For the first six months, my older brother, Ted, and I could still easily talk despite our differing reactions to the pandemic—my near agoraphobia and frenetic doorknob wiping, his disregard and out-there theories. Distance likely helped. He still lives on the East Coast, where we grew up, and I now live in the Midwest. The calm didn’t last. At the end of October 2020, my siblings and I were on a group text filled with light autumn chatter: pumpkin emojis, pictures of a new pandemic puppy, videos of a local family of black bears. Then Ted asked to be removed from the conversation.
“Why?” I texted.
“We are not family,” he replied, and added a smiley face emoji that read like a middle finger.
It was early in the morning, still dark, and I was seated at my desk, racing to finish the last pages of my graphic memoir. I sat up straight.
“What are you talking about?” I wrote.
“I’ve been dismissed and overlooked,” he said. He was referring to a few texts we’d all ignored. Something about Skull and Bones, links to a few YouTube videos claiming COVID-19 was manufactured in a lab. I couldn’t really say what they were about, because I had indeed dismissed and overlooked them.
For Ted, conspiracy theories predated the recent proliferation of misinformation. He first mentioned the Freemasons to me in 2014 when he visited the converted Masonic lodge I lived in at the time. He brushed his fingers over a wall’s crumbling mortar. “They placed every brick with intention,” he said. “It all symbolizes something.” I had no idea what he meant.
In 2019, I asked to interview him for my memoir about the mental illness that runs in our family and its impact on our lives. Without hesitation he agreed. We planned to talk on the morning after Christmas. My siblings, husband, and divorced parents were all staying under the same roof for the holiday, at my younger brother’s apartment in Brooklyn. Early on the twenty-sixth, Ted and I left to have breakfast and a conversation away from the chatter of the family.
Sitting across from me, Ted described the years-long development of his understanding of the world. In 2015, he was excelling at the recruiting firm where he worked and had been invited to join a leadership-training program. Then he got a new boss and was reprimanded for showing up unprepared to a meeting. When he was confronted at work about the meeting, he quit. Around the same time, he went to a music festival, ate mushrooms, and had “one of the most intense trips” of his life. Within days, he started noticing strange things. People all made the exact same hand gestures as they drove by him on the highway, for instance. “Intimidation methods,” Ted said.
He paused the interview and pointed out the window of the coffee shop.
“Do you see that Jeep right there? That’s the same kind of Jeep Val had at the time,” he said of his ex-girlfriend. They’d been together when the intimidation began, but had since split up. Seeing her Jeep as we spoke was a sign that he was being watched, one that reinforced Ted’s belief that Val was somehow connected to his involvement in “the program,” even though she wasn’t part of it. It didn’t make perfect sense, but he was trying to figure it out. Ted explained that the program was a highly organized, nonstop covert surveillance operation and intimidation campaign against him and tens of thousands of others around the world. Victims had come together online and said they were targeted individuals.
Ted sipped his smoothie. He mentioned an incident with a police officer in 2016, about a year after he quit his job and first noticed signs of the surveillance.
“Want to see the video?” he asked. I nodded.
When the camera snaps on, the officer explains that they’re waiting for an ambulance to take Ted to the hospital for an evaluation. Ted asks why. “You asked me about internet stalking and all kinds of crazy stuff that makes no sense,” the officer says. “You left your bags on the side of the building, unattended.” Ted had been on his way to a clothing donation center when he stopped to buy cigarettes. He saw the officer and asked about gang stalking, the term he’d learned to describe how people were following him all the time, everywhere. “I don’t have to explain myself,” the officer says. “You have to go to the hospital.”
Ted stayed in the hospital for eight hours and was diagnosed with “some type of psychosis,” he said. It was all part of the program, designed to erase any credibility he had.
This helped me make sense of an earlier experience from the same year, 2016, when Ted had picked me up from the airport in Connecticut and told me he was being followed. He was a targeted individual, he had explained. I googled the term and found only two credible articles on the subject (more have since been written), one of which claimed all targeted individuals were probably also experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. I brushed off the article as overly general, one person’s point of view. Not mine.
After our interview in Brooklyn, Ted and I were able to talk more openly about his experiences. I listened to what he said and tried to respond honestly. When the pandemic hit, he began speaking in fragments. “The masks on children, so bad. It’s hiding—You can trace the events: JFK, Obama, Hillary Clinton. The virus is from a lab. Just be careful with your daughter,” he said, referring to my stepdaughter.
“Where did you get this?” I asked on the phone one evening.
“It’s all online.”
“You realize that anyone can put literally anything online?” I considered making a Wikipedia page with his profile that was full of fake information.
“It’s all there,” he said.
I knew the pandemic was causing him stress. Before he sent that text resigning from our family, he’d quit another well-paying job, had driven to New Orleans to work a temporary job with a friend, had quit that, and was back in Connecticut living with a woman none of us had ever met. He was sure the country would devolve into civil war. Once in a while, apropos of nothing in the family chat, Ted would send us a link to a website about JFK’s assassination or a video of an off-brand conspiracy theorist he followed. My siblings and I worried without any clue of what to do or say.
At my desk in October 2020, I picked up the phone and called Ted. No answer.
I texted. “You rejected my call.”
“We exist in different worlds,” he replied.
“Don’t tell me we’re not a family. You are my brother, and I’m your sister.” Heat rose to the tips of my ears as I blasted off the text. Since lockdown had begun, he hadn’t once asked about my stepdaughter, whom I was homeschooling four days a week. Hadn’t asked if we were OK, if my freelance illustration work had slowed, if we had enough toilet paper. It hadn’t bothered me until that moment. After all, I’d written a memoir and spent plenty of time on the subject of myself. But now Ted was saying I didn’t understand his reality, when he’d never even asked about mine. I stood up and looked for something to throw.
The phone rang.
“You want to talk about struggling?” I said before he could open his mouth. “Do you know how hard it is to homeschool a fourth grader? Half the time she hates it, and so do I. Do you know that I’ve been trying to get pregnant for literal years and I don’t know if I can? Do you know that I’m in therapy about it? That I have a fertility doctor? We all have our own struggles, Ted.” It occurred to me then that the fertility drugs I’d injected a few weeks earlier may have impacted my reaction to Ted’s text.
“You can’t get pregnant?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I wonder if you were sterilized.” Another conspiracy.
“No, Ted. It’s science. The doctor measured my hormone levels and explained the issues.”
“Still . . .”
And then he apologized. If I have one skill with Ted, it’s that I know when to get mad and when to listen. He was lost in his self-pity, but he was and is always full of empathy. He’s just like my mom that way. I can call either of them at any moment to share my grief, and they’ll drop everything to listen.
“I’m sorry, too,” I said. “Your text just set me off.”
We hung up and texted more apologies. He sent pictures of the work he was doing in the house where he was staying. New floors, an updated bathroom, new countertops in the kitchen. It was all impeccable.
A few weeks later, I learned that I was pregnant. Thrilled, I told my family almost immediately. They all wanted to make plans to visit Indianapolis to meet the baby. On a group call with my brothers and mom, I said, “You’ll have to be vaccinated.” It was November, and vaccines weren’t yet available, but I assumed they would be by the time my son was born the following August. “My baby won’t have an immune system,” I explained. The words my baby filled me with an overwhelming joy.
“Of course,” said my mom and younger brother.
“You’re saying I can’t meet the baby?” Ted asked.
“Get vaccinated and you can meet your nephew,” I said.
“I’m not going to just get vaccinated. I already was.”
Ted believed a chip had been implanted in him back in 2015 while participating in leadership training for that company he had worked for. Though the chip predated the pandemic, Ted thought it had somehow vaccinated him against COVID-19. He mentioned that he’d recently tried to contract the disease while on a construction site by licking the steering wheels of his coworkers. When no symptoms showed, he cataloged the event as further evidence of the chip, of the vaccine. Or that the virus was a hoax. Either way, in his mind getting a vaccine was superfluous.
“We can figure it out,” I lied. Even if I made an exception for Ted—and there was no way in hell I would—my husband would have to be in a grave before he’d let an unvaccinated person breathe on our baby. Especially one that was a self-identified car licker. The risk was too high, the potential impact too profound. There was death, of course, but also the possibility of a malfunctioning nervous system for the rest of the baby’s life. By the following August, as COVID variants surged across the country and we waited for the arrival of our baby, my husband’s position had solidified.
My calculation was simpler. I was thirty-seven years old, and it had taken me two years to get pregnant. I wasn’t getting any younger. This would be my only biological child. For as long as I could, I was going to delude myself that I could protect him from every harm in the world.
In the months that followed our conversation about vaccinations, Ted and I spoke intermittently. I always planned to call but worried over the inevitable conversation: his allusions to a manmade virus or how masks hid the faces of abused children or whatever new conspiracy had grabbed him that week. I worried I wouldn’t be able to control my response. Could I remain calm? Could I just this one time say the exact right thing to snap him out of it? (He thinks the same about me, I’m sure.) But I’d meant what I’d said in my text the previous year. He is my brother, and I love him fiercely, conspiracies and all. Once again at my desk in the early morning, I picked up the phone and dialed his number.