However, a small percentage of cults are actually destructive to the people who join them. Is FDR one of them?
In Part One of this series, I identified the first set of troubling aspects of FDR: (1) It appears to have one set of beliefs on the surface and an entirely different set of beliefs that it actively promotes behind the scenes. (2) A number of destructive cult experts have publicly stated their concerns about FDR. And (3), there is a presence of members who appear to display cult-like behavior.
Part Two continued with the next set of troubling aspects: (1) Mr. Molyneux appears to counsel his members individually on their family problems while hiding his oft-stated belief that nearly all parents are horribly bad and should be discarded. (2) Mr. Molyneux takes on the role of learned authority on psychology, parenting, and family matters, yet appears to have less practical experience than many of the people he counsels. (3) By his own admission, Molyneux is a “salesman” who promises happiness to those who join FDR. (4) He invents practices such as defooing and RTRing, using his own followers as guinea pigs (sometimes without their knowledge), and pronounces his inventions successful when the member creates a tighter bond with FDR and less of a connection with the outside world.
In Part Three, we are now going to consider evidence of conversion. This is the darkest aspect of FDR. Have some members been persuaded into a personality change by convincing them to change their beliefs about their parents and childhood memories? If so, how is this accomplished? What role does Stefan Molyneux (and his wife) play? I’ll try to answer those questions—some in this article and the rest in an article to follow.
In this article, we’re simply going to take an in-depth look at two conversions. I think you’ll find them interesting.
Part 3: The Conversion
Ok, so we’ve seen some troubling stuff. We’ve seen the concern about FreeDomain Radio from destructive cult experts. We’ve talked about the “changes” that some members of FDR seem to undergo. We’ve explored the truth behind the official FDR “story” of defooing. We’ve talked about radical psychology theories and their execution on members who sometimes don’t even know that they are guinea pigs. We’ve talked about a guru who claims to be all about logic but is secretly selling happiness.
And worst of all, I seem to have adopted some fascination for words that begin with “P.”
All of that is about to get worse.
If we are truly going to take a serious swing at the question Is FreeDomain Radio a Destructive Cult?, then, in the end, we must focus on the last box of my Cult-Identification Flowchart.
This article is all about the conversion—radical behavior changes that even the member in question would have considered unacceptable before joining the group.
The FDR forum actually has a section where members can talk about their “conversion.” It claims to be a forum to talk about their conversion to market anarchism, but in practice many members use it to discuss their conversion to the FDR “philosophy.”
Are any of those converts actually candidates for my last box?
Can we find examples? Like Dr. Yeakely, can we see the conversion as it happens?
And if we can, could it teach us anything about the true nature of FDR?
Only you can provide the last answer. I do have some powerful evidence that concerns me and I’m going to share that with you. After that, it’s your call. We’ll see some actual conversions but I’ll leave it up to you to decide if these are “last box” candidates. I can tell you this much about the examples I’ve found:
I find them chilling.
Two conversion examples
In this article, I’m going to throw two conversion examples at you. In my next article, I’ll let you in on three new “P” words to consider. They’re words that may profoundly change how you view FDR.
Just like persuasion (discussed in Part Two), I think that once you understand them, it will be virtually impossible for you to visit FDR without seeing them in action.
But let’s start with our first conversion. It concerns the now-famous Tom.
Poor Tom. If he reads this blog I’m certain even he would be tired of being referred to so often.
I’m sure he doesn’t read me, but please accept my apologies, Tom, wherever you are.
Tom’s podcast has been discussed at length by many people, but I don’t think anyone has ever done a full, unbiased analysis of the conversation. That’s too bad, because it’s a magnifying glass on the persuasions Molyneux uses with his individual members. The case against Molyneux is compounded by the deception he subsequently used to defend his actions in this therapy session.
Here we go!
A friendly chat with Tom
When Molyneux was exposed by The Guardian in 2008, his podcast “convo” with Tom was at the center of the controversy. In the podcast—typical of the type of therapy session Molyneux often conducts with his members—Molyneux eventually launches into a furious, lengthy monologue comparing Tom’s relationship to his parents to that of a rape victim, tells Tom that he lives in a “fucking gulag,” yet later innocently claimed that he never actually said Tom should leave home.
It really is an amazing podcast if you haven’t heard it: [Tom’s therapy begins at about an hour and 26 minutes in. It starts with Tom saying, “Hi Stef, I have a yearning, burning, if that’s OK?” (I believe he means “yearning, burning question.”)]
I strongly recommend you listen to it instead of relying solely on my transcriptions below—hearing the actual inflections and emotions in their voices is very clarifying.
When the “convo” occurred, Tom had already been an FDR member for a number of months. It’s hard to know exactly where he was in his “conversion” at the time this session took place. Perhaps he had already had quite a few private chats with Molyneux. It appears certain he had already read On Truth (The Tyranny of Illusion). Molyneux talks to him with some degree of familiarity and I suspect he may have already had some discussion with Tom about his parents.
However, in this conversation, the “yearning, burning question” on Tom’s mind is this: why is he so affected by cruelty to animals? Despite what you may have heard about the podcast, listen to it closely and you’ll hear something stunning.
Listen to the podcast closely and you’ll hear something stunning…Tom hasn’t even mentioned his parents!
As you listen, ask yourself this: at what point does Tom emotionally break under Molyneux’s questioning, and for what reason?
(1) Tom begins weeping when Molyneux suggests that Tom is more concerned about cruelty to animals than cruelty to people.
(2) Tom’s tears appear to be a result of shame because he believes Molyneux has revealed him to be insensitive to human suffering.
And, up to that point, there is no mention of Tom’s parents at all!
Now, put yourself in the moment. Try to empathize with Tom at the beginning of this conversation. He was a brilliant and sensitive young man in his late teens. He had never left home and wasn’t quite old enough to go to University yet. Now he was having a one-on-one session with this much-older sage, who he idolized. Tom had been led to believe Molyneux may be one of the world’s leading thinkers. He had proudly told his mother that Molyneux was a published author (completely unaware that no legitimate publisher has ever had any interest in his work).
Yet Molyneux, despite his prominence, was willing to reach out to Tom as a friend! Tom’s emotions must have been heightened beyond measure. He was quite likely thrilled to get personal knowledge and attention from Molyneux. So he had to participate well.
One certainly doesn’t want to look stupid in front of the greatest philosopher of our age.
And so the convo began, with the sensitive 18-year-old confessing that the thought of animal cruelty was almost unbearable to him. Was it normal, he wondered? With anyone else, it might have been a short conversation. Molyneux could have told Tom that, yes, he may be more sensitive to animal cruelty than most but there are many others like him. Nothing to worry about.
Instead, Molyneux began asking questions.
No doubt Tom’s mind was racing. What was the philosopher—this man he deeply admired and greatly trusted—trying to get him to see? Was Tom suffering from some kind of human failing? It all comes to a head here:
1:35:33 (Molyneux) So, the reason that I ask whether you have more empathy towards cruelty to animals or cruelty to people is that—and this is not a criticism; we just need to work from the facts, right? My guess is that you have a far stronger reaction to cruelty towards animals even within your own mind than when you think about cruelty toward people.
(Tom) Yeah, I, I guess that could be true.
(Molyneux) Well, when we hit the border of Switzerland we have to turn back, right? Because if you say—I can’t, I can’t tell you that, right?
(Tom) (pause) No, you’re right. I don’t know why but I’m just crying now.
(Molyneux) There’s nothing wrong with that. This is a good and healthy thing. You are among friends. We can cut this part of the podcast out if you feel shy or embarrassed about it so just let your feelings flow. There’s nothing wrong them; they’re perfectly healthy, right?
(Tom) (continues crying) Absolutely. I just feel so passionate right now about the whole issue.
(Molyneux) OK, well why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling and the thoughts and everything that’s going on.
(Tom) Such complete sadness. I mean just hearing you talk about—you just have to list off all those things happening in the world…and I hold it up in my mind. I hold up Abu Ghraib. I hold up people being thrown in jail. Just in my mind—I hold that up against animal cruelty and I think there is no comparison. What is worse? Why—it’s a complete disconnect. Why are my emotions so geared toward animals and not what really counts?
Let’s dig in. A lot of things just happened here and you don’t want to miss any of it.
The first is Molyneux’s comment that Tom reacts far more strongly “in his mind” to animal cruelty to human cruelty. I know this is subtle now (it becomes clearer later in the conversation) but Molyneux is trying to steer Tom in a certain direction—that there’s a problem in Tom’s mind that is elevating his response to animal cruelty. However, Tom doesn’t see where Molyneux is going here. (And I’ll save you the suspense. He never does. Eventually, Molyneux will simply dictate the problem and force Tom to accept it. That happens later on.)
In the next two lines, Molyneux uses what for him is a common rhetorical trick. Molyneux will come up with a “guess” or a “theory” about what his caller is thinking. If the caller gives hesitant agreement, something like “Yes, I guess so,” Molyneux often responds with the “Switzerland” line you see here. He means, “don’t try to play peacemaker with the argument—pick one side or the other.”
This is an important part of any conversion—you’ll find the same sequence in many of these “therapy” sessions conducted by Molyneux. Perhaps the caller is trying to be accommodating, is truly ambivalent, or wants to hear the entire theory before deciding. It doesn’t matter. Molyneux wants complete acceptance of his “theory.”
This trick turns an ambiguous consideration into the firm “YES” Molyneux needs. And once he has it, he builds his next theory or guess on top of it, slowly pushing the respondent where he wishes him or her to go. The ambivalence is forgotten as Molyneux pushes on.
Because of the power differential between Molyneux and his young, often-troubled callers, the “Switzerland” trick actually forces them not to choose, but to affirm Molyneux’s theory more strongly. Have you ever seen a movie about basic training in the military that has this exchange between recruits and their drill sergeant?
“I can’t hear you!”
I think it works like that.
So far, all seems to be working well. Tom has broken emotionally. He’s all in. He’s crying. He’s feeling incredible sadness. There’s just one problem—unfortunately, Tom has leaped to the “wrong” conclusion!
Tom—his mind racing to understand where Molyneux is taking all this—is trying to process the previous two minutes of conversation, in which Molyneux had begun listing examples of human atrocities.
And so Tom makes the leap, incorrectly deciding that Molyneux is trying to expose his comparative insensitivity to human suffering. Tom’s shame at that “realization” is what fills him with “incredible sadness.”
For a few seconds, the conversation hangs in the air.
No psychologist would even dream of leaping to the same conclusion that Molyneux was about to…
So, let’s stop the podcast right here!
Assume that you were able play only this portion for a 1,000 legitimate psychologists, what do you think they would say about this young man and his aversion to animal cruelty?
In fact, go ahead and try! I’ll wait.
I’m betting that a majority of them would venture there’s nothing wrong here at all, just a normal, probably gifted and highly sensitive adolescent trying to make sense of the world. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they were more suspicious about the intentions of Tom’s much-older “friend.”)
And I’d place a much bigger wager on this—not one of them would even dream of leaping to the same conclusion that Molyneux was about to.
Here it comes:
1:37:46 (Molyneux) I think that you are incredibly empathetic towards people. But I’m going to put a thesis out—and I can either do this either directly or I can ask you questions, but because you’re feeling very strongly at the moment, it might be easier if I just tell you. But it’s totally up to you.
(Tom) That’s a good idea. Yeah, yeah. Thank you.
(Molyneux) I think. And, again, here I crawl out on a limb, perfectly willing to fall Wile E. Coyote style to my death. (humorously adds) Wile E. Coyote of course is not a real creature so we’re not talking about cruelty to animals, but…I’m going to put out a thesis here, very briefly, which hopefully will help with clarity…and maybe it’s totally wrong, and we’ll try something else. But I think that you, when you were a child, were treated like an animal by someone who was cruel to animals.
Despite Molyneux’s attempt at self-deprecating humor, Tom may have been as stunned by this out-of-left-field theory as anyone else listening to this podcast! There are several pauses at this point as Molyneux continues to elaborate on his bizarre thesis. Tom says very little.
And then, finally, the ever-accommodating Tom remembers that his parents—particularly his father—would sometimes yell at the family cats.
Tom never really gets around to gory details about how he personally was treated like an animal. But, I guess when you’re Stefan Molyneux, you work with what you’ve got.
Here is his response about Tom’s father, the cat shouter.
1:43:34 (Molyneux) “I’ll tell you, my blood is pumping; my chest is tight, that what you went through is a really, staggeringly evil and terrifying situation. That this guy’s psychotic rage laid waste to significant aspects of your childhood and of your soul, right?
(Well, that seems like a bit of an over-the-top reaction to someone yelling “Fluffy, get down from there!” don’t you think?)
The next part of the exchange reveals something that must not be overlooked. It will give you an insight into Molyneux that few of his followers readily understand.
Molyneux continues talking as Tom cries. It’s almost as if he is intensifying Tom’s feelings.
To start, go back to the very first passage I quoted. There’s one more thing about it I haven’t mentioned yet. Notice what happens when Tom first begins weeping. Molyneux respectfully pauses, offering a few soothing words to allow the intense feelings to subside. He generously allows Tom to collect himself, even offering to edit it out of the podcast.
But now that Molyneux has set the hook about parental abuse—now that it’s about Tom’s dad—listen to the way Molyneux reacts to Tom’s tears in this exchange.
Molyneux continues talking as Tom cries. There’s nothing about stopping the podcast here—in fact, it sounds as if Molyneux is trying to intensify Tom’s feelings of anger and fear:
(As Tom begins crying, Molyneux continues pushing the point, talking over the young man as he sobs.) Obviously, this was perpetual…
…Something that went on and on…
…Throughout your entire childhood and I would imagine continues to this day—in terms of the fear of him, right?
(Tom) You’re right. Whenever he walks in the room. Whenever he makes a loud noise or he comes into the room and I don’t know he’s there—like I just feel the same feeling. It just comes right back to me.
Earlier in the conversation, when Molyneux hoped Tom would guess the “correct” source of his problem with animal cruelty, Molyneux backed off, believing he had achieved a moment of self-realization. But Tom guessed wrong. So Molyneux isn’t taking any chances this time. Now that he has the dagger in, he starts piling on.
In Molyneux, are we seeing a man with true empathy, or one who simply knows how to understand and manipulate others’ emotions? The difference between the two can be catastrophic.
It’s a complete reversal of apparent empathy and it deeply concerns me.
In Molyneux, are we seeing a man with true empathy, or one who simply knows how to understand and manipulate others’ emotions?
The difference between the two can be catastrophic. At the extremes, it is the difference between good and evil.
And all it took was a Skype call
No, it didn’t. Tom’s conversion took a lot more than that. Nevertheless, Molyneux got a lot accomplished in this short conversation. He managed to dredge up some very powerful emotions from Tom and pin them on his father. A small conversion, but a nasty one.
But still, it’s not that big, long-term change we’ve been talking about. At worst, just another stop along the way, right?
No problem. We’re about to see the big one.
In fact, the very next part of the conversation contains one of the most revealing things that can be said about Tom, his family, Molyneux, and the entire FDR experience. As Tom continues, he illustrates the main point of this article. In short, he unwittingly describes exactly how the unrelenting FDR anti-parent persuasion has inflamed his feelings against his parents.
(Tom) And this is only after reading RTR (Real-Time Relationships–Ed.) that I really understand that now.
(Molyneux) Right. Right.
(Tom) …like, where those feeling are coming from.
(Molyneux) Go on.
(Tom) Well, I just mean before, particularly when I started listening to the listener conversations—people talking about their parents and their experiences—just since listening to those, I’ve felt this emotion a lot more powerfully than I did before when I just see him. Or think of him.
And he doesn’t even have to raise his voice or anything. I just feel completely terrified and anxious of him—just by him being there and acting completely normally—as if nothing happened—which has just made me so completely insane.
And there you have it. Tom is telling us that the constant stream of FDR influence has transformed his feelings about his father into an unrelenting fear. Like so many others who undergo such conversions in FDR and other groups, he cannot sense the persuasion—that he has been emotionally manipulated. Instead, he internalizes the process as enlightenment.
Tom never seems 100% sure about how he was abused, exactly. (Several minutes later, he says this):
2:02:22 (Tom) It makes a lot more sense now that you make that link…between my mother’s self pity and my….horror of my dad? Is that what you’re making a link with? Or have I lost you?
No matter. He does finally accept that he must have been, somehow.
We’ll never really know what went on in Tom’s home and what “shouting at the cat” truly entailed. We can only see here that it was transformed by Molyneux and constant exposure to FDR into the most heinous cruelty to animals and then somehow transferred to Tom’s own treatment as a child.
A neat little conversion.
A new family for Christina
If you have the patience for it, let’s take a quick look at another conversion. This time it concerns someone a little closer to Molyneux.
Stefan Molyneux’s wife, Christina, grew up believing she had a happy childhood, as Molyneux recounts in Podcast #211 (Childhood Prisons).
Of course, you can also see that Molyneux himself judges it differently:
10:14 Christina’s been working on an issue within her own psyche, which is that, she went through a phase of, I guess I should say, “happy compliance” is probably close but not quite right, wherein she believed that the Greek community was good and that her parents were nice. They were really into family and education and they were really tight and it was a good thing. She went through this phase in her sort of early teens of agreeing with the collectivism and the irrationality and the bullying that was all around her and not just like “fine, I’ll go along with it,” but “yeah, OK, it IS true.”
You can see in the telling here that Stefan is viewing Christina’s childhood through his own lens. It wasn’t “happy compliance” from her perspective—she believed her childhood, parents, and community were good.
The couple refer to the beliefs Christina held throughout her 20s about her “happy childhood” in Podcast #492 (Ask a Therapist #2, one of the growing number of podcasts now withheld from FDR members):
31:41 (Molyneux) If I can add one other thing, and this is more directly related to Christina….throughout your 20s, you talked about how great your family was.
(Christina) I really, firmly believed it at the time.
(Molyneux) Right, right. And so I think one of the things that you had kind of set up was because you had talked the opposite of what was true…
(Christina) About the virtue.
(Christina) About the virtue of my family.
(Molyneux) …you talk about the opposite of what was true for so long, that, it’s almost like—if I had put lots of podcasts out in favor of the Iraqi war, I might try and avoid the subject, if that sort of makes sense.
(Molyneux) Because I would feel like, well, gosh this is 180, totally. Up is down, black is white…
33:19 (Christina) …if you take a position and then suddenly change your position very radically, people are going to come at you. They’re going to say ‘Why the change?’ and you’re going to feel attacked….I certainly know that that’s part of the anxiety I was feeling.
In other words, even after Christina was college-educated and fully grown, she firmly believed her family was great. She firmly believed in their virtue.
…what in the world happened to shatter the 20-plus years of happy feelings Christina had about her family?
Good heavens—so what in the world happened to shatter the 20-plus years of happy feelings Christina had about her family?
Did she discover they were Nazi sympathizers? Did she discover they had sold her sister into slavery?
Did they try to murder Christina in her sleep?
Nope. Nope. And…nope. It was something else.
Can you guess?
Molyneux explains in Podcast #1136 (FooGloo)
01:15:01 When my wife’s relationship with her parents began to unravel, it was when I came over. Because, from the outside, you see, right? And you say, “well, I didn’t quite understand how that happened,” or, or, “what was up with that—that seemed like…?” or “Your mom got really tense about this—why was that?” Right? Because when you’re in it, you don’t see it, right? It’s like a noise that plays for twenty fucking years. You don’t hear anything after awhile, right?
So, as Molyneux continually questioned his new girlfriend and made observations about her family, her childhood memory slowly changed from one of a happy household with nice parents to one where she lived a life of forced compliance under fear of abandonment (detailed in the Attacking Parents podcast). At that point, she began to feel ashamed of herself (noted in Childhood Prisons). However, Molyneux worked with her, explaining that she must respect the necessary choices a child makes when acquiescing to such “duress.” Today she is able to recast her memories as those of a survivor.
Her memories now completely contradict her memories pre-Molyneux—when she mistakenly believed she was happy.
To be clear, the actual events or content of her memories may not have changed, but her interpretation of those events has. In extreme cases of manipulation, it is possible to invent or alter memory events. For example, the book Courage to Heal—especially in the hands of an ill- or un-trained therapist has often been accused of leading unsuspecting patients into “recovering” memories that never existed, as Robert Sheaffer notes in this review.
But what one sees more commonly at FreeDomain Radio is the re-interpretation of remembered events. For example, a gesture by parents that was once considered loving is re-interpreted (through the help of Molyneux and other True Believers) as manipulative.
In Stefan and Christina’s own words, this is what happened to her. Some time after Stefan Molyneux began working on the childhood memories of his new wife, her early life—from childhood to her early twenties—took on an entirely different meaning.
Christina’s interpretation has now become so radicalized that in Podcast 724, Christina’s Resistance (now withheld from the public), she now describes her childhood this way:
7:58 You know, every time I tried to speak the truth or tried to say something that was worthwhile, I got ignored or I got attacked. And so, I have this fear of speaking out. I have this association in my mind that the world is hurtful. Umm, and of course that’s mistaking my parents for the world, which is not the case—my parents and my community.
My community was incredibly stifling, you know? Incredibly stifling. And filled with a bunch of second-handers, to use a term out of Ayn Rand…Anyone who dares to speak the truth or dares to speak honestly, who questioned things, was quickly put in their place. And harshly, harshly, harshly put in their place.
This particular “stifling” family and community produced two professional women—one became a therapist and her sister a writer and technology entrepreneur!
Again, like the other members of Molyneux’s community, Christina seems oblivious to her conversion post-Stefan. In fact, in that same podcast (Christina’s Resistance), Stefan eerily claims the opposite—that Christina converted him:
21:22 Stefan: Well, you made me into an internet philosopher, I am of your making.
Christina: Yeah. Yeah, and I mean I encouraged this, and…
At this point, Stefan pulls her up short and there’s an interesting exchange.
21:22 Stefan: No, no, no. That’s not what I mean. (Christina nervously laughs.) Nice try, but that’s not what I mean, and you know what I mean.
Christina: (repeats almost robotically a line she has apparently said or heard before) I fed you the ideas that made Freedomain Radio different than any other philosophical podcast.
And so there we have it. Christina believes that this is the implausible version of her life…
Christina grew up in a loving family that was part of a virtuous, tight-knit Greek community.
…and she believes the following incredible narrative is the plausible version:
Christina grew up in a stifling family and community where anyone who spoke the truth was harshly put in his or her place. After she reconciled her feelings of shame about her abuse and began to view herself as a survivor, she was able to break out. Her first act of freedom was to create an internet philosopher and orchestrate the development of his “on-line community.”
Are Christina and Tom the proof?
Are they candidates for the final, “destructive cult” box on my flowchart?
To answer that, I guess you would have to be able to ask their pre-Molyneux selves.
As far as I know, Tom’s parents and siblings have not heard from him for years. (Molyneux initially attacked Tom’s relationship with his father but the entire family subsequently suffered separation, which is the norm for an FDR-inspired defoo.) I don’t know if Tom has completed his education or what additional hardship he endured by going it alone. Today, he consorts primarily with other FDR members in his area. It would be up to him to say what he has gained through all of this and whether he is truly happy.
At least one of the members of Tom’s fragile FDR support group is beginning to openly question Molyneux’s plausibility. Should the group splinter, or should Tom himself begin to doubt Molyneux’s influence, will he ever be able to embrace an un-manipulated view of his childhood? Or will he retain the Molyneux-inspired version for the rest of his life?
Christina, on other hand, was well into her professional journey when she met Molyneux. As I mentioned earlier, her “stifling” family produced two professional women, Christina the family therapist and her sister, who is a writer and technology entrepreneur. There is no reason to think Christina would not have done well in her career had she not met Stefan.
But she did meet him. And today she views her childhood as a prison. She doesn’t speak to her family. She and Stefan ridiculed her parents’ anguished attempts to reach out to her (captured in podcasts #451 and #452–Defooing, Parts 1 & 2, now withheld from FDR members). She even blew off her own father’s funeral apparently without remorse.
And it appears that she’s on the brink of having her license revoked for her involvement in FreeDomain Radio.
Are there nights when Christina wonders if the Molyneux-inspired changes in her life were worth it?
Who can say?
And that, my friends is where we end for now. However, our journey inside FDR is far from over. In Part 4 of this series, we look at more FDR conversions and I reveal the final three “P” words I’ve been dangling in front of you!
See you then!
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