Five days after the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, 39-year-old Erin received a frantic phone call from her grandmother. “She sounded very upset and asked me if I’d seen my cousin David’s posts on Facebook,” Erin tells me (she requested pseudonyms to protect her family’s identity). “She said he was posting videos and photos of himself at the rally and what looked to be him and his business partner right outside the Capitol in the mob.”
Erin was driving her 2004 Nissan home after dropping off her son at elementary school, but she immediately pulled into the nearest parking lot. “My heart was racing, my face felt hot and my hands were shaking,” she says. “Heat flooded my arms and legs like an adrenaline rush, but I felt sick at the same time.” Too flustered to multitask, Erin told her grandma she’d have to call her back.
Erin had unfollowed her cousin on Facebook in 2017, when his entire feed became dedicated to praising Donald Trump and “triggering liberal snowflakes.” She was still technically “Friends” with David, however, so she pulled up his timeline. Scrolling through months of activity, she watched his posts evolve from celebrating Trump overturning Obama-era policies to a stream of increasingly disconcerting “Save the Children” memes and “evil cabal videos that were hard to understand.”
Growing up, Erin looked up to David. The two were close in age, but David had befriended her older brothers and seemed to excel in all the right things. “He was smart and tough, the kind of kid who barreled into other boys when they’d play football,” Erin explains. “Our grandparents’ house is littered with pictures of David in his sports uniforms and prom king tuxedo.”
She felt proud when her cousin found success despite their similar upbringings in impoverished, chaotic households. When David was eventually accepted to college, “there was a feeling in the family of, ‘Holy shit, someone in our family is going to college!’” she says. “It really seemed like someone from our generation had busted out of that small shitty town and made a name for himself. He was something to be proud of.”
Her pride in him remained steadfast, too. Sure, she needed to mute his right-wing conspiracy theories on social media, but at least in the real world he drew respect to the family name. Plus, she still believed that the two could find common ground despite their political differences.
Then everything changed. Sitting in that empty parking lot, Erin continued scrolling. Toward the end of November, David’s posts became more militaristic and detached. He posted “over and over about how the election was stolen,” she tells me, “and how there was an invisible war for the future of the republic, and that soon the hunters would become the hunted.”
As January 6th appeared on the timeline, Erin found the pictures that threw her grandma into a panic. There was David in Washington, D.C. the morning of the insurrection, posing with his friend in matching Trump stocking caps and Save the Children shirts. Next, David posted from the Save America rally, before sharing a video depicting him and his friend among the crowd gathered outside the Capitol, yelling “taking our country back!” and “you won’t be able to walk the streets after this!’ at police,” Erin says.
Around 4:30 p.m., David wrote on his Facebook wall: “Wake up, America. They shot a woman less than a foot in front of [friend’s name] and I! She died a Patriot!” When someone commented, “Who is ‘they?’” David responded, “A cop shot her in the neck,” and that “there was blood everywhere.” When one of Erin and David’s uncles wrote, “I didn’t think you were stupid enough to do that” on David’s wall, David responded with a kissy face emoji.
“I knew David had gone full MAGA, but I had no idea it’d gone this far,” Erin says. “I’ve never witnessed anything like what happened on the 6th. The only other time in my life I’ve been so shaken is when the planes hit the Twin Towers. Watching the mob scream, ‘HANG MIKE PENCE,’ paired with the strange fervency in the eyes of those people, was troubling down to my core.”
Normally, Erin says she’s “not one to worry about things involving politics,” but seeing her cousin take part in a terrorist attack had crossed a line. “Aside from right and wrong, if you knew that your cousin had helped in the Oklahoma City Bombing or harbored one of the 9/11 attackers, could you swallow it? I could not,” she explains. “And this, in my eyes, is the same as what Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols and those hijackers did.”
And so, she tells me, “I felt deep down that I had to turn him in.”
“In my book,” she continues, “to not say something makes you no better than those who committed the horrible act, so I was googling my local FBI office before I even left the parking lot.”
After an hour-long phone call with the Bureau, Erin joined the many other estranged family members, friends and ex-lovers reporting to authorities the people they recognized overtaking the Capitol.
Even before the pandemic, many Americans watched as loved ones were lured in by right-wing conspiracy theories and rampant misinformation. But seeing those same loved ones attempt to overthrow the government in pursuit of their beliefs was something else completely. As Erin puts it: “I can take some idiot who believes weird things, but when that idiot decides to attack a federal building or a real life person, that’s when you can’t look the other way.”
On the subreddit r/QanonCasualties, those who know their family members were at the Capitol on the 6th have experienced intense feelings of guilt, anger and frustration:
Moreover, perhaps harder than the decision to turn someone in or not, is overcoming the fear of potential retribution. Along those lines, Lynn, a 40-year-old in Washington, is confident she spotted her ex-boyfriend at the Capitol — “My first thought when I became convinced it was him was an audible ‘FUCK!’” But she quickly adds, “My next thought was fear for my personal safety.”
Not that his involvement particularly surprised her. “We broke up after nine months when it became clear he was getting increasingly angry about the world,” she says. “He was shifting from a non-political fortysomething blue-collar guy to someone who started listening to conservatives nutjobs because they gave him a bogeyman for his personal failures.”
Despite ending things with him and blocking him on social media, Lynn says the “six degrees of separation on Facebook” prevented her from completely cutting ties. “His baby momma called me to tell me that if he gets arrested by the FBI, she will blame me,” Lynn explains. “So I just blocked her, but my ex knows where I live. And if he’s fallen in with [the Proud Boys], will he choose to target me next?”
In terms of David, rather than addressing the issue head-on by talking about what he did and how he got there, Erin says her family will likely bury it instead. “My grandma won’t address the ‘cousin being a terrorist’ thing with her son, David’s stepdad, because it would definitely rock the boat,” she tells me. “I kept my decision quiet because I’m very active in my grandma’s life, and I don’t want any strife in her life at all. If her son hated me, it would hurt my grandma so much. Only for her did I stay quiet.”
That’s not to say that she’s completely avoided blowback. “My husband is a Trump supporter as well, and he thinks it’s crazy that I turned David in,” she tells me. “He says he would never do that and keeps making ‘jokes’ about me turning people in for little things. I don’t like Trump, but it wouldn’t matter to me who the president is, wrong is wrong.”
To that end, Erin is clear that she doesn’t feel regret over her decision. At the same time, she doesn’t feel proud of what she did either. “I’m sad David would compromise his wife and children and all that he built for Donald Trump,” she tells me. “And I’m mad that my two older brothers, one an Iraq War veteran and the other now dead, are completely ignored by men like my cousin who like to think of themselves as the real warriors and patriots.”
“But it isn’t my fault David chose to use his money to fly across the country to storm the Capitol,” she concludes. “David dragged my family name down by being there, and in doing so, whether he knows it yet or not, he risked throwing away the dream he’d built.”