This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
One of the most disheartening signs of our advancing hellworld are the thousands of people who wholeheartedly believe in the deranged conspiracy known as QAnon.
It's near impossible to summarize the entire QAnon conspiracy theory, as it’s fluid and ever-changing. The nuts and bolts are that a secret government insider, the titular Q, has taken to the internet forum 8chan of all places to drop clues (known in the community as Q Drops breadcrumbs) about how U.S. President Donald Trump is taking down the deep state. The conspiracy takes some twists and turns into the occult, an ever-present cabal of pedophiles, possible executions, and the idea JFK Jr. may have faked his own death and is cosplaying as an old guy who goes to Trump rallies.
While the QAnon conspiracy often feels like an elaborate troll, an online community of real, actual people has built up around it. There’s been a lot written about how lonely these people are, how they will cut themselves off from their family (and eat sad sandwiches during holidays), and poking fun at the whole thing. Rick Ross, a cult deprogrammer and executive director of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute, says the community bears a lot of the hallmarks of a cult: the main character is infallible and everything is part of a greater plan.
And because it's unfolding online, "it becomes hard to [penetrate],” Ross said. “[Followers] spend all their watching time Q material on YouTube, dialoguing with different people online, and becoming consumed by that world online. ”
No one knows how hard it is to break through a bubble one creates around themselves than loved ones. While maybe it’s funny for those outside peering in, what is it like for those who are close to them, the people who experience their loved one's brain being rotted by YouTubers breaking down 8chan posts in real time?
I decided to seek them out. I found a woman whose husband became so obsessed with YouTube conspiracy videos he would follow her around the house and force her to watch them, someone who avoids their mother because of Q, and someone who was dumped by the man she loved because she actively attempted to debunk QAnon. Here are their stories.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Names have been changed for the protection of both the sources and their loved ones.
Deb told VICE that her mother had always suffered from mental health issues, but it wasn't until recently that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a personality disorder, and PTSD. Deb's parents' belief in QAnon started when her parents decided to get rid of cable TV and start watching YouTube a few years ago.
My mother is in her mid-60s and a Q cult member. It has made dealing with her mental issues that much harder. She had a hard time anyway dealing with the real world, and now the world is so much worse for her because of all the horrible things the cult deals with: devil worship, sex trafficking, children being tortured and eaten or used as sex slaves. It's with tears in her eyes she describes the horrible world we live in now and frustration that I don't believe her.
I've tried and tried to show her facts, only to have fake news thrown in my face. How do you disprove anything when everything that's different from what the Q cult says is considered fake news? I asked her how she could believe someone who doesn't even use his real name. How can you believe someone who has to have everything he says decoded by people you don't know anything about?
Faith was her answer to me. Follow the plan, and you'll see when the mass arrests happen and Trump is the unsung hero that is going to save the world. I'd found it more plausible if she said the aliens are going to land on the White House lawn and take over the United States.
My father follows Q too. He's not as pushy about it as my mother is. He's been doing a lot better now that I've found him a hobby. Not being on YouTube 24/7 has also helped.
It's the ones with the deep mental disorders that really stick with it.
I can't really spend any time with my mother, because all she'll want to talk about is Q, and I refuse. We used to go swimming at the lake, go shopping, have lunch, or just talk like a mother and daughter should, but that doesn't happen much anymore. I dread talking to her. I avoid her. I love her and care, but this Q cult crap has driven a wedge that is there even when we don't talk about it.
I've done my research. I've watched the videos, and my conclusion is that this person who claims to be Q is nothing more than a LARPer [live-action role player] who couldn't come up with an original thought if they tried. Everything is taken from other conspiracies or straight from movies and TV shows. All this LARPer had to do was add in a little bit of truth, a dash of the occult, a few villains, and a hero—and we have QAnon.
We can't ignore the danger that QAnon poses for the upcoming elections; you better believe each and every one of Q's followers will be voting, including my mother who hasn't voted in an election since Nixon. They'll be voting with information that they got from a LARPer, and in my mind, that's worse than Russian interference.
If I could get my hands on the piece of shit that started QAnon, I might end up in jail. This person has made my mother's life sadder, and my relationship almost nonexistent.
Jane had been with her husband for eight years and had just bought a house together. Then, one day in late 2017, he started bringing up Q and the deep-state conspiracy. Jane says she’s not positive where it all stemmed from but it may have come from his friendship with a coworker. From the moment Q was introduced, the relationship changed drastically and her husband was unrecognizable.
I feel like a ground-zero patient. My husband must have caught on to QAnon very early. It started with an argument one night that came out of nowhere. I was sitting in our kitchen having a smoke before bed. Everything up to that point that night was very quiet. But then he came in full throttle. He came at me freaking, berating me, attacking me about this thing I’ve never heard of, this QAnon stuff.
After that first argument, which scared the hell out of me, my life got flipped upside down.
It all became about Q from then on.
Sometimes I wasn't even allowed to go to bed because I had to watch one more Q video. The minute I came in the door from work he was sitting there with a video. He would say, 'You have to have the veil lifted from your eyes, Jane, you need to know this.’ He quizzed me because he wanted to make sure that I actually watched and paid attention.
I can’t pinpoint where exactly his obsession started but all of a sudden it seemed he would be watching a YouTube video and become either enraged or go into complete hysterics.
All of these Q breadcrumbs and things he was reading, these posts, YouTube videos, they took control of his entire day. He got in trouble with his job at the fire department. He was posting terrible things and tirades on Facebook.
Our home became a very hostile environment. I was a robot to him, I was ‘brainwashed.’ There were days that I was going to work and he would call and scream at me to try to make me come home because I was going to go out and get gang-raped or martial law was going to break out. At home, he would follow me around with a phone trying to get me to watch these YouTube videos so I would 'see.’ I was scared to death because his whole personality would change.
During one of his tirades I told him I was going to go take a shower. (Showers are the one place I think he’s going to leave me alone.) This time he followed me. I tried to close the bathroom door but he got his arm in holding his phone in my face playing these videos. That was the first time ever that I had my cell phone in my hand with 911 ready to go, ready to call the police on my husband.
One day my husband went upstairs to take a nap and I decided to go out and grab dinner. I threw my phone in my handbag and didn't pay any attention to it as I was only going to be gone 10 minutes. When I got back into the car I see there are a million missed calls and texts from my husband.
When I answer he is enraged and yelling, ‘Where the fuck are you!? Where the fuck did you go!? You get the fuck back to this house now!’
I rushed home thinking something terrible must have happened.
When I walked through the door my husband was a mix of hysterics and anger, and pacing the house with a shotgun strapped to him. The gun wasn’t there to intimidate me. It was for protection. He thought martial law was going to break out at any moment. He told me the terrible things the marauders would do to a girl like me once they got me, that I would be held captive and raped repeatedly.
I was scared to death.
I had no idea who the hell that man was anymore because there was a monster in his place. He completely isolated himself. He went to work and didn't speak to anybody. He did his job and went to his room. Everybody was scared of him.
People at work were also scared for my safety. I took a loan from my job and I moved out last summer. We had been together eight years and it took this QAnon stuff six months to ruin that.
Before this, my husband was my Prince Charming, a super cool guy. There's a reason I married that man. He's fun and outgoing and spontaneous, a little bit of a grump here and there, but who isn't? He had a lot of pride for serving his country and was very excited to come back west, once his service was over, to get on the fire department of his hometown.
I don't know if I'm angry. I'm just so confused. Then, if you talk to the more arrogant side of me, it's like: ‘Are you fucking kidding me, dude? YouTube videos? Breadcrumbs? This could be anybody sitting in anybody's basement.'
To this day, I feel I still don't know what to do. I survived this Q thing somehow and was able to get out. I really fear for the people in the world if this is what's happening to men and women and families out there.
Joan met her boyfriend on Match.com. It turned out they lived close to each other, were both divorced, and had grown children. They had an amazing first date and, even though they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they soon moved in together. They called their relationship their “perfect imperfect life” and discussed the next 30 years they were going to spend together.
About a year into the relationship I started hearing and learning about QAnon, which quickly became a big, deep, dark rabbit hole for him. He’s a very smart man—he had two college degrees, owns a business, was a great dad.
I knew Spygate [the idea Obama was spying on the Trump campaign] was really intriguing to him. He liked to try to connect the dots between all these players. But then it became Pizzagate [a secret pedophile conspiracy] and the pedophilia thing and the tribunals and who was going to be hung for treason.
God knows he tried to red pill me. I saw all the literature; I saw more YouTube videos on the 'Great Awakening' to know that it was clearly a hoax. It was started by a handful of gamers and continues now to this day even though the original founders aren't even involved in it anymore. I was not going to buy into that. And I was told, 'I can't save you because you're not "woke."'
Of the three years that we were together, almost two were fraught with conversation about Q. I came home from work one day to find a huge poster, about 4 feet by 4 feet, tacked up on the wall detailing the connections of Spygate. I had to look at it every single day. On the refrigerator, he had a Bingo-style card that he had made with all of the Democratic enemies with nooses by the ones he thought were going to be executed.
It was a very slow transition process from this happy-go-lucky, extremely funny man. He was a distinctly different man at the end.
I decided the only thing I could do was work with people to help expose and shine a light on QAnon and what it really is all about, who started it, who's running it today. And so I became involved with a small group of active Q debunkers. In a way, I think that made him dig his heels deeper into that world.
We were in this relationship for the long haul, joining families and finances and furnishing things together. So it came as a total surprise to me one day when he told me we were done. He said my politics made him dislike me, that I was working to debunk Qanon hurt him hugely and made him very angry.
We truly used to say all the time that we meant more to each other than politics. At some point in time, that became not true anymore.
There are a lot of people dealing with loved ones into Q. They all say the same thing, that you get to a point where you can no longer reason with them. One of the first things I tell people who reach out is you cannot make fun of them. You can't criticize their beliefs. You can keep trying to show them over and over again how their beliefs are misguided, that there are all these Q predictions where the dates have come and gone and nothing has happened. You can show them these things. But the minute you try to make a judgment call or say, 'See, look at how stupid it is. You're an idiot,' you know you'll lose these people forever.
It's been, without a doubt, the most devastating experience of my life. I love the man with all my heart. I’d give anything to have him say, ‘I'm done with Q. Come back. Let's see if we can make this work again.’ But I'm not sure that's ever going to happen.
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These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.