Melissa Rein Lively seemingly had it all – happily married, a flourishing marketing and PR career and a nice home in affluent Scottsdale, Arizona.
But last July she found herself overcome with rage, smashing up a display of face masks in her local branch of homewares store Target while muttering profanities, all while live-streaming the video on social media.
A second video emerged of her telling police officers, called by her fearful husband, that she was the White House spokeswoman and they were taking her away because she is Jewish.
That was her lowest point: a mental health crisis brought on by family trauma exacerbated by the pandemic that led to her getting sucked into believing far-right conspiracy theories espoused by QAnon.
The incident also proved to be her turning point, because she was finally forced to confront her painful past.
In the months leading up to her public breakdown, Lively, 35, says she had fallen “hook, line and sinker” for the wild theories promoted by QAnon, including that a shadowy cabal of people in power are running a child sex-trafficking ring.
Followers also believe that former US president Donald Trump is their saviour, explaining why they turned up in their droves at the Capitol Hill riots in support of him.
Lively had started compulsively reading about the virus just before the March lockdown, after which she lost half of her business overnight.
Coupled with not seeing friends or going to the gym, this sent her into a downward spiral.
She tells me: “All I was doing was sitting at home on my couch, scrolling and getting more and more worked up and scared. I became all-consumed with it, but also feeling compelled to share this information. Over several months it completely replaced the way I thought and convinced me the sky was green.”
While corruption in government and unscrupulous politicians make the headlines, QAnon theories go further in demonising people, she says.
“I believed there were very, very bad people in our government and corporate entities who were practicing satanism, pushing a ‘new world order’, global genocide, population control against the USA, and that they were poisoning people through food, water and vaccines.”
She was consuming semi-religious content – things that appealed to her interest in wellness and spirituality – which later led her down internet rabbit holes towards QAnon.
“I clung to it, as these are the answers you’re looking for. While they might be horrifying answers, to learn that the new world order is planning a second Holocaust, at least I knew it was coming, and I could protect myself, my family and friends.
I became all-consumed with it, but also feeling compelled to share this information. Over several months it completely replaced the way I thought and convinced me the sky was green
“That’s how QAnon grooms you; it’s like you’re chosen for this mission. I was upsetting people, but I didn’t realise the impact it was having on others. I felt like they needed to know.”
Following her meltdown in Target, Lively was forcibly taken to a psychiatric hospital and spent several weeks in therapy, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She is now speaking out about the dangers of QAnon, which she describes as “cult-like” and which the FBI has denoted as a “domestic terror threat”.
She tries not to watch the videos of herself, saying: “It’s incredibly disturbing, heart-breaking. It’s a person in severe mental distress.”
It is indeed difficult to reconcile how she appears in the videos with her calm and measured demeanour when we speak via Zoom.
“QAnon is stealing happiness, peace of mind and families from people,” she says. “It’s a very frightening, lonely place to be in when it consumes your life.”
In Lively’s case, it also almost ended her marriage. After the videos surfaced, her husband filed for divorce, but the couple have now reconciled.
Part of her healing process involved dealing with traumas she had experienced in her past, including the death of both her parents: when she was 14, her mother, Randee, died from an overdose, and her father, Solomon, died in a freak accident eight years later.
Lively also grew up in a family traumatised by the Holocaust.
Of her paternal grandmother, Frieda Reinstein, who endured Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and the death marches, Lively says: “She was one of the only survivors of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz was built. The Nazis took my grandmother’s father’s bakery and food distribution business away. The neighbours said you have to run away, but they stayed.
“Ninety-six percent of my family was murdered in the Holocaust, including my grandmother’s parents and cousins. My grandmother and a couple of cousins were the only ones who survived.”
Her grandfather, Alex Reinstein, who met Frieda in a displaced persons camp in Germany, was also a survivor.
After the war, Solomon changed the family surname to Rein to escape the antisemitism he felt was holding back his residential developing business.
“My dad was around my grandparents and [other] Holocaust survivors a lot. There was an overwhelming sense of fear and distrust; fear of too much government control.”
Lively’s reaction was perhaps understandable when she came across a QAnon meme showing Jews wearing medical masks being put into a railway carriages. The caption read: “Welcome to new world order population control.” She explained: “I saw that and I was inconsolable.
I freaked out.”
Now writing a book about her experiences, Lively wants to show how any vulnerable person can fall prey to conspiracy theories.
“If my story allows other people to emerge from this experience whole, or it empowers them to pick up the phone and pursue mental health treatment, it will all be worth it.”
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