A Relationship Warped by QAnon
When Lauren started dating Robert, their relationship was easy. “We both really liked trashy TV, eating pizza, hanging out and watching Netflix,” she told Inside Edition Digital. “We were snowed in together and things just sort of became romantic.”
Lauren and Robert (both pseudonyms) had begun their relationship before the 2016 election – before Donald Trump was taken seriously as a real contender for the Republican nomination, she said. Neither of them had been too politically opinionated, and while Lauren said she had registered as a Democrat to support Bernie Sanders in 2016, she largely considered herself independent. They both had similar upbringings, growing up in suburban Pennsylvania. At the time, she considered the both of them to be liberal and progressive, save for some frustrations with the political apparatus as a whole.
At some point, however, Robert's attitude changed. “He started watching all these YouTube videos and it became such an obsession. He was obsessed with Hillary Clinton. He was obsessed with the Democrats, with [Donald] Trump,” Lauren said.
Next came his interest in the Alt-Right, and more concerningly so, QAnon. “He was growing more extreme over time. He was being aggressive and rude to people on Facebook, like he would call people ‘libtards’ and stuff,” Lauren recalled. It came to a point where she requested they stop talking about politics altogether. It was two years into their relationship, and things were looking starkly different than when they first started dating.
For a period after that, their relationship proceeded fairly normally. “I really liked spending time with him. He’s actually a very charismatic man. He’s just fun to speak with and be with,” Lauren said. “He’s actually exceptionally intelligent – he has two engineering degrees and he didn’t really have to try to do well in his courses.”
But throughout their relationship, Robert had been dealing with his personal issues. As a first-generation college student, he ended up with an overwhelming amount of student loan debt, which led to severe depression, Lauren said. He had sought out help from a therapist early on to address his declining mental health, but the cost of professional help led to medical debt. He soon stopped seeing his therapist.
“I think he just felt so overwhelmed and frustrated and so angry that a system had let him down,” Lauren said. “If you see somebody who speaks to your anger, who calls everybody else liars and thieves and says they're going to drain the swamp, they're going to topple the system, and it's a system that you feel victim to, I think ... he really identified with that messaging.”
It was in early 2020, when the coronavirus began making its way around the world and across the United States, that Lauren said things “reached a serious tipping point” and Robert began spiraling. Terrified of COVID-19, he strongly encouraged her to leave Pittsburg, where she now lives, as soon as possible. “He thought this was going to spread and it was going to be so devastating economically, and health impact-wise,” she recalled.
But as right-wing politicians and QAnon circles undermined the seriousness of the pandemic, “he changed his tune,” Lauren recalled. “He became an anti-masker. He decided that masks were a sign of oppression.”
His entire way of thinking appeared to shift. He eventually stopped shopping at Walmart, saying the company goes against his political beliefs. And eventually, Lauren saw his attitude toward her change drastically, too.
“He would tell me I was evil. He would call me a sheep. He would say I've just been tricked by a party. He said he felt sorry for me because I was so easily manipulated,” she said. “After five years, one day he said, ‘I could never have kids with you. I could never marry you because you're going to vote for Joe Biden.’”
Though they appeared to bond over their ambivalence toward religion at the beginning of their relationship, Lauren said their fights started to also include mentions of God and her becoming a better Christian. “He was telling me, ‘I’ve been trying to lead you to God for years. I think men are closer to God, and their job is to lead, and women are to follow,’” she recalled.
Lauren decided that late August fight was the last straw and broke up with him at that moment.
“How can you help somebody who’s beliefs are mirrored by the president of the United States?” she said. “I don't think anything I could have said or his family and friends would [have said that could] ever defeat the conspiracy theory.”
Lauren is not alone in the sentiment. But neither is Robert in his steadfast beliefs. His are the beliefs of QAnon.
The Attraction of QAnon and Other Cults of Thought, Explained
Conspiracy theories have been around since the dawn of time. They appeal to people’s most primal of instincts and are not unlike groups that are founded on unusual beliefs, or by a common interest in a particular personality, object or goal, otherwise known as cults, those familiar with such groups say.
“It’s a way to allay the threat of the fact we know we’re going to die,” Joseph Szimhart told Inside Edition Digital. “We need to figure out ways to live and to find meaning. We tap into this sense of meaning and thriving that we can thrive better if we participate in a particular ideology.”
Szimhart works as a cult interventionist, leading people out of cults or dangerous beliefs at the request of their loved ones.
“People get locked into certain points of view, and they like to feel certain,” he explained. “My job is to expand [that point of view], and bring in more information to move them further into reality until they begin to feel, ‘My leader is wrong,’ and the leader starts to look like a flawed human being with a flawed philosophy.”
Szimhart’s interventions normally start when family members or loved ones reach out about someone they know who becomes involved in a cult or what they believe to be is a dangerous belief system. “A family of highly educated people engaged me because their father is a doctor involved with a mystic in Brooklyn,” he recalled. “The relationship has completely taken over the doctor’s life. He’s more secretive around his family, he has rearranged all of his money, which is a big red flag. He’s hinting that women aren’t worthy on the path he’s on, so I try to help them navigate.”
He then tries to meet the person to discuss the group or belief. It’s then that he explains to them why their family is concerned. “Setting that up often has to happen by surprise,” Szimhart explained.
If the person doesn’t want to talk or wants to leave, Szimhart welcomes it. If the family wants to continue with the intervention, it’s up to them to convince the person to return.
“The way to cure the person that isn’t mentally ill from the belief system is to separate them from that somehow,” he explained. “Either by talking to them or physically getting them away from the form of influence and their common sense will start to kick in with new information.”
Most interventions last three to five days, and each day’s session can last up to 12 hours long. After, he refers them to speak with a therapist or interact with other former members of their cult.
Szimhart’s passion for the practice started shortly after he extricated himself from a cult. As a young artist, he fell victim to a right-wing, new age cult based out of California in the 1980s.
“My wife left me when I came back from a four-day conference. She noticed I had changed a lot,” he explained. “I cut my hair short. I shaved my beard. I stopped eating meat. How we had sex and everything else was affected – even my color palate changed, since black, brown and grey were considered evil.”
But it didn’t take long for Szimhart to begin questioning the group. He began researching the organization on his own, but it wasn’t until about a year later that he separated himself from the cult. “I struggled my way out of it,” he recalled. “It's not easy to leave because it's more of a mental struggle than anything else to choose to leave.”
After putting the cult behind him, Szimhart began working as a portrait artist at a mall in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Another employee at the mall requested a portrait as a gift to her fiancé, whom she came to meet by arranged marriage through a church. He worked on the commission for about a month. It was as he worked that he noticed something was wrong.
“She would come by early in the morning to chat with me, trying to recruit me into her church,” he recalled.
Believing she may have been on the wrong path, Szimhart gently questioned her when she preached about her church. By the time the portrait was finally completed, she declared she would leave the group, leave her fiancé and instead, give the portrait to her parents, whom she wasn’t allowed to speak to for months as a rule of being in the church.
Shortly after, her parents reached out to him with their gratitude.
“You can change people’s lives,” he said. “It’s become a blessing in so many ways.”
Between his career as a caseworker at a psychiatric emergency hospital and a visual artist, Szimhart doesn’t take on as many exit counselling cases, but in the past, he has charged an average of $500 per day, not including additional expenses like travel. He estimates that the process could take several days – including a few days before to prepare and meet with the family, and a few days for the intervention.
Cult Interventionism Comes With Its Own Issues
Despite insisting that “this isn’t a money-making business,” Szimhart estimates that a typical intervention he performs could cost between $3,000 to $10,000, an amount he says is far lower than what his peers in the field charge.
“I’ve heard of other interventionists in this field that would charge $2,000 a day,” he said.
In fact, his colleague Patrick Ryan, who calls himself a cult mediation specialist and has been involved in the field for nearly 40 years, is open about charging $1,750 per day and requiring three days’ worth of payments upfront to cover his preparation. Travel, lodging and other expenses are additional, which can add up, considering he works on cases all around the world.
“I worked on a case in Australia one time,” Ryan said. “The man who was in the group was a very successful businessman, owned vineyards. Got involved with a guru and he ended up giving the guru about $20 million.”
The man knew his family had been in contact with Ryan, and so when Ryan surprised him at the family at the zoo one afternoon, he knew exactly who Ryan was and what he was here to do. He was open to the intervention, and after an initial conversation at the zoo, the man invited Ryan and his colleagues back to chat day after day.
“Initially we talked about the things that we could agree on,” Ryan explained. “And then we began moving in a direction of where the problems are. Then I can begin the process of showing how groups work by using maybe some video or something that's on YouTube.”
Another time, he worked on a case of a mom in her 50s, who became convinced of the belief that a person can give up food and water and live on solely air and light. “She went from about 140 pounds to 86 pounds because that would bring about world transformation,” he explained. “And so she was dying.”
The family chose to have their intervention in Maui, Hawaii, convinced a new and different setting would help reach their mother. Ryan and his team surprised her at lunch with her family, and after the woman spent several more days speaking with a therapist on their team and her family, she accepted Ryan’s help, and decided to continue conversations with him. That intervention lasted about 10 days.
His methods are different from some others in his field, notably in that he works in a team. Ryan works in tandem with other cult interventionists and brings in a licensed mental health professional to consult on the case.
The entire team meets with the family for an initial, full-day evaluation with the family ahead of booking the services.
Unfortunately, that makes booking Ryan’s services that much more expensive. His base rate doesn’t include the fees of the rest of his team. “A therapist could charge $100 an hour; some therapists charge $250 an hour,” Ryan said, estimating that a full intervention could cost a family $15,000, not including expenses.
Such costs could prove to be a barrier for vulnerable people in need of help, which is not lost on those who say they have the tools to help.
“I’ve always been concerned,” Szimhart admitted. “I’ve done a lot of cases for cut rates over the years, and I’ve helped a lot of people for free, but there's only so much strain I can take personally financially.”
For other experts that charge higher rates, “There's a lot of wealthy people out there that will pay that much money because money's not an object for them,” he said.
There are other outlets for people interested in finding their loved ones help. Ryan and Szimhart both spoke at a virtual conference hosted by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). The two-day event included 14 presentations hosted entirely through Zoom and was meant to support former cult members and their family and loved ones, but anyone was welcome to join. Admission to the event cost $195.
And Szimhart is the first to admit that the business of exit counselling is morally complicated. “This has been criticized by liberal sociologists, the ACLU … exit counselling is not a profession in the sense that it’s licensed. There’s no license for it, no insurance. People are self-appointed,” he said, adding that even when his client voluntarily chooses to participate in the intervention or exit counselling, it’s “kind of invasive.” “It’s awkward. You don’t know if the person’s going to hate you for the rest of your life for trying to intervene.”
But the field has seen improvement over the years. “I have in the past worked on cases where people have been picked up by a black van and put in a safe house under coercion,” Szimhart said.
In fact, in the early days of cult deprogramming, more aggressive techniques were sometimes used. Ginger Brown was 22 years old when she accused her parents of kidnapping her. She had joined a Colorado-based religious group and her family had decided to intervene, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Her parents, Earle and Dorothy Brown, her sister Holly Brown and deprogrammers Cliff Daniels and Hank Erler plotted her abduction from a San Diego parking lot in 1988 and held her in a home for five days straight. The group was subsequently charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and battery. The case went to a jury, which acquitted the defendants on some counts and deadlocked on others. The case ended in a mistrial and the judge ended up dismissing all the charges against all the defendants.
Szimhart himself was arrested once in the 90s during an intervention and ended up going to trial. “I got acquitted of all charges including the misdemeanors in April 1993 by a jury, but it cost me a lot of money,” he said. “I had to sell my house and my wife and I had to move.”
Additionally, cult experts like Szimhart run the risk of being targeted by the cult. Szimhart explained he has once had cult members come to his house, or hand out defamatory leaflets to his neighbors. “You have to have a thick skin in a way, or at least be resilient enough to be able to handle the harassment,” he said.
The solution is complicated, Szimhart said. “I can’t reconcile it,” he said. “There’s no group that manages the ethics of it. It’s on yourself to guard your reputation. You're flying by the seat of your pants, and you have no one to back you up if you end in court.”
For Lauren, the answer is even more complicated. “So much of the [QAnon] identity is wrapped in online identities,” she said, explaining with the advent of data mining on most websites, it’s nearly impossible to separate a subject from the conspiracy or cult. “It’s Facebook, it’s YouTube, it’s Reddit, it’s 8Chan, it’s 4Chan. The algorithm they use is so warped. These people are seriously targeted.”
And even if she managed to get Robert offline, “when the president, and vice president tweets QAnon theories, how do you convince somebody that it’s not true?” Lauren wondered.
But All Hope Is Not Lost
Szimhart acknowledges the challenge present in reaching loved ones who believe in the theories connected to QAnon, calling it a “cult of idea.”
“Online cults are just a new phenomenon since the late 90s, since the internet became a thing, social media and all of that,” he said. “It’s the same thing as it’s always been. There’s nothing really new going on except that people … sit in front of a screen and their mind begins to get involved in this stuff.”
But all is not lost, he said.
“I’d advise them to try and stay in touch with the person and neutralize their dialogue,” he said. “Don’t try to get them out, because you’re not going to get anybody out of a group. There is no such thing. They have to choose the way out.”
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