I knew it was time to leave, when I heard her say “Hitler was just misunderstood, that’s all. He was actually a hero if you think about it. The only reason the war happened was because the Jews started it, when Hitler politely asked them to leave the country. He was actually a really nice man, and children loved him.”
I was nonplussed. My head span. My colleague was sat opposite me defending Hitler. Hitler! I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what to say. Over the years I’d come to expect some radical and far-reaching statements, but I never thought she would be discussing Adolf Hitler like he was a rough diamond, like one of Monty Python’s Piranha Brothers: “He nailed my head to the floor, but we has a lovely chap really”.
It didn’t start like this though. Let’s go back to the beginning.
I joined the company because the work looked interesting; challenging but achievable, and I enjoy a challenge. It was well within in my field of sciences and contained a good amount of interesting problem solving. There was no weekend work, which was different to some customer service roles I had been in previously. The wage was great, plus I had use of a company vehicle. It seemed like a really good package.
There was only one downside.
I had to work with Joan. In a career spanning 25 years, I had never worked with anyone like Joan before. To be clear, Joan is not her real name.
“I found out something really interesting last night…”, Joan told me as we took our coffees into our little office together. It was 2016. I’d only been working with her for a few weeks since joining the organisation, but already she engaged me excitedly every morning, like a puppy wanting to show its new toy. “Have you heard of the food pyramid?”, she asked me. I told her I had. I used to run a small organisation that obtained funding to spread the message of healthy eating, and environmental science amongst other things. “It’s a lie!”, she told me triumphantly. “Ancel Keys made up the food pyramid to poison Americans. They killed him for it”. Who were ‘they’ I wondered? I would get to know who ‘they’ were over the coming years.
That night as I was searching around on Netflix for something to distract me, I remembered the conversation. Recalling my previous workshops about healthy eating, I wondered if I had been mistaken in my research, and so did some Googling about the food pyramid. It was devised in Sweden in 1974. I made a mental note to pick up the conversation the next morning back at the coffee machine.
“No – ANCEL KEYS”, she repeatedly slowly and clearly. She stopped abruptly as she saw me tip half a teaspoon of sugar into my mug. “What are you doing? That’s poison!”, she shouted. “It’s designed to kill you, don’t you remember?”. She took the mug and tipped the contents down the sink. I found this a little unnerving. My whole career had been built on researching things and passing on the information in an engaging way. I’d won awards for it. I wasn’t used to someone dismissing me so efficiently.
Joan was a grumbler, at first. Bloody government, bloody this, bloody that. It seemed the whole world was against her. At first, she was very, very Left. Conservatives were scum. Then it was Labour who were evil. Then it was anyone who wasn’t “awake”. I told her I was “woke”, was that enough? It wasn’t.
When Brexit reared its head, she was overjoyed. The thought of all of that money being wasted by unelected European morons was abhorrent, and by leaving we would be much, much better off. The phrase “sunlit uplands” was bandied about. Months later, when it emerged that the campaigns had used exaggeration and manipulation to get the result, Joan was crushed. Looking back, I think this was a big influence on what happened next, and how her behaviour changed.
Such was life working opposite Joan. To be fair, once I had prioritised my workload for the day, she let me get on with it. We had disagreements sometimes about how to do things, and she liked to lose her temper, shout, and throw things, but for the most part, we got on.
Suddenly, and without warning, Covid struck, and Boris appeared on our screens saying we must stay at home. However, given the industry we work in, we were summoned to work the next morning, so people could still have available utilities. Joan immediately went into overdrive, sanitising doorhandles, ordering masks, and generally panicking. I picked up a ringing telephone once, and she ran over, shouting at me for not having sanitised it first. “But it’s my phone”, I countered, “nobody uses it but me”. The phone flew across the room. Our works vehicles were cleaned and disinfected, repeatedly. Masks were bought and used. Work began to be quite stressful, for everyone.
But then Joan discovered something. She gleefully stumbled across a video that claimed to show deserted hospitals, despite the pandemic putting a strain on the NHS.
Joan stopped using a mask. She said they were designed to make you sick, actually. Sometimes she would call into shops even when she didn’t need anything, just to walk around and smile at people. When challenged, she claimed she was exempt from wearing “face nappies”.
One morning, at the coffee machine, Joan was waiting with another one of her triumphant smiles. “It’s a hoax, the whole thing. There’s no sickness, and the people on TV are paid actors playing sick people. It’s obvious when you think about it.”
We were given boxes of covid tests to keep on our desks, and use periodically. “I’m not sticking that up my nose”, she sniffed, “I read online that they’ve put shards of glass and dangerous chemicals on the swabs to make us compliant and sick. Plus, the tests are fake, you can tell which ones are going to test positive by running them under the tap. Just like passports” she finished, cryptically. I simple had to bite on this one. “You run your passport under the tap?” I enquired. “No silly, the letters on your passport determine what rate of citizen you are, and whether or not you will be stopped at the border. Billionaires don’t have ANY letters”.
All of this was beginning to take its toll on my mental health. Each morning I would have to employ a huge amount of mental gymnastics to entertain (but not encourage) and listen to (but not agree or disagree with) Joan’s monologues. Why? To be honest, it just seemed easier than challenging her. She told me that she spent every evening on her laptop, headphones on (so her husband didn’t talk to her), searching for the truth. It was clear that each link she followed, led to another, even more outrageous claim. The world she thought she knew seemed to be crumbling. Dorothy had spotted the man behind the curtain. In fact, she hadn’t, she had read online that there WAS a man behind the curtain, and that other people had CERTAINLY spotted him for sure, and that the curtain would be pulled back any day now.
Any day now.
When Covid vaccines became available, Joan’s warnings were dire. The vaccine had been developed by evil scientists who had been tasked with reducing the planet’s population to “around 500,00 people, to be used as slaves”. As the rest of the staff became vaccinated, she called them “morons” and “fucking idiots”. She would ring suppliers and ask about their vaccine status, saying she had to ensure the future of the company. She openly discussed the possibility of the business closing, because the rest of the staff were going to die. She said this made her very unhappy, as she would have to find another job; a real pain as she could currently walk to work. The subject of death because a daily topic; who would die next? Who among us was vaccinated? When a colleague’s mum passed away from a long illness, Joan didn’t offer a crumb of comfort. She simply said, “Yeah… was she vaccinated?”.
The rest of the business seemed to run as normal. Staff wore their masks, had their vaccines, kept things clean, and life continued.
Meanwhile Joan was determined to buck the system, and prove the hoax. When a contractor sent a WhatsApp picture of his positive lateral flow test and apologised for not visiting our site, Joan was on the case. “It’s fine, it’s just a hoax, it’s not true” she told him. As he attended our site, coughing profusely, I quietly excused myself and busied myself with a job in another building.
Then came the podcasts. Hour after hour of urgent voices coming from her tiny phone speaker. I would catch snippets as I zoned in and out. “…stealing our children with brainwashing propaganda…”, “…no, there is NO clear evidence that tobacco is harmful…”, “…if you divide the number by 666, you get to the letter D, for Devil…”.
Joan began reading The Light Paper, a specialist newspaper, for Truthers and the “awake”. It was hand-delivered by fellow free-thinkers, and the articles were something to behold. “WAR ON FREE THOUGHT,” shouted the headline, “LOCKDOWNS ARE 1984 WITH BELLS ON”. The latest Star Wars movie got a pasting for having a female lead in it (“woke emasculation gone mad”). The fluoride in our water was designed to kill you. Vaccines turned you gay. As I leafed through it, it was the adverts that intrigued me:
“DIGITAL CURRENCY IS THEFT – BUY GOLD BULLION”
“STAR FOOD – ENLIGHTEN YOUR BODY’S POTENTIAL BY EATING MONATOMIC GOLD, RHODIUM, AND IRIDIUM”
The business making ABDUCTION-PROOF RADIO FREQUENCY PROTECTIVE ALL-IN-ONE BODY SUITS was based in Glastonbury, which I suppose makes some sense.
Things took a turn for the worse when, inevitably, she found QAnon. For those of you who are unaware “Q” is an alleged whistleblower, seated deep inside the real government, not the let’s-play-at-puppet-politics TV politicians, but the REAL, actual group who are at the heart of what’s going on. From this vantage point “Q” shares information about the hidden rings, plans, and manipulations devised by a Machiavellian few; always hidden, always plotting.
At the heart of the plot is a group of evil, scheming paedophiles known as the “cabal”. Q postulates that they have been responsible for anything and everything that has challenged humanity, including HIV, weather manipulation, floods, market forces, pandemics, common illnesses, any and all wars, vaccines, and the corruption of children through Steven Spielberg movies. This information was devoured by a tidal wave of followers, who finally had someone to blame for any and all of their troubles.
The floodgates had been opened. Now, each morning over coffee, Joan would tell me more and more about what she had learned the night before. Chemtrails, cabals, Satan-worshipping Liberal Elites, Tom Hanks’s child-trafficking to Barack Obama’s secret underground chambers, a flat earth, and the fact that the Queen had never actually existed. Neither had the Titanic, apparently.
I was being told daily, and repeatedly, that the world I knew was a hoax. Voting? That’s a hoax. War in Ukraine? Also a hoax. Climate change? Definitely a hoax put about by the Liberal Elite to scare and control you. I imagine this is what propaganda feels like; “Your team have been captured, your country on its knees, give up now, resistance is futile”.
Office documents began to be written in purple ink. That’s nice I thought, she’s found some artistic flair, and added a touch of colour. I was wrong. “They can’t hold it against me in court”, she explained, “purple ink means anything I sign isn’t legally binding. They’ll never get me.”
The trouble was it made working very difficult. Just when you’d gotten settled to process some claim forms or book some hotels for someone, she would want to speak at length about the latest tidbit she had uncovered the night before. “Wow, that’s crazy” I would say, up to 20 times each conversation.
Plato said our silence gives consent. Was this my fault? Should I be stopping her? Or at least asking her to question the reliability of where all of this information was coming from?
I asked if she had discussed any of this with her husband. “Oh no, he’s a sheep”, she would say, “he isn’t a Truther like me.” Her husband worked for a meteorological service as a consulting scientist. “He believes all this nonsense about the changing weather; I’ve given up trying to convince him”. She left him in the months that followed.
When Donald Trump’s presidential term finished, Joan was furious over the election result. Trump appeared on TV, claiming the election had been rigged, and that he was doing to “drain the swamp” of dangerous, cheating liberals. The next day Joan was already out in front of the topic. “It was the Vatican!” she told me, over coffee. “Basically, the Vatican has a network of satellites that they used to beam signals to the Dominion voting machines, causing them to display false results, and electing Biden. Q posted about it last night, it’s common knowledge now, amongst Truthers”.
The Capital Riots elicited a similar explanation. The rioters were true Q-anon followers; the Proud Boys (the all-male, neo-fascists), and other violent, gun-toting, flag-waving ‘Murican’s and Trump loyalists who were taking a stand against brainwashed Liberals. That was until it became clear that some deaths had occurred during the riot – at which point the protestors became actors, paid by the Liberals, pretending to be rioters in an effort to discredit the gentle folk who just wanted election answers.
Soon, Joan discovered she was a millionaire. “We all are, actually”, she explained, “we have trusts in our name that are assigned to us at birth. Somewhere there is a vault with my name on it, full of gold bullion. I just need to access mine, but the government will try and stop me, you watch.”
I left the company shortly afterwards. My mental health was in pieces. I was broken, exhausted. During the week I left, Joan (now divorced) had moved into a little cottage, on her own. She had recently read that taxes and bills were also government hoaxes, and was busy dodging fines, court summonses, and building a large, reinforced fence around her house. “It stops the bailiffs banging on the door, which is Treason. They just hit the railings now”.
As I reflect on my time with her, I realise that she had no-one else to talk to, about anything. I was her confidant, her co-conspirator. Even now, as I write this, I feel guilty for not helping her more, helping her to question what she was reading. But it did make her happy, joyful even that she had discovered all of this, on her own, and that there were other, like-minded souls out there, who knew and understood. A bit like sighting land while drifting around in a lifeboat.
I work elsewhere now. I wish only happiness for Joan. I hope she’ll be ok.
The post The radicalisation of “Joan”: a true-life account of one colleague’s slide into conspiracism appeared first on The Skeptic.
“Joan” was always interested in off-the-wall ideas, but over time she became increasingly drawn into deeper and deeper conspiracy theories
The post The radicalisation of “Joan”: a true-life account of one colleague’s slide into conspiracism appeared first on The Skeptic.