Shortly before Joe Biden was inaugurated, Sam’s mother began stocking up on food in a panic. He didn’t know why, but he knew it probably had something to do with QAnon.
The 19-year-old started to notice changes in his mother’s behavior around the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. She had always been a nervous woman: She stopped flying after 9/11 and had hovered closely to Sam and his two younger siblings for their entire lives. But during the COVID-19 crisis, his mom’s paranoia spiraled from quirky to deranged. It has turned her into someone he hardly recognizes.
Though she didn’t used to be very political, she now fears the president is a pedophile who stole the election. She’s scared of radiation from the 5G towers in her neighborhood and, as a white woman, she told her son, she’s afraid of being harmed by Black Lives Matter protesters — a movement she once supported. She worries that Sam’s brother and sister are being “indoctrinated” at their public high school and wants to move them to a Catholic one. She’s also refusing to get them immunized against COVID-19 as false rumors swirl that the vaccine contains a secret location-tracking microchip. (She was initially terrified of the virus but now considers the lockdowns an affront to her freedoms.)
“She wasn’t always like this,” Sam said. “It just keeps getting worse.”
Sam moved back into his mom’s Michigan home last March when his college campus shut down. His dad, who’d been divorced from his mother for many years, had recently died, and it was nice to be back around family. But Sam quickly noticed his mom was spending almost all of her time online. For hours into the night she’d be on Facebook and, later, Parler, obsessing over articles from obscure, ultraconservative websites that traffic in fake news. She’d send posts to Sam pushing political claims that were risibly false, and they’d get into furious arguments over dinner as he tried to debunk them.
As his mom grew increasingly irritable and combative, Sam spent more time hiding out in his bedroom. It was disturbing to hear his mother rattling off such brazen and hateful falsehoods, unwilling to listen to reason. She seemed angry all the time and was suddenly gravely concerned about things like pedophilia. So a few months ago, Sam decided to look into #SaveTheChildren, a hashtag she’d been using a lot on social media. It led him straight to QAnon. And at once, things started to make sense.
QAnon, as Sam learned, is a far-right conspiracy theory movement centered on the idea that Donald Trump is championing a shadow war against a “deep-state” cabal of liberal elites who rule the world and run a global child sex trafficking ring. QAnon adherents are convinced that anyone and everyone is out to get them: the government, the media, Big Tech and Big Pharma — no one can be trusted save for Trump and “Q,” their anonymous online leader (and supposed government insider) who has fed them coded “intel” via the message board 8kun. They’re endlessly waiting for a prophesied day of reckoning known as “The Storm,” during which all the evildoers will be rounded up and executed.
“You don’t want to believe that someone you love is this disconnected from reality.”
Sam’s mom had found a community that not only validated her fear, but also encouraged her anger. “It’s hard. I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I do feel like I’m losing her.”
The teen often feels alone, but he’s far from it. Although there’s limited data on the issue, researchers believe QAnon has ensnared millions of Americans and is especially popular among baby boomers who are struggling with digital literacy. The formerly fringe movement gained explosive traction in 2020 by seizing on fear and confusion stemming from the pandemic and exploiting political tensions surrounding the election and nationwide racial justice protests. It played a major role in inciting the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 through its months-long deluge of propaganda amplifying and embellishing Trump’s false claim that the election was fraudulent.
The result is a disinformation crisis of unprecedented scale with countless fraying families on the frontlines, blindly trying to pry their loved ones from a cult.
HuffPost spoke to nine children of QAnon believers in seven states, ranging in age from 19 to 46. Some are desperately trying to deradicalize their moms and dads — an agonizing process that can feel maddening, heartbreaking and futile. Others believe their parents are already too far gone and have given up trying to help them. A few have made the painful decision to cut off contact entirely, for the sake of their own mental health. (Unless otherwise noted, each person in this article is identified by a pseudonym to protect their family’s privacy.) All are sharing their stories in hopes of providing comfort to the myriad others experiencing the same heartache behind the scenes.
‘It’s Killing Me To See This’
Elaina, a 28-year-old graphic designer from Missouri, has struggled to watch as her mom’s obsession with QAnon damages her life in potentially irreparable ways. She’s sinking deeper and deeper into debt, convinced that it will all soon be forgiven under a new financial system called NESARA — a bogus theory, revived by QAnon, that stems from a set of economic reforms that were proposed in the 1990s but never introduced before Congress. After Elaina and her husband bought a house last year, her mother told them to skip their mortgage payments.
“It’s hard to even talk about this because it’s just so ridiculous,” Elaina said, choking up. “You don’t want to believe that someone you love is this disconnected from reality.”
Elaina lost her mom to QAnon three years ago, not long after Q’s first post on 4chan, an 8kun predecessor, in late 2017. What started as idle curiosity is now a full-fledged addiction. Her mother spends hours every day watching YouTube and BitChute videos discussing things like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mutilating children and drinking their blood to get high off a drug called adrenochrome — a QAnon theory known as “frazzledrip,” which she believes to be true.
“She has told me before that — and it’s wild saying this out loud — but that if I don’t believe in this stuff, then I’m not going to ‘ascend’ or be part of the next world,” said Elaina, who is identified by her real first name and whose attempts to challenge her mother’s claims have only ever pushed her away.
“It’s like trying to convince someone of their religion being wrong.”
Elaina has a hard time finding the words to express the pain that comes from watching the woman who raised her unravel before her eyes. She doesn’t understand how her own mother could believe in the kind of crazy conspiracy theories that her friends make fun of online. That’s often the hardest part for people in her situation. How could someone so close to them — especially a parent — buy into something so ludicrous?
“My mom’s the most giving, wonderful person. Or, she was. [QAnon] has taken over her life.”
But QAnon doesn’t recruit followers outright with tales of Satan-worshipping cannibals. Its proponents are conditioned to believe their rights are being infringed upon — Silicon Valley is silencing them, the press is lying to them, Democrats are cheating them — and they should do something about it. This sense of profound aggrievement is familiar to Trump supporters, but for those like Elaina’s mom, it then becomes easier to consider that this could all be part of one big conspiracy encompassing far more sinister elements.
What could be more sinister than the atrocities that QAnon claims are happening to children at the hands of the “deep state”? Its false stories of little kids being preyed upon in the most horrific ways imaginable play into many QAnon believers’ parental instincts.
“[My mom] will always say, ‘Whenever I think about what’s happening to the children, it just makes me sick,’” Elaina said. “I mean, she really does believe it.”
Her mother was outraged by Biden’s supposed theft of the November election and counted down the days until he would suffer retribution, which was supposed to happen on Inauguration Day. Q had led her and others to believe that Trump would declare martial law, upon which the military would swoop in and haul Biden and his cronies away before he could take his oath of office.
When that didn’t happen, Elaina’s mom, like so many believers, broke down. Yet again, “The Storm,” or “The Great Awakening,” as it’s often referred to, had failed to transpire. Elaina felt a cautious glimmer of hope that maybe this time her mother would realize QAnon was a hoax. But as usual, members of the QAnon community quickly came up with a rationalization to prolong their shared delusion: The newscast of Biden’s inaugural ceremony was merely a prerecorded video produced by the deep state to con the public into thinking he’s actually in power, as Elaina’s mom later explained.
“It all just makes me so sad,” Elaina said. “Honestly, the only reason my mom and I still talk is because I guess I’ve convinced myself that I can help her.”
In the weeks since the inauguration, QAnon supporters have become a national laughingstock. Even late-night talk show hosts have delighted in mocking them. But to those who love them, QAnon isn’t a joke. They wish more people understood the anguish it’s causing in households across the U.S.
Kara, a 46-year-old health care worker in the Midwest, said her mom’s descent into QAnon was gradual at first but accelerated once she retired. Now it’s out of control.
“My mom’s the most giving, wonderful person. Or, she was,” Kara said. “This has taken over her life.”
Since delving into QAnon, Kara’s mom has stopped taking care of herself. She hardly cooks or sees her grandkids anymore, and her relationship with her husband, Kara’s stepdad (who has no interest in QAnon), is falling apart. She’s gaining weight and spends nearly every waking hour glued to her phone, bingeing QAnon videos and living in fear of whatever deep-state monstrosity is supposed to happen next.
“You wouldn’t believe the stress in her face when she thinks that some big thing is going to happen. She looks like she saw a ghost,” Kara said. “This has taken years off her life.”
Seeing her mom like this has been excruciating for Kara, who often feels helpless — especially during a pandemic, when her visits to see her mother are few and far between. She torments herself wondering if she’s doing enough to help her, or what she could have done to prevent this. And as more Americans become aware of QAnon, it has also been hurtful for Kara to see the narrative form that only stupid or uneducated people can succumb to its conspiracy theories. In a recent interview with Politico, for example, Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) said of the Republican Party: “They can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters. They cannot do both.”
Kara’s mother went to college and worked in health care. The belief that she must be uneducated is a dangerous misunderstanding of how people fall into QAnon — which in many cases has less to do with intelligence than with circumstantial vulnerability.
Fear and confusion are major drivers of conspiratorial thinking; a key reason why QAnon’s allure skyrocketed early in the pandemic is because droves of panicked people were desperate for answers about the coronavirus that expert authorities couldn’t immediately provide. QAnon quickly conjured up its own twisted version of events, tactically affirming people’s fears while seeding suspicion of credible information sources. (QAnon is also a common destination for white supremacists, whose racism can’t be explained away by their educational status.)
“There’s a lot of reasons to hate Trump, but the biggest, most personal reason to me is that he took my parents away from me.”
Kara’s mom was particularly vulnerable after the deaths of her own mother and sister. She found QAnon when she was in pain and looking for a distraction.
“The breakdown of her family unit led her to seek out a new group of people,” Kara said, adding that members of QAnon groups on social media eagerly embraced her.
Back when her mom first started spouting more extreme conspiratorial rhetoric, Kara and her siblings were stunned. They had no idea at the time what QAnon was and had no logical explanation for why their mother had come to believe that the pope was a hologram and that lizard people roamed the Earth. They seriously considered having her committed to a mental hospital. But then, by chance, Kara came across a Reddit post breaking down the QAnon movement.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is everything she believes,’” Kara said. “I felt like I wasn’t alone, like, ‘Is there a support group? Is there somebody who has a way to get her out?’”
So far, the answer is no. Kara’s efforts to pull her mom away from QAnon have become so contentious that at one point her mother threatened to remove her from her will.
“It usually ends up in a fight if I dare say anything to her, and I think for her it’s the whole, ‘I’m the mom, you’re the kid,’” Kara said. “It’s like hitting a brick wall.”
A couple of her siblings now find it too upsetting to speak to their mother, but she’s still hoping for a breakthrough. A while ago, after her mom sent her yet another QAnon clip, an exasperated Kara replied with a meme she’d seen online. It featured a parody hotline, “1-800-QUIT-Q-CULT,” and urged QAnon radicals to find their way back to their families.
“If only the following 1-800 was a real thing we all would have called it long ago,” Kara texted her mother. “Love you so much and it’s killing me to see this, I miss my mom!!!!”
Nowhere To Turn For Help
Sadly, there is no magic hotline or manual to deprogram your QAnon-addicted loved one. There seem to be almost no resources at all — despite QAnon’s head-spinning growth and the urgent calls from extremism experts for the government to invest in deradicalization initiatives. The individuals who spoke to HuffPost described feeling entirely on their own while scouring the web for strategies on how to help their parents.
But so far, nothing has worked for any of them.
When Sabrina’s mom and dad started reciting QAnon conspiracy theories last spring, the 19-year-old thought the best thing she could do was debunk their misinformation. So whenever they’d send her links about anti-fascist activists going undercover to provoke riots, or COVID-19 being the “biggest hoax since 9/11,” she’d explain why it wasn’t true. It backfired: Their conversations almost always turned into vicious two-on-one arguments.
She became severely depressed and started harming herself as time went on. Then in June, after a particularly volatile clash, Sabrina’s parents kicked her out of the house.
“Telling them their beliefs were wrong only strengthened that belief in their mind. It just made them more convinced they were right,” she said. “I wish I had just stayed quiet.”
Sabrina dropped out of school and spent months sleeping in her car in a Walmart parking lot and on friends’ couches before finally finding a place she could stay long-term. She hasn’t heard from her parents since she moved out: no birthday call, no Christmas card — nothing.
“They’ve hurt me a lot,” she said. “I feel like I’ve lost my parents.”
Like most others featured in this story, Sabrina believes her mom and dad were primed for QAnon by an echo chamber of far-right lies and propaganda reinforced by Fox News personalities, aggressive social media algorithms — and Trump. The former president is hailed as a deity-like figure in Q-World and has repeatedly amplified QAnon conspiracy theories that support his political agenda.
“They started taking everything from Fox News and everything out of Trump’s mouth as gospel,” Sabrina said. “There’s a lot of reasons to hate Trump, but the biggest, most personal reason to me is that he took my parents away from me.”
At first, Sabrina thought her separation from her parents would be temporary. She passed her time hunting for resources that she could use to help bring them back from QAnon for whenever she returned home. But by January, after they’d been apart for more than half a year, she gave up hope and redirected her efforts to locating a support network instead. She found r/QAnonCasualities, a Reddit community where friends, spouses and relatives of QAnon believers come together to vent and commiserate.
Created in July 2019, the subreddit had amassed only a few hundred subscribers by the beginning of the pandemic last year. Its membership has since ballooned to more than 128,000. The page’s sudden popularity over the past few months reflects the sobering pace of QAnon’s mass radicalization campaign and offers a glimpse of how many others in Sabrina’s situation have found themselves desperate for help. Among its recent posts: “Q took my dad away”; “I’ve lost my Mum to QAnon”; “I miss the man who raised me.”
Sabrina has found comfort in reading the stories on r/QAnonCasualties from people who can relate to her experience. The friends she’d confided in who didn’t have any personal connection to QAnon were sympathetic but couldn’t understand what she was going through. The subreddit has also helped her start to make peace with the idea that letting go of her parents may be the only way she can heal from the pain they’ve caused her.
“If they go the rest of their lives believing this stuff, I don’t know how much I want them in my life again,” she said. “Their beliefs directly affect the way they act towards me. So I wouldn’t want them around my kids. I wouldn’t want them at my wedding.”
QAnon has dominated headlines and airwaves as it stakes its territory in mainstream U.S. politics. Journalists are shedding light on vitally important issues, such as the complicity of Big Tech and the GOP in its insidious rise. But absent to a large degree from the media coverage are the voices of people like Sabrina and Amanda, who suffer as a result of QAnon every day and feel as if they have nowhere to turn for help.
Have you lost someone you care about to QAnon? We’d love to hear from you: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda, a 26-year-old home health aide who provides care for the elderly in New Jersey, is also trying to navigate her mom’s radicalization by herself. Her mother has always been a hard-line conservative and is a fervent Trump supporter who got kicked off Facebook and Instagram for repeatedly posting racist and Islamophobic memes. In December she joined Parler, where QAnon was waiting for her.
“It took a crazy-fast hold on her,” said Amanda, who’s identified by her real first name. QAnon videos “are all she listens to all day now.”
In the run-up to Inauguration Day, Amanda’s mom was convinced that “The Great Awakening” would cause a nationwide blackout as the military arrested Biden and other members of the deep state at Trump’s behest. She spent hundreds of dollars on canned food, an FM radio, flashlights and gasoline for their family generator.
“She kept saying, ‘Just you wait. Joe Biden won’t be sleeping in the White House. Just you wait.’ She was so confident that it was going to happen,” Amanda recalled. “When nothing happened, she was embarrassed but moved right along to the next thing.”
Unsure of what else she could do, Amanda began Googling for tips to help snap her mom out of it before things got any worse. Her concern turned to panic when she realized that her mom was planning to prevent her husband, Amanda’s father, from getting immunized against the coronavirus because she believed the QAnon-promoted conspiracy theory that the vaccine contains a location-tracking microchip.
Amanda’s dad is undergoing chemotherapy to treat leukemia and cancer in his stomach and appendix; if he contracts COVID-19, there’s a good chance he’ll die.
“She needs to drop the freaking conspiracies and let my dad get his damn vaccine,” she said. “This is getting really dangerous really quickly. What am I supposed to do?”
God, Pseudoscience And ‘QAmom’
Despite QAnon’s rapid spread, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. There has been little reliable data collection regarding the demographics of its adherents, and that information will be vital to addressing the threat it poses. Analysis by independent researchers and journalists indicates that QAnon has taken considerable hold among baby boomers, Christians and communities interested in natural wellness, among other groups. Its pervasive disinformation about child abuse has also been particularly effective at drawing mothers into the movement, spawning the term “QAmom.”
For Eric’s mother, a Barack Obama voter who became a Trump supporter, natural healing remedies and get-rich-quick schemes guided her path to embracing QAnon. Growing up, his Ohio home was filled with his mother’s ever-expanding collection of essential oils. She would also bicker with medical professionals about how to cure various ailments, convinced that she knew better. A few years ago, when Eric was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a form of kidney cancer, she urged him to pursue alternative medicine treatments instead of seeing oncologists. (He ignored her advice. Doctors removed the cancerous part of his kidney, and he remains in remission.)
“It’s getting to a point where my dad needs to realize that it’s either [QAnon] or us.”
His mom fell prey to financial scams, too. After getting involved with a few multilevel marketing operations — direct-selling firms that are notorious for ripping off their own distributors through pyramid schemes — she and her husband, Eric’s stepdad, were among the many people duped by a massive fraud scheme tied to the anticipated revaluation of Iraqi dinar currency. The dinar scam dates back to at least 2012, but after Trump vaguely claimed in 2017 that all currencies would soon “be on a level playing field,” it sparked a new craze among conspiracy theorists who sank their savings into the currency, as The Daily Beast reported. (The dinar is valued at around $0.00068 with no remote prospects of surpassing the value of the U.S. dollar.)
The man who sold dinars to Eric’s mom and stepdad is now serving a seven-year prison sentence for his involvement in the sprawling ruse, which cost investors $24 million. Eric, who is 39 and an engineer, has no idea how much money his parents lost. He has long been concerned about his mom’s tendency to blindly believe the false and sensational — not only including snake oil and cons, but also political disinformation.
He was alarmed in 2016 when she became entranced by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and started spewing wild, baseless claims about Hillary Clinton. But it wasn’t until Christmas of 2018 that he realized just how serious the problem had become. That was when he noticed some odd language tucked into his mom’s annual family holiday card. “Trust the Plan,” she had written between strings of printed snowflakes, before thanking “all the patriots” for protecting “our freedoms.” At the bottom, in big blue letters under a pair of Bible verses, was the term “WWG1WGA.”
Eric recognized it right away. It was an acronym for “Where We Go One We Go All,” the slogan for QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that he’d started hearing about online. He immediately alerted his siblings to their mother’s apparent interest in the group, but none of them could have predicted how quickly it would consume her.
“When I saw her going down that path, I dove headfirst into the QAnon rabbit hole, because I needed to understand it,” Eric said. “I wanted to get ahead of it.”
He began lurking in fringe message boards and devouring QAnon-related podcasts and news articles, aching to make sense of his mom’s attraction to something that seemed so patently absurd. Through months of research, he learned that she fit the profile of many people who’d fallen into QAnon’s clutches: She was immersed in the hoax-laden world of natural wellness, intensely distrusting of medical experts and the establishment at large, and part of a generation that’s highly vulnerable to fake news online. Eric wished he’d seen the signs sooner, and hoped it wasn’t too late to pull his mom back to reality.
Hundreds of miles away, Kat, a 42-year-old Colorado woman who’s identified by her real first name, has been harboring the same fear about her own mother. The first clear indication of her radicalization was a big “Q” sticker on her phone, which Kat noticed about a year ago, around the time her mom started making unfounded allegations about certain Democrats being pedophiles. One of her sisters is deep into QAnon, too, but for Kat, watching the radicalization of a parent has been uniquely painful.
Her mother, a kind and quiet woman, never cared for essential oils, alternative medicine or anything of the sort. Kat believes she took a different on-ramp to QAnon: religion. Kat was raised in an “extremely conservative” Seventh-day Adventist household, one in which Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio show played daily and where she was home-schooled until age 14. Her mom grew even more religious after marrying Kat’s stepdad, a militant gun fanatic who got her listening to Alex Jones and other big-time conspiracy cranks.
For Kat, who abandoned her religion after leaving home many years ago, her mom’s newfound faith in QAnon feels, in a way, very familiar.
QAnon draws its adherents into an imagined battle of good versus evil that is prophesied to culminate in an apocalyptic reckoning. In its mission to prevail over a satanic cabal of liberal elites, it promotes themes of Christian nationalism, including patriotism and the preservation of traditional American values. QAnon believers also spend a great deal of time poring over Q’s cryptic 8kun posts, or “Q Drops,” which are often steeped in Scripture, like sacred texts bearing hidden truths. And above all, QAnon demands unwavering faith in a higher power.
“Trump is the savior in all of this,” said Kat, who worries that her mom’s belief in QAnon, like her trust in God, is resolute. Both her mother and sister were steadfastly convinced that Trump would thwart Biden’s inauguration, and are now praying for another miracle.
“I feel like they’re waiting for their God to come save them.”
Angry And Alone
QAnon proponents are united by a collective sense of victimhood. Their deluded belief that the deep state robbed them of Trump’s electoral victory in November was a final straw for many followers, leading them to riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as the rest of the QAnon community cheered them on online. This shared, self-righteous rage is often frightening to their loved ones, who can’t relate to their fury over problems that don’t actually exist — a stolen election, a location-tracking vaccine, a hoax pandemic.
Last summer, it was the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that pushed Larry’s dad, a longtime Trump supporter and blossoming QAnon fan, over the edge.
“My dad called George Floyd a drug addict. He called George Floyd a criminal. He said he deserved it,” recalled Larry, adding that his dad believed the media was deliberately overhyping incidents of police brutality in a bid to abolish the U.S. police system.
“When it’s your mom, you want to just shake them and say, 'Snap out of it!'”
Larry, a 22-year-old college student who lives in Michigan, and who is identified by his real first name, said his dad has always been a closeted racist. But his hateful views intensified after Trump’s election, and over the past six months they’ve turned explosive.
“We don’t talk much anymore,” Larry said. “I’ll be sitting with him on the couch worrying, like, ‘Oh, God, please, I hope a political commercial doesn’t come on. I hope we can just watch this basketball game and he doesn’t see a player kneel and lose his mind.’ Day after day, it’s getting harder and harder to spend time with him.”
Inauguration Day was a scary event in Larry’s household. He wasn’t home, but he later learned that his dad went on a rampage. He erupted at Larry’s mom and sister — who got emotional while watching Kamala Harris become the nation’s first female vice president — and screamed that they were “fucking stupid” and “pinheaded liberals.”
They ended up leaving the house.
“The QAnon conspiracy is pulling the fabric of political reality out from under him slowly,” Larry said of his father. “This is the man I was supposed to look up to for my entire life.”
Larry works at a local pizza joint, and said he made multiple deliveries last year to a man living in a dilapidated house with a Confederate flag hanging out front. To his horror — and his father’s apparent delight — he heard on the news in October that the man was a militia member and one of the individuals arrested by the FBI under suspicion of orchestrating a domestic terrorism plot to abduct Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“My dad thought it was awesome,” Larry said. “He said he was in full support of these people, wishing they had kidnapped and killed her. It was hard to hear.”
Larry believes QAnon has awakened in his dad a violent anger that he suspects has been brewing for quite some time. He doesn’t know how much worse it may get — he just knows he doesn’t want to be around to find out.
“It’s getting to a point where my dad needs to realize that it’s either this or us. With how awful he’s being, he doesn’t realize he’s pushing his family away,” Larry said. “The funny thing is, if we all did leave and be done with him, it would only reinforce his beliefs.”
Eric, the 39-year-old engineer from Ohio, has already reached a breaking point with his mother. By the time he noticed her interest in QAnon, she was obsessed with it and had absorbed its most extreme theories, including frazzledrip. His conversations with her started devolving into shouting matches that quickly turned personal, leaving them both hurt and resentful. They’ve hardly spoken to each other in more than a year now, in part because Eric and his wife want to shield their own children from her “batshit” beliefs.
“She’s isolated herself,” he said. “She has no relationship with me or my kids.”
Eric has spent months in therapy discussing his issues with his mom and potential avenues for reconciliation. At this point, though, he doesn’t know if he even wants her back in his life, in light of recent events. His mom, who believes the pandemic is a hoax and refuses to wear a face mask, came down with COVID-19 symptoms late last year but was never tested, he said. She was a primary caregiver for her own mother, Eric’s 85-year-old grandmother, who subsequently caught the virus and died just after Christmas.
Eric blames his mom for his grandmother’s death.
He saw her for the first time in ages at the funeral in January, around the time of the insurrection at the Capitol. She showed up wearing a fishnet-style mask that was riddled with holes as a way to make a political statement, he said. His family was horrified.
“I don’t know if I can heal our relationship because of how much anger I have, especially after the funeral. That was just — it was a slap in the face,” Eric said. “I’m 100% positive, if we weren’t burying my grandmother, she would have been in D.C. storming the Capitol.”
A Losing Battle
One of the main reasons why QAnon is so adept at making the ridiculous seem legitimate is that it gradually erodes its followers’ confidence in reliable sources. Over and over again, it reinforces through its propaganda the notion that journalists, fact-checkers, scientists and even Google are part of the deep state and therefore can’t be trusted. People who don’t ascribe to QAnon’s belief system — including believers’ own friends and family members — are described as “sheep” who’ve been indoctrinated or brainwashed by the mainstream media, and who aren’t yet “awake” to reality.
And because QAnon adherents are conditioned to interpret opposition as validation, trying to debunk their falsehoods often only pushes them deeper into the movement. Many, like Daniel’s mom, have reached a point where they’ve invested so much time and energy in QAnon, and isolated themselves from so many people, that walking away from those beliefs no longer feels like an option.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” said Daniel, a 35-year-old tech worker in California who considers QAnon to be a cult from which his mother likely can’t be saved. “Pulling people out of cults, in general, is damn-near impossible.”
His mom, a two-time Obama voter, discovered QAnon early in Trump’s presidency. Since then, it seems to have become part of her identity — no amount of evidence or concern from her family can shake her faith in it.
Daniel has tried several approaches to help her. Fact-checking her conspiracy theories always proved futile, so at one point he decided to sit and listen to her beliefs in a calm, open-minded manner, hoping, to no avail, that she might then do the same.
“It’s just kind of dumbfounding to sit there and listen, because it’s like, ‘Holy shit, you believe this stuff,’” he said. “When it’s your mom, you want to just shake them and say, ‘Snap out of it!’”
Daniel used to work in Democratic politics and, years ago, worked directly for one of the members of Congress who had to take shelter in the Capitol as rioters forced their way inside on Jan. 6. It was a difficult day for him on a personal level: He feared for his former boss’s safety and was so distressed by the insurrection as it unfolded live on television and social media that he took the afternoon off work.
When he spoke to his mom about it a couple of days later, she seemed unbothered by what had happened. Daniel couldn’t believe it. So he tried a new way to break through to her: telling her, candidly, exactly how her behavior was making him feel.
“I love you,” Daniel told his mother, “but with your inundation of fake news, you have created a reality for yourself that doesn’t exist, and by doing so, you are actively distancing yourself from your family. It is making it harder for us to connect with you because, unfortunately, we feel that you are just not living in the world that we live in, and it’s frightening for us.”
His mom’s response laid bare the degree to which QAnon had warped her worldview: “Oh, honey,” she said. “That’s how I feel about you.”
Confrontations like the one between Daniel and his mother are quietly playing out inside households all over the country, as children of QAnon believers scramble to become self-taught deradicalization experts. In a jarring role reversal, many now find themselves trying to teach their own moms and dads right from wrong and true from false. But as those who spoke to HuffPost have found, it’s usually a losing battle that leaves them feeling as if they’ve lost a parent they can’t even mourn.
Sam, the teenage college student from Michigan, hasn’t talked to his mom in weeks. They’d been arguing a lot, and he needed some space. He sometimes thinks back to one of his favorite memories with her. It was four or five years ago, and she’d taken him and his siblings to a river in the northern part of the state to go canoeing together. He and his mom shared a boat and quickly realized how bad they were at steering it. They kept crashing into the shore and splashing each other with their paddles, laughing hysterically while trying to fend off spiders. That’s how he likes to remember her — fun, loving and happy. But things are different now.
They went back up north to go canoeing again last summer, a few months after Sam’s dad died. By that point, his mom was already entangled in a web of QAnon conspiracy theories and other disinformation, and had little interest in talking about almost anything else. Sam got in a boat by himself that time, not wanting to be around her. He’d learned that keeping his distance was the only way to stop them from fighting.
Periodically taking time away from his mom has helped Sam protect his own mental well-being, but he always misses her. And although he so often feels like she’s slipping away from him, he hasn’t given up hope. He still believes he can bring her back.
“I’m going to keep trying. I have to,” he said. “I don’t want to have no parents.”
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images