The first time I encountered the writing of Cathy O’Brien was in 2014. I had binged the first season of True Detective, and I was scouring the Internet to better understand just what the hell creator Nic Pizzolatto was going on about. Carcosa? The Yellow King?! I found, as often happens, a Reddit thread which claimed to outline the show’s conspiratorial references. It reeled off titles ranging from Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow and H.P. Lovecraft to two non-fiction books that would change my life forever. The series’ final episodes uncover what appears to be a secretive cult of rich men preying on women and children. Redditors were certain this was referencing the writings of two wingnut savants who had skeletons keys to the world’s darkest secrets. In 1992, John DeCamp published The Franklin Cover-up: Child Abuse, Satanism, and Murder in Nebraska, and Cathy O’Brien built off the foundation laid in that book three years later in Trance Formation of America. Both allege to reveal the inner workings of a Satanic cabal that controls world governments and preys on children.
For a brief moment, I entertained the notion that maybe monsters really do consume the souls of children. I felt puny and powerless, an observer forced to grapple with exploitation beyond my control—but even more intensely, I felt anger. These monsters did this in plain sight to mock us. I wanted to fight back, but how? I returned to the Internet for more answers, yet this time I found that the more I dug into the cases cited by DeCamp and O’Brien, the more questions I had. No murdered children were ever found in connection to DeCamp’s claims. The only living “victims” were cranks and liars. And while O’Brien’s books contained information pulled from real-world sources—she states her abuse occurred as part of a subproject of Project MKUltra—the timeline and specific accusations (which include abuse at the hands of holograms) fell apart upon further scrutiny. I kept digging deeper and deeper until I came out on the other side. I escaped the rabbit hole.
Men like Richard McCaslin are not so lucky. They trip the hole, never to return. McCaslin is the subject of the excellent American Madness by Tea Krulos, a book which is ostensibly a look into the life of one conspiracy theorist but, in fact, takes the reader on a journey into how society creates these people because the irony of a Richard McCaslin is that while he spent his life in isolation, he was never alone.
Krulos introduces us to Richard in childhood, where Richard obsessed over comic books and used his passion to create a fantasy world to escape an abusive father. But where many children develop new interests as they grow older, Richard only dug deeper. He tried to become a superhero. Richard the Man was awkward around women and socially inept, but his alter egos—the Lynx, Thoughtcrime, and notoriously the Phantom Patriot—provided him with a literal armor to hide those inadequacies. Krulos draws a direct line through Richard’s emotional attachment with hero figures to his social isolation, at one point even reprinting a psychological evaluation from a Secret Service psychologist who observes Richard’s characters are “reminiscent of schoolboy rescue fantasies for young damsels whom he felt too shy to approach.”
About that. Why would the Secret Service psychologist look into a weirdo who dresses up in spandex and calls himself a superhero? In 2002 Richard McCaslin put on the costume for his alter ego the Phantom Patriot and staged an armed raid on the Bohemian Grove. He broke into the secretive campground of the world’s richest and most powerful men, believing they were sacrificing children in front of a 30-foot owl statue of the Canaanite god Moloch, after watching (and re-watching) the Alex Jones pseudo-documentary Dark Secrets: Inside the Bohemian Grove (2000). Richard found no children at the grove. He slept on the cold floor of a cabin, contemplated suicide, and then turned himself into police. Sadly, his story didn’t end there.
Where Krulos is most successful is in disentangling conspiracy theorists from the complicated webs they spin. He’s able to situate Richard in a much longer (and sadder) lineage of American madness and the madmen who beget it. The book becomes truly compelling reading when Krulos connects Richard’s life to a broader social history of conspiracism in America. Alex Jones is but one thumbtack on a corkboard of crazy. There’s the inimitable Bill Cooper, who inspired Timothy McVeigh by bridging the chasm between ufologists and their Men in Black theories and white supremacist militias and their FEMA death camps; there’s David Icke, the Reptilian overseer whose theories of the lizardmen may have led to the death of cult leader Sherry Shriner; and then there’s my old friend Cathy O’Brien, who propelled Richard forward in search of Satanic pedophiles long after he divined Jones to be a disinfo agent. Krulos digs into their stories as a way of showing how they influenced one another and by extension people like Richard. This is because, as Krulos observes over the course of the book, in America people like Richard may seem isolated, but they are never alone. There’s always a constant stream of voices, ideas, noise to guide them—to guide us.
The tone darkens in the book’s final chapters as Richard’s attachments to the outside world disappear. We see in Richard a reflection of our current political moment. While he may admit he’s wrong in rare circumstances, such as when he renounces Jones, he still doubles down on the conspiratorial links to which he attributes his life’s failures. Protests fizzle out, attempts at Internet virality go nowhere. In Richard’s mind, this is confirmation that his message is meaningful because it’s not that people don’t want to hear what he has to say, it’s that those in power—the Reptilians, the Masons, maybe even God—won’t allow his words to reach the masses. Academics like Leon Festinger might throw around phrases like cognitive dissonance, they might suggest Richard needed to strengthen his commitment to his beliefs to keep going, but Richard knew better. As Krulos notes late in the book, “All of these stories led me to think Richard was perhaps ahead of his time … Richard is a zeitgeist. He is someone who attempted to soar into the American dream like Superman, but instead belly-flopped into the rabbit hole of an American nightmare.”
Which is to say, it’s no coincidence we’re experiencing a moral panic over a powerful cabal of sexual predators at the same time elite figures are being taken down by allegations of sexual impropriety. It’s also not a coincidence we dream of violence burning away the layers of oppression that weigh down on us at the same time we worship costumed vigilantes who fight through labyrinth-like conspiracies to save the world from deviants at the highest reaches of society. As Krulos’s subject Richard McCaslin would observe, these phenomena don’t exist independently of each other, they’re bound by forces outside our control. Whether the culprit is the CIA, Moloch, or simply fate, is up to each of us to decide, but rest assured, in America everything is connected. We are all now Richard McCaslin.