QAnon, the right-wing conspiracy cult whose disciples believe President Donald Trump is secretly taking down a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, has become a force in politics and culture faster than Fox News and Eric Trump could jump to its defense and downplay what the FBI called a domestic-terrorism threat. The group has “uncovered a lot of great stuff,” says host Jesse Watters.
But as QAnon-centric groups and pages on Facebook grow in influence and magnitude, so does the number of QAnon-supporting 2020 candidates — along with new cases of violence, murder and kidnapping connected to the group.
According to Marc-André Argentino, who researches online extremism at Concordia University, 1.2 million Facebook users have joined QAnon groups in the four months since March — nearly matching the 1.64 million members that have joined since October 2017. Part of the cult’s indoctrination includes pulling vulnerable people away from their families and loved ones. It’s an occurrence so common, it’s led to a common refrain in the community for those who say their family won’t speak to them anymore: “We are your family now.”
What does it look and feel like to lose your mother, father, sibling or partner to Q? As heartbreaking as it is infuriating, and as scary as it is confusing. (According to one man who watched his girlfriend become consumed by the conspiracy, it’s like losing a loved one to drug addiction.) We spoke with several people still grieving the loss of their loved ones to a dangerous cult. This is what they had to say…
‘My Mom Thinks I Want to Kill Her’
Sona, a 24-year-old in Montana, always admired her mom growing up, even though she dabbled in the occasional conspiracy theory. “We have always had a good relationship — maybe not Gilmore Girls close, but I had a happy childhood,” Sona tells me. “My mom was always so caring and giving and would do anything to help anyone, even a stranger.”
When Sona’s mom was in her mid-30s, a spinal injury forced her to retire early. It left her limited in terms of physical activity, but even then, she “worked so hard to make our childhood home a haven, even if it meant she couldn’t get out of bed for a week after working,” Sona says. Despite the excruciating physical pain, her mom walked her kids to school and made sure they were taken care of. “My mom has told me through tears that she regrets not being able to do more for us as kids, which completely breaks my heart because all of her kids were so spoiled and had such an amazing childhood,” Sona says.
Sona was 12 when President Barack Obama was elected, and she recalls the year 2008 being a turning point in their relationship. Her mom began watching Fox News, then Alex Jones and InfoWars. She’d pay Sona and her siblings $10 to watch with her.
Still, though, Sona maintained a good-faith relationship with her mom. They might not have agreed on politics, but they still made a point to be involved in each other’s lives — until recently, when Sona’s mom began texting her with links to websites and articles related to QAnon. “She would send me multiple tweets a day, some with disturbing QAnon theories, some depicting horrible images of children who are victims of sexual assault and some of innocent pictures of puppies or baby ducks,” Sona says. “The unifying feature: All of these Twitter accounts had three star emojis next to their names and [handles] that somehow referenced Q.”
At first, Sona tried to reason with her mom, responding to the links with counterarguments and fact-checks. Eventually, her mom’s only response was that anything Sona sent over was “owned by Soros and therefore bias.” “Because I went to college,” Sona adds, “she thinks I’m brainwashed by their ‘Marxist agenda.’ And despite being financially independent, I’m too young to understand how the world works in her eyes.”
Months went by. Sona begged her mom to just stop sending articles and talk about something else, but her mom didn’t respond. “I explained that the articles were causing a rift in our relationship, and I could definitely tell she was withdrawing from me,” Sona tells me. “I FaceTimed her after dying my hair to show her, and she didn’t seem to care much. She didn’t know that I’d received a promotion at work until about a month after the fact. I told her that I was excited to be starting a vintage shop, something I’ve wanted to do for years now, but she didn’t seem to care about that either — only responding with, ‘Wow, you’re starting to sound like a capitalist.’”
Sona wonders if her mom suffers from depression and anxiety from her debilitating injury, but any time she recommended her mom see a psychiatrist, her mom would tell her, “George Soros funds certain doctors,” and insist that she wouldn’t listen to the advice of a professional. As such, Sona says her mom is mostly sedentary these days, leaving her with nothing but time to watch QAnon YouTube channels or Fox News. “She often laments her condition, given how active she used to be, but ultimately, she is so grateful to Q for ‘waking her up,’” Sona says. “It definitely gives her a sense of control, and I know she feels proud of her knowledge and the time she’s invested. She’s so damn good at having her finger on the pulse. I just wish she had chosen another avenue to focus her skills on.”
Last week, Sona FaceTimed her older sister to catch up. She hadn’t heard from her mom in a while, which was unusual, so she wanted to see if her sister had any insight or thoughts about their mom’s mental health. “I learned my mom thinks I want to kill her and my dad,” Sona tells me. Sona’s Instagram posts decrying police brutality and railing against white supremacy were enough evidence for her mom to believe she was an “antifa terrorist.”
Sona used to call her mom once a week and have conversations that lasted hours, but now she’s only spoken to her mom twice in the last three months. The last time they spoke, she asked her mom why she believes her own daughter would want to kill her.
As a last resort, Sona followed up to that conversation with a long text. “I told her that I feel like she cares for her message boards more than me, and explained the absolute heartbreak and loss I feel, and how the stress and strain of our damaged relationship has caused me severe hair loss and excruciating week-long migraines,” she tells me. “I encouraged her to seek therapy, that my sister and I were concerned about her mental wellbeing, and reiterated that I love her and would never want any harm done to her. But she replied simply with ‘Okay.’”
The fact that her mom has seemingly given up on anything but QAnon is what scares Sona the most. “She’s always been interested in conspiracies and paranoia, but this just feels like a completely new level. It used to be enough to tell her that I’m concerned for her to see a doctor, refrain from driving in the snow or whatever I was worried about. But now it’s as if she is completely disregarding that, willing to lose her daughter because strangers on the internet have her believing I’m some secretive, violent terrorist,” she adds. “And that’s so frightening, because I don’t know what she’s being told. All I know is that she isn’t listening to one of the people who loves her the most in this world.”
‘I Want My Loving Mom Back’
Sona worries that because her mom found a sense of purpose and community in the conspiracy theory, she’ll spiral deeper into the conspiracy and isolate herself even further.
“I wish I had the tools and knowledge I have now when my mom was first dipping her toes in, I think I could have prevented this outcome,” Sona says. “I used to cope with my mom’s QAnon beliefs by laughing it off or dismissing it, but I’ve since realized that there’s nothing funny about it. She is legitimately distressed, and that should be taken seriously. It makes it a lot easier to accept and cope with loved ones who behave irrationally if you can recognize that they’re acting out of fear, not hatred.”
“I know that Q members say that losing friends and family is part of ‘the awakening process,’” Sona continues. “But I never thought that it would come to [that] for my mom.”
For now, Sona is working her way back into therapy and hoping to plan an intervention for her mom. “Otherwise, if I’m being honest, I’ve just been crying a lot,” she says. “My heart is absolutely broken; I’m in shambles. I’ve been through some nasty breakups, but I never thought I’d have to learn to navigate the end of a relationship with my own mother. I really just want my loving, caring mom back.”
‘QAnon Has Wreaked Havoc on My Family, and It’s Only Going to Get Worse’
Lillian, a 22-year-old in Louisiana, was running errands with her mother last Thursday when suddenly her mom pulled the van into a parking lot and sat in silence for a minute. She asked Lillian for her thoughts on the president.
Lillian answered honestly, saying that she didn’t personally follow any of his beliefs. But beyond the seemingly straightforward question, something seemed off. It wasn’t like her mom to act so irrationally, let alone bring up a politically charged question out of the blue. But before Lillian could sort out her feelings, her mom went off.
“She quickly began trying to explain to me how [Trump’s] questionable conduct is all clues and codes to the public,” Lillian says. Her mom said there was a big event about to occur, something that would “involve the arrest of several public figures who have committed deplorable crimes against children.” What’s more, her mom added, there was a “big organization pulling strings behind the scenes in some plot for total world domination that [Trump] is aware of,” and in one fell swoop, the president would dismantle this evil group and liberate the country,
The behavior was so erratic that Lillian had to assume her mom was messing with her. “I was thinking, Is this real? Am I really right here, right now, listening to this?” Lillian says. “My tepid amusement at what must have been a joke turned into genuine disbelief and concern.” She sat there, frozen, unsure if she should call for help or actually believe what her mom was saying. “My mother always seemed to be a rational and critical thinker, and being an introvert, she always seemed to sway away from any kinds of conflicts or be openly opinionated,” Lillian tells me. “So as she was drilling this into my head in the van, asking me to believe her and consider it all for myself and telling me she’ll link me articles, I almost believed her. I wanted to. I could see the genuine belief on her face and that she wasn’t messing with me.”
The Pandemic Turning Point
Lillian began to wonder if she’d been so focused on her own feelings and anxieties to notice what was happening to her mom. Why hadn’t she noticed any red flags before her mom was inducted into a cult?
Until the moment in the van, Lillian says, her mom showed no signs of being prone to conspiratorial beliefs. “She prioritized our happiness and safety above all else; she’d help us with our homework and made sure we got our regular doctor checkups and vaccinations,” she tells me. “We’d disagree here and there on social and economic issues, but it didn’t strain our relationship in any way.”
The turning point may have been the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lillian’s mom lost her job, and feelings of anxiety and helplessness hung over the household. Without work to occupy her time, she became idle and reclusive, spending more hours online than she ever had before.
“I can’t really imagine what my mom must feel and how vulnerable she must’ve been on an emotional level to believe something so delusional,” Lillian says. “QAnon as a group seems to have mastered the ways of manipulating and tapping into people’s anxieties as a means of indoctrination. I can only imagine that it probably took one or two QAnon articles or posts to pique her interest and send her down the rabbit hole of conspiracy, especially knowing how covert their manipulation can look.”
Ever since the episode in the van, the situation at home has only gotten worse. Her mom has been more vocal about QAnon, and in a house where politics was rarely brought up before, it’s now one of the only topics of conversation. “It’s wreaked havoc on my family already,” Lillian says. “My dad is fed up with it and thinks it’s absolutely bogus, but the other day, my younger sister brought me a QAnon article on her own. I fear it’s going to tear our family apart.”
For now, Lillian is trying to cope with the family and protect her younger sister from succumbing to the conspiracy theory. “I don’t blame or resent my mother at all; she was never like this before,” she says. “I love her to no end, but I just wish I could have her back.”
‘It Feels Like Losing a Loved One to Drug Abuse’
After three months of dating, Jerry believed his girlfriend was The One. They aligned spiritually. She saw him for him. The two 26-year-olds talked about staying together forever. It was everything he could ask for in a relationship — and his mom adored her, too. “We meditated together, hiked and tried to keep positive energy during the pandemic,” Jerry says. “Up until recently, life was good.”
But when the QAnon-fueled Wayfair conspiracy theory broke through to the mainstream, everything changed for Jerry and his girlfriend. “She started sending me tons of absurd information, and I didn’t know what to say besides, ‘Whoa, that’s a lot of info,’” Jerry tells me. “Clearly she was upset, and I didn’t want to upset her more.”
As often as he tried to talk her down, his was just one voice in the storm of QAnon-related information fed to her on Facebook and Instagram. “Over the past couple weeks she started consuming tons of QAnon Instagram pages disguised as woke spiritual accounts,” Jerry says. “Those turned into meme-based news [accounts], which she started regurgitating like crazy without giving them a second thought.”
Like Lillian and Sona, Jerry has turned inward, wondering what he missed and if he could’ve stepped in along the way. “She may have been this extreme all along, but I didn’t see it coming,” he tells me. “On one of our earliest dates, she mentioned ‘waking up,’ which I dismissed as a nod to spirituality. I guess I didn’t realize until later what that actually meant.”
The pandemic has only exacerbated her aggression and hypervigilance, Jerry says. “She became super-isolated during quarantine, and she seemed to be searching hard for why she exists and what her purpose in life is,” he tells me. “As much as I tried to be there for her, she seems to have found her purpose in saving fetuses from being eaten by Hillary.”
The cult of QAnon offers the most vulnerable among us a community and purpose. Q devotees share a sense of pride in “knowing the truth,” and the more time they put into “research,” the more invested they become. “We have had four major arguments over the last 10 days. I’ll try to have a normal conversation only for her to completely derail everything and spew text after text about cabal, celebs, Q, Truth, all the nonsense,” Jerry says. “I try to patiently entertain it or have civil conversations, but she won’t listen to reason or entertain any new information unless it’s from a ‘Woke Patriots’ Instagram account. Eventually the arguments got so bad that two weeks ago she left town to stay with her conservative grandparents.”
Support and Resources for Anyone Grieving
Jerry doesn’t know what to do now. He loves his girlfriend, and doesn’t want to give up on her, but right now it feels like calling it quits is the only option. “I have tried to be compassionate, patient and understanding with her throughout this nightmare, but she seems unable to see how it is affecting me and my family,” he says. “My heart has been breaking as I’ve watched her mental health rapidly decline. She is so quick to throw away all of the real-life goodness in our relationship [for] some rando Instagram follower who confirms her biases.”
“It feels like you’re losing a loved one to drug abuse — you never know if they are gonna die, hurt someone or overdose again and act like everything is fine,” Jerry adds. “You can’t help them because they are grown-ass adults who need to want to change and get help for themselves.”
After a turbulent couple days, Jerry has come to the conclusion that his relationship with the girl he was falling in love with is over. Sona and Lillian, however, know they can’t as easily cut ties with their own moms. It’s an unbearably stressful and heartbreaking experience, and for a while they felt alone in their grief. Recently, they’ve found some help and community in the subreddit r/QAnonCasualites, a forum created specifically for people who’ve lost loved ones to QAnon to gather for support and find the resources they need to hopefully save whoever they’ve lost.
“I desperately wish there was a surefire way to break the spell, and break through that fear in the first place,” Sona says, “but I know it starts with having empathy for them, and not dismissing them as nutjobs or bots.”
“My mom is scared, not because of what she’s experiencing in the real world, but because she’s being told to be scared,” she continues. “Right now, she is not the same person who she used to be. But I see glimpses. The loving, caring mom who raised me is still in there, and that’s enough for me to keep fighting.”