It all started at the beginning of 8th grade, when a fellow student overheard 13-year-old "Sam" laughing at an inside joke with a friend, misunderstood and thought they were making a sexual reference, and reported the comment as sexual harassment. Administrators and the school resource officer reprimanded Sam and discussed punishment, forced him to write a "statement of guilt," and never contacted his mother "even though Sam cried for about six hours straight," she writes in a Washingtonian essay about the horror that unfolded next. After another harrowing meeting with an administrator and Sam writing an apology letter to the female student who had reported him, the teen lost his friends and lapsed into depression; even switching schools failed to improve things. Then he found new friends: communities on Reddit and 4chan that slowly pulled him into a fascination with the alt-right.
"Those online pals were happy to explain that all girls lie—especially about rape. And they had lots more knowledge to impart," the anonymous mother writes. That "knowledge" included anti-Semitic, anti-Islam, and anti-women views, a far cry from the "edgy and liberal" crowd Sam used to run with, not to mention the "kindness" and "gentleness" he had always displayed. Sam "researched" what he learned online, and started peppering his parents with comments like, "Feminists keep divorced dads from seeing their kids." He became a moderator on his favorite subreddit, his new online pals having no idea he was so young. Through it all, his dismayed parents tried to remain neutral even while countering his arguments. Finally, after his mom agreed to take him to "observe" a white supremacist rally, an encounter with a counterprotester sparked the beginning of a turnaround—and of his mother finding out how she herself had contributed to the ordeal. Read the full piece here for more on how, in the author's view, the alt-right preys on and manipulates depressed kids. (Read more Longform stories.)