alone in his bedroom, read many of the new posts, hoping that they would help him make sense of his mother’s beliefs. Sometimes it felt as if every conversation with his mom and her new husband circled back to Trump-related conspiracies.
To protect his family’s anonymity, The Washington Post is only using Tyler’s first name. In an email, she blamed her son for the tension in the house, writing that he was disrespectful and refused to look for work after leaving his job earlier this year. She added that she “never even heard of Qanon until very recently” and doesn’t “follow it,” but declined to discuss why she had begun purchasing survival gear and whether she believed Trump would return to the White House in March. “My beliefs about Trump are actually none of your business,” she wrote.
Tyler said he and his mother discussed QAnon one time; a bizarre conversation in which his mother insisted that QAnon prophecies were the product of artificial intelligence. He described an atmosphere of growing conspiracy and fear that pervaded his home. “It started a month before the election,” Tyler said in an interview, “and it kept growing until it felt like she was preaching the Bible to me.”
At first she insisted that Trump, not Biden, would be inaugurated on Jan. 20, and for a while Tyler held out hope that Biden’s swearing-in would jolt his mother back into reality. She would put away her gun and life would return to normal. But, the ceremony in Washington seemed to make little difference at his house in Minnesota.
“She’s waiting for March 4th now,” he wrote.
“What’s March 4th?” asked one of the QAnonCasualties group members.
“Trump’s inauguration as new world president,” Tyler replied, referring to a common belief among some QAnon followers that it represented the true Inauguration Day as set out in the Constitution.
Tyler worried that he might not be able to wait that long for his mother to snap out of the spell.
The first QAnonCasualties post went up on July 4, 2019, some two years after the conspiracy’s unidentified online originator, known as Q, baselessly claimed that Trump was secretly leading a war against an elite cabal of pedophiles who controlled Washington, Hollywood and the world.
By that point, QAnon was no longer just an online phenomenon in which the group’s most fanatical adherents called for hanging traitors and waited for the “Storm,” an awakening that would reveal the true breadth of evil in America. Some followers had begun showing up at Trump rallies wearing T-shirts and holding signs advertising their cause.
“My mom has been into QAnon since it got started,” wrote the QAnonCasualties founder, who has since deactivated his Reddit account. “The ignorance, bigotry and refusal to question the ‘plan’ has only gotten worse over time. I’m always torn between stopping communication with her because it only seems to make me feel terrible, and feeling like it’s my responsibility to lead her back to reality.”
The founder described his experience with his mother as “exhausting, sad, scary, demoralizing” and invited members to vent or share coping strategies.
Other Reddit groups, such as r/Qult_Headquarters, were dedicated to discrediting and mocking the growing conspiracy. QAnonCasualties, the group’s founder wrote, was intended to be a “comforting place.”
“Thank the fucking stars I found you guys,” replied one of the first to join. “Today has been hard.”
“My mother is a hard-core believer,” wrote another. “I found her Twitter account handle and I am horrified and embarrassed. Who is this person?”
Like many conspiracy theories, QAnon supplied a good-versus-evil narrative into which complicated world events could be easily incorporated. “Especially during the pandemic, Q provided a structure to explain what was going on,” said Mike Rothschild, author of “The Storm Is Upon Us,” which documents QAnon’s rise.
And it offered believers a sense of meaning and purpose. “We want to believe that we matter enough [that someone wants] to crush us,” Rothschild said. “It’s comforting to think that the New World Order would single us out for destruction.”
A big part of what made it novel was that it was interactive, allowing its followers to take part in the hunt for clues as if they were playing a video game. Social media algorithms, built to capture and keep consumers’ attention, helped expand the pool of hardcore believers by leading curious individuals to online groups of believers and feeding them fresh QAnon conspiracy theories.
Unlike other online conspiracy theories, it also had the blessing of some top Republicans, such as Trump, who embraced the movement in the hope that he could channel believers’ rabid, and sometimes violent, passions for political gain. “It’s a bet that they can control this insurgency and use it to defeat their opposition and retain control,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. “The bet is we can ride this tiger. And sometimes, as in Germany and Italy, you can get eaten by the tiger.”
The same news events that inflamed QAnon followers’ passions often produced simultaneously big spikes in QAnonCasualties’s membership rolls.
On the day the news media declared Biden the winner of the 2020 election, the online support group added 2,500 new members, according to Reddit. More than 6,000 joined in the days after the Capitol riots, and another 7,300 people signed up in the hours after Biden was inaugurated.
Some family members who flocked to the site wondered if they were partially to blame for their loved one’s descent into madness. “I know that disengaging with [my sister] as our beliefs began to diverge is why she turned to Q in the first place,” a 33-year-old woman from Maryland wrote on QAnonCasualties. “Still I will just never understand.”
How to cope
Others sought out advice and coping strategies. “How should I handle my relationship with my Dad after I leave home?” asked an 18-year-old from Tampa, whose father believed that Bill Gates and other globalists were going to use the coronavirus vaccine to implant microchips in unsuspecting Americans. “I still love the man and part of the reason this has me so torn up is that I feel I may lose him for good.”
The tens of thousands flocking to QAnonCasualties represented only a subset of the pain sweeping the country. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that 17 percent of adults believed that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
Some psychologists likened the spread of QAnon and the increase in conspiratorial thinking to a global pandemic. “I’ve been practicing for 30 years and this feels very different,” said Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist in Chicago and assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “There have always been cults, but this one is a doozy.”
In Nashville, a group of about 200 mental health therapists recently set aside time to discuss how to handle QAnon believers. One therapist said she was fighting the urge to tell a QAnon believer who had come with for marriage counseling that his views were wrong, said Lisa Henderson, a licensed professional counselor and expert with the American Counseling Association, who took part in the discussion. A better approach, the group determined, was to try to figure out why the QAnon spouse was drawn to the conspiracy theory.
Looking for understanding
On QAnonCasualties, family members worried that mental health counselors might dismiss their fears or conclude that they had lost touch with reality.
“I am now going to my first therapy appointment to deal with this and I have no idea how to talk to my therapist without sounding like I’m completely crazy,” a middle school teacher from Wichita wrote in early February after cutting off contact with her mother. “Has anyone else gone to therapy for this? I’m so broken hearted because I currently have no blood relatives that I can speak to. I’m so tired.”
The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve her relationship with family, said in an interview that she met with the therapist the next day. She described her mother’s predictions of mass arrests, fears of rampant pedophilia and worries about political violence.
And she shared the pain that their estrangement had caused her.
Fortunately, she said, the therapist was familiar with QAnon. “She nodded,” the woman said in an interview, “and gave me the sign of the cross.”
In the days after the Capitol riots, Tyler began spending more and more time messaging with people he had met on QAnonCasualties.
As a child, Tyler said he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. In 2019, he graduated from a local university with a degree in manufacturing engineering. In early January, he quit his job with a local manufacturer, hoping to find something that required a college degree. He was living at home.
“Without a way to vent, I would be truly alone on this and it would break me over time,” he wrote in a QAnonCasualties discussion group.
A few days after the Capitol riots, one of his mother’s oldest friends stopped by to deliver a wedding present. Tyler’s mother had recently remarried.
“Do you plan on shooting someone today?” the friend said she joked when she noticed Tyler’s mom was wearing a pistol.
“You never know what’s going to happen with the Democrats,” Tyler’s mother replied, according to the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They stole the election.”
“We’re not going to do anything,” replied the friend, who voted for Biden. The argument continued to escalate and the friend said she left.
She described Tyler’s mother as normally a “wonderful” person, who accompanied her on kayaking trips and invited her over for tea. But she said in an interview that she was stunned by the response. “We’re 50 miles north of Minneapolis,” she said. “She was concerned for everybody, but in the Republican way. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Tyler held out hope that Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 might help ease tensions in the house. “It seems like my mom is returning to her old self,” he wrote on Jan. 21. “I mean, she’s still political, but now it’s not in my face 24/7. I’ll take that any day.”
The respite, though, didn’t last. Soon she was insisting that Trump would return to the White House in early March. Tyler said he decided to confront her.
“I told my mom everything,” he texted his biological father’s wife, Heather, on the morning of Feb. 3. Tyler’s father had lost contact with him when his son was a child, and they had only reconnected in recent years.
“Told her what?” Heather asked.
“That I don’t believe in Trump or any of her theories,” Tyler replied.
He said his mother had threatened to have her new husband “hurt” him when he returned home from work. Tyler wasn’t actually worried for his safety. “I’ve been dealing with this for years,” he texted. “It’s normal for me.”
“That’s not love,” Heather replied.
Tyler wrote back asking if he could stay at his stepmother and biological father’s house until his mother cooled off.
When Heather pulled up to the house 30 minutes later, Tyler was standing in the front yard, holding an overnight bag. He climbed into the car, exhaled and closed his eyes. Heather, a registered nurse, said she put a hand on Tyler’s shoulder and began to cry.
These days Tyler is living in his 7-year-old half sister’s bedroom, while she sleeps in her parents’ room. Recently, his mother’s new husband told him that he was no longer welcome at their home. “When your daddy gets sick of you living there (and he will) don’t bother calling us,” he wrote.
Tyler said he still hopes that the rancor and conspiracy theories fueled by the Trump presidency will fade. Maybe then, he said, he’ll be able to rebuild a relationship with his mother. About a week after he moved out, he drove by his mother’s home to pick up his belongings. His mother was inside. His things had recently been placed on the front lawn and were covered in a light dusting of snow.
“I just don’t see the humanity in this,” he said, “I wanted my family back, not this hatred.”