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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

How Alex Jones’s Conspiracy Theories Won My Mom

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According to his defense, when conspiracy theorist Alex Jones called Sandy Hook’s parents crisis actors, “he looked at the world through dirty glasses.” Maybe. But he’s built a career selling “dirty glasses” to people like my mother, a self-proclaimed “observer” who spread misinformation before and after the Sandy Hook shooting.

After a Desert Storm broadcast and 30 years of odd jobs — including working at a cash register and driving a paper route — my mom has found purpose and intellectual stimulation through her ardent Jones following. Even when he stepped down from the witness box at his Texas defamation trial and a jury ordered him to pay $50 million to the parents of a Sandy Hook victim for the lies he spread about the massacre, even as Jones faces a new defamation case in Connecticut, she calls for a Nuremberg 2.0 to try the forces behind Covid-19 vaccines, which Jones’ site claims are a weapon of genocide.

In my earliest memory of her, we sat together on a cheap Berber rug in her Austin, Texas home, watching Jones’ broadcast on public television.

My mother is not unique in this regard: Millions of Americans continue to spread the misinformation about Jones, even as he is publicly debunked. While it’s tempting to celebrate Jones being held accountable, let’s not forget the outrageous place he continues to occupy in the lives of millions like my mother.

In my earliest memory of her, we sat together on a cheap Berber rug in her Austin, Texas home, watching Jones’ broadcast on public television. In the custody agreement she signed with my father, I had to visit her for three weeks in the summer of 1995. I had just finished kindergarten.

Jones had begun forecasting a police takeover following the FBI’s siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, two years earlier. I remember the clip was about militarization of the police. When the Austin Police Department announced the retirement of its classic powder blue-and-white cruiser livery without revealing the new designs, Jones’ tales of police secrecy and militarization wrote themselves.

That night I was scared. But behind my fear was a sense of pride, a dedication: if I didn’t want to be a sheep, I had to open my eyes to the New World Order. A new paint job on a police cruiser or a military training exercise were possible clues to the grand scheme of the Stasi police state. In the end, the cruisers were painted white with a blue and gold trim, and I’ve never seen a police officer with an AR-15 in Austin. But when I realized years later that Jones was wrong, another catastrophe loomed.

Four years had passed and I lived with my mother for the first time during the school year. We were standing at a stoplight in her 1971 Volkswagen van when an ad interrupting “The Alex Jones Radio Show” warned, “Time is getting shorter until Y2K. … Now is the time to stock up on emergency supplies and a whole food reserve.”

When Jones’ predictions of a government takeover through Y2K grew stronger, my mother broke her apartment lease to move us into a small cabin in the country.

Jones’ influence on my mother in the final months of 1999 is hard to overestimate. She called supermarket trips “supply missions.” We each pushed a buggy through HEB until they were filled with canned food, toilet paper and industrial packaging with Q-Tips. I knew I had to digress when she asked a teenage grocery store worker for help finding fluoride-free toothpaste. I knew I couldn’t bear to see his polite response as she whispered, “They want to make us easier to control.”

When Jones’ predictions of a government takeover through Y2K grew stronger, my mother broke her apartment lease to move us into a small cabin in the country. We stacked our “necessities” in half boxes in the middle of the cabin’s single room, between the kitchenette and the bunk bed where I slept.

The night of New Years Eve, we sat around a campfire with a clear view of downtown Austin, and I had no intention of moving. I wanted to see it for myself – the moment all the lights of the city would go out.

Jones’s voice echoed through a battery-operated radio: “A nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania is closed.I caught myself bouncing dizzy in the camp chair. Through the smoke from the campfire I saw my mother. Her hair was pulled back in a bandana. Soldiers are now clearly visible, the broadcast continued. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there are trains carrying military equipment to Austin.

As we listened, I asked, “What will the military do when the lights go out on the Y2K bug?” Without turning her head to me, she said, “Whatever they have to do. It is the government we are concerned about.” I was concerned, but not about the government. I prayed that Jones’ predictions would come true, because I would have to confront the doubts I had about my mother’s decisions if they didn’t. To believe in her, I had to see tanks in the streets.

When midnight came and tanks didn’t, any blind faith I had in my mother evaporated. When school dropped out, I moved back to West Virginia and spent the rest of my school years among my parents’ places. In high school, I laughed with friends as we flipped through the book “Bloodlines of the Illuminati” that my mom kept in her living room. She was crazy and harmless, we thought. The ideas were a joke.

But her faith had become threatening by the time of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. We weren’t laughing anymore. When I heard about the shooting, I was 22 and in my first semester as a high school math teacher, minutes into a freshman algebra class. My students’ teenage pretentiousness fell away, and their vulnerability made them look more like elementary school than the college students they imitated. After a long week I called my mother. Our estrangement ebbed and then flowed—during this period we talked every few months, tiptoeing through a minefield of avoidable conversation. When I said I was glad my school had metal detectors, I shouldn’t have been surprised when she interrupted me to say, “Please, this wasn’t a random attack.”

I couldn’t – can’t – argue with my mother. I remained silent.

“You’re going to tell me you believe that kid just bought a gun and shot a school?” she asked indignantly. ‘Did he do all this alone? This one,” she assured me, “CIA is behind this.”

I have spent most of my adult life extracting these moments with my mother through writing. Although she knows I’m writing about her, our estrangement is greater now – she doesn’t read my work. In the past I’ve been mad at her for buying Jones’ vitriol, but now I mostly feel a kind of jealousy of her beliefs. The world I see is a chaotic landscape of random beauty and violence. Where a 20-year-old can kill primary school students, where a viral mutation can cause a global pandemic. I don’t believe in a grand plan.

During the Texas trial, Jones’ attorney warned that “if you look at the world through dirty glasses, everything you see is dirty.“Thirty years ago Alex Jones sold my mother glasses, a lens into the world. But they don’t make the world look dirty – it’s black and white. For her, the glasses reveal order in chaos, a world where violence is not random. If she sees through it, she is on the right side of an epic battle between truth and lie. She, and the millions of other everyday Americans like her, will never take them off.

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