Jen* and I met nearly 15 years ago. We grew up in the same town and hung around the same clique. In the beginning, we’d give approving nods of each other’s vintage-inspired outfits from across the room. That evolved into perusing aisles of antique stores and then styling outfits together and, natch, obsessing over our first solo apartments’ interior decor. Our bond eventually transcended that creative consulting and we became each other's emotional support systems. I felt like I wasn’t complete if I was anywhere without Jen.
In 2016, though, it became apparent we had opposite political views. Even though it sounds impossible, we decided to avoid hot-button issues like feminism, immigration, and presidential candidates, specifically, the current president himself. For years this was easy. It felt like a sustainable way of ensuring our friendship stood on solid ground.
Plus, who wanted to be talking politics when we could belt out Lady Gaga songs to each other? Our little bubble of friendship was the perfect escape from the chaos of the world. We showed up for each other, whether we were grieving from the loss of a parent, stranded at a train station, or needed help after a surgery.
But late last year, when Jen found QAnon, the widespread right-wing conspiracy theory, our footing began to crumble. In 2020, much like everything else, our friendship fell apart completely.
I initially tried to ignore her social media posts, which mostly consisted of memes and infographics depicting false information and bizarre narratives not based in fact. None were from reputable sources and most came from anonymous authors or followers of the notorious and elusive “Q." Jen’s conspiracy posts debuted sporadically around January, odd I’d thought, but I just kept scrolling. Then they came one after the other, a non-stop saturation of her stories and posts waving giant red flags in my face.
Normally when I see a wackadoodle conspiracy theory on social media, I laugh it off, start joking about tinfoil hats, and hide it from my feed. But this was Jen.
We had been inseparable for years. Before the pandemic, we met at our corner bar regularly and if I arrived first, I knew to order her a Tito's and soda with not two, but three limes. She knew to order me a Lemon Drop martini. On taco nights, she'd brave the tears and chop the onions while I seasoned the meat and fried the shells. She taught me how to put my hair into pin-curls. I taught her how to make deviled eggs. Through the years, she rubbed my back when I cried over boys and I made her a Tinder profile after her longterm relationship came to an end. We'd text each other photos of chic funky old ladies: "This will be us someday."
But after the QAnon "teachings" began to take hold, Jen’s candid remarks and social media posts became increasingly hard to ignore. I started reading about conspiracy theories and the psychology behind why some people fall for them more than others. I looked up cults and googled things like "how to un-brainwash your best friend." All the while, the things Jen said, both via her Instagram and casually while we watched movies on the couch, grew stranger and more diabolical. The conviction with which she said them grew stronger.
I only really saw Jen worked up like that when she was coming to my defense, like that time she thought a mutual friend implied I had been a ditzy blonde or when she insisted an ex-boyfriend was probably a murderer after he hurt my feelings.
But this was different. From January to May of this year, our phone conversations went from chit-chatting about everything but politics to awkward small talk filled with tense pauses and changed subjects. Throughout our entire friendship we’d never had a serious fight, and then all of the sudden, we struggled to find words to fill the empty space.
The tension turned to turmoil when QAnon talking points completely replaced our normal so what's up? A few times, after she said some wildly wrong things, I tried to reason with her by giving her concrete examples that contradicted the ideas she was promoting. It was no use. She was convinced I didn’t understand and when I told her I thought she was being irrational she’d respond with culty language like “try to open your mind.” She seemed to believe she was privy to something that people outside of Q were not. Not the journalists who dedicate their lives to chasing important stories, or the investigators who sleep, eat and breathe extraordinary cases—no, she insisted, only Q was getting it right.
I knew she was too far gone when she came over for socially distanced cocktails in May and yelled about QAnon theories and far-right rhetoric for 45 minutes until I asked her to leave.
In just a few months, I went from being worried about my best friend and hoping she’d snap out of it to slowly realizing I was losing her and feeling helpless to do anything. Then I felt angry. How perfectly 2020 that a modern American cyber-cult stole Jen from me. My creative, empathetic and loyal friend was someone I no longer recognized. The Jen I had spent hours, days, months and years laughing and crying with was gone.
Months have passed since Jen and I last spoke. I blocked her accounts after the cocktail-fueled QAnon rant so I wouldn’t see her problematic posts and wouldn’t be tempted to creep on her page. My brother told me she’d posted afterward that she’d been disowned by her best friend. I’ve resisted urges to text or call, except once, on her birthday. She didn’t respond. Ending our friendship was a mutual decision, even if she didn’t see it that way. Still, I’ve wondered if she’s stayed up thinking of me, the way I stay up and think of her. I wonder if she too has decided severing ties was for the best.
In early October, Facebook announced QAnon conspiracy pages, groups and Instagram accounts would be banned from the platform, and the following week YouTube had signed on to do the same. For Jen and me, the move is too little too late. I now realize that between the pandemic, protests against police brutality, the presidential election, and surging conspiracy theory Qanon, no one has been spared from our country's deepened divide. There’s a massive line drawn in the sand between the polarized right and left perspectives. It kills me that Jen is standing on the other side.
*Names have been changed.
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