The Radicalization of Amy*
(* Name changed to protect privacy)
If it could happen to her, it can happen to anyone.
Amy and I met working at a bar in Chicago in our twenties. She had a quick wit and a dirty mouth. Two of my favorite attributes in a woman friend. I was bartending and she was one of the floor managers. We hit it off right away.
Amy was a city girl. A breathing representation of the city of Chicago in almost every way. She grew up on the Southside, went to public schools, went to White Sox games. Not like those suburban Illinois people who tell everyone that they are from Chicago and only hang out by the lakefront.
She had that certain elongated vowel use in her speech that exaggerated the “a’s” when she said words like baaag or thaaat. A true Chicago gal.
She had dazzling blue eyes, a big toothy smile and perfect blond hair. On the outside she was petite and seemingly demure looking. But to know her, was to know that she didn’t take any shit from anyone.
I loved her toughness. But it was also plain to see that she had done some hard living in her short time on earth. As we became closer, we’d finish our shifts at the bar and hit late night dive bars for drinks. Over the course of many drunken nights, she’d occasionally share bits and pieces of her grim childhood. Her mom was an addict, her dad never in the picture. Lots of abuse, neglect, the foster system and eventually being raised by distant family members.
While our childhoods were very different, we also had a lot in common. Perhaps that’s why we connected so fast. She had also learned at a very young age that not all adults could be trusted. And from that, she learned resilience.
But you wouldn’t know any of that on the surface. She was happy, upbeat and carried the weight of her past around like a empty backpack. She was also a blast to hang out with. Looking back at old photos, my favorite ones by far are a series of her wearing a devilish grin and a lampshade on her head.
So when she told me she was packing up and leaving Chicago, I was so surprised. I thought she would be a city girl forever. But she was newly married, recently pregnant and faced with the fate of raising a baby in a city with no car or familial support. Her husbands family, on the other hand, were fairly well off and offered up an entirely free house for them to live in. I never thought I’d see the day, but the southern suburbs of Missouri won over my very liberal, pro-choice, progressive friend.
For years we kept in touch. She was even an incredibly helpful resource for me when I was pregnant and newly nursing my first child. We cheered each other on from afar. I admired her strong spirit as she evolved into a homeschooling mom of three boys, nurturing them and a budding practice as a lactation consultant. She became immersed in naturopathy and homeopathic remedies. And like a lot of people, she took a couple weird turns and ended up firmly in the anti-science/ anti-pharma community online. And yes, I said weird turns. We can debate all day about a lot of things, but you will never convince me that a bunch of self-taught moms on the internet know more about everything than modern science
Amy is an intelligent person. So over the years, I tried to acknowledge this new outspoken part of her life with as little judgement as possible. Who am I to speak to her personal experiences with vaccines? When her oldest became ill as a baby, she was convinced that a vaccine had harmed him and that it took many years of plant medicine to detox his body from the effects.
Now, let’s establish something before we move on. Do I believe that there are small risks in vaccines that can create a negative reaction in some people?
And I am speaking from experience, considering I am one of the one in a million people who has had an allergic reaction to the Flu vaccine. (Anaphylaxis that landed me in the ER). But do I still vaccinate my kids?
So I gave her a lot of latitude for her beliefs. Her kids seemed happy, healthy and they are not in public school. Cie la vie. Plus, our relationship was completely virtual at this point , having not seen each other for many years.
Amy’s social media presence and community grew to be a large one. Mostly through her work as a lactation consultant. But also as part of a vocal anti-vaxx community. I tried not to engage too often, stayed in my lane, as most of the parents just striked me as a group of people seeking validation for their choices among one another.
Amy and I would have likely continued on our limited internet friendship path forever, politely disagreeing about this or that. But then, COVID-19.
The thing about a crisis is that often it can bring out the best or worst in people. Fear can paralyze logical minds and transform them into irrational ones. To some degree, we have all been existing in some form of suspended panic since the beginning of the pandemic. And everyone has very different methods of coping.
For me, I thrive in chaos. So much of my childhood was steeped in chaos that I developed coping skills at a very young age. When things feel like they are falling apart, I often do my most clear headed thinking.
But for a lot of people, the need to restore homeostasis pushes them to seek out solutions, no matter what the cost. Or they may live in a state of denial about the realities in front of them. Or lash out against one another, become xenophobic, isolationist and generally obsessive about finding answers to their perceived problems. And in that search, they fall down a rabbit hole trying to regain control.
The reality is, there is very little in our lives that we control. No master plan. No all-knowing all-powerful government agency interested in listening to you order pizza or monitor your screen as you stare into the social media vortex for hours on end. I mean, I’m sure some people are monitored. But in general, its not ubiquitous.
Covid-19 came in to America as the giant iceberg that hit the Titanic. Except this time, we all had front row seats and watched helplessly from miles away as it slowly approached and crashed into our ship. I live in the Northeast and monitored it very closely as my family and I hunkered down at home watching it fill and overfill hospitals in Boston and New York.
But Amy? She lived in Missouri and as far as she could tell, it was no worse than the flu. That’s what she was posting about daily on her Facebook page. And it was being backed up by all the other midwestern moms in their FB groups. It started off pretty benign, with conversations around plant medicine and questions around why so many Americans are immuno-compromised. All rational topics. But very quickly it devolved into…craziness. It sounded a bit like this:
“It’s likely because of our shitty diets! Or vaccines! And now they’re going to force our kids to get a COVID vaccine! Over my dead body! This is all a plot by the Pharmaceutical companies to make us take their vaccines and control us. Bill Gates! Yeah, he’s behind it. He stands to make the most money! Actually, he is using people in Africa as lab rats to test vaccines! Bill Gates is EVIL. MASKS ARE EVIL!! You are being poisoned with your own CO2! Why are we talking about masks when we should be talking about child sex trafficking! Bill Gates and Tom Hanks are involved in child sex trafficking! ALL of Hollywood is part of sex trafficking! SAVE THE CHILDREN! 5G!!! QANON has some things you should all read about this. It’s ALL a conspiracy!! Donald Trump is in office to root out all the child predators! TRUMP! CLINTONS, PIZZAGATE, WAYFAIR, AAAHHHHHH………………BOOOOOM.”
Literally boom. That’s the sound my brain made trying to process how someone I once considered intelligent was able to make the leap from hippie homeschooling mom and slightly fringe anti-Vaxxer to full blown conspiracy theorist.
Somewhere on that spiral down, she deleted me after I had one too many respectful, but logical and science-based rebuttals to her posts. And this was still in the early days of COVID.
But she didn’t block me. And it became kind of a pathological obsession of mine to keep checking her page. What was I missing this week? I hate to say it, but it was like watching really bad reality TV. Just like in real life, I could watch from home but not participate in the outcome.
But then I noticed something pretty sad. As I scanned her page every now and then, I noticed that her posting had became more frequent. The time stamps showing sometimes every hour, many times a day.
Soon, the level of engagement from her “friends” slowly started to drop off. At one point, she had many friends and followers for her lactation business. And at any time a regular post from her could garner up to 300 comments and “likes”. But with the most recent and slightly manic posts, barely anything. Ever. People must have been seeing the same things as me and were backing away as well. This is what is so dangerous about social media. We have this platform that makes us all feel connected, but in reality we are anything but.
I couldn’t help wondering how a homeschooling mother of 3 was finding the time to be on Facebook all day. I became very sad and worried for her. And although she deleted me long ago, I considered reaching out to ask how she was doing. One day I noticed she mentioned getting off of Facebook because of her concerns that Facebook was involved in some of the more torrid conspiracies and that she did not was to be part of it. A couple weeks later, she was gone. If I had been able to get a hold of her, I would have recommended an internet break because of the detriment it seemed to be doing to her psyche. But she seemed to have got there anyway, and for that I am grateful. It can be a toxic, life-consuming place if you allow it to be.
In a matter of seven years, a rational minded, liberal, pro-choice, intelligent city girl, became a conspiracy theorist, pro-life, anti-science, radical who thinks Trump is in office to help unmask sexual predators.
The scariest thing about all of this is that it can truly happen to anyone. To any one of you or your family members.
It wasn’t Missouri that changed her. It was the internet.