For months, Emily has been married to a ghost. The trouble began last summer, when her husband Peter, the man who once showered her with affection and doted on their kids, started to spend all of his free time online, watching videos and reading message boards. He skipped the family activities they had once enjoyed, like watching football and playing outdoor sports. The couple, she recalled, stopped laughing together; everything suddenly turned serious with him. The pandemic had forced Peter to work from home, but it didn’t feel like he was there.
Before long, there were further turns. Peter started saying things that bordered on “bigoted and xenophobic,” Emily told me. Most shocking to her, Peter made her feel like an enemy for disagreeing with him. When she pushed back on his new strange ideas, like Tom Hanks being a pedophile, he answered her with disdain and treated her as if she were stupid.
“I was told that I buried my head in the sand and couldn’t see the ‘real’ problems,” said Emily, who shared her story under the condition of anonymity because she fears Peter’s retaliation and feels disloyal for speaking up. (Emily and Peter are not their real names.) Sometimes he undermined her this way in front of their kids.
Emily knew her husband was wrapped up in something called “QAnon.” She had heard the term before—Peter, prior to his conversion, had once dismissed it as “nuts”—but she didn’t fully grasp what QAnon was until early October, when she watched a few of the videos Peter kept talking about. That was when she learned that her husband had been consumed by a complex and false conspiracy theory that accuses “deep state elites” of running a secret pedophile ring. By then, it was too late to pull him out.
That month, Emily read an article online about “QAnonCasualties”—a Reddit forum for people like her, whose loved ones had also been drawn in by the bogus conspiracy theory. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so alone. For the next four days she watched the forum closely until she gathered the courage to post about her husband. “It’s exhausting loving someone and watching them get sucked into this cycle you can’t break,” she wrote.
“Welcome. I hope you find some comfort and support here,” one Redditor commented on her post. “It’s a wonderful group of people who have been in one way or another touched by this rapidly growing cult.” Another woman told her story about creating a fake Q account on Twitter to reach her husband. “They only listen to each other,” she wrote.
“Thank you all for responding. Just knowing others are going through this disaster is relieving,” Emily replied.
Emily is just one of thousands who have found their way to r/QAnonCasualties. Started in 2019 by a Reddit user whose mother was a part of the “Qult,” the subreddit has ballooned in popularity over the past year, growing from less than a thousand followers in February 2020 to more than 133,000 in February 2021. The group’s followers more than doubled in the weeks following the Capitol riot alone. And as QAnon continues to spread—about 30 percent of Republicans have favorable views about the conspiracy theory, according to a January poll by YouGov—so does the forum’s reach.
As American politics scrambles to deal with this fringe ideology and its followers—a set of people seemingly impervious to facts, some committed enough to assault the U.S. Capitol—the country might learn a few things from the people who have to grapple with QAnon in their very homes, and who live with it every day. And what their stories tell us is unsettling. In post after post on r/QAnonCasualties, fathers and daughters, wives and husbands, best friends and colleagues describe their inability to get through to the people they are closest to. There are stories of marriages and friendships torn asunder, estranged siblings, parents and children severing ties. There are occasional accounts of success. But more often the stories end with people giving up trying to reach their radicalized loved ones. Sometimes, they walk away entirely.
After Emily found the board in October, the tone of her posts quickly went from hopeful to defeated. She began to accept that she might have to leave her husband. One day she wrote: “I would have never married this person, yet somehow, I am [married to him]. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
Peter has stopped treating the pandemic seriously, and Emily, who is in a high-risk group, can’t understand. They are both in their early 40s, and over the two decades that they’ve known each other Peter has always been protective of her fragile health. Now he thinks the pandemic is a hoax and doesn’t wear a mask, putting Emily in danger.
So Emily continues to avoid talking about politics and opts to do all of the house chores like groceries herself because she can’t trust Peter to be careful. As she wrote in one post: “This crap means more to him than my life.”
The QAnonCasualties subreddit came to life on July 4, 2019, when user Sqwakomodile shared a story about their mother being consumed by QAnon.
“The ignorance, bigotry, and refusal to question ‘the plan’ have only gotten worse over time,” Sqwakomodile wrote. The user barely talked to their mother anymore, but felt guilty about it. “It only seems to make me feel terrible and feeling like it’s my responsibility to try to lead her back to reality. Having a loved one involved in QAnon is an exhausting, sad, scary, demoralizing experience.”
At the time, QAnon had already made its way out of the far-right chat rooms where it was born and begun to spread via mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The conspiracy could be traced back to 2017, when “Q,” an elusive figure whose moniker is derived from the high-level security clearance he claims to possess, started dropping cryptic “hints” on the chat boards 4chan and later 8kun. The basic idea was that Donald Trump was leading a secret effort to overthrow a cabal of Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking, Democratic pedophiles—a cabal that, according to the mythos, includes powerful politicians, Hollywood moguls and journalists. The conspiracy theory’s followers, often referred to as “Qultists” or “Anons” on forums, awaited the arrival of “the storm”—a martial order under which deep state agents like Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks would be publicly executed.
But that was just the starting point. QAnon has a unique participatory nature that allows Q’s “digital soldiers” to add whatever conspiracies they want to it as long as they fit within the framework that the masses are being lied to by sinister elites. Q, who has been silent since December, used to post hints and leave it up to his willing followers to interpret them with whatever conspiratorial explanation they can find. As a result, today, QAnon has grown into an umbrella for many conspiracies, ranging from the fringe to the absurd. There are claims that vaccines cause autism, that 9/11 was “an inside job,” that John. F. Kennedy Jr. is alive and the government is covering-up the existence of space aliens. Since Trump’s decisive loss in November, the QAnon community has been circulating unfounded accusations of election fraud. Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot during the storming of the Capitol, was a QAnon believer—one of many there that day.
QAnon’s malleability is part of what makes it so powerful. “It’s been inclusive in a way that I’ve really never seen any other conspiracy,” said Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts and the author of the paper “QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal.” “You can listen to whoever’s voice is closer to your own. So if you’re not here for satanism, listen to someone who is not playing up the satanic part of it.” QAnon’s participatory nature is also how the conspiracy theory “manages to capture that authenticity, that comes from people genuinely, sincerely, trying to figure out how to make sense of a world that isn’t making any sense to them,” Zuckerman added.
The flexibility has an added benefit: It allows the community to reinterpret Q’s predictions every time they don’t come true. For example, QAnon followers believed President Joe Biden’s inauguration would never happen because Trump planned to expose the deep state elite for committing election fraud, arrest them on live TV and send them to Guantanamo Bay. But after Biden was sworn in, some Anons started to describe him as Trump’s ally, secretly working to bring down the deep state they once considered him to be a part of. Others believe March 4 is the new day for Trump’s inauguration.
“Imagine a prophecy where the prophet gets everything wrong and, somehow, it ends up being even more powerful,” said Zuckerman.
On r/QAnonCasualties forum, most of the post titles reflect the pain of the people behind them. “A little funny, a lot sad. Bye, dad,” “My mother kicked me out for calling Trump racist” and “Way worse than I thought” are all anecdotes of people failing to get through to their loved ones.
In late October, user acidalice posted “Another family wrecked…” and wrote about her partner of two decades. “He’s gone from the kindest, chilled man to constant anger and major depression. I’m at a loss, not so easy to walk away either – been together 20 years, married 14, 2 kids under 10, mortgage.”
“Prioritise your children’s happiness. They deserve a home free of his black moods and anger. So do you,” commented another user.
In July, so-tired-with-it-now posted Some hope…maybe? about trying to get through to their husband. They read about QAnon and sat him down for a thorough conversation, calmly addressing every argument he made. “I miss my intelligent, kind and caring husband and I’d like him back now please,” so-tired-with-it-now told him. It seemed to work: When the user’s husband started watching videos again, they weren’t conspiracy related.
“I think the golden nugget in this is where you told him that you missed who he was and how great of a person that is,” one of the dozens of comments under the post said.
When Biden won the election in November, many on the forum were hopeful. With Trump out of office, they thought, things would get better. But, after the siege of the Capitol on January 6, Jitarth Jadeja, a former QAnon believer and one of the moderators of the forum, saw a significant shift in the mood of the comments: Family members of Qultists exchanged confusion and guarded optimism for anger. A sudden influx of new members in the wake of the Capitol riot added to the angrier rhetoric and the loss of hope.
“There’s understandably less desire to reach out and try and understand why these people believe what they believe, it’s been replaced by a desire to punish them for their beliefs, as misplaced as they are,” Jadeja said in an email. He said he senses a “looming darkness across all these forums and groups. It feels cold, silent and omnipresent. Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.”
In “My Qdad was there,” user -n3rdyl4undry- wrote about feeling angry and terrified after finding out that their father was in D.C. on the day of the insurrection. In the comment section, others expressed support and encouraged -n3rdyl4undry- to report their father to the FBI, which the user did and posted about.
“Dude…why did you let these people talk you into doing that?” someone asked in the comments.
“Because he is dragging my mom in. He didn’t take her to DC, thank the gods. But what about next time? Or the time after?”
“Look, I believe that snitching is horrible, but domestic terrorism is past the line for me,” said a Redditor approving of -n3rdyl4undry-’s decision. “We are deeply beyond the point of ‘intervention’ here,” agreed another.
For some, though, the Capitol riot turned everything around: In “QHusband breakthrough,” written on January 6, user smorez_89 described their husband going to the bedroom after the news of Ashli Babbitt’s death, coming back with an armload of Trump gear and a couple of books and cutting them all into ribbons. He dumped the scraps in the garbage can and rolled it to the side of the curb.
When he was back, he said “I’m done. I don’t want to be part of this anymore. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be better.”
On January 10, Steven Hassan, a mental health professional and cult expert who wrote a book called The Cult of Trump, held a Q&A session on five Reddit groups including r/QAnonCasualties in which he talked about mind control and how one might try to de-radicalize a Qultist.
The Q and A accumulated more than 240 comments. Kelseycloud talked about their sister and how frustrating it had been to watch her become a QAnon believer. “She is now on that sinking boat of fear and anxiety, and is back to being incapable of withholding information,” Kelseycloud wrote. “I do my best to maintain a more centrist/neutral position… but it’s hard to see her suffer.”
“How well do you know the QAnon arguments/ ideology?” responded Hassan. He recommended everyone in Kelseycloud’s situation to familiarize themselves with the conspiracy and document beliefs of their Anons and how they change over time.
“When she or he sees you really ‘get it’ but do not believe it, you are in a position to explain why you do not accept the claims/ prophecies,” Hassan wrote. “BUT always take the position that if they can convince you that that ideology is true, you will adopt it too.”
Richard, 77, doesn’t remember when or how exactly he found his way to r/QanonCasualties. He was worried about his brother Mark, 73, and wanted to know if other people were going through the same thing as he was. (For privacy reasons, these are not their real names.) Richard emailed me after he saw my post on the forum asking for people to share their experiences. His outlook today is grim: He has given up on getting his brother back.
“His mind is completely closed,” he said.
The brothers have always disagreed on politics, but in recent months every exchange they had turned into a vicious fight. “I live on planet Earth and you live on planet Q,” Richard emailed Mark in October. “I don’t know if we can ever have a civil or intelligent conversation again.”
“You have treated me as a stupid little brother all your life, and I looked up to you as a mentor,” Mark wrote in one of the emails. In another, he wrote, “You have joined the sheep.”
The way Richard describes his brother, Mark fits the profile of what psychologists call an “injustice collector,” a personality type considered likely to fall for conspiratorial thinking. Injustice collectors are overly confident, impulsive and eager to expose the naivete of people around them. Mark, Richard told me, always needed to have some piece of information, a secret that he could use to prove that he knew more than his older brother. Richard was considered the smart one in the family—he had good grades and loved books. Mark, on the other hand, hated reading and struggled at school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. For a while, he wrote his name backward, which earned him the nickname “Imkram,” for the way he wrote, “I’m Mark.”
Richard never gave much thought to his brother’s desire to prove himself smarter, but he knew that Mark loved secrets. In the early 2000s, they both joined a Masonic lodge. Richard found it underwhelming, while Mark stayed for years and climbed the ladder by memorizing the required information. Still, Richard was surprised when last year Mark handed him QAnon: An Invitation to Great Awakening, a book that briefly became second on the Amazon bestseller list in 2019.
“Mark, this is just nuts,” said Richard returning the book.
QAnon crept into the emails between the brothers, leading to heated arguments supported by links, bullet points and spiteful comments. After a while, it became clear that neither of them could move past political differences or change each other’s mind. They have all but stopped emailing and calling.
On the day of the Capitol insurrection, Richard emailed Mark to say that he was happy his brother wasn’t there. Mark never responded or acknowledged the events when they saw each other a week later.
“If he hadn’t been taking care of mom, he might have been one of the rioters,” said Richard. “That’s the way he thinks. He’s a very angry person.”
Anger shows up time and again on r/QanonCasualties. So does interest in secrets.
Some humans are more drawn to conspiratorial thinking than others, says Dr. Joseph Pierre, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who writes extensively about QAnon on his “Psyche Unseen” blog on Psychology Today. Those who have a high level of mistrust of authoritative sources of information are more susceptible, for example. So are those who crave uniqueness and certainty, closure and control.
And Covid-19 is an added factor. “Times of crisis such as the current pandemic tend to increase belief in conspiracy theories as a way of coping with fear, uncertainty, and lack of control and as an expression of mistrust in authoritative sources of information,” said Pierre. People who don’t trust institutions, feel anxious over their future and have more time to spend online due to the stay-home order, may find that conspiracy theories can fill the void and soothe them. Once sucked into the dark sands of QAnon, they can develop an addiction-like compulsive behavior as they indulge in hours of “research.”
“When people go ‘down the rabbit hole’ and cut themselves off from previous relationships in favor of a new online community, they can be seen as ‘becoming a different person,’” said Pierre.
Emily dreams about Peter returning from his QAnon unreality, and then finds herself watching, helpless, as he doubles down on his beliefs. When Trump lost the election—something that was never supposed to happen, according to QAnon—Peter tried to prove fraud. When rioters attacked the Capitol, Peter was upset they didn’t succeed in overthrowing Biden’s win. He called senators, withdrew cash from the bank and talked about buying guns in preparation for martial law.
“Considering his viewpoints and the way he’s been talking about it, I could see him as one of those people trying to storm the Capitol. If he was in D.C., he probably would have been in there with them,” said Emily. Knowing that scares her.
“I feel like I’m sticking around and doing everything I can do, trying to wait for somebody to come back to me. And I don’t know if they ever will,” Emily said, sobbing. “I keep waiting for my husband to come back but maybe this guy doesn’t exist anymore.”
She hasn’t posted on r/QanonCasualties since October, but she still checks the forum and clings to the stories she reads there about someone quitting QAnon. She hopes that it could be Peter one day. “Maybe I’m an eternal optimist,” she said. “I just love him so much.”
They go to couples therapy, but it hasn’t helped much. So she finds solace where she can, like in the knowledge that some of their friends and family members find his beliefs as crazy as she does. But she also knows her limits, and has an exit plan in case things deteriorate further: “I’m a smart enough person to know that it can’t continue to go on like this,” she said.