Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

How a cyberphilosopher convinced followers to cut off family Add to ...

As Barbara Weed remembers it, while relations with her youngest son turned quarrelsome a year ago, she could see 17-year-old Tom spend hours listening to podcasts from a website in Canada.

"From his room all I could hear was this voice droning on," said Ms. Weed, a municipal councillor in Leamington Spa, a small English town near Coventry.

She thought it was the same teenaged petulance Tom's brothers eventually outgrew.

Instead, one day last May, Tom, who had turned 18, didn't come home.

He left a one-paragraph note : "Dear family. I need to take an indefinite amount of time away from the family, so I've moved in with a friend. Please do not contact me. Tom."

Unbeknownst to her, throughout the fall Tom had been writing on the Canadian website, Freedomain Radio, comparing family life to a prison , in posts with titles such as " Confirming the evil of my parents ."

The man running the website is a Toronto-area resident named Stefan Molyneux, who encourages people to cut contact with their parents, even outlining scripts they can follow in the breakup.

Ms. Weed's was one of several cases in Europe and North America that appear to have followed the script of the pied piper from Canadian suburbia.

"It makes no sense," Ms. Weed said.

Mr. Molyneux is a one-man Internet hub, churning out hundreds of online messages, essays, books, podcasts and videos of himself staring into a camera and talking intensely about relationships, politics or the economy.

And he isn't shy about what he does. He says he knows of 20 cases where supporters left their relatives. His website, he says in an interview, is "a Canadian success story," the most popular philosophy site in the world.

About one of his self-published works, he says that "100 years from now they'll remember this book." ( podcast 888 , at 21:44).

Having read his books, with titles such as " On Truth ," having watched his videos or sat through hundreds of podcasts, his supporters bond online, sharing each others' tales of alienation and family estrangement .

The confessional tone, the devoted loyalty of the supporters, their estrangement from their family, Mr. Molyneux's unaccountable role, all this have led aggrieved parents and former members to charge that FDR is a cyberversion of a therapy cult.

"The C-word?" Mr. Molyneux says with a smile when asked if there are misconceptions about FDR.

"I'm sure a few marriages broke up because of feminism, it doesn't make feminism a cult."

He is a self-assured 42-year-old whose verbal agility comes from being a DJ and debater in university before studying theatre. He has a master's degree in history from the University of Toronto and graduated from Humber School for Writers but he says his lifelong calling is philosophy.

His website is his full-time job. He works from his home in a bedroom community of recent detached houses in Mississauga, west of Toronto, under the flight paths of Pearson International Airport, taking donations, selling subscriptions, even dishing advice on a weekly online call-in show.

Mr. Molyneux won't say how much revenues FDR generates. At one point, he thought incorrectly that someone had leaked subscribers-only podcasts to the Globe and Mail. "I cannot allow for the discussion or dissemination of any contents of any Premium Podcasts, since those are bonus conversations specifically reserved for donators, which of course I rely on for my income," he e-mailed.

A search on the website shows that 67 people subscribed for the "Philosopher King" $50 monthly plan. Another 58 signed up for the $20 plan and 46 for the $10 plan. This would work out to $59,640 a year. And there are also various donation plans and paraphernalia.

Mr. Molyneux describes FDR as a philosophical website with libertarian leanings. However, large parts of it revolve around the idea of withdrawing from what he calls unfulfilling or abusive families.

His critics say he is a meddler with an inflated sense of self-worth, a manipulator who aggravated problems and drove vulnerable people away from their kin.

"I was using FDR as an escape from reality . . . It was an addiction and it consumed me," said Rob Griesbach, a former member from Virginia, who began reading FDR at 16.

"They invite you to share your history. He always tries to pick out abuses, reasons to be angry. Whatever problem you have, he'll track it back to your parents," said Dylan Boswell, a former member from Arizona. "I was at a vulnerable point in my life and I wanted to be part of this community."

Many relatives are loath to come forward, fearing that going public will further alienate their children.

"The members have been taught to perceive any criticism of [FDR]by a parent as a personal attack on the child, and it drives them further away," said a New York businessman whose child left after discovering FDR.

His child's only explanation was a two-sentence note: "I need to take a break from the family for a few months to sort out some issues. Please do not try to contact me."

Another father, Ray, a 53-year-old Tennessee retiree, said his daughter, Laura, who studies psychology at an Ivy League university, just stopped answering her parents' calls and e-mails. "We didn't know if she was sick or dead."

He only grasped what had happened when, on a photo-sharing website, he discovered a picture of Laura and her husband wearing T-shirts that said: "Freedomain Radio."

"He's torn my family apart," said Ray.

Mr. Molyneux justifies his intervening in other people's lives by saying "It's like stepping over someone on the sidewalk who's collapsed and saying `I don't want to get involved' ."

He argues relations with parents are artificial, a falsehood from biology rather than one's choice. The parents' inability to understand their children shows their love is phony, he writes.

He talks of the dread people feel when mother calls. "What are you afraid of? . . . You are afraid of being revealed as a slave -- not to your mother, who already knows -- but to yourself." (page 206 of the book Real-Time Relationships .)

Mr. Molyneux is estranged from his parents.

He says he grew with an absentee father. As for his mother, he described her in one podcast as "crazy as a bat hound." ( podcast 676 , starting at 30:20)

In some podcasts, he is joined by his wife, Christina Papadopoulos, a psychological associate, meaning a practitioner who has a master's degree in psychology, not a doctorate.

Two years after they married, Ms. Papadopoulos stopped contacts with her parents.

Her parents weren't abusive but the relationship was superficial, Mr. Molyneux and his wife said in a podcast ( podcast 451 , starting at 2:07) where they read a letter from her father which said "Ma is very depressed and cries every day."

The philosophy behind this is codified and has its own lingo. For example RTR (Real-Time Relationship) means you're willing to confront a spouse or parent if you feel they're hurting you. "If you don't want to be a slave, stop acting like a slave," he writes.

Members also talk about FOO (family of origin) and deFOO (leaving the family of origin). For example, Laura's husband, Stephen, shared news of his breakup with his family in a posting titled: "DeFoo letter to my father ."

Mr. Molyneux estimates about 20 FDR members have "deFooed" their families. In a posting, he compared that number to what he claims are his 50,000 regular listeners. That proportion, he said, is smaller than the four per cent of the population that is sociopathic.

"If we assume that separating from a truly sociopathic parent would be emotionally advantageous, then we are far below the average," he wrote.

(In an e-mail to the Globe, Mr. Molyneux explained that he learned of the percentage of sociopaths, people without conscience, from a book by psychologist Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door .)

Mr. Molyneux's writings outlines various parental reactions followers can expect, explaining that those reactions are forms of denials or defensive behaviour.

In the fall, Tom and his girlfriend posted candid comments on the FDR forum about their family problems. Mr. Molyneux offered to talk to them by Skype, an Internet telephone.

In one posting, Tom wrote about how he thought at one point that he was gay . "I'm quite worried about the ideas Stef has mentioned, suggesting I could have possibly been molested or flashed at or something which causes people to be attracted to the same sex."

By the spring, a distraught Tom spoke on an FDR call-in show ( podcast 1034 , starting at 1:37:00). He said he couldn't understand why he was so passionate about animal rights. "I think you as a child was treated like an animal by someone who was cruel to animals," Mr. Molyneux told him.

Tom said his father would scream at the family cats and throw things around when he was angry. "I'd be terrified. Just completely terrified."

"What you went through is staggeringly evil," Mr. Molyneux said. He suggested that Tom's mother became pregnant to placate an abusive spouse. "It's not that she failed to protect you from the devil. She created you for the devil."

"I can't remember the last time I got so angry," Tom said. Mr. Molyneux replied: "That's healthy anger."

Mr. Molyneux said in an interview that he wasn't trying to feed ideas into Tom's mind or attribute motives to his mother.

He said he just presented Tom a theory befitting the description of his father.

"All it is is a theory. I wasn't telling him what his experience was."

Ms. Weed denies there were abuses and said her son exaggerated the family conflicts. "The things he said, he was making them more dramatic than they were, making them worse than they were, for effects," she said.

"I had not understood until now the terrifying power of the World Wide Web as a tool to propagate lies and to cause suffering. Words seem so impotent in the face of the widespread and profound harm that the Freedomain Radio site is responsible for," Tom's father wrote on a site critical of FDR.

"I am one of those damaged parents, I have no chance of mending my marriage, no means of refuting the lies which have been circulated about me, and above all, I have lost a son."

Ms. Weed said she was willing to tell her story because she doesn't think Tom will come back.

Mr. Molyneux meanwhile says he wants to devote less time online. His wife is pregnant and due this month.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @TuThanhHa

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories