At one time, I don’t remember from where, I heard that the CIA or someone coined the term “conspiracy theory” in order to make those who question the official story, from the government or whoever, look crazy. The term is often used to discredit people who question official stories, or sometimes against people who just see things differently, and the media especially encourages the public to look at anyone labeled a “conspiracy theorist” as someone unstable and to avoid associating with. This has been done repeatedly over the years to questioners of the official stories of the JFK Assassination, shooter and terrorist attacks of all sorts, the attacks on 9/11/2001, and the like. “Conspiracy theory” is also a broad term encompassing topics on everything from flat earth and space aliens, to vaccines, to a New World Order, and, most recently, to Qanon. Sometimes these things involve speculations of people actually conspiring, sometimes it’s just a questioning of the mainstream narrative, whatever that may be.
As mental illness does sometimes involve paranoia and the idea that everyone is out to get you, it is prudent to be skeptical of someone exhibiting this paranoia, especially if they are seeing, say, people not actually there. However, it’s also good to remember that 1) conspiracy theorists aren’t always paranoid–they may be speculating about an event that doesn’t presently affect either their safely or well being, and their questions may be valid, 2) conspiracies do actually exist, and have existed all throughout time, and 3) sometimes they, whoever they are, are out to get you, your money, your influence, and even your life.
I am by no means an expert on mental illness, and cannot say offhand how often a person with mental illness is also someone who follows and is interested in conspiracy theories. I do really wonder, though, just why the media and society at large is always in such a rush to portray conspiracy theorists as having a mental illness. Aside from some symptoms that do manifest in some mental illnesses, like paranoia, the two things really aren’t connected. Isn’t questioning just a normal thing to do, something vital to holding those with power to account? And, when it’s obvious that the media in particular never tells the straight out truth, isn’t it crazier not to question things?
In Truthers, author Geoffrey Girard uses his story to plumb the depths of those questions. The book is YA genre about a teenager named Kate who’s father gets put in a mental institution for his wild claims and speculations about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In a brave move, even so many years after (it was published in 2017), the two towers now gone are portrayed in blue Matrix movie-like numbers on the front cover. Using a visual connection to the Matrix movies–about a conspiracy that is indeed true–Girard already tips his hat: He thinks the questions are vital.
Kate is sent to live with a foster family. Her father hasn’t been the best dad, but he’s still her dad, and she wants to help him get better and get free. For those readers who may have thought Truthers was going to be about dealing with mental illness, Kate’s next move is a definite step away from that: She starts to investigate the questions, speculations, and claims around 9/11 in the hope to have enough proof that there is good reason to question, so that a court will set her father free. The story pulled me in right away by connecting with what I’ve said above: The media and society at large encourage anyone questioning things to be seen as mentally unstable or really naive at best. It’s truly a fascinating form of gaslighting. Are you questioning too much? Well, it must not be that there are reasons to question, no, it must be that you are going insane or really dumb. See how it works?
Using Kate’s need to research, Girard takes his readers through some of the conspiracy theories about 9/11, from the thought that the government purposely dropped the ball in some way, to the idea that the government did it, that there were actually no planes, only missiles, and even to the idea that the people on the planes were taken somewhere else and executed there. In some ways, it’s concerning stuff, in others it shows just how far trust in our government has fallen. Many, many people don’t believe the official story. They believe they are purposely and even maliciously being lied to. Interestingly, the one person in Truthers who actually does seem crazy enough to go and kill someone is a person chillingly committed to the official story.
As painfully and also as callously as Truthers revels in speculations about 9/11, the author is just as quick to point out flaws in the “truthers” or conspiracy theorists. They are almost all men, most of whom are very paranoid indeed, using strange hacking measures to communicate with Kate, and having what seems to be an unnecessary amount of security set up around them. They jump to conclusions with little, concrete evidence. Kate goes back and forth, struggling, as we all would, with whom to trust. She gets frustrated with the lack of real evidence and real answers. Real, hard evidence is often difficult to come by, especially when considering an event from long ago. Even a recent event is tricky, as those in power have increasing technological tools to make sure their version of history is the only version future generations will know. The invention of the internet has made this difficult as of late, but corporations are now serving as the new gatekeepers by banning and canceling the accounts of people who refuse to toe the current PC line.
Truthers ends up going all spy-on-spy mode at the end, which kind of took away some of the realism it had going, but I liked the ending, and I liked this key scene: Kate and her friend Max are talking. He’s skeptical of a 9/11 Truther’s claims and says that anyone can hop online and think they’re an expert on something in just a few minutes. Before that capability, Max says, people who researched, say, JFK, had to do more due diligence. They earned their theories and their right to question. Max goes on to say that he doesn’t believe the USA is some evil country that did its own citizens in, although it’s certainly made mistakes. He says the cliche of “the USA is the worst country in the world, except for all the rest.”
Kate responds by listing off some very real ways in which the USA has historically done things not in the best interest of either their citizens or other people, and at times even harming them. She tells Max that he is very smart guy, but has a blind spot in his view. She tells him the country she just described could easily have masterminded 9/11. Next in the argument, Kate asks, what if it wasn’t the government that did it, but a powerful corporation?
Again, Max is skeptical, saying she’s really only researched this stuff for a few weeks, and it’s “easy to get swept up in it all.” “Half of the information you need for the truth is deemed too classified to see, and the other half is more info than any one person could possibly wrap their head around.” Kate asks Max if he thinks she would think differently if she spent more time on the subject, ‘earned it’ in his eyes. She then asks him a very profound question that anyone searching for truth should ask those who stubbornly stick to the official story: “Have you ‘earned’ it? Your views on this subject?” Max only grumbles at this, because of course he hasn’t, yet he’s so certain that the Truthers are wrong and off base. The certainty of ignorance works so well to discourage people from really doing their due diligence.
Truthers is an interesting book with much food for thought about questioners, truthers, or conspiracy theorists, whatever you want to call them. It grazes the surface on dealing with mental illness, so if you’re looking for a good book on that issue, this would not be it. This book is also definitely not for someone very emotionally connected to what happened on 9/11. A lot of the theories do sound loony, for some it may seem like Girard is stepping on people’s graves, and it may be traumatizing to read. But Girard’s intention is not to dishonor the dead, but to point to real questions and aspects about 9/11 that need to and should be answered by our government and those in power. He also indicates it is our civic duty to hold our government and those in power to account. Questioning doesn’t do this in and of itself, but it’s a start.
A person can have a mental illness and also have legitimate questions about horrific events like 9/11. This is what I took from the book: First and foremost, do your due diligence. Don’t write off things as crazy simply because they don’t fit either the mainstream narrative or your own personal worldview. The world is complicated and humans are fundamentally dishonest, conspiring against each other in hurtful ways all the time. The more questions, the better. Good thing is, with enough time, the truth often does come out. Truthers has a second good lesson as well: Conspiracy theorists may be asking the right questions, but they don’t often have concrete answers or proof, and one may disappointed they don’t have them. But if indeed those in power are hiding the truth, actual proof will be hard to come by. It’s simply the nature of the beast. I think that if enough people choose to hold those in power to account, therein lies opportunities to get real answers. Maybe someday there will be an American generation that does this. That would be amazing to see.