Remote Control

Stefan Molyneux’s podcast empire, Freedomain Radio, has been called a cult. If it’s not, why are listeners suddenly rejecting their families?

When Colleen Cowgill called Stefan Molyneux one February evening in 2008, she was crying so hard she could barely speak. “I just got really scared,” Cowgill finally managed to say. “When you didn’t message me back I thought maybe I had done something wrong … and you didn’t want to talk to me or something. Then I felt like I’d never be able to figure this stuff out.”

Cowgill was 20, and she considered herself an anarchist-leaning libertarian. She had first become a member of Molyneux’s online group, Freedomain Radio, three months earlier, when a YouTube friend pointed her to a discussion of Austrian school economics in one of Molyneux’s videos. Freedomain Radio, or FDR, is where Molyneux, a “software entrepreneur” with a passion for anarcho-capitalist ideas, disseminates videos and podcasts explaining how the world could be made better according to his lights. In recent years the site’s content has veered further and further to the right: Molyneux speaks at men’s rights conferences, is vocal in his support for Donald Trump, and posts videos with titles like, “Why Europe Owes the Migrants Nothing.” But the Molyneux that Cowgill was getting to know seemed friendly and open. He made complex economic arguments easy to understand.

FDR doesn’t make its traffic statistics public, but by 2008, when Cowgill was discovering the site, Molyneux claimed to have about 50,000 regular listeners; the website’s “About” section claims that FDR is the largest and most popular philosophy show in the world, whose podcasts and videos “have been viewed/downloaded over 100 million times and counting.” According to the analytics tracker SimilarWeb, the site currently seems to run to about 250,000 visitors per month — not a blockbuster in absolute terms, but a very respectable traffic range for philosophy sites. (Philosophynow.org gets about 330,000 views per month.) SimilarWeb reports that 43 percent of FDR’s traffic comes from the U.S., the rest from an array of countries — at seven percent, the U.K. provides the site’s second-highest number of users. Listeners are often in their late teens or early twenties. Molyneux is 50.

Over a period of several months, Cowgill became obsessed. At first, she listened to two or three hours of Molyneux’s podcasts every day, eventually much more. The earlier political podcasts, which have titles like “What Is Libertarianism?” and “Chainsaw Surgery: Using the State to Help the Poor,” are lectures, often more than an hour long, in which Molyneux debunks the banking system, the police system, and the voting system, and extols the efficiency of contracts between rational individuals. His delivery is jocular yet tinged with moral exasperation, like a guidance counselor or a governess. Cowgill felt her eyes were being opened.

An online “cult” would not need to kidnap you, or bring pamphlets to your door, or go to you at all; the onus is on you to indoctrinate yourself

Cowgill was also spending a lot of time on Freedomain Radio’s forums, where listeners congregated. Molyneux’s site hosted open forums for listener discussion, and closed forums for more serious acolytes willing to pay for premium content in the form of extra podcasts and greater access to the man himself. (In addition to state currencies, you are now welcome to pay in Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dogecoin, and NXT.) Prized personal interactions with Molyneux tended to be confined only to those who had demonstrated a deeper commitment. These days, FDR’s open forums are divided into categories like Libertarianism, Anarchism and Economics; Peaceful Parenting; Men’s Issues, Feminism and Gender; and Atheism and Religion. They include topics ranging from, “How would an honest banking system work” to “What does it mean when someone says ‘Orange is my favorite color?’”

Cowgill was used to socializing online. She had met her boyfriend at the time through her blog, and after he moved to Ohio from California to be with her, he became involved with FDR as well. On the forums, Cowgill felt surrounded by people who took an active interest in her life. Encouraged by other members, she made a transition from talking about economic theory to talking about herself, and started to question her relationship with her family. As well as attacking formal political institutions, Molyneux’s podcasts are vehicles for his theories on abusive families, which, for Molyneux, include most: Like the state, the family is powered by an engine of coercion and violence. FDR members spent a lot of time concern-trolling each other and pathologizing each other’s IRL relationships with most anyone outside of FDR, providing alternative readings of each other’s life histories. Cowgill came to believe that “everything I interpreted as love was manipulation and it was all a fraud.” Her parents had never loved her, FDR members explained.

Freedomain Radio has been described in the Guardian and the Globe and Mail as an online therapy cult (which Molyneux denies in the same pieces) with the objective of getting its adherents to deFOO — a term Molyneux invented, meaning to depart from one’s Family of Origin. All adult actions and relationships should be voluntary, he told his listeners. On the February night when Cowgill called Molyneux sobbing, she had already taken steps to deFOO. Cowgill was studying aerospace engineering at Ohio State University, and said she had recently told her parents she wanted to start paying for college herself. Her parents told her they had been saving to pay for her education their whole lives, and her mother asked where the decision was coming from — did Colleen not want to be a part of the family anymore?

“So they’re pretty smart, right?” Molyneux commented. Cowgill’s mother divining her intentions so quickly showed “a kind of evil genius.” He told Colleen that her family was refusing her right to make changes to the relationship. “We don’t deFOO,” he said. “We get deFOOed.” Her parents were the ones de-daughtering. She wasn’t leaving her family. They were throwing her out.

Cowgill was already moving into her boyfriend’s place, and Molyneux asked why she was still interacting with her parents at all. She explained that she needed them to sign over the car to her. “You will never get the car,” Molyneux told her. “You will only get subjugation.” She mentioned that she would need her birth certificate, and he countered that she could get copies from the government. “Okay,” she said quietly. Molyneux listed off the things he and his wife lost access to when she deFOOed: a four-poster bed, books, old photographs. “Maybe we’ll get it back after they’re dead.”

You’d be relieved, he suggested to Cowgill, if your parents got hit by a bus tomorrow and you never had to deal with them again, right? She assented. In that case, he told her, it was irrational to feel obliged to deal with them simply because they were still alive. Her relationship with her parents was over.

“I’m starting to be irritated with you,” Molyneux told Cowgill. She was acting helpless and frightened when she should be happy to be ridding herself of a problem. He himself, he told Cowgill, kicked his inadequate mother out when he was 15. She drank, and had mental health issues, and abused him. He managed on his own, with roommates and several jobs, and he was better off without her.

“I’m scared,” Cowgill said.

“That’s not your feeling,” Molyneux told her. “That’s not your feeling at all.”

Cult is a word we tend to bandy around to describe anything that inspires a small and unreasonably passionate following. Wes Anderson movies are a cult, artisanal pickling is a cult, ultimate frisbee is a cult. In religious taxonomical terms, a cult is an offshoot of a sect, which is an offshoot of a denomination, which is a branch of a religion. A diagram of how the teachings of Christ resulted in the mass murder-suicides of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians looks like this: Dissenters from mainstream Protestantism (itself a break with Catholicism) became Seventh Day Adventists whose dissenters became Shepherd’s Rod messagists whose dissenters became Branch Davidians whose dissenters, led by David Koresh, formed their own group and, under siege by the FBI and American military, burned their compound and 76 of their members to death in 1993.

Anthropological studies suggest that people who break away from mainstream religions are generally seeking the same thing: a pure, ecstatic experience of transcendent meaning. It’s what makes people sing and dance while handling live rattlesnakes; it’s what makes people writhe on the floor speaking in tongues, or engage in ritualized sex or ritualized isolation. Religions tend to be born in a burst of visionary fervor, promising that the known world is about to be swept aside by a new world order in which only a small circle of the elect will survive. Revolution is in the air and the messiah is expected daily. Naturally, this rolling boil of emotion is hard to sustain. After a dozen or a thousand years, revelatory zeal tends to cool off and crystallize into bureaucracy. Those members of a congregation who feel most acutely the desire for a direct relationship with the divine strike out on their own. Cults are what happen when a mainstream religion’s promised utopia fails to materialize.

It seems odd to refer to FDR as a cult. Molyneux is an atheist and spends hours of his podcasted time arguing against religious belief. But in psychology, the cult designation is based on group structure and behavior rather than on the type of doctrine being spread. In the 1961 handbook Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, psychologist Robert Lifton suggests that cults can be identified by, among others, the following traits: the creation of neologisms designed to reshape the adherent’s outlook, separation from family and friends, fostering cognitive dissonance, confessional pressure, and a charismatic leader. In other words, cults are about control.

The effect of listening to Molyneux’s podcasts is allowing oneself to dissolve into a surreal universe where everyone is so much safer standing on the ceiling

Molyneux has denied that FDR is a cult. In a 2008 interview with the Globe and Mail, he said, “I’m sure a few marriages broke up because of feminism, it doesn’t make feminism a cult.” The article reports his claim that only some 20 of his young followers had left their families. Noting that four percent of the population was considered sociopathic, he wrote, “If we assume that separating from a truly sociopathic parent would be emotionally advantageous, then we are far below the average.” Not intervening in his listeners’ lives would be “like stepping over someone on the sidewalk who’s collapsed and saying, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’”

Barbara Weed, a British municipal councilor whose 18-year-old son left in 2008 as a result of his involvement with FDR, tracked the forums obsessively after her son’s departure; by 2009 she had recorded posts by almost 100 users who had deFOOed or were considering deFOOing. In 2012, Molyneux’s wife, a therapist named Christina Papadopoulos, was found guilty of professional misconduct by Ontario’s College of Psychologists for appearing as a guest on Molyneux’s podcast to recommend deFOOing. In 2014, a Texan woman who went by the screen name Tru Shibes filed a complaint against Molyneux for getting her YouTube channel, in which she featured clips from his videos in order to rebut his arguments, shut down for copyright violation. She also provided the Globe and Mail with audio of one of Molyneux’s podcasts in which he describes listening in to his wife’s therapy sessions with patients in her home office. It’s a bit hard to tell if he’s kidding; according to the Globe’s transcript of the audio (which is no longer available on Molyneux’s site), he says: “I’m in the vent system, listening, and I’m — she calls it heckling, but I don’t really call it heckling, I just call it providing suggestions about how things should go and that the people should donate to Freedomain Radio.”

Idealism can be brutal; if you truly believe you can change the world for the better, you can justify telling other people what to do. Paradoxically, while FDR espouses libertarian philosophy and claims to be ushering its adherents into a place of greater self-reliance and freedom, ex-members like Cowgill describe an atmosphere of strongly enforced conformity. Those who choose to leave the community are sometimes targeted for doxxing and harassment. In their attempt to break with mainstream society’s worldview, which they have come to see as corrupt, acolytes can lose themselves in a morass of anxiety about what constitutes right thinking by Molyneux’s standards. In the course of her 2008 phone call, Cowgill mentions her attempt to use RTR with her mother — another of Molyneux’s neologisms, it stands for Real Time Relationships. He responds by telling her she hasn’t quite grasped the meaning of the technique, “but that’s okay.” It’s not hard to see how this type of guidance — the kind that makes you feel stupid and unworthy — can be addictive. It plays to our fears.

Stefan Molyneux lives in Mississauga, Ontario, within Toronto’s ring of urban sprawl, and in the early days of FDR, he held an annual barbecue at his house for listeners. There seem to be occasional in-person meet-ups between adherents living in the same region. But for the most part, FDR followers meet on the forums. Becoming a follower of FDR might well mean giving up IRL connections and transferring one’s emotional, spiritual, and intellectual life online.

In some ways, an online “cult” would be even more effective than an IRL one. Marshall Applewhite, the leader of Heaven’s Gate, told his followers that he was a “walk-in” — an alien soul that had entered a human body. Alan John Miller, leader of Australia’s active Divine Truth cult, claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus. Molyneux for his part makes no such claims and, in his podcasts, at times explicitly pooh-poohs the idea that he is anyone special. But the digital platform may, almost accidentally, make them for him. If the game is transcendence, the nature of his messages already confers certain spooky metaphysical abilities. Molyneux is not one but many; you could imagine a choir of his thousands of podcasts all speaking at once with equal authority. As a digital guide, he is not constrained by a mortal’s calendar, but is available to would-be followers 24/7. Molyneux’s disembodied voice can be started and stopped, raised and lowered. Time and space are simply constructs that, like the income tax, can be abolished or rearranged.

If individualism is the dominant religion of the West, being physically alone is quickly becoming a denomination. Modern values have come to lean heavily in favor of self-actualization and self-determination, with less moral stigma associated with prioritizing individual goals over family bonds. There are more single-person households in North America now than ever before; co-dependence and over-involvement are pathologies. If there is an ecstatic experience that combines both radical individualism and a messianic call to a new kind of society, deFOOing — leaving one’s immediate bonds for a remote community — may be it. Virtual communities at their best offer a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too form of communalism. You can belong and still luxuriate in solitude in your underwear.

As a business, Freedomain Radio has the virtues of a well-marketed self-help empire. Plenty of people are writing books like The Secret; not many are marrying anarchic market theory to a therapy regimen leading to secession from your family. Considered as a cult, Molyneux’s digital cloister has some significant advantages over bricks-and-mortar outfits. For movements like “the Moonies,” who started recruiting fresh-faced youth from bus stations and airports in the 1970s, a success meant another mouth to feed. While gently coercing adherents into donating their savings to the group in exchange for the honor of doing long days of farm labor in between prayer sessions is not a bad way to come up with seed money (in 2010, Forbes estimated the group assets of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s business/religion at $1.5 billion), it is even better to coax people to pay money for spiritual advice without having to take on any responsibility for their physical well-being. Adherents who depend on FDR for the lion’s share of their human contact are loyal to Molyneux without showing up on his doorstep expecting to be taken care of.

In 2008 the Globe and Mail estimated Molyneux’s annual income from FDR at $59,640, a sum based on the price points for different levels of access to his podcasts. The bitcoin tracking site Blockchain Info states that since its creation, Freedomain Radio’s website has received 653.62376497 bitcoin — the equivalent of $381,056. It’s not much for nearly 10 years (bitcoin was invented in 2008), although bitcoin is only one of the currencies FDR receives. Of course, there are plenty of people online soliciting donations for their work, some of whom make a living off the support they receive. But donating to a podcast whose work you enjoy seems different than donating to a podcast whose adherents sometimes tune in for hours or days at a time, and sometimes cut off contact with their families afterward.

The digital marketplace of ideas can also be more friendly to recruitment than bricks-and-mortar organizations. In the newest edition of their book The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace, British academics David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara remark that the Moonies had to hang around bus stations all day to pick out the few souls who were willing to spend a long weekend at a farm talking spirituality with a bunch of strangers. Online, however, people who are already seeking spiritual answers can come to Google with their questions. People at prime recruitment age are looking around for new experiences, new influences. If they find Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones, they may get hooked, but the result may be only that they offend family and friends at Thanksgiving dinner. Those who find Molyneux may not be at Thanksgiving at all.

An online “cult” would not need to kidnap you, or bring pamphlets to your door, or go to you at all; instead, you would go to them. Perhaps the greatest difference is how much of a self-starter the average follower needs to be. The onus is on you to indoctrinate yourself.

The guru himself is, on first impression, delightful. His many videos show a chatty, balding man with a smackable forehead, comically wiggling his eyebrows as he debunks the silly nonsense we’ve been fed by silly governments, parents, and teachers. Born in Ireland, his voice retains a tinge of a lilt, despite his having come to Canada when he was just 11 years old. In his youth, he showed skill as a programmer but wanted to be an actor, and attended Montreal’s National Theatre School before pursuing a master’s degree in history at the University of Toronto. He founded a software company with his brother in the late 1990s, which they sold in 2000. Molyneux started Freedomain Radio in 2005 as a hobby — in early podcasts, recorded in the car on his way to work at another software job, you can hear him sipping his morning coffee.

Recently, I took a day to listen to a tiny fraction of Molyneux’s podcasts, which now number more than 5,000. (His conversation with Cowgill was released, with her permission, as podcast 991.) It was an oddly pleasant experience, like taking a mild sedative and watching Polka Dot Door. Molyneux’s friendly voice ranged freely from topic to topic, circling the benefits of small government before touching on gun violence and flitting from there to peaceful parenting tactics and then to the moral ill of single motherhood — women, he said, are at fault when fathers are absent, because women are the ones who chose unreliable men. The effect is of allowing oneself to dissolve into a surreal universe where the laws of gravity are reversed and everyone is so much safer standing on the ceiling.

My favorite was an early one — number 38, recorded in 2006 and entitled “The Death Cult of Narnia.” It’s nominally a review of Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia, but Molyneux’s quarrel is with the basic premise of C.S. Lewis’s story. “Of course you can’t get a portal to another world through the back of a closet!” he snorts. The family should have taken Lucy aside and explained to her that having tea with a faun in a wardrobe is impossible, and then taken her for psychiatric evaluation. Perhaps, Molyneux muses, Lucy’s hallucinations are an early indication of brain tumor — in which case, the fantasy world Lewis imagines around this symptom is tantamount to authorial child abuse. “A concerned writer who cared about children and their health would write about this and make it so that you don’t just believe the crazy person, you write it so that the child gets help.”

The utopic vision that attracted early adherents to Freedomain Radio gave way to convention. Loving Trump and hating your parents may be an easier sell

I see the appeal — it’s oddly soothing to be told why I’ve been wrong about everything my whole life. Molyneux’s certainty is the negative image of my own tentatively held beliefs, and capitulation is tempting. Molyneux seems to hold out the promise that I will soon be able to stand on my own two feet — but first he will need to re-educate me about what legs are. I can imagine that, for the young people who come to FDR, the promise of self-sufficiency paired with the safety of long apprenticeship speaks to both their desires at once.

The feeling the call-in shows gave me, however, was not so soothing. Barbara Weed, the British councilor whose son, Tom, deFOOed in 2008, sent me links to two podcasts, one featuring Tom and Candice (his girlfriend at the time), and one in which Tom called in alone. “You like me, right?” Stefan asks. “I like you! I love you!” this 18-year-old boy says to a man he met online six months earlier. “Welcome to the desert island of truth,” Molyneux tells Tom and Candice. Candice describes legitimately abusive behavior — her father slamming her older brother against a wall — and calls this a “rubbish” way to raise children. Molyneux tells her she is going to have to start watching her language. “You used words like ‘crap’ and ‘rubbish’ and so on,” he tells her, “but frankly, it’s evil.”

Tom describes his father breaking a window in a temper and yelling at the family cats. Molyneux calls this “staggeringly evil” — “this guy’s psychotic rage laid waste to significant aspects of your childhood and your soul,” he says. He refers to Tom’s home as a gulag, and tells him that his mother is just as much (if not more so) the author of the situation as his father. Whatever they may say to the contrary, Molyneux says, women always know immediately that a man will be abusive. His mother’s thought process, Molyneux explains, went like this: “This sick son of a bitch, who’s a bully, who’s psychotic, who’s insane, who’s violent, who’s terrifying, who’s destructive, who screams at cats! I’m going to have sex with him, I’m going to carry his children, I’m going to have his children, and I’m going to give him the children. It’s not that she failed to protect you from the devil, she created you for the devil.”

“It’s so hard to explain,” Colleen Cowgill told me recently, “because it’s really just the craziest thing.” Cowgill was sitting on her bed at her parents’ house in Ohio, where she was visiting, talking with me over Skype. She is now 29 and in her third year of Ph.D. studies in psychology, specializing in social psychology. Soon after leaving FDR a few years ago, Cowgill read everything she could get her hands on that discussed cult dynamics. She’s still trying to understand what happened to her.

Shortly after the 2008 phone call with Molyneux (who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article), Cowgill left Ohio and moved to Atlanta with her boyfriend, telling her family only that she wanted no further contact with them. She believed she would never see or speak to them again. “I found out later that they hired a private investigator to find out my address so they could send birthday cards,” she said. She had become socially isolated to the point of agoraphobia, convinced that people who did not belong to FDR were dangerous. “I looked at everyone else as being damaged, unpredictable, can’t be trusted.”

Cowgill’s membership in the group lasted for two years, time in which Cowgill became totally reliant on Molyneux and the FDR forum. She spent thousands of dollars on membership in the group’s upper tiers, and she modified both her inner and outer life to conform with its ideals. Her description makes it sound like a particularly pernicious high school clique. “It wasn’t this very explicit top-down control but it was much more insidious — people were judged for what they wore, how they presented themselves, what kind of movies they liked, what kind of music they liked.” Members policed each other’s behavior, and anything could be pathologized as evidence of dysfunction or childhood trauma. All under the guise of concern for each other’s mental well-being. “I think some of it was genuine,” Cowgill said, “but also we all wanted to be seen as the people who had made the most progress on ourselves.” The best way to show one’s loyalty is to tattle on one’s neighbors. During her time as a member, Cowgill also saw the hierarchy of levels of closeness to Molyneux intensifying — by the time she left in 2009, in addition to the publicly advertised rungs of Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Philosopher King, there were invite-only levels of commitment known only to those Molyneux considered worthy.

The self-indoctrination aspect of her experience was what Cowgill said differentiated FDR most sharply from an IRL cult. “Here I’m voluntarily listening to podcasts for six hours,” she said. “No one’s making me.” As she invested more time and energy both in the philosophical ideas and in the authority of the person delivering them, it got progressively harder to question them. On the forums, Cowgill shared details of her childhood, friendships, relationships, and personal tastes, all of which she came to reject or adapt in response to praise or admonishment from the group.

Eventually, the group turned their attention on Cowgill’s romantic life. Molyneux’s marriage was seen as the model relationship — a perfect balance of intimacy and independence. Cowgill was given to understand that she and her boyfriend were in a co-dependent entanglement that failed to meet Molyneux’s standards. She broke it off, and ended up alone in a dangerous part of the city with no job and no plan. It was the beginning of the end for Cowgill’s involvement with FDR. “It wasn’t like a lightbulb went off or anything,” she says. “More like a slow and painful realization that I had become reliant on this group for approval — it was the opposite of the independence I wanted.” Cowgill’s commitment to libertarian ideals had paradoxically led her to invest all of her identity in a group that placed strict limits on what to wear, how to act, who to associate with, and what to think.

In 2010, two years after she had cut off all contact with her family, Cowgill went home for a visit. It was extremely disorienting. “I felt — almost amnesia about the house I grew up in, the town I was from. My family was overjoyed to see me. It took me a lot more time to get back in touch with what I felt.” Her parents had been to see a counselor who specialized in cults. They had books for her to read to help with her transition.

I found Cowgill through a video she made shortly after leaving FDR. The video is featured on a site called FDR Liberated, which proclaims itself “the second most-read forum by Freedomain Radio members!” Liberating oneself from Stefan Molyneux’s influence can become an obsession, and people gather on the forum to post videos like “Dealing With Brainwashed Family Members” and comment on threads like “Stef’s manipulative language.” In the site’s “About” section, the unnamed creator traces their own experience with FDR — after reading Ayn Rand, they became interested in market anarchy and came upon Molyneux’s podcasts. They couldn’t, however, get on board with the deFOOing philosophy. “The idea that there are vast subterranean forces at work in my mind, brought on by parental abuse I never recognized … no, just not feelin’ it. To this day, I’m fascinated by the typical first-posters at FDR. Their posts run something like this: ‘Hi! I just realized my family is evil. So I’m here to learn about the philosophy of market anarchy! ‘Sup, everyone?’”

In Cowgill’s video, she seems to be neither the sobbing, emotionally distraught acolyte from her phone call with Molyneux nor the composed, slightly formal Ph.D. student I talked with on Skype. She’s performative, like a theater student. “Hello! Hi everyone!” she starts, leaning confidently toward her webcam. “I’m positively giddy today!” Detailing her involvement with FDR, she says, “You could not have told me that I was susceptible to any type of indoctrination.”

In The Devil’s Long Tail, Stevens and O’Hara remark that radical groups online are subject to the same algorithmic pressures as books on Amazon. “Generally,” they write, “in the larger religious marketplace, moderate ideas draw the most consumers.” The history of religion shows a continual cresting and breaking of religious movements known as the church-sect cycle. Groups that start out isolationist and radical either peter out with the death of their founder, or — like Mormonism — they discard practices and beliefs that are out of step with the greater social environment, and their members become re-integrated into society. Since she left FDR, Cowgill stresses, the group has drifted far from the kumbaya, let’s-save-the-world-together group she joined in 2008. Cowgill sees Molyneux’s most recent teachings as hate speech — which is arguably a more dominant strain in the wider culture. The utopic vision of compassionate anarchy that attracted Cowgill and other early adherents seems to be giving way to a more conventional ideological position: espousal of right-wing politics and hatred of minorities. Loving Donald Trump and hating your parents may be an easier sell than establishing a free society based on mutual respect for contracts.

For some former FDR members, pursuit of anarchic liberty has meant a loss of privacy even greater than the digital era’s norm

Actually, it’s not quite correct to say that I found Cowgill through her video. I found her because after she left FDR and posted the video, an anonymous user created a profile page about her on the site DeFoo.org. “Colleen gave up on FDR because the community didn’t support the wearing of makeup,” the anonymous user reports. After she broke up with her boyfriend, “she needed to attract a new male and was having trouble without her precious face paint. She admits to struggling with acne and feels insecure if people can see it. Colleen now applies a thick layer of foundation, nearly as thick as her false self.” The site has similar profiles for a number of other former members, often including their phone numbers, addresses, criminal records, and the full names of their parents, siblings, and friends.

“I have no idea who it is,” Cowgill says resignedly of the page’s creator. Her family called the police after they started receiving harassing phone calls, but there wasn’t much they could do. “Sometimes I wish I could shuck off the stigma, it’s a weird life thing to have been through.” But Cowgill has largely made her peace with the fact that anyone googling her name is likely to come across references to her past involvement with an organization often referred to as a cult. Her pursuit of anarchic liberty has meant a loss of privacy even greater than the digital era’s norm. The effects of membership, even when the group is online, are felt in the immediate world.

The achievement of true free choice, true individual liberation, eludes us in part because very few of us would actually want it. Free choice is exhausting, and doing as we’re told is comforting. Making moral decisions is difficult, and moral absolutes are easy. Most of us abdicate at least some responsibility for our beliefs, taking our cues from people we trust. And for most of us, the desire for self-determination is easily bested by the desire to belong. A major misconception about cults is that only certain types of people join them. In a world where everyone is supposed to want to be a leader, we suppose that any sort of radical community centered on a dominant personality would be peopled by followers — the duped, the damaged, the ignorant, those who aren’t strong enough or smart enough to think for themselves. It’s the same way we think about abusive relationships in general. But the manipulative tools that foster cognitive dissonance and self-doubt work on all kinds of individuals.

One phrase recurs when former members try to explain what makes people join cults: No one joins a cult. It’s the opening sentence of Deborah Layton’s 1998 memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple. Layton, who escaped right before the mass murder/suicide in the Guyana compound, explains that people believe themselves to be joining churches, political organizations, charities, or community groups. People aren’t looking to be controlled. They’re looking to be connected.

For those left behind, the effect of a loved one’s disappearance into the internet is profoundly odd. In our conversation, Barbara Weed recounted recent details of her son’s life as she had gleaned them from LinkedIn, Facebook, or by lurking on FDR’s own forums under a false name. She was happy when he found a job fundraising for a charity, and she had the impression that he was living about 10 miles outside Brighton. “I think he cycles in,” she told me. “For a really good cyclist like him 10 miles is no distance.” Her vivid imaginings of her son’s adult life reminded me of a sequence from Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches. In the book, witches invent various ways of getting rid of children, whom they despise. In one strange case, a little girl arrives home from school eating an apple that she says a nice lady had given her. The next morning, the child is not in her bed. The distraught family searches everywhere for their daughter and finally finds her — in an oil painting hanging on the wall. “‘There she is! That’s Solveg feeding the ducks!’ the father shouted.” Over the years, Solveg moved around inside the oil painting — one day she would be inside the farmhouse looking out the window, the next she would be outside with a duck in her arms. Over the years, the parents watched the figure age inside the frame.

If this description foreshadowed the digital trace, the irony Cowgill discovered — that an organization promoting individual liberty can, when run in a certain way, reduce individuals to dependency — feels like a lesson for the digital age. More freedom is one of the digital world’s main promises: Online, you can access anything, go anywhere, be anyone. Molyneux’s utopic vision of a world in which we can simply delete everyone we don’t like feels like a cross between Facebook, Photoshop, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If a person doesn’t spark joy, we should simply throw them away. But a virtual community that promises to free us from the emotional complexity of our proximate lives can only offer to replace it with the emotional complexity of our digital lives. If we reached utopia, would it stay utopian? Or would our sufferings replicate themselves so quickly that the new world would be indistinguishable from the old?

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.