Conspiracists and Those Who Love Them:
An Autobiographical Sketch of a Lie
Ruth Graham, the late wife of Evangelical preacher Billy Graham (also currently deceased), wrote a book entitled Prodigals and Those Who Love Them. I haven’t read it, nor do I plan to. The book is about worrying about one’s children as they wander off into the world, wondering about them, pining for their return.
Having no children of my own, the only thing that has gotten away from me are my thoughts and a few lies. This is the story of one such lie.
As a teenager, I was keenly interested in several things: music, conspiracy theories, occult shit, girls, maybe one or two boys, and Marilyn Manson. Why Marilyn Manson? It had to do with some occult shit, music, a few girls, and ultimately a conspiracy theory.
Marilyn Manson’s publicists, it was later revealed, intentionally spread rumors about Brian Warner, the band’s frontman and personification of toxic masculinity in latex. The promotional team concocted the rumors that meshed and enhanced Marilyn Manson’s branding: infamy, danger, the type of Satanism invented by Christians to convince each other that Satan is real, and vague homo(phobia)roticism. The rumors ranged from ‘I heard he had two ribs removed so he can suck his own dick!’ to ‘Well, I heard that Marilyn Manson was actually Paul Pfeiffer from The Wonder Years.’
That was mine. My conspiracy theory. Not that I created it, that was done by a promotional team somewhere either in Hollywood or a skulky Florida basement. No, I heard the conspiracy theory once and immediately began to retell the vagabond tale. Though, as I mentioned before, I was a conspiracy theorist. That means, for matters of internalized inadequacy manifesting itself into external sources of identity verification, that conspiracy theory became my conspiracy theory.
I told people, a lot of people, that ‘I think Marilyn Manson was actually Paul Pfeiffer from The Wonder Years’ and not ‘I heard that Marilyn Manson was actually Paul Pfeiffer from The Wonder Years.’ The erroneous conversational foot-in-the-door was a favorite of mine, using it regularly to woo any and all goth girls that happened into my juvenile trash gaze. That is, of course, until I finally sat down to watch an episode of The Wonder Years (which I genuinely enjoyed watching) to find that 1. Paul Pfeiffer was played by Josh Saviano, who is now a lawyer and, interestingly, co-founded a consultancy for celebrity branding, and 2. … oh, shit, I don’t know Marilyn Manson’s real name.
No internet, no Google … uphill, both ways, in the snow … apparently, I am now one of those ancient artifacts of pre-history that feels the need to set the scene of the dark, gloomy days of Windows 95, a/s/l chat rooms and dial-up computer networks shook hands with sound.
So, there I was, in the time before time, forced to traverse the tremendous two-mile distance to the mall, where I could visit the Waldenbooks where no one ever actually bought any books, to locate a Spin or Rolling Stone magazine to locate the name of the Satanic panic profiteer before the clerk asks if I am ready to check out. Turns out, Marilyn Manson and Paul Saviano were not the same person. Hmmm …
Okay, but here’s the thing, I don’t admit that I was a dissembler, promoting immanently falsifiable content without submitting a draft to the Bureau of Accuracy beforehand. No. I just looked down and kicked rocks. No need to keep sharing the falsifiable upto and including the moment of untruth.
That moment, however, happened in a friend’s car; a compact with five teenagers packed inside. The radio announces the rumor and pronounces it false, and for a moment, I feel what I recall as dread. Though, of course, memory is fallible. Maybe it was the moment that I dreaded, but the experience of the moment itself was more of an anticipation; a prelude to dread.
This, I think, is common among people who have a conspirative mindset. Information is social capital, and we the conspirative value both the novelty and relevance of our information – so when it gets shoved in our face that our information is absolute trash, a defensive stance may manifest. What would I do? Deny? Say that the radio was fake news? Claiming to be mad woke and everyone else were just sheeple hadn’t even been invented yet.
The moment after the radio announcement ended, there was a split second of silence, followed by a few seconds of astounded pentagonal eye-contact, and finally uproar! The laughter and astonishment of my friends quieted my fear of being exposed as a charlatan … apparently because I had ascended to the rank of trickster god.
“Holy Fuck, man! You did it!”
My friends, presumedly, long knew that The Wonder Years connection with Marilyn Manson was fully inaccurate from the start. They did, however, believe that I was spreading the rumor and that I, through a summer of flirting with every girl I met at Cedar Point, had proliferated such an insipid rumor that a radio announcer at 89X in Detroit had to stifle a sigh that presaged the station’s transition to 24/7 Rap Metal and Kid Rock.
I was a hero.
Recall that I did not fabricate the story but simply spread it. At most, I enhanced the story through the mobilization of my greasy teenage charisma. The trench coat, the pants with gunmetal gromets over the crotch, the far-too-privileged-to-be-scowling scowl. That’s all I brought to this triumph of misinformation. No less than that, I was a dirtbag, but still nothing more.
Still, I was implicated in a very real fake news story at a very young age, and to very few people. I was basically a genius. If my friends were convinced that I was a genius, who was I to argue? There you have it, the lie, the cover-up, the reveal, and the narrow escape from culpability through some judicious reframing. Insecurity and the need for attention as the motive, but no charges were filed due to a friendly denial of injury.
A bit about me:
My background is an assemblage of assorted deviances. My mother identified as a witch for most of my childhood and teenage years, though most of her practice consisted of playing Dungeons & Dragons and occasionally drawing down the moon. My father was an avid conspiracy theorist and amateur UFOlogist, though we only went looking for UFOs together twice, and he rarely left his apartment. They divorced when I was young, and my brother and I were essentially left to fend for ourselves. When I went to live with my grandmother, I found out that we were the family’s black sheep.
Of course, I was not simply an aggregate of parents’ hermetic UFOlogy and weekend warrior witchcraft – though that would explain a large portion of my adolescent occultishness …
At the time of my great, metastasizing Marilyn Manson lie, my friend group was an assortment of teenage Taoists and mystics. We had spent the better part of a year as amateur cult watchers and paranormal investigators. That year, a subset of the small-town goth-industrial youth contingent formed a cult, just a fledgling gang obsessed with martial arts that did drugs and got their asses kicked a lot. I went deep cover more than once to observe their movements. Another year: the long Northern Ohio winter boredom inspired the skaters to become werewolves, my friend group to find an out-of-town cult to obsess over and engage in bibliomancy and other forms of divination, and a few members of the now-defunct martial arts gang/cult to get far too into the band Korn and swapped leather, spikes, and chains for Adidas tracksuits. A few years later, this amalgamation of spooky kids atomized, only to resurface in Iraq, Afghanistan, in local bands, 9/11 Truth protests, MAGA rallies, Flat Earth chatrooms, extremist groups, and drug overdoses.
A few decades and several conspiracy theories later, I am still an assemblage of my experiences and associations. Standing at the intersection of history and biography, I watched as distrust in government became a political platform, and seemingly divergent worldviews converged upon what were once fringe ideologies. My friends, whom I love, are caught up in the juggernaut of inoperable late-stage capitalism and the hubris of social media echo chambers.
It is no longer the spooky punk prodigals discussing aliens and Armageddon and the old cranks we’d bum smokes from. It’s soccer moms, unemployed factory workers, megachurch pastors, bank tellers, and registered nurses posting stories and repeating narratives of Hillary Clinton, adrenochrome harvesting, deep underground military bases, gang stalking, the Mark of the Beast, Qanon, God Emperor Trump, and the shadowy cabal that controls the Leviathan, sacrifices to Moloch, and is supposedly led by Beyonce and Jay-Z. People with families and lives slowly disassociating, drifting further away from what is generally agreed upon as reality. Wandering haphazardly into a forest of (mis)information. Millions of people in the U.S. alone now find themselves unmoored, adrift. Sometimes, I see it in their eyes; sleepless, fuming rage, staring at a screen, psychologically threadbare.
How did this happen? What part of this is new, if any? Is this descent, or have we always been sitting in the cave interpreting shadows? Don’t ask me why, but I have spent a lifetime asking these questions. In doing so, I draw upon my own past and present beliefs to interrogate the role social life plays in forming beliefs. While many of these beliefs are entirely fallacious and demonstrably false, some may prove to be more non-normative than falsifiable. Everyone, including you, dear reader, believes in something that others would find abnormal or even transgressive. Let’s explore our metaphysical and phenomenological beliefs and have a good long laugh at ourselves while we do it if we still can.