Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | November 2016 | 18 minutes (4,602 words)
She named her avatar DancingDark after a Lars von Trier movie and Björk, a beloved singer. DancingDark isn’t much of a showoff. “Super skinny. Nice, straight teeth,” she tells me. “My mom’s called me a radical, my dad’s called me a conspiracy theorist, none of my friends even know what I’m talking about.” DancingDark and I talk via Skype, but I can’t see her because she has taped-off the camera on her computer. She is pretty damn certain that the American government is spying on her. Whenever she mentions a certain country (which, for obvious reasons, she asked me not to name) her computer crashes. DancingDark is proud of her intellect. “I’m an intelligent being and I want to learn and be intellectual. That’s more of my foreplay than just being dirty online.”
Witty and personable, DancingDark’s frequent giggles easily turn into tears. As a Truther, the 37-year-old is committed to doubting “mainstream narratives.” When 9/11 happened, things just didn’t add up. There were suspicious delays in the media coverage and some dude down at the World Trade Center mumbled, “Bin Laden, Bin Laden…” Is it possible that the American government had staged the attack to legitimize its invasion of Iraq and take all their oil?
DancingDark is wise to other cons, too. When she thinks climate change, she thinks chemtrails. While the “mainstream media” claims that the crisscrossing lines left behind by planes in the sky are nothing more than contrails—streaks of frozen vapor produced during flight—DancingDark knows better. Global warming is fabricated by the government—“geoengineering above our heads.” Why? “Possibly to push carbon taxes.”
The only attractions in the village where DancingDark runs a one-woman aromatherapy cleaning business are the weekend rodeo and the local Tim Hortons. The small Canadian farming town also houses a mental institution. “Half of the people here can’t even read,” DancingDark says. The Fentanyl problem in town has recently been replaced by a meth problem, and when she passes someone in her village she says she can never be sure whether the person is a drug addict, a religious nut, a mental patient or a combination.
DancingDark has been lonely for what seems like an eternity. In pharmacology school, they were trying to teach her how cancer is cured with medication and surgery. “You just spend money on patients and you make them worse, which means more money,” she says. The system is set up for big corporations. “I couldn’t stomach it and just walked out.” It was the year 2000, and she was 20 then. One year later 9/11 happened, and DancingDark knew right away that “something fishy” was going on.
Until last year, DancingDark had at least one person whom she could talk to. “My friend could tell Illuminati symbolism right away and we could joke about it,” she says, referring to the purported secret global elite believed to control the thoughts of the credulous masses. When her friend hanged herself, there was nobody left whom she could trust fully. “I lost a lot of friends,” she tells me amidst tears.
After a period of depression and grief, she put herself out there again. An acquaintance told her about Awake Dating, a new, free dating website for Truthers and other conspiracy theorists, and DancingDark didn’t waste any time joining.
In many ways Awake Dating, which launched last April, is similar to other dating sites. It allows DancingDark to put up her photo, chat with others, and list her interests: 9/11 Truth, Not watching TV, Ancient Alien Theory, Social Conditioning, Megaliths, the New World Order and False Flags; the latter describes covert operations by the government designed to mislead the masses and hide ulterior motives. (Truthers believe that 9/11, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the terrorist attack at an airport in Brussels were staged—false flags.) In her personal statement DancingDark confesses that her “mainstream weakness” is Game of Thrones. “I’ve seen several UFOs 😮 I love to smoke weed but really don’t care for alcohol at all.” Her statement ends, “Oh and this is important!! I don’t want a golden shower!”
* * *
Finding trust, love and truth in today’s boundless universe of information isn’t easy for anyone. Even those of us not given to conspiracy theories are aware that we have been deceived by the government and by the media too many times. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act classified civil disobedience as a terrorist action and meant the loss of citizenship or seizure of assets, and whistleblowers are being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
Even if their final conclusions have long been debunked by science, conspiracy theorists often take fragments of reality as a springboard, making it hard to draw the line. The government does add fluoride to the water to protect us from tooth decay; it has sprayed us with mosquito pesticides from planes; and it has dumped chemicals into clouds to divert hailstorms and to cause rain, in a process called cloud seeding. The contrail-versus-chemtrail controversy should have been resolved by the consensus of 76 scientists. But the Truther is awake and, alas, caught in “the echo chamber of the internet.” Smarter than 76 scientists, he can’t be paired with the “Sheeple,” the drugged, sleeping masses.
Building relationships with likeminded people, of course, isn’t uncommon. There are niche dating sites for farmers, sea captains, vegans, tall people, short people, cat people, dog people, you name it. None of these groups, though, seems as anathema to the path of true love as Truthers. How do you trust if your premise is doubt? What do Truthers seek in a romantic relationship? What are their gender relations like, what are their struggles?
For Truthers the foremost problem that gets in the way of love is quantitative. For starters, “Truthers are mostly male,” says Jonathan Kay, author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. The Truthers Kay met were more antisocial than the rest of society. “They were bookworms and late-night internet addicts who spent a lot of time on their own independent research. But some of them were quite socially engaged, and a few were in long-term relationships.”
But not all Truthers are lonely. Kay tells me that he has seen two types of relationships among Truthers: The first type, the conspiracy theorist—in the case of 9/11 Truthers, almost always the husband—and his partner have never talked about the subject of his obsession. “They lived a life of husband and wife, eating together and perhaps traveling together, but they separated their intimate domestic life from the world inside the conspiracist’s head.” In the second type of relationship, the conspiracist and his partner share in the conspiracy theory, agree on its general contours, and attend events together and contribute to the same web forums.
Luckily, Jarrod and Aine Fidden belong to the latter category. Though Jarrod is originally from Australia and Aine is American, the founders of Awake Dating share their beliefs. Today the couple lives with their two children in the Irish countryside, surrounded by fields, farms and mountains.
Fidden tells me about the day he walked into the office of “one of the more prestigious private language schools” in Beijing, where he had applied for a job as a teacher. He spotted Aine (whose name is pronounced Ahn-ya) through a glass wall. She greeted him with one of the biggest smiles he had ever seen. I think I’m going to like working here, he thought to himself. A few days later he asked Aine and another employee out for lunch, claiming that he didn’t like to eat alone. He dragged the women from one restaurant to the next in search for vegetarian food: “Paying the same to feed us all as it does for a hamburger and chips in the West, made it a most sound investment.”
Fidden and Aine “woke up” together, gradually, during the “thousands of hours” they spent researching chemtrails and “the illusion of money” online. But they still felt isolated because there were few people the two could talk to about their extraordinary findings. The couple never forgot how lucky they were, or as Fidden put it, “how difficult it must be for someone who is single and who also has this understanding and awareness and these truths.” Where would such a person find love, especially given that they are even more ostracized from society than Aine and him? Then it hit him: “Wow, what a fantastic business idea! Let’s go and do it! So that’s what we did.”
Jarrod Fidden speaks to me via Skype from his small, wood-paneled home office decorated with a painting of Koi fish and a Japanese scroll. He wore an Orgonite necklace—thought to block the electromagnetic frequencies that emanate from our screens—as well as “a Catholic medal of some sort” that was given to him by a local nurse who, he says, is also awake and who was forced to retire when the hospital administration found out that she was treating her patients with herbs (as opposed to the “allopathic” pharmaceuticals the government wants us to swallow to make us more malleable). Fidden races through a seemingly endless web of theories he and Aine have amassed over the years. He talks fast, and his sentences are endless. He pauses only to light another cigarette.
Truthers always talk about being awake, which made me wonder how one can be certain that the other person, the potential partner, is awake. What if they tricked us and just said they were awake, when really they were sleeping? Or, what if they assumed they were awake but were too dumb to notice that they were really asleep? Fidden says he isn’t the one to judge. His threshold doesn’t seem to lie particularly high. “If they identify as awake, as far as I’m concerned they are, at least they are on the right track.”
To be sure, there is nothing mediocre in Fidden’s life. His father was the director of Kellogg’s Australia, his grandfather was the manager of RCA (later Sony) Australia, as well as a thirty-third-degree Freemason. About his time studying Communication and Media Studies, Fidden says, “I was one of those annoying buggers that didn’t have to study particularly hard.” He makes sure to let me know that he could have done a far better job writing an article about Awake Dating than the “atrocious piece” that person wrote for Vice. (The pressure is on.) After dropping out of college, Fidden taught English in five-star hotels and at the Microsoft headquarters in Beijing. A martial arts enthusiast, he then worked his way up from security guard to managing events attended by thousands of people. In 2016, he funded Awake Dating with a “personal loan from myself to the company.” He adds that the company will soon release equity for investors.
“There are tens of millions of us now, tens of millions of Truthers who are awake!” Fidden boasts, “The facts speak for themselves, you just have to be ballsy enough to accept them.”
* * *
Rob Brotherton, a “conspiracy theory theorist” and the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, is quick to tell me not to pathologize Truthers. “They are just like us,” he says. A young, pale intellectual with dry British wit, Brotherton wants to dispel the idea that conspiracy theorists are this weird group of people with unstable minds. “The research shows that that’s not the case. They might end up with different conclusions but that’s not because their minds are fundamentally different.”
All humans benefit—and suffer—from what cognitive psychologists call confirmation bias. “Truthers are using exactly the same cognitive strategies to reinforce what they already believe,” Brotherton says. Once we get a hunch, we start looking for evidence that fits with it and we are more likely to ignore it or dismiss it if it doesn’t fit our established patterns. In evolutionary terms, following and confirming bias patterns has helped us survive.
But it is not only confirmation bias that unites Truthers with non-Truthers. There is also the proportionality bias, which makes it hard to grasp that a large, traumatizing event, such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, could have been executed by just one human being (i.e. “There must have been a large, obscure organized system behind it…”). The same holds true the other way around: Many of us assume that small coincidences must have a more meaningful cause.
To make his point, Brotherton recalls a funny event. When printing his Ph.D. thesis about conspiracy theorists, a weird emblem appeared on the title page. “It looked almost like a spooky symbol of a secret society. I thought it would be brilliant if I were inclined to believe any of this, this would be proof that my computer has been bugged and that they are sending a message to me. Obviously, it was just some glitch in the word processor, but I can understand why some people go a little bit farther in searching for patterns.”
While Brotherton claims that our biases make us all alike, some visitors to his blog, conspiracypsychology.com, distance themselves. What if Brotherton and his co-bloggers were hired by the government as counterintelligence? What if they are part of an academic conspiracy to defame conspiracy theorists? “Are you part of the cover up team. Sure sounds like it,” a user commented on one of Brotherton’s blog posts from 2012.
“There is an element of isolationism which is inherent in the belief system because they are this small group of people who has discovered the amazing truth and the majority of people are being deceived,” Brotherton says. This alludes to another, universally appealing human desire: to have privileged knowledge, to know a secret and to have an enemy you are fighting against. But if that enemy is your partner, the relationship goes awry.
* * *
DancingDark can tell you a thing or two about tense relations between Truthers and Sheeple. Until five years ago she was living with her boyfriend of seven years. In 2007, the two opened a head shop in downtown Calgary selling bongs, pipes, rolling paper and hemp clothing. By that time DancingDark had long known that “9/11 was a farce,” but she had a hard time convincing her boyfriend. She remembers how she jumped up on the couch screaming, “He can’t do that!” when George W. Bush announced that every American should own a home. Her protest of American totalitarianism earned her a weird sideway look from her boyfriend, she says. “He’s thinking I’m crazy. I can’t teach him. He still hasn’t woken up.” She adds, “I don’t think he ever will.”
Then, in 2008, the market crashed. To pay her rent and loan, DancingDark was working three jobs. On top of running the head shop, she was the manager of a large residential building and of two gelato stops. “It turns out they were giving away money like candy at that time,” says DancingDark, who had found herself tricked into a subprime second mortgage, with her mother’s house as the collateral. Her perceived identity as a “good business girl” crumbled. As the couple struggled to keep their heads above water, their relationship was finally falling apart. DancingDark says she began to experience stress seizures, which repeatedly made her fall down and hit her head.
While this was an extraordinarily traumatic phase in her life, money and trust have always been an issue for DancingDark. Her family was “not horribly poor,” but she knew, “You didn’t have to ask for something because the answer was always no.” Her dad was “a bum” and her mother divorced him when she was six. She and her brother grew up with her mom. She says her mother was essentially a functioning alcoholic, holding a job but never receiving any treatment for her addiction, a fact DancingDark despises her doctors for. Later, her brother became addicted to cocaine. DancingDark sums up her feelings toward intimate relationships as follows: “I never want to get married because I don’t want to get divorced.”
* * *
The thing that causes the most conflicts in Brotherton’s marriage is Kanye West. “I’m a huge fan and my wife dislikes Kanye West very strongly,” he says with a smirk. “We argue about that more than anything else—which is a good sign for our marriage because we can overcome our differences on a small scale.” Of course, Brotherton’s example alludes to the fact that it is difficult in relationships to disagree on things that are very important. It just doesn’t feel good.
Brotherton tells me about receiving an email from a woman who thanked him for taking the issue of conspiracy theorists seriously. The woman’s marriage to a Truther had ended, and reading his blog had made her feel less alone.
I was curious. Doesn’t that challenge Brotherton’s assumption that Truthers and Sheeples are really alike? Or are there some Truthers who overstep the line? The woman who contacted Brotherton agreed to answer my questions, provided I didn’t use her real name. “Nika” remembers how her husband talked about 9/11 being an inside job from early on in their relationship. At first, she brushed it off thinking that if she loved him enough and was able to distract him “by making a happy family,” he would change.
Soon Nika’s husband began to spend an excessive amount of time on Infowars.com, the website of Alex Jones, an infamous right-wing radio host from Texas who calls global warming “the religion of global governance.” Jones also wonders whether Prince was killed by “the chemtrail flu” and if Michelle Obama is transgender.
“Any ‘alternate’ view of a situation was what he would believe,” Nika tells me about her husband. “Vaccines were a way to sterilize the population and cause autism, and Sandy Hook was a ruse by the gun control lobby or by Satanists.”
Nika’s husband would amass food and guns because he was afraid the government would come after his family. “Our whole upstairs storage was full of years worth of supplies,” Nika says. “I felt like I was living in a cult and I became more and more isolated from my work, my friends and my family. I felt like I would never escape him.”
Looking back, Nika can see where things went bad: her husband had smoked pot since he was a young teen, and continued to smoke regularly (scientists, doctors, medical journals, psychologists and institutions across the world have long said that marijuana can bring on feelings of paranoia and delusions—sometimes even make existing delusions worse). But Nika’s husband always had the desire to feel “more awake” than the average member of society. A mental health care professional, Nika thinks that to have special knowledge made him feel meaningful and powerful and allowed him to create a wedge between himself and his family. “He had longstanding conflicts with his parents and grandparents,” she says, “and I think having his beliefs helped him feel better than them.”
Then Nika got pregnant. She remembers one particularly poignant morning. She was getting ready to go to work when her husband asked her to watch YouTube videos with him. He wanted to prove to her that the Sandy Hook parents were crisis actors, or possibly Satanists who wanted their children to be killed. “I knew that there was no turning back for me at that point and that I had to get out,” says Nika, who has since remarried.
To try and convince Truthers that at least some of their theories are bogus could backfire, Brotherton says, explaining an effect that has been studied in the context of global warming and the Birther conspiracy theory. Built into their logic is the idea that if anybody tells you you are wrong, either they have been deceived or they know the truth and are trying to deceive you.
When President Obama released his birth certificate, for example, it should have been conclusive and ended the controversy. But even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Birthers fought to find their assumptions confirmed. “They magnified the birth certificate, looking for all these telltale signs, that it has been Photoshopped and that it wasn’t folded the right way,” Brotherton says. “Their brains did all these gymnastics to maintain their beliefs.”
* * *
Today more than 11,000 users across the world have signed up for Awake Dating, according to Fidden, who seeks to double the number with an “alternate media blitz” over the next six months. The site doesn’t have any “bots,” Fidden says, but many of the users lack photos and contain little to no information on their profile, which suggests that they aren’t actually using the site. There is “the odd scammer,” Fidden says, but they are quickly noticed and sent packing. In the U.S. his site is particularly popular among Texans and Floridians.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center in 2013, dating websites are generally frequented by slightly more men than women, but this imbalance usually falls within a few percentage points. While Fidden tells me that his site has a better gender ratio than the average dating site, quite the opposite seems to be true. A quick search for potential partners in a 300-mile radius from Houston, Texas revealed that of the 448 available Texans, 340 are men. Women make up only 14 percent of Awake Texans. There are 12 gay Texan Truthers, nine of whom are women. In Brooklyn, New York there are 36 Truthers, six of whom are women.
Women Truthers tend to focus their efforts on different types of theories. They are more interested in medical—or quasi-medical—stuff, particularly in the field of nutrition, autism, vaccines and water fluoridation. “Women also tend to get into things like amulets and other New Age spiritual gimmicks that offer reassurance about universal life forces,” author Jonathan Kay says. “The men are more interested in the science-fiction-type conspiracy theories, such as 9/11.”
I contacted a handful of dating experts hoping they could shed light on the gender relations and dating challenges among Truthers. DeAnna Lorraine was the only one willing to talk, and I soon find out why: She describes herself as a ‘soft Truther,’ someone who ‘understands what is going on with the government, but chooses not to make that a big focus in [her] life.”
Lorraine also has encountered more male than female Truthers. She says, “There are more males questioning things and challenging the status quo. Women may be more self-conscious and shy about vocalizing their beliefs.”
“Truthers really have a hard time right now,” Lorraine continues, “because they have to accomplish a few things: they feel like everything is coming to an end soon, and that the truth is going to be revealed soon. So they are feeling this urgency. And they really want to find a partner to not be alone in this. It would make the journey obviously more enjoyable for them.”
Later I would ask Awake Dating founder Jarrod Fidden whether Lorraine was right. Is envisioning the end of the world more enjoyable as a pair? Fidden doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the world’s looming end. Civilizations have always ended one way or another, he tells me, dispassionately listing a slew of examples. “I’m not going to go running around and go, ‘Geez, I got to start prepping!’”
So far Lorraine has advised her Truther clients to keep their beliefs private, at least on the first few dates. “Because a lot of Truthers might go into a first date and already be discussing these things and their beliefs, and that’s a little bit too much too soon. It can scare people off. I would tell them to talk about neutral topics for the first few dates, and then slowly reveal some of their beliefs and perspectives. Ask the other person some questions to see what their level of awakeness is! The other person may be able to jump on board with them, and they can grow together.”
* * *
DancingDark was quickly falling in love. Irishguy22, an unemployed 22-year-old from Dublin who lives with his mother, is a really good listener. He is all around sweet and remarkably awake. The two chat and talk via Skype for hours. “We’re so much alike, it’s so neat to me. It excites me,” DancingDark tells me. “Someone so young, so willing to learn and with such back knowledge! He’s really different than any guy I’ve ever met and his accent is really damn cute.”
Soon DancingDark is planning a meeting somewhere in Europe. When I ask her whether there will be sex, she giggles again. “Oh, I’m sure! We’re on all levels really clicking.”
Irishguy22 has about 50 photographs and memes on his Awake Dating profile. There is a photograph of chemtrails and a picture of a—quote unquote—Islamic terrorist. It reads “Oops,” with a red error pointing to a small Jewish Star on his uniform (implying Islamic terrorism is an Israel-sponsored false flag operation). Another meme says that The New World Order is the biggest terrorist organization in the world. Pictures of pot plants are preceded by a picture of Emily Parker, a 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim, alive, presumably days after the shooting took place.
For a while Irishguy22 and DancingDark chatted and Skyped almost daily, but things between them deteriorated rapidly when he mentioned, almost in passing, that he is on Cialis, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction. DancingDark flipped out. She says Irishguy22 told her his doctor prescribed the drug for his recovery after working out, but she didn’t believe him. “I guess it’s not heroin,” she says in her email to me, but “he may injure his heart and possibly his future sex life! In the past I dated someone on antipsychotics and I wouldn’t do that again either.”
DancingDark broke off the relationship immediately. She believes that big pharma only make people’s illnesses worse. For years she has researched and studied Chinese medicine, aromatherapy, bodywork, chiropractic, animal assisted therapy, probiotics, alkaline diets, Reiki, music therapy, energy healing, frequency healing, you name it—“basically if it’s not western medicine I want to know all about it,” she says.
After she broke up with Irishguy22, DancingDark went on a couple of dates in Calgary, but she wasn’t physically attracted to any of them. Besides, she lamented, they weren’t fully awake. One, for example, didn’t know that this year’s Turkish coup attempt had been staged—which made her wonder whether she had come across a “random” who infiltrated Awake Dating just to confuse the awake. While she found it relatively easy to educate the guy, the chemistry just wasn’t there.
When Irishguy22’s birthday came around, which DancingDark knew was one day before hers (“so neat”), she sent him a message and the two started talking again. DancingDark just really likes Irishguy22. She plans to meet him in Amsterdam soon. While she isn’t certain whether she can fully trust him, she also knows that love, at least for now, requires you to take a big leap.
* * *
Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Editor: Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Matt Giles