BBC Radio 4 Interview with and Newspaper Article about Barbara Weed

And just when I thought the duhrama had subsided, Barbara Weed shows up in to pieces–one radio, one print–that is keeping the talk about the Cult over at Freedomain Radio (might as well use the C-word, as Molyneux likes to call it, since the articles do). The newspaper article is from a regional paper, so I don’t imagine that it will generate a lot of attention at the Liberating Minds or Freedomain Radio websites unless they follow one of Barbara’s links to it (which she has posted here and at LiMi), but the radio interview is a biggie–Radio 4 (home of “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg, a podcast I listen to regularly and plan to review soon). You can read the article, “Mother Blames Internet for Son’s Disappearance,” at the Leamington Courier website; for the next week you can listen to the radio interview at the Radio 4 website, “Saturday Live” page. (It starts around the 23 minute mark.) I made a transcript and will post the text at the end of this blog entry. You might be able to download it through iTunes, but maybe only if you are in the UK. (Even then it might only be for a week–that’s how In Our Time works.)

The Article:
The FDR crowd is going to be frustrated that another biased, unethical, poorly trained journalist has misrepresented them, to the extent that it doesn’t paint Tom in a particularly attractive light. It focuses a lot on what Tom did to his family (which was not a set of particularly attractive behaviors), and it has but one sentence about the home situation–father loses temper and shouts at cat. The details really aren’t new, although we learn that last Christmas Tom bailed on the family to hang out in the FDR chatroom at his girlfriend’s house. Molyneux was invited to be interviewed but declined, although there is a quote from his email response at the end of the article. The staff writer throws in a remark about how Molyneux calls himself one of the “shinier philosophers out there,” but it’s in an odd place. I think it’s a self-referential joke he makes about being bald, but it’s in the article without that context and doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. There’s a picture of Barbara in front of what I think is a Christmas tree, and that’s it. If you click through to the second page, it’s formatting funny; I think the last few paragraphs from the first page repeat. It had me confused enough to click through a couple of times. There are no comments on the article because comments are not invited for it. I don’t really have a lot to say. If you’ve been keeping up, all the juicy details that were once shocking and new are the same old details. But hey–press is press!

The Radio Interview:
The radio interview bummed me out. It’s quiet, it’s straightforward, it’s sad. I wonder what I’d do if this happened to me. I’d probably be pissed at my kid for a while, but maybe she was already. That is one of the stages of grief, I think (except they usually call it “anger”). I was pretty righteously pissed when I was almost deFooed by an adult, and I think I still have flashes of pissed fall-out (not to be confused with my episodes of drunk editing–the word can have two meanings, I’ve heard!), but those are more or less out of my system. I am ready for 2008 to be over and I am happy that all of my rage will stay behind with it. It’s exhausting. But my relationship was with a peer, not a child, and it still hurt my heart to listen.

I suppose you could call the interview a puff piece or a human interest story, because it was totally Barbara’s platform. The host prompted her to tell her story. She spoke freely about brainwashing and cults, and the host once or twice asked for clarification about what she meant, but he never challenged her on the terms. I happen to agree with her perfectly, and it didn’t bother me, but I did notice the assumption that she was right (she is). Barbara does explain what specific aspects of participating in FDR and what kind of language in the podcasts contributed to her assessment, but of course they couldn’t delve that deeply into it. The whole interview was over in less than ten minutes. It was very interesting that the website and Molyneux were never named. I wonder if that’s station policy or if there’s some other reason behind it. I wish they’d found a way to work into the interview that Molyneux’s making money off of the cult members, and how much. But then again, it wasn’t really about FDR itself–it was about how her son interacted with FDR and the decisions he has made since discovering it on YouTube. It was about her feelings, and about her family, and about Tom’s, well, boorish behavior.

The thought that sticks with me the most is about how Tom cut all his siblings and extended family out of his life, too. I think actions like that leave FDR very vulnerable to criticism. They say all the time that it’s about parents, that parents are bad, but then everyone is punished. So it’s leaving your whole family behind, which makes your membership at FDR even more important. But I don’t know if all the members are cutting off their families entirely. I know I haven’t delved as deeply into the forums but I’ve seen posts about how people worry about leaving behind siblings; I suppose there could be some kids not talking to their mothers but living with their cousins. I also think it’s very important to remember–as Barbara points out–that all you know about people online is what they choose to tell you. She knows that Tom goes all the way when he goes somewhere–he’s going to live the principles to the letter. But maybe not everyone online is. I hope that some of them are still in touch with relatives. That doesn’t make them seem so alone to me.

Internet relationships are entertaining, and they can be personally meaningful, but if they are the only personal relationships that you have you are alone. Computers are too far away from each other. FDR may be their Family of Choice, but how much can they really help each other if someone never logs back on one day?

Now I am just depressing myself. I will talk briefly about the banjo before I post the transcripts.

Last summer Fella had quite the banjo obsession, and I talked about how much I was learning about the banjo on YouTube. It’s when YouTube really came into my consciousness as a marvelous collection of crap. One of the marvelous things that I found on it last summer was a clip of a George Formby movie, where he plays his little banjo and sings a filthy little song that is just so charming in the presentation (in that way all those filthy little songs were from those charming movies in the 1930s and 1940s). I linked to it at the time, but that was before I was aware I could embed videos. The “Saturday Live” radio program had a piece about ukuleles before Barbara’s interview, and throughout the rest of the show they were reading emails and talking about whether or not Formby played a banjo or ukulele or banjolele or when. I was absolutely thrilled to already know who they were talking about!

You know they’re only getting married because the girl is knocked up. It’s an adage old, so it must be true.

TRANSCRIPTS

BBC Radio 4
“Saturday Live”
December 20, 2008
Interview with Barbara Weed
(00:23:00)

Host:
We’ve heard a lot recently about identity theft on the Internet, but for Barbara, this was not merely a metaphor> Her seventeen-year-old son one day came across a website run by an organization which invites discussion around politics, philosophy, and personal freedom. Lots of teenagers get drawn into online communities, but what happened to him did not remain online. He was persuaded to cut off all ties with his family, replacing–site’s jargon–“involuntary relationships” with voluntary ones, online friends for kith and kin, better to realize authentic freedom. One day in May, now aged eighteen but still in school, he left home. Barbara called into the studio yesterday; I asked her how she’d discovered he had gone.

Barbara:
I came home from work one day and found a note on the doormat from him, saying that he needed some time away from the family and had moved in with a friend and not to contact him, which seemed bizarre because it was out of the blue. The next day I checked with the school and found that he’d turned up for school as normal because it was the middle of his A-levels; he was taking his exams. I was concerned that he had thrown everything away, I don’t know, run away with a girlfriend or something and I found that that wasn’t the case. Over the next few days I tried to make sense of it all and looked on the Internet at a site I knew he’d been using a lot and found the reason for his departure on that website.

Host:
You mentioned he’d been doing his A-levels at the time, traditionally a very stressful time. Had there been any signs of unhappiness at home or was this something that came as a complete surprise to you?

Barbara:
It was a complete surprise. He’d been very organized with his revision and his preparation for his exams, though he wasn’t stressed about his exams at all.

Host:
How would you describe your domestic life at the time, were things sort of settled and steady at home?

Barbara:
As steady as they can be with a teenager in the house. His older brothers were away at university by then, and I was expecting Tom to leave in the summer to go off to university himself and be less at home because that’s the natural way. I never expected him to leave in the way that he did and to cut off all contact with his family.

Host:
You mentioned that you went off to have a look at the website that you knew he’d been using. Were you alarmed about that website? Was there any reason why you did that?

Barbara:
I was alarmed at what I found on the website after he left. I hadn’t been alarmed, I’d been irritated, because he’d been downloading podcasts. I assumed it was something to do with his homework because he was studying philosophy at school and he had mentioned he’d been getting advice from somebody on the internet, which sounded a bit odd. And he had mentioned the name of the website to me once or twice. But I hadn’t had any concerns–it was just something he that was interested in. And I had heard the voice of the podcast, the man that runs the website, day and night coming from his room, but for all I knew it was the same podcast and it was his research. In fact, he’d listened to over nine hundred podcasts, he said, in the first couple of months that he was a member of the site and I feel that he was just becoming brainwashed by the man making the podcasts.

Host:
A lot of teenagers spend a lot of time completely absorbed in online communities of one kind or another. What do you think was particularly pernicious about this one?

Barbara:
Because they explore ideas of philosophy, politics, libertarianism, freedom, total freedom, and that includes freedom from your family.

Host:
What’s the rationale behind that?

Barbara:
From my point of view, it’s revenge by the man himself because he hates his own parents and can’t bear to think that anyone else has a happy family so he’s breaking up families deliberately. He says that it’s personal freedom. It has to be a voluntary relationship. If you’re not benefiting from a relationship or interaction with somebody then walk away, cut them out of your life. And that’s what Tom did.

Host:
I would imagine that you’d find a receptive audience among thoughtful eighteen-year-olds with that kind of message.

Barbara:
I think so. It’s a very unusual message. It’s quite challenging to reasses your life in that way. Tom had been interested in various other philosophical and ethical ideas before; he’d explored various religions, he’d been vegetarian for some years and then a vegan for a couple of years, which is a really extreme discipline to exercise, to impose upon yourself, and this was another discipline, I think. I think that’s how he saw it.

Host:
Do you think that he… that there’s something about the character of online relationships, that there’s something about the detachment of them, which perhaps some people respond to more readily than they would perhaps to face-to-face relationships?

Barbara:
I think so, because you’re not having the normal visual signals–you’re just having what they choose to say to you. So in a way he was being groomed to be a new member of the cult. The other attraction of the Internet is that because there are members of the site all over the world, particularly in North America, there’s always somebody online. So if you’ve come in, done your homework, it’s one, two-o-clock in the morning, you can log in, chat to your mates online.

Host:
You mentioned brainwashing. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

Barbara:
The man that makes the podcast has a very monotonous voice. He uses repetition a lot. if he’s doing political, libertarian podcasts, then he’ll repeat the same key phrases that have special meaning to the members of the cult, like “taxation is force,” “taxation is violence,” and he will also have other key words that have a special meaning, like “virtue” and “curious.” And the people in the cult that hear those words, they’re like triggers, and they think, “oh, yes!” and they engage even more with what he’s saying to them. He also has people phoning in, and after an hour or so he’ll explore what’s bothering them and he’ll come up with something else, and it will catch them by surprise, and suddenly they’ll be in tears. And he makes that into a podcast, and the other cult members go, “Ah, that was so brave of you to talk like that. You helped that person so much with your advice. We’re so grateful to you.”

Host:
Another characteristic of cults’ behavior is that those who are in the cult are extremely difficult to engage in conversation. I mean, I know that you’ve made attempts to communicate with your son. How did that go?

Barbara:
He wouldn’t talk to me, and that’s advice given from the website, and it’s been given to a number of other people. Delete their emails, don’t open their text messages, don’t open their letters, return them unopened. If they confront you in person, then walk away, don’t speak to them, and that’s what my son did.

Host:
I mean, your son didn’t vanish, didn’t disappear like a runaway. He was still around.

Barbara:
He was living in somebody else’s house a few miles from his hometown. I don’t know where. I don’t know exactly where, but I have a pretty rough idea now. And I did go there once to try and talk to him and to deliver his post and tell him something about his bank account that he needed to know. But because he had said in his note, “Please don’t contact me,” apart from that one time I tried to respect his request and to treat him as an adult who’d made that decision even though it was very hard to do that.

Host:
That sounds like a rational response from you, but it must feel deeply wounding to be in that situation.

Barbara:
It is deeply wounding. He’s my son and it’s heartbreaking to think that somebody you thought you knew could suddenly act in such a callous way and fall under the influence of someone so easily within a few months. And I really don’t see what I can do. Once he’s made his decision, he’ll stick with it no matter how difficult it is.

Host:
How has this affected the rest of your family, Barbara?

Barbara:
It’s… I don’t know. I suppose it’s the elephant in the room, really. We don’t talk about that much. I think his brothers are deeply hurt. I think his father is as well. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t persuade him to change his mind. I don’t have the arguments to convince him. He is so set–along with the other members of the cult–he is so set in his beliefs.

Host:
And what do you do, Barbara? How do you, how do you cope with this?

Barbara:
I tell people, until they are so bored that they walk away from me.

Host:
Is it a way to try and engage with your son, too? Perhaps if you can’t communicate directly then this is an indirect way of communicating.

Barbara:
I don’t think so, because he’s… it would just reinforce his hatred of me. The fact that I’m doing this, I’m making things difficult for the cult and I’m criticizing the man who runs the cult… I try very hard not to criticize Tom myself because I love him, but I don’t agree with his choices and his decisions and his actions at times, but he’s a bright, intelligent young man, as many people are who get caught up with cults.

Host:
Do you fear that you’ll never see him again?

Barbara:
I’m convinced that I’m never going to see him again. He made that decision and I know him much better than he thinks I do, and he’s just capable of carrying this out and never coming back and never talking to his brothers, or his aunts, or his grandfather, or whatever ever again.

Host:
And it’s something that extends to his whole family. It’s not simply his siblings, his parents…

Barbara:
No, it’s all of us, and that’s something in common–their urge to cut themselves off from everybody, because the rest of the family are also evil and corrupt because they are continuing to engage with the evil and corrupt parents. It’s good, isn’t it?

Host:
That must be extremely difficult.

Barbara:
Yes, it is. I think all I can do is remember him as he was, and the happy times that we had together and try and think of him that way. It’s a bit like bereavement in a way, except it’s not a bereavement because he’s well, he’s healthy and happy, he can look after himself, he can cook, he can manage his money, he’s studying, he’s getting on with his life, and he’ll be a great success. He’s not on drugs, he’s not in a doorway with a needle in his arm, he’s not in some terrorist organization trying to blow up laboratories or whatever, and that’s a great comfort to have that.

Host:
Thanks to Barbara for coming in yesterday for that interview. If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in it, you can call the BBC Action Line on 0-800-044-044.

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