“I had seen a lot of great reporting about the supply side of disinformation,” Del Real, a reporter on the Post’s national political team, told me. “But I remained intensely curious about the people who were susceptible to it. I found right away in my reporting that a lot of people, all across the country, were struggling with this in their families and among friends.”
His interest wasn’t in the QAnon zealots or militia members who have attracted so much media attention. Rather, his curiosity was about ordinary Americans “who were sort of flirting with conspiratorial thinking and extremist ideas.”
“That was a quieter story,” he said, “and maybe a more difficult one. I was not at all sure how to tell that story and I wasn’t sure anyone would find it interesting. Mercifully, my editor, Steven Ginsberg, was very much on board.”
Del Real, who also has reported for Politico and The New York Times, knew big issues are often best explored through a narrow focus and the crucial elements of narrative nonfiction. “You need tension,” he said. “You need a stake. And you need specificity. So the central question I came up with to guide my initial reporting was: How are disinformation and conspiracy theories affecting relationships in America today?”
That focus and intense reporting led him to Claire Ryan and her adult children. The children were convinced their mother had been brainwashed by right-wing disinformation. The mother dismissed them as anti-Trumpers and said it was they who were deluded.
Their family saga was published on March 12, 2021. “They’re worried their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. She thinks they’re the ones living in a fantasy world,” explores the toxic conflict in intimate, compelling detail, laying bare the kind of incendiary conversations that are breaking up families and friendships across America.
With travel and in-person reporting limited by the pandemic, Del Real spent “at least a dozen hours on the phone with the various family members over the span of several weeks” from his Washington D.C. apartment, gaining the trust that allowed him to report from inside the families’ turmoil.
But he also mined digital communications, sifting through hundreds of anguished Facebook posts, emails and text messages the Ryan siblings exchanged with each other and with their defensive mother. Del Real uses them to build an escalating series of scenes, giving his story a revealing, epistolary quality, reminiscent of 19th-century letters between families and friends. Today’s instant digital epistles often are driven by speed and clouded by disinformation, distrust and anger. Their inclusion in the story reveals how Claire and her children, scattered across four states from South Dakota to Maine, battled electronically over their deeply-held opinions. The story takes a touching turn when Del Real chronicles how Claire comes to the side of a daughter with cancer.
In the end, the family’s struggles leave the reader struggling with the same questions Del Real started with: Can family bonds override political views? And what happens when they don’t?
Del Real told Storyboard about his reporting techniques, including dealing with a recalcitrant source, how he structured and composed a coherent narrative from a mass of information, and the explosion of interest the story generated.
Our email conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It is followed by an annotation of the story.
Your story has a timely and compelling premise: Dramatize the debate between a single American family torn apart by the disinformation and partisan bickering that has poisoned so many relationships in America. Where did the idea originate?
I wondered if there was a way to interrogate the individual experiences that lead to a collective fantasy. But it was after encountering the world of vaccine-related conspiracy theories that I first began thinking about the way false beliefs shape group behaviors. Then the Capitol riot happened on January 6th. There was this sudden interest in the most extreme outcomes of political disinformation and in QAnon.
Outright extremism was not exactly what I was interested in. I thought maybe there would be some value in writing about the people who believed the election was stolen but were not among the rioters, those who were flirting with conspiratorial thinking and extremist ideas but who were not themselves devout QAnon believers or militia members. That was a quieter story, happening at keyboards and on smartphones in private spaces. I thought there might be something to learn about how people form beliefs and what happens when those are tested.
Access is everything in journalism, especially for narrative nonfiction which is populated by characters, dialogue and details. How did you find the right family to illustrate the trend of other families being torn apart in the current political climate? And how did you persuade them to reveal their divisions in such intimate detail?
My instinct when I don’t know which way is up is to just start talking to people. So I began approaching folks on social media and on various internet forums about their interpersonal experiences with political disinformation and conspiracy theories. With some keyword magic, you can find folks on various social media platforms who have posted about their experiences.
I also spoke to a bunch of academics and wrote a straightforward survey story about truth decay in the Trump era and beyond. I used that piece to anchor a “callout” in which I invited readers to tell us about how their relationships had been affected by disinformation and conspiracy theories.
My instinct when I don’t know which way is up is to just start talking to people.
When I first began talking to Celina Knippling (Claire’s daughter), I had no idea our correspondence would result in a story. I was still in research mode. During our second phone conversation, Celina told me about her battle with cancer. I could not stop thinking afterward about her mom coming to keep her company even though they had become estranged. The story began to take shape from there. I wanted to understand how Celina reconciled these different aspects of her mother. The answer was that she couldn’t.
I was then really pleased her sisters agreed to chat with me as I tried to think about this family’s struggle from various angles. They were all starting to wonder if their relationships would be permanently altered by the Trump era. It had brought a lot of pain. But they weren’t ready to give up on each other.
By the end of the story, there seems little hope that the family will be able to come together. What are their relationships like today?
One of the questions the daughters grapple with throughout the story is whether their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. Claire herself would say she does not subscribe to QAnon and is not a political extremist, even though she believes the election featured widespread voter fraud. She believes her kids are the ones who have been brainwashed by the Democratic Party and by an anti-Trump agenda in the mainstream media.
This piece probes, in part, how we draw those lines in our most intimate relationships. But the story ends the way it does because they don’t know what comes next in this relationship. That’s true, by the way, of our country as a whole. We really don’t know if a national healing is possible.
But to my mind, the most important part in the piece is that when tragedy struck, they showed up for each other
The story strikes a chord at a time when so many people find themselves estranged by political belief. How did readers react?
It was the most-read story on The Post’s website for several days. Nearly 10,000 people commented on it and many readers wrote me directly to share similar experiences. I really did not expect our long and sort of quiet reflection on truth and trust and family to garner so much attention.
And what about the family’s reaction?
There’s a great quote attributed to Isak Dinesen about how all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story. I think there was some of that here. I’m very grateful they trusted me to tell an honest story about their experience. I think their vulnerability and openness was really brave. Once the piece was done, each member of the family who I spoke to said that participating actually opened up a conversation among them that may not have happened otherwise.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Del Real’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
They’re worried their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. She thinks they’re the ones living in a fantasy world.
A family struggles with truth and trust
in a country divided by disinformation.
By Jose A. Del Real, Washington Post
March 12, 2021In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease, Celina Knippling resolved to administer facts to her mom like medicine. She and her four siblings could do nothing about the lies that had spread outward from Washington since Election Day, or the violence it had provoked. But maybe they could do something to stop dangerous political fantasies and extremism from metastasizing within their family. Maybe they could do something about Claire. Your lead relies on medical metaphors to convey the effects of lies that cast doubt on the victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Why did you choose to open this way? There’s a decades-old theory that the spread of false beliefs can be modeled mathematically the way epidemiologists model the spread of disease. It makes me think of those infographics that show how the coronavirus can spread outward from a single super-spreader event to several cities and states. Thinking visually, this family is at the destination end of one of those contagion lines — if what we’re tracking is dangerous political fantasies. This idea of false belief spreading like a virus or like cancer cells was really on my mind when I started writing. Tonally, my goal in the top was to give some propulsion to a story that I worried was at risk of being too meditative, too quiet. The first ledes I toyed with, early in the writing, lacked the urgency I wanted. This lede allowed me to do several things very quickly: to provide immediate thematic context and some visual scale; to introduce Celina with a touch of interiority, and to foreshadow very clearly the emotional high point of the story, when the entire family comes together to help Celina after her medical diagnosis. It also sets up the first of several illness metaphors that are woven throughout the piece and which become quite tangible the more you read. It’s all in service of raising questions so readers will want to find the answers. Perhaps that was a bit of a gamble but I think the piece’s high readership showed that something about it worked.
And so on one Saturday in February, Celina meticulously assembled a spreadsheet of every court case filed by former president Trump and his allies to contest the 2020 election. From her home outside Baltimore, she coded by date, state, case number and outcome. She analyzed how many lawsuits had been won, lost or dismissed and on what grounds. She broke down whether the presiding judges had been appointed by Democrats or Republicans.Why did you decide to hold off identifying Claire as Celina’s mom until the third paragraph? This was a secondary decision to accommodate the storytelling decisions I made in the lede paragraph. Journalists often start enterprise stories with a narrow and detailed scene, zoom out to the nut graf, and then zoom back into other narrow scenes. This piece instead starts quite wide, then goes for the close-up and mostly stays there. Claire is introduced as Celina’s mother somewhat indirectly in the first graf; in the third graf we make that explicit, in case readers missed it, like a lens sharpening its focus. And we used that as an opportunity to also indicate to readers that Claire’s perspective will be presented in this piece, too, if they wait a bit.
Celina, 50, was not overly hopeful. She knew that her mom no longer trusted the mainstream media to tell the truth, nor the country’s democratic institutions to adjudicate an election she was certain had been stolen. It was her anti-Trump children, Claire Ryan contended, who were brainwashed. In just three grafs, you established the conflict that drives the story. Is this how you laid it out in your first draft or did it emerge during revision? This is how the story was structured from the original draft. My editor, Steven, really helped refine it by removing some repetition in the lede, which gave it even more of that wallop quality I was going for. And of course there were some language and grammar tweaks. But this top section was actually largely unchanged.
Nevertheless, Celina gathered her spreadsheet and her notes and emailed them to Claire, 71, who lived in Maine with Celina’s stepfather. She had to know whom her mother trusted more: her own children, or strangers on the Internet.
She got her reply an hour later.
Claire suggested that Celina watch a video called “Absolute Proof” being promoted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the most visible proponents of the false narrative that the election had featured widespread voter fraud. The 120-minute-long video was hosted on a platform called Rumble and purported to reveal conclusive evidence that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump. It repackaged claims that had already been disproved by the media and dismissed by the courts, which was spelled out in the exhaustive set of court filings and links Celina had sent her mom.
“Please share with everyone you know to save our country!” Lindell urged viewers on his personal website.
Celina lost her temper. It was bulls—, she said.
Did she say this to you in an interview by phone, or by text or email?
Celina said this to her mother in an email. I paraphrased the “bullshit” to avoid stacking quotes. What I chose to quote directly, I think, is more powerful than a swear word — even if that’s juicier.
The story is notable for its clever use of social media communication between members of this family to unfold the narrative: text messages, emails, Facebook posts and videos. What lessons have you learned from the process?
Having access to a wide range of digital materials — text messages, social media posts, and emails — was extremely valuable. But it was not initially my intention to use those materials to build scenes into the piece; I requested access to texts and posts merely so I could track and verify the arc of their relationships over the last year or so. It’s not the most efficient process but it does bring a sense of authority to the writing. It was especially important to have because I couldn’t go embed with the family. I needed a way to see how they interacted, how they spoke to each other, how they spoke about each other. Interestingly, because their texts and emails unfolded in real time before there was ever any story in the works, my presence as a journalist did not influence the conversations.
During the writing process, I went back and asked specifically if I could publish the scenes that ended up in the piece. They could have said “absolutely not” and I would have honored their requests. I think it was clear to them, though, that I was not on a hunt for the most explosive or cutting remarks. The scenes that ended up in the piece are there because they show how anger and love can co-exist in the same moments.
“Your response was to find some idiot’s video…and think that somehow that proves your point,” she wrote back.
“I gave up my weekend to make sure you had access to see what real evidence and research looks like, and you somehow think a video is … what? Evidence? Proof?”
What Celina wrote as a closing rebuke: “You used to be smarter than this.” Why did you quote the email verbatim? I wanted to show in Celina’s own words what she felt when this act of love, in spreadsheet rows and cells, was not received as intended. We all have experience with that. It’s more interesting to hear Celina work through it than it is for me to paraphrase it. The interplay between love and anger, between worry and condescension, is an emotional thread that runs throughout the scenes in this piece.
What Celina had been thinking for months now but could not find a way to say: “I want my mom back. I’m terrified for her.” Did Celina tell you what she was thinking about her mother? Yes, several times over the course of our many conversations, enough that I felt comfortable writing this with a sense of interiority. The words between the quotation marks come directly from our first conversation. Something fundamental had changed since Claire and her husband “pulled the cord on mainstream media” a few years ago, said Laurie Nelsen, 46, the second-oldest of Claire’s five grown children. Much of the day-to-day anxiety over Claire’s well-being had fallen to Laurie because they lived just a few miles away from each other in Oakland, Maine.
As a pathologist, the bulk of Laurie’s work happened at a microscope, where she looked at human tissue up close and gave medical diagnoses based on what she saw. Now she was inspecting her relationship with her mother, staging the illness and trying to make sense of how things had gotten so bad. Once again you use a medical metaphor, this time using Laurie’s work as a pathologist to describe what was going on in Laurie’s mind. Why did you choose this pattern? Obviously viral spread was on my mind given the pandemic. But the medical metaphors surfaced on their own time and again during the reporting. As I got to know Celina and learned about her experiences fighting cancer, I realized she was fighting these lies from Washington with a fury and a relentlessness, as though facts were a type of chemo. It was almost like a patient’s mindset. And it was bringing a lot of pain. Then chatting with Laurie, it became clear to me that her training as a physician was a big part of who she was. Her analytic sensibility provided a readymade framing device to zoom out in the second section and explore the arc of this family’s relationship. So I deployed these metaphors first as devices to explore core character traits. In turn, the medical metaphors came to provide a language to think about how to fight disinformation throughout the story. Do you fight lies with facts, like Celina and Laurie believe? Or is that the wrong medicine?
Like other families with split political affiliations, they had some yelling matches after Trump took office, especially over the former president’s immigration policies. In the lede and here you touch on the fact that Claire and her family are not the only ones dealing with political estrangement, but the story doesn’t include a traditional nut graf. It unspools as a single compelling narrative without a deliberate interruption of a graph or two to put it in a larger context. What was the reasoning behind that decision? I wrote the piece section by section when I was just trying to get everything down on the page. I sort of assumed as I was plugging along that I would go back and add a nut graf somewhere once I had a finished draft. But the story just didn’t need one. The lead did a lot of work on that front and freed up the rest of the piece. I nod at the national themes and context throughout the piece, but as part of the narrative rather than as deviation from it. Here’s a confession, though: There was one very short, 200-word section in the first draft of the story where I explicitly (and maybe sort of pedantically) elaborated on this idea of modeling the spread of false beliefs like the spread of disease. The thrust of what I said there was that we choose who to believe and who to trust, and that’s what makes the disinformation wars so personal. I thought it was a very clever and innovative use of social science. My editor, Steven, wisely cautioned me that it broke the narrative and would thus risk losing readers. My colleague Greg Jaffe read a draft of the story separately and had the same exact feedback. They were right.
Claire was a Canadian-born Catholic drawn to the Republican Party by her fierce opposition to abortion, and Trump had won her over with promises to champion her position. Celina, Laurie and their three younger siblings skewed left despite their conservative upbringing in South Dakota. They had never felt such disdain for a politician before.
By the end of the Trump administration, the bounds of their political disagreements had shifted, Laurie recounted, becoming at once more intense and also less about policy and legislation in Washington. They had learned to live with their disagreements over abortion. Now it felt like they were occupying different realities altogether.
Over the course of 2020, amid a presidential election, racial justice protests and a pandemic, the five siblings began to trade increasingly worried text messages and emails about some of the things Claire was saying and posting on Facebook. There were comments they noticed about child trafficking and sacrifice, a key theme of the extremist QAnon ideology. There was her vitriol toward Pope Francis, whom she had referred to as “the anti-Pope.” After Election Day, they took turns pushing back on a stream of disinformation Claire posted online, including the unfounded claim that the CIA murdered U.S. soldiers abroad to help cover up voter fraud. You managed to compress the family’s arguments over President Trump from his election to its closing days in two grafs. How did you do that? These graphs are the synthesis of a dozen hours of phone calls and a review of 12 months of text messages. It was actually pretty easy to write because I had all the reporting I needed.
Laurie worried that Claire was losing her mental grasp or that she was flirting with political extremism. She could no longer quite tell the difference, she said.
From their homes across the country, the siblings fact-checked and fact-checked and fact-checked, to no avail.
Soon, well-intended corrections gave way to confrontations, concern gave way to anger.
Celina had gotten there first. Early in 2020, she became enraged when she looked up an Internet personality Claire mentioned, Stefan Molyneux, and found he was a proponent of white supremacist narratives. She stopped talking to Claire for months. She would rather pretend her mother was dead, she said, than to be associated with anyone going anywhere near those types of ideas. This is a pretty shocking decision. What was your emotional reaction as you tracked the painful discord in this family? I felt sorry this family was being tested in this way. I got to know them pretty intimately, and I genuinely found them all to be well-intentioned. They each have a great sense of humor and are absolutely hilarious one-on-one. I also saw in the reporting that there was still so much love between them; members of a family are more to each other than any one single fight. And yet their disagreements were irreconcilable. All that pain was very affecting and made the stakes very clear to me as a writer.
Celina suspected that Claire’s husband, Kelly, was pushing an extreme worldview on her.
As their disagreements escalated, Laurie’s husband suggested that she consider doing the same. But Laurie thought about the doting grandmother Claire was, how she would patch jeans and sew masks, how she’d digress from political arguments over text to share pictures of a new haircut. She struggled to reconcile the dichotomy.
Claire and Kelly had moved to Maine from South Dakota in 2015 to be closer to Laurie’s family and to her other daughter, Jenny Allen, who lived nearby with her husband and son. But even before the pandemic, they did not see each other much. Sometimes when they did get together, Claire said, they would argue so intensely about politics that she would have to threaten to leave to end the conversation. Most of their communication now happened through screens.
Laurie speculated that right-wing Internet communities and websites had given Claire a sense of belonging, somewhere she could turn to feel like she was a part of something. And the social isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Laurie said, had further sealed Claire and her husband in something of a political echo chamber. It made them even more difficult to talk to.
Their conversations often came back to Trump and followed a familiar pattern: One of the siblings would fact-check something Claire said or posted on Facebook, and Claire would accuse them of trying to censor her.
“Do you think you have the right to control my vote and to completely lambast me over it. It is sickening to me. If you want to be an MSM cheerleader not knowing or caring how much they have been [bought] then you go ahead,” Claire texted Laurie in December.Who shared this text with you? Did you have Claire’s permission to use it? I agreed not to share where I got these texts. They were given me in a fact-checking capacity. In order to publish them in good faith, I went back and talked to both Laurie and Claire about this exchange going in the story.
“I don’t care that you voted trump, I think it’s sad that you can’t accept he lost. … I can’t say no fraud at all took place, but nowhere near on the scale of hundreds of thousands of votes it would take to overturn it,” Laurie wrote back.
“Millions, not thousands,” Claire replied.
“Why is this important enough to compromise your relationships with your kids? Why does he mean more to you than us?”
Laurie felt like she was hurting her mother by trying to get her to see the truth. But she also worried she would be hurting her by not doing so. Trumpism, she felt, had delivered Claire into a black hole of baseless beliefs, and the reach of that disinformation was starting to feel dangerous — to the country, to their family and to Claire’s own well-being. This is an eloquent paragraph that sums up Laurie’s concerns about her mother and about the toll Trumpism has taken on the country. Why did you paraphrase what she said rather than quote her directly? How do you know what she felt? The insights in the graph after their text exchange came from a conversation I had with Laurie about the tone and tenor of her interactions with Claire. Paraphrasing those sentiments allowed me to include them without breaking the narrative. Paraphrasing instead of quoting allowed me to connect this exchange to broader national trends in a way that would have been harder to do with a quote.
Early in the pandemic, Claire had sewn masks for the family even before they had become adopted widely, Laurie said. Now Claire doubted the seriousness of the risk presented by the coronavirus because of what she was reading online about it. Laurie agonized about Claire singing at church again, going to the grocery store again, getting her hair done again.
She was distraught when Claire told her that she would not get inoculated against the virus because she heard “abortion cells” from hundreds of terminated pregnancies were used in the vaccines, which Laurie refuted.
The truth took some difficult parsing. The vaccines did not contain fetal tissue from recent abortions, nor were any abortions performed for the purpose of vaccine development. Several of the common lab-grown cell lines that were used to test or develop the vaccines, however, were first derived decades ago from cells collected after at least two abortions and copied over time for scientific research. Weighing those facts, the Vatican and many prominent Catholic leaders nonetheless encouraged vaccination, but it was not uncommon for conservative Christians to worry that the vaccines were morally tainted.How did you source the anti-vaccine beliefs of some conservative Christians? I grew up in a very Catholic household and I’m generally plugged into broader conversations happening in these faith communities. Church leaders have issued public statements and moral guidance on this as well. Separately, I had also been doing some anti-vaccine related reporting and kept encountering this in conversations with evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics.
But Laurie had lost their argument before it even started. She felt as though the facts did not matter, like her expertise as a physician did not matter. Truth was a process born of trust, and maybe that was what was missing between them now.
She had diagnosed the problem. She could not treat it. Here you use two five-word sentences that deliver a parallel punch. Why did you compose them this way? And once again, you liken the situation to a medical problem. I nod to Laurie being a physician at the beginning and end of this second section, almost like bookends. Her worldview is a scientific one, which is especially resonant during a viral pandemic. That analytic perspective in turn provides a very useful writing frame through the section. At the end of the section, it elevates the personal tension that comes with the realization that facts alone don’t combat disinformation and conspiracy theories. Facts are the wrong kind of medicine; they don’t mean anything without trust. It is devastating for her as a scientist. Then there is the second, harder realization: that she does not have the trust of her own mother. The short, declarative sentences were a way to underscore these points while beginning to draw down the section.
If she wanted a relationship with her mother, she would have to accept part of her and ignore the other.
“She’s the sweetest grandmother. She cooks and cleans and sews, she patches jeans. She’s like something from another time period,” Laurie said. “But she espouses these ignorant and racist views and refuses to be corrected on them. And it causes a lot of pain.”
All she could think to do was buy a subscription to the CentralMaine.com news network for Claire and Kelly. At least that would be one source of information that was not filled with fantasies. The opening section ends with Laurie buying her mother and stepfather a subscription to a mainstream media outlet. It feels like the end of the first act. Was that your intention? Absolutely. It’s a clean break before we hear from Claire directly. Claire bristled at terms like “conspiracy theory” and “unsubstantiated claim.”
She had raised her kids to think for themselves, she said, and from her vantage point they were now trying to deny her the same respect. And who gave them the right? She was smart. She had gone back to school to finish her college degree in education counseling after they were mostly grown. She had “been in the trenches,” she said in email correspondence with The Post, working to support people who had severe mental illnesses and in a domestic-violence shelter.Here you make clear that you are having an email exchange with Claire. Why now? As a journalist, I’m responsible to hold the line about what the known facts are. You cannot uncritically suggest there are two sides to claims that an election was stolen when there is a clear evidence that it was not. But erasing Claire’s thought process doesn’t do anybody any good; millions of people agree with her. With all that in mind, I thought it would be most effective to give Claire an opportunity to speak about her life, her values, and her beliefs *after* her eldest daughters have had their say. That approach gives Claire the opportunity and the responsibility to explain her views point by point. What were goals and challenges as you structured the story? It just made sense to me to lay out all that tension through an opening scene in the first section and then tzoom out in the second section. My vision for how to do this was directly driven by my conversations with Celina, who was very committed to the idea that facts alone could win the day, and Laurie, who was really trying to understand the bigger picture of how their family had been driven apart. I am not the kind of writer who sits down and writes a story in one sitting completely intact. I wrote the first section first, the last section second, and the second section third. But I still needed to figure out what to do about my lengthy conversations with Claire, who was the catalyst for all this angst. It was important to make sure that Claire had an opportunity to discuss her belief system, to give context to her political evolution. At first, we corresponded extensively by email — and I mean thousands and thousands of words exchanged. I was struck by what a lovely writer she was and what a rich life she had lived. Later we talked by phone. This was not someone who fit the portrait of a “conspiracy theorist.” So I had all of that reporting and I just needed to find the best place for it. I knew instinctively that the most effective way to present Claire’s perspective was in its own section — in context and in conversation with the other sections of course, but mostly uninterrupted. I thought treating it like a missing puzzle piece and then revealing that we had it all along could jolt readers and provide some momentum toward the end of the story. But it couldn’t come so late that we’d lose readers and miss the opportunity. My editor eventually helped me settle on the right place for it. And the placement here is also intended to pique readers’ interest at the midway point, when they are maybe considering putting this story down. There are little hints to readers in the first half of the story that I have interviewed Claire. Those are placed intentionally. Hearing from Claire — who you are presumably interested in knowing more about if you are reading this story — is a payoff to sticking with it.
She grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Montreal where she was the oldest of 10 kids, she recounted. Her mother, who was also the oldest of 10, had been a fierce advocate against abortion. She recalled how each night her grandparents would pray the rosary.
“I come by my pro-life values honestly,” she said. “So far we have eliminated a whole generation of American citizens in the name of freedom of choice. The ramifications are not insignificant, an intentional understatement.” Did you have to edit Claire’s emails? I used our correspondence basically the way I would have used spoken interviews. Claire and I exchanged thousands of words in our email correspondence. There was no way to capture every single thing she wrote. I could do an entire dissertation project structured around Claire’s life.
She met her first husband, Howard Knippling, in South Dakota in 1966 during an exchange program. The two struck up an epistolary romance and were married in 1969. This story seems like a kind of epistolary correspondence, a 21st century one, with texts and Facebooks posts replacing the letters that sparked Claire’s romance with her first husband. It’s a great mirror of the way we communicate, or miscommunicate. Was it deliberate or subconscious? That epistolary echo is one hundred percent deliberate. People have always mediated their relationships through writing, even if the technology and the frequency have changed.
Celina was born the following year — then Laurie, Mary, Jenny and finally Michael. In 1994, after a quarter-century together, Claire and Howard divorced after many attempts at counseling, she said, in large part because he struggled to control his anger. He died in 1995 of an unexpected heart attack, a few days before Christmas. It was a one-two punch of trauma and loss that followed each family member in its own way, the first of many that would at once pull the family together and push it apart. Claire had been “like a half-widow” during that time, Laurie said.
Since Claire became a citizen in the 1980s she had almost always voted for Republicans, though she had affection for Jimmy Carter because of his moral decency. It had been during the 1970s that she first became suspicious of the news media, she said, which she blamed for helping to sell abortion rights to the public. Reflecting on the 2016 election, she said her support for Trump was tepid at first but that he won her over through his commitment to appointing antiabortion judges and his tough immigration policies. She would have preferred the neurosurgeon Ben Carson over Trump, she said.
“I cannot and will not support a candidate who supports abortion, I’m that committed,” she said. In this case, were you talking with her on the phone? This was from our email correspondence. Isn’t it lively? All her emails were like this. “I don’t care if Donald Trump or Donald Duck is running for president, if he will protect life, I will give him my vote.” Claire becomes a full-bodied character in this rich section. What reporting did you have to do to make that possible? It was very, very important for me to get Claire on the record to talk about her views and her life. That’s how I fleshed out the portrait here, by asking questions and taking her responses seriously. I talked to three of her kids on the record and even one of her older grandkids. I looked at Facebook posts and text messages and emails. But there was no substitute for hearing from her in her own words. I’m glad she saw the value in it as well.
But Trump’s election led to escalating political arguments between her and her children like never before. She rejected their accusations of racism, especially when it came to her belief in strong border enforcement. She said during screaming fights that she felt as though they blamed her personally for all of Trump’s actions. She felt the same disdain from coverage in the mainstream media, which she refers to as the MSM. Who told you about the screaming fights? They all did.
“The MSM were, to a person, arrayed against him, from the day after the  election, and over time that’s where my suspicions finally landed,” Claire wrote in an email. “Even a [broken] clock is right twice a day, but they couldn’t throw Trump even a crumb. It sickened me and I stopped watching MSM in 2017.” How many emails did you exchange with Claire? And how did you persuade her to talk with a member of the news media she disdains? We exchanged more than a dozen very lengthy emails. She did not like some of the things I had written previously and was skeptical. I explained that I was trying to understand how families were navigating this moment. And I told her, truthfully, that I didn’t see my job as being polemical in spirit — that if I wanted to pontificate about my own political beliefs I could make more money doing it on television. I told her unequivocally that a convergence of evidence showed that the 2020 election did not feature widespread voter fraud. But I added that I really hoped she would consider telling me about her beliefs and how she came to them, since millions of people agreed with her.
Claire said she did not read Q-Anon message boards, but she did have friends who sent her Q-Anon links on Facebook. She noted that some of the videos she had watched were “too fantastical to believe.”
“That’s not real life,” she wrote. “But I am still convinced that Trump won the legal vote and by a landslide. And now the question for me is: Is my vote worth a plug nickel, given what I saw happen in the past election?”
Claire was steadfast in her belief that “paid infiltrators” had “facilitated” the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. She said she abhorred violence, however, and acknowledged that perhaps some of the rioters were Trump supporters.
She had not been tricked by an epidemic of disinformation, she said. She chose whom and what to believe for herself. She did not want her children to be too disappointed when the proof came out that the election really was rigged against Trump, she said.
“Something was too slick to believe, given the recent events,” she wrote to a family member who had emailed to check in. “Almost as if it were expected or scripted. No one demonstrated the appropriate emotions. There’s a story there, in my opinion.”
“The Cassandras of this world have it tough. I have to accept it. That’s why I pray,” she added. A “Casssandra,” a name originating with Greek mythology, is someone endowed with the gift of prophecy but fated never to be believed. Were you confident that your readers would understand the term without explaining it? Oh gosh, actually it did not occur to me to define this!
She said she would no longer correspond with The Post after an article published in the paper’s opinion pages in January called for a “post-Trump fumigation” of Washington. What was your reaction when she cut off contact? Did you question whether the story would be complete enough to publish? What did your editors say? I was really bummed out! Every newspaper reporter has encountered this situation, in which someone won’t talk to you on the news side because of something written on the opinion side. And as a reporter you are not allowed to comment on the opinions you’re being punished over, so it can be difficult to distance yourself whether you personally agree or not. But I had more than enough material to publish by the time she told me she wasn’t interested in continuing our conversation. I talked it out with my editor, which helped me chill out. I realized the most truthful thing would be to fold it all into the story. And I hoped Claire would see what I was trying to do and to find value in it as well. I’m really glad we began to communicate again later. How long did you work on the story? It took about four or five weeks, counting from the day I connected with Celina to the day we had a finished draft. After I was done reporting, I dedicated four or five days to very focused drafting and writing. Then it took a few weeks for all the production-related things to come together after the story was filed and edited. I’m not sure these are totally useful measurements, though. I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to write about our conversations at all. And there were detours as I continued pulling on threads for other stories, too, including sending feeds for a heartbreaking piece shepherded by my amazing colleague Greg Jaffe on “QAnon casualties.”
“The disrespect and disgust behind such words convinces me that my words, no matter how well-intentioned, will never get fair play,” she wrote. “I cannot escape the Post’s dehumanization of Republicans through many articles and cartoons. It is too similar to the war of words against the Jews in the 1930’s and so I withdraw my participation.” Once again, you end a section with a sense of finality, at the same time making the reader want more. I wanted readers to wonder, Oh god, where’s this gonna go now? And that’s what I was wondering as the writer! My goal in a story of this length was to keep readers moving to the next section, to continue to earn their attention. Claire could be equally strident with her children. She said things to them like, “You don’t know anything except what you are fed.”
But she was still their mother.
Midway through 2020, Celina was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery to have her uterus, cervix and ovaries removed. She had not been speaking to her mom at the time — but Celina told Laurie and Laurie told Claire.
Together with Jenny, they drove 12 hours from Maine to Maryland in masks and gloves. Claire stayed an entire month. It was a measure of devotion and love that left Celina stunned and grateful.
“She’s the type of person when she loves something she wants everyone to enjoy it,” Celina said. “Her TV shows are really good. She sat around doing crafts. It was a great visit. It wasn’t all about Facebook posts. It was just getting to hang out. And I really do think at heart that’s who she is.” The tone of the narrative shifts with the introduction of Celina’s multiple cancers and Claire’s maternal side coming out. It’s almost like a truce has been declared. There is so much more to family than the fights we’re having at any given moment. This, I think, is the emotional center of the story. The story intentionally builds to this point. It is also in this section that the medical metaphors laid throughout the story really click. They weren’t just metaphors; they were foreshadowing. I knew pretty clearly what this section would be all about, but I was not sure at first where it should go in the larger story. When I was outlining, I toyed with putting it at the very end. In the draft I filed to my editor this section actually came before the Claire section. My editor wisely suggested we switch them. He also helped smooth over the transitions at the top of the section once we knew where to put it.
In 2010, Celina had dealt with thyroid cancer, which she called “cancer light” compared with what would follow. Then in 2015 she was diagnosed with Stage 4 oral and neck cancer, she said, which was especially excruciating.
“People say things like, ‘You’re a survivor.’ And it’s like, no, my sisters survived my cancer, my mom survived my cancer. They dragged me kicking and screaming and saved my life,” she said.
Her mom had also traveled to Maryland in 2015 to help her during her treatment. Claire would measure Celina’s bottles of Ensure Any reason you didn’t explain what Ensure is or did you assume that people already know? I assumed people would know, but I tried to define it offhand with the “nutrients” line. to make sure she was getting enough nutrients, which was difficult because of Celina’s extreme nausea. Who was your source for this description of Claire’s caregiving? Celina herself told me about this. I fact checked and got some additional details from Laurie, Jenny and Claire. How do you fact-check stories like this? We don’t have separate fact checkers at The Post. I always go through my stories very carefully once I have a finished draft to double- and triple-check things — that I’ve spelled names and places correctly, that I’ve quoted comments and statements correctly, that I have the right ages listed, etc. I’ll also double-check to make sure I’ve correctly described the way vaccine developers utilized certain cell lines. Inevitably there will be some things I’d like to walk through one more time with sources, by phone or email. That in turn provides a good opportunity for a check-in to see how they’re feeling.
That was when Celina began to notice her mom’s politics shifting further to the right. She said her stepfather, Kelly, would sit alone downstairs listening to Alex Jones, the widely discredited right-wing provocateur who had promoted the baseless “Pizzagate” narrative and claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre was staged.
Kelly had become a difficult topic between them. Celina sometimes read the comment sections of right-wing sites and was shocked to find people there who talked about committing acts of political violence. It was so far beyond normal conservatism. If Claire was echoing some of the things these people were saying in their anonymous posts online, she blamed Kelly for exposing her to it.
Celina was apprehensive but ultimately relieved to have time alone with Claire during her latest fight with cancer. The time together was healing, she said.
But when Claire went back home to Maine in July, their fights began again.
Celina decided to ask for some space until after Election Day.
“I do love you and genuinely loved having you here, but I can’t take it when I see posts or words coming from you that are straight out of KR’s head,” Celina wrote. “You’re a loving, kind woman and the knowing or unknowing hate and intolerance makes me wish I had died instead of having to see it because it is not you.”This strikes me as an important inflection point. Did you organize your story chronologically? If so, why? If you chose another structural approach, what was it? The story unfolds chronologically within each section, but not necessarily across the entire story. This was partially a byproduct of my writing process on this piece: I drafted each section individually knowing what I wanted each one to say, and then pulled the pieces together into a single story. The opening scene in the lede took place in February of 2021. This section, in which Claire, Laurie and Jenny travel down to Maryland to be with Celina, began midway through 2020 and ends right before the election. The last section begins in January of 2021 and ends in early March of 2021.
“How are you doing, and I only want to know that,” Claire wrote back.
“I’ll let you know in November,” Celina wrote.
“I don’t hold against you how you vote you do hold against me how I vote but you don’t have the right to take my vote away. What kind of a wimp would I be if I allowed my children to boss me around and tell me how to vote,” Claire wrote.
“I hope you get the help you need to get away from Kelly. You don’t realize how much different you are when his poison isn’t being force fed to you 24×7,” Celina wrote.
Claire thought the attacks on her husband were unfair and even condescending. Weeks after she cut off contact with The Post she agreed to talk again, in part to defend Kelly and herself. Were you staying in touch with Claire during the period when she shut you out? How did you learn she was willing to cooperate? It was actually during the fact-check process that we began to communicate again. Regardless of whether she wanted to continue talking, I wanted to give her an opportunity to respond directly to some of the things her daughters said. I summoned up the courage to get back in touch.
“The trouble is that they’d rather believe that I don’t have these ideas on my own. But I do,” she said. “The use of “said” instead of “wrote” suggests that you were talking to her on the phone? What was the difference from the information you gleaned by phone compared to her emails? How did you take notes? Yes, the conversation these quotes came from happened by phone. I took notes on my computer as we spoke. There’s no replacement for talking by phone or in person; just tonally you can pick up so much more than you can in writing. One thing that was good about corresponding by email, though, was that it gave her a chance to really think about my questions and to be very intentional about her thoughts. As reporters, we should be mindful that people who don’t typically talk to the media are nervous when talking to us and give them a chance to gather their thoughts. She was most comfortable answering my questions in writing at first and so that’s the bargain I struck.
“I don’t think they give him credit for the good life I have with him. I’m not on their doorstep needing anything from them.”
Kelly himself declined to comment. Did you talk with him or did he convey his “no comment” through Claire? I asked if he was interested in participating or chatting through Claire. I did not want to push it too hard, but I wish I had been able to speak to him.
A few weeks before the election, Celina’s younger brother Michael in South Dakota texted his sisters to say he had finally had enough and needed to start pushing back on some of the things Claire was posting online. He wanted to keep it agreeable, he told his sisters. But soon every exchange began to feel like a confrontation.
“She is neck deep in the kookaid for sure,” Celina texted. “I can try to get cancer again to get her out of Ground Zero Toxic Horses— land.”Now they’re sharing texts. What was the arrangement you had with these sources? Did you ask them to share all their texts with their mother and siblings about politics? Or did they just add you to the text chain? Were there ethical concerns over the exposure of this family’s bitter estrangement? When working on a story like this, especially with people who are not used to talking to reporters, you need to be far more generous than you would be in talking to a politician or a public relations rep. I told each family member straight up that I was not interested in trapping anyone into saying something on the record that they regretted. I let them know that if they said something and realized it wasn’t what they meant, or felt unsure about something later, to let me know up to the moment of publication. I know that’s unconventional. But this is an unconventionally intimate story and that was part of building trust. I was never added to any of their text chains or anything like that. I was given the texts and posts by various sources for the purposes of getting my arms around the arc of their relationships over the course of 2020. Some of the scenes were so compelling that I asked if I could use them and, by then, I think they understood what I was trying to do and could see I was doing it in good faith. What was it like to build a story mostly on social media conversations? Did it seem like an approach that enabled you to get richer information for your narrative or is it just a pandemic workaround that you can’t wait to be over so you can interview sources face-to-face? The texts and posts and emails gave an intimate view of how they communicated during the pandemic. It was, I think, very true to the way we lived in 2020 and the first part of 2021. But I’d say that the story was really built around the lengthy phone conversations I had with members of this family. You can do a lot of really intimate reporting by phone. It does require jumping through more hoops, though. You have to fact-check obsessively to make sure you know, with authority, how something played out. Everything takes much more time. The toxicity reached new levels after the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.
The siblings were shocked to hear their mom insist that the failed insurrection was a “false flag” to trick Trump supporters into making the movement look bad. As political tides turned, they worried that Claire’s assurances that Trump would be inaugurated Jan. 20 echoed the violent fantasies spread online by a converging coalition of self-styled right-wing militia groups and Q-Anon believers. They wondered again if she was following Q-Anon message boards without telling anyone. Did you ask Claire if she was tracking Q-Anon message boards to confirm her children’s suspicions? Yes. It was very important to have her respond to this, which I handled in the Claire section above.
It was “full on tin foil hat,” Laurie wrote to Celina. “She is losing it. I’m worried about her.”
“How do we force her into an intervention?” wrote back Celina. “It’s so sick, that I don’t know what to do.”
“She’s so brainwashed, it’s scary,” wrote another family member who they had asked for advice. “Sorry for you guys that this beautiful brilliant woman has fallen for this.”
Their private concerns and disagreements increasingly burst into extended family feuds on social media that left them all rattled.
On Jan. 10, Claire posted a video on Facebook tied to an elaborate and disproven narrative that circulated for a few days on social media that alleged the Italian government had interfered in the 2020 election.
“The proof is out,” Claire wrote on her news feed.
“Fake news,” responded Jenny, according to screenshots she shared.
“The bible says foolishness is a sin,” Jenny wrote in another message.Suspense is building: Will this family feud ever be settled? Did you make a conscious decision to structure the story to achieve this effect? I wanted one more burst of energy to get us to the end of the story. And it reflects the anxiety and rage felt nationally after January 6th.
It was out of character for Jenny, who had looked on at the battles between Claire and her sisters with unease. She had tried her best to compartmentalize her mother’s politics so it did not interfere much with their relationship. But at the same time, she said, if her mom was willing to post something publicly that was not supported by evidence, then she believed it should be fair game to challenge those beliefs.
“I’m glad that [mom] taught us to think for ourselves. And I respect her being able to think for herself. But that means we’re going to have these conversations, we’re going to do our research and come to the table and discuss our differing opinions,” Jenny said. “But in the end, if I make a big pot of chili, I will still bring her some, and vice versa.”
“Vegan chili,” she added. Did you interview Jenny by phone? Yes, we had two long conversations and texted a bunch. I also interviewed her high-school aged son, Claire’s grandson, though I did not quote him in the story.
The siblings each raged about “long-lost family” in South Dakota, on their deceased father’s side, who had started jumping into their Facebook threads with their mom.
“They’re saying how we must be a hateful family to be talking that way to each other. It’s really frustrating because I wouldn’t say anything if I didn’t love her,” Jenny said. “I see all kinds of things on Facebook where I’m like, that’s nuts, and I don’t say anything to those people.”
Claire took it very personally.
“Just for the record, if certain FB friends continually jump onto my posts to censor me, including family, I will remove their posts or block them. You don’t have to agree with me, but you have no right to censor me. I consider it bullying,” Claire wrote on Facebook.
“I consider spreading these hateful lies that has led to terrorists killing cops bullying,” Jenny wrote back.
Later, Claire vowed to quit Facebook altogether.With texts and social media playing such a major role in the story providing emotionally charged quotes and dialogue, I wonder what you think this departure from traditional interviewing says about the practice of journalism today? I wouldn’t say this is a departure from traditional interviewing or reporting. This is an extension of it. Journalists have always used documents and correspondence as storytelling tools. It’s just the case today that most of us carry vast living archives of our relationships in our pockets. I have certainly used text messages given to me on background in the past to verify information and conversations. These are great fact-checking tools when used responsibly. In this story, the use of these texts may seem like a pandemic-era necessity, but more than that it is an honest reflection to our particular moment; it is just obviously true that the vast majority of our relationships have unfolded through screens in the past year. And, really, that was probably largely true before the pandemic as well. These interactions were just as real and authentic as any interactions taking place in physical space. This wasn’t a window into their digital lives; it was a window into their lives, period. And by the way, the family members are spread across four different states. Embedding with them in physical space would have its limits, too. All that said, I spent hours and hours and hours on the phone with members of this family. They were so generous with their time and insights. The texts and social media posts and emails helped me show these collisions in action. But the spine of the story was really built from those conversations.
They had all thought things would get better after Election Day. Now it felt like this was just how things were going to be.
On Inauguration Day, Celina typed out a message to her mom: “The others won’t say it but I will: you are dangerously close to being cut off from your family,” Celina wrote. “We love you but you’re pushing all of us away with every email text or post.”
She decided not to send it.It seems like the relationship between Claire and children has reached a breaking point. Is that what’s happened? Maybe not a breaking point, but certainly an inflection point.
Celina wondered how much of it all was her fault. She regretted being cruel to Claire when she was angry at her, which carried echoes of how her father had behaved. Maybe that pushed Claire away. Maybe hard doses of truth were not a cure for the divisions between them. A medical metaphor surfaces again in this fine sentence, echoing throughout the story. I wanted one last nod to these medical metaphors, to also suggest in a more meta way that there is a limit to the belief that facts alone will resolve our national disagreements. What’s missing in America is what this families are grappling with — the erosion of mutual trust. But I didn’t want to deliver a sermon about it. One quick line was enough given everything that had already come before.
Maybe they could just live their separate realities, and find better ways to be mother and daughter.
Or maybe their relationship was already too far gone.
Toward the end of February, Claire invited Laurie over to her house for coffee and scones. They did not talk about politics. Laurie urged Claire to get the coronavirus vaccine like she had just done, but Claire again declined. What was the revision process like? After I filed the story, the first step was just talking with my editor about what worked well and what could work better. There was really no rewriting, just some restructuring. The most significant changes were to the bottom of the piece. I had let the draft get a little long in the last section — which initially I wrote as one section and then turned into two sections and then turned back into one section. It needed a touch more discipline. In a few places Steven said I needed to add a bit more in order to flesh out some thoughts more explicitly. He also made the really smart suggestion that we consider flipping two of the middle sections in order to bring Claire’s perspective into the story sooner. So we included a few lines in the top sections to give readers the sense that they were going to hear from Claire. From there we each went through line-by-line to deal with little grammar things and wordiness. Steven also brought a really sharp eye to the transition work that needed to happen to glue the sections together after some reordering.
They left it at that.
“It’s when we try to convince each other, that’s when things get so divisive,” Claire said. “There are videos, there are interviews that I find that are meaningful, but when I send them to the kids they get upset. So I’m not going to send them anymore.”The ending is sad, but seems abrupt. Did you or your editors consider other options to close the story? All across the country, people seemed to anticipate that the inauguration would bring some clarity about what was and wasn’t true. Then the inauguration came and went and…everyone still believed what they had believed before. I initially had a bit more exposition about that fact but it felt too drawn out. In fact, this last section was spread across two sections in my first draft: one building up the suspense and the other negotiating the uncertain ending. I talked to my editor and he pointed out that this could (and should) be done more quickly. Five hundred additional words were not going to bring resolution to a story that fundamentally does not have an easy resolution. To put a tidy bow on this piece would have been disingenuous; we don’t really know how it ends. The ending is meant to be a bit haunting. They’re going to try to get along by not talking about what they believe. But where does that get them? And where does it get any of us?
Chip Scanlan is an award-winning journalist who spent 15 years teaching at The Poynter Institute. He now writes and coaches writers from his home in St Petersburg, Florida, and publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons,