Why Breast Cancer Survivors Are Reclaiming an Ancient Jewish Ritual
When her best friend started chemo, Chaya wanted a way to make her monthly mikvah as special as possible. She ended up finding a new kind of holy cleansing—even though it broke all the traditional rules.
Before she can meet God, Rachell Goldberg needs to get rid of all the nail polish on her toes.
An immersion in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, is supposed to be an encounter with the divine, she says.
Goldberg widens her eyes. “I mean, like, imagine!”
At its best, mikvah gets you so clean, body and soul, that God is right there with you. But first, you have to make sure there is nothing between you and the water. That means being vigilant for everything from belly button lint to a stuffed nose and going head to toe to ensure no crevice or fold is forgotten.
So, Goldberg sets to work on her toes. First, she lets acetone-soaked cotton balls rest on her nails. Now, she’s scraping away at what’s left of the polish with a pair of tweezers, chin on her knees.
Goldberg is crouched on a chair in a private room at Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. It feels like a spa. The room is warm, smells like flowers, and is full of every conceivable cleaning implement: drawers of pink razors, glass jars stuffed with Q-tips, a comb floating in shockingly blue Barbicide.
This will be Goldberg’s first immersion since beginning chemotherapy and radiation seven months ago. Before that, she immersed every month for thirteen years, since becoming a married woman (aside from the months when she was pregnant with her five children). As of today, Goldberg is done with the worst of her treatment, and her immersion is laden with meaning. When Goldberg was first diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she thought she would never go to a mikvah again.
Jews are commanded in the Torah and Rabbinic commentaries to immerse for three reasons: conversion, marriage, and monthly menstruation. This last one is controversial. Some see it as an insult, the insinuation that a natural process makes a woman unclean or untouchable, and that before she reunites with her husband she must become pure. Others see monthly mikvah as a powerful way to mark a transition between two states of being. In fact, the mikvah waters are often kept at body temperature and can feel womb-like, like a spiritual rebirth. Either way, for many Orthodox women in the United States, monthly mikvah is a part of life.
But what happens when a woman stops menstruating? Is her decades-long relationship with mikvah suddenly over? This is not an idle question. For many women, Goldberg included, chemotherapy for breast cancer means the end of their period. Ashkenazi Jewish women are at unusually high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ashkenazi Jews on the whole carry the BRCA gene mutation, which leads to both these cancers, at a rate ten times that of the general population.
At traditional mikvaot, the spotlight is on a woman’s fertility and sexuality. But for Jewish women with breast cancer, treatment means not only the end of their childbearing years, but also a deeply altered relationship to their physical and sexual selves. There is no formal place at a traditional mikvah for these women. Their bodies have changed, but the ritual hasn’t caught up.
Mikvah has traditionally been known as more of a utilitarian in-and-out chore than a personal or holy experience. Mikvaot are often built to be functional, not comfortable. Goldberg recalls immersing in an ultra-Orthodox mikvah in Israel, where she lived as a young adult and served in the military. The mikvah was small and crowded, and she recalls the process of being “checked” by the mikvah attendant to make sure the immersion was halachic, following the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.
“She was a stickler, looking at each one of my fingernails and just poking and prodding me,” Goldberg says. There was little dignity in being examined with such brusque efficiency.
These issues become more pronounced while a woman is being treated for breast cancer, or after she has finished treatment. She may have scars across her chest. As she combs her hair to get rid of tangles, as per the custom, it may fall out. She may be more concerned about the spread of infection through the communal waters of a busy mikvah. She may be feeling vulnerable and exposed in her new body. After breast cancer, many women choose to leave mikvah behind. Before her diagnosis, Goldberg immersed every month out of obligation. After her diagnosis, she had an out — but she didn’t take it.
The night before Goldberg began chemotherapy, her friend Chaya Topas invited her to Mikvah Chaim, one of a wave of new mikvaot reimagining immersion in the United States. This mikvah revolution centers around opening mikvah, allowing patrons to come to the mikvah for any occasion that is holy to them, Biblically-commanded or not. It’s also about empowering women once they’re there, says Lisa Berman, a director at Mayyim Hayyim, one of the hubs of modern mikvah. Mayyim Hayyim and its protégée mikvaot allow patrons to engage with the ritual in a way that feels right for them, whether that means asking that some body parts not be checked or reciting a poem after the Hebrew blessing. Today, Jews of all denominations are using mikvah to mark everything from miscarriages to gender transitions.
And according to Berman, it’s all still kosher. In the Rabbinic commentaries, non-commanded immersion actually gets plenty of discussion. For instance, some ancient Rabbis recommended immersing on the holiday of Yom Kippur. Even though Jews are not commanded to immerse on this occasion, the Rabbis thought that doing so might still be powerful and good.
In traditional communities today, however, few take the license to stray from commanded immersion. Rivkah Slonim, editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, says that there’s a “distinction between doing something because it’s Biblically mandated and engaging in a practice because you are moved to do so.” She poses the question — what if somebody felt moved to hold a Passover Seder on Thanksgiving? “Finite connects to the infinite on the infinite’s terms,” she says.
In addition to being open, progressive mikvaot also value comfort. Topas recalls a conversation between synagogue board members as they discussed building Mikvah Chaim. One member assured the others that, not to worry, the mikvah would be nothing like a spa. But that’s exactly what it should be like, Topas thinks. “It’s supposed to be wonderful,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a spa-like experience so women will want to come back.”
Goldberg and Topas met because their children go to school together, and for a while, they were both at home during the day. They would talk and laugh and snack on the kosher Parmesan cheese Topas always keeps in her fridge. Topas is a mikvah attendant, and she wanted to use the mikvah to bless her friend as she headed into treatment. Jews are encouraged to come to the mikvah with kavanah, or intention. Topas says her intention for Goldberg that night was simple: that the blessing of the mikvah would bring her perfect health.
Every time Goldberg had ever gone to the mikvah before, she had done it for her family. She had prayed for shalom bayit, peace in the home, and reveled in the care she brought to preparing each part of her body for her husband. The night that Topas brought her to Mikvah Chaim was the first time she had ever gone to the mikvah outside of her menstrual cycle. It was the first time she had gone just for herself.
“It was really empowering to be like, ‘I can do this? This is allowed? I guess it is.’”
Goldberg could barely undress. She was in pain from her recent double mastectomy. But her mother was there to help. Her mother was the only person, aside from her doctors, who had seen her scars, so she was the one who guided Goldberg into the water. Traditionally, an attendant would be present to judge the body and immersion kosher or not, but this mikvah gave Goldberg the option of privacy.
Having her mom there reminded Goldberg of her first immersion, the night before her wedding. She had no idea how her life was about to change. Water, both times, was a sacred force.
“You go into the water and it holds you and it gives you so much. I don’t know. It surrounds you completely,” she says. “You’re floating at the same time you’re also so grounded.”
Goldberg’s favorite part was when her mother had left the room and she was alone in the mikvah — for the first time in her life.
“I was swimming around and I was like, this is amazing!” she says. “What is it, did they not trust me before? I mean, the whole concept of having your own time in there by yourself is incredible. It felt like this is probably the way it used to be.”
Goldberg pictured Jewish women in the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada. She imagined that they immersed just like this — no hovering attendant, just holiness. But soon she started feeling that she was breaking the rules.
“No woman should have that feeling,” she says. “Every woman should feel like, this is my time. I deserve to be in here alone.”
That night, Goldberg realized that she had found a mikvah where she could immerse and be held exactly as she was. She found herself looking forward to going back.
Now, Goldberg has returned to the mikvah for the first time since that night, and she’s nervous. So much has happened since her last immersion. Goldberg says if she had known what kind of suffering was ahead, “I would have booked a one-way ticket to I-don’t-know-where.”
She’s finally gotten the nail polish off of her toes and has begun to comb her new, short hair in quick strokes. “It’s going to be much easier,” she says lightly. “No worries about loose strands of hair on my back or anywhere.”
She moves on to her eyebrows and grabs the tweezers.
“You’re allowed to have, in general, the hairs on your body that you normally keep.” She grins. “So, if you’re normally getting a Brazilian wax, you need to go get one for mikvah night.”
Goldberg is happy that both her eyebrows and eyelashes grew back — she lost them completely and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. “I got some tough Middle Eastern genes here, so,” she says.
Goldberg’s family is from Morocco — she describes herself as “purebred Sephardi.” Her face, as she stares into the mirror, is made of swift angles and wide eyes that hold yours without blinking. According to Topas, all of their friends say that Goldberg has never looked better. According to Topas’s husband, she’s the only one who could pull off her buzz cut, and it may be true. She looks beautiful.
Goldberg begins to file her nails, which became brittle and thin during chemotherapy. Now, she notices, there are a few cracks, but they have mostly grown in strong and healthy.
“The body,” she says, “has such a strong will.”
Goldberg’s intention for this immersion, her kavanah, is different from the last time. She’s hoping for a new beginning. She feels that cancer wrought havoc in so many parts of her life, from her body to her marriage. She looks very alone, squinting at her nails in this big, clean room.
Goldberg softly traces her eyelashes and eyelids with makeup remover, a strikingly caring the gesture. A ritual that might have been demeaning now demands a sort of meticulous self-gentleness. Mikvah provides a time to lovingly attend to each part of one’s body, even — and especially — when one’s body has changed.
Goldberg opens drawers, looking for floss.
“I know my dentist tells me I should be flossing every day,” she says, “but I don’t. I actually don’t. But before the mikvah, I always do.”
Goldberg is ready to go. She ties her robe tight and presses a buzzer. After a few moments, Topas arrives at the door and leads the way to the pool.
It’s small, and tiled, and deep. Goldberg looks at it, and then looks at me, and pulls her robe tighter.
“Let’s see. I don’t have nipples,” she tells me. “Just so you know.”
She explains that her tumor was too close to the front of her breast for the doctors to preserve the nipple, so instead she has two scars on her chest, and she doesn’t want me to get freaked out. I turn my back as she walks down the steps into the mikvah. A mikvah attendant might cover her eyes with the patron’s robe at this time, until the patron is neck-deep in the water.
Goldberg floats a bit, and then pushes herself completely underwater, crossing her arms and legs. She does this three times, and says the b’racha, the blessing, out loud once: Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu b’mitzvo-tav v’tzi-vanu al ha-tevilah. Halfway through, her voice breaks and she cries.
Now that Goldberg has found Mikvah Chaim, she wants to keep coming back. But she’s not sure when. If she can’t follow her menstrual schedule, she’ll have to invent a new schedule. Maybe she’ll go on her birthday, and her children’s birthdays, and her anniversary, and also Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
Goldberg’s period will soon be gone completely, and it’s up to her to reinvent her relationship to mikvah. To ask why, and for whom, she immerses now.
“I’m not necessarily going to run to a rabbi and say ‘what do I need to do?’ from a halachic standpoint,” she says. “Just personally, what do I want to do? How much do I want to make it a part of my life? Because I’m going to miss it.”
Goldberg also wants to keep coming to the mikvah for her daughters. She doesn’t want to break the chain between generations. She wants her daughters to love mikvah, and to see their mother love mikvah. She’s glad they will have options like Mikvah Chaim.
Goldberg doesn’t think she’s doing anything too heretical by immersing outside of her menstrual cycle. In fact, she believes that women have probably always done this, sought out the mikvah for ritual and sanctity when they were struggling. All of the rules, the counting of days and plucking of hairs, were probably added in later. Of her immersion, Goldberg says, “It felt right. So, I’m sure it was.”
When the rebels stormed Charlie Perrière’s house, he was sure his days were about to come to a swift and bloody end. The night before, 66-year-old Perrière, fearing what was coming, knelt down on the floor of his home in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He began to pray.“God, I have no weapons, no army, I’m not a fighter. Tomorrow, it seems like the Séléka will enter Bangui,” he whispered, referencing the brutal rebel group that was about to topple the government. “I put all my belongings in your hands … please protect me.”
Hiding out in his large house in a leafy part of Bangui, not far from high-walled ambassadorial residences, Perrière feared for his life. When the militants stormed the grounds, brandishing guns and demanding the keys to a neighbor’s car parked in his driveway, there was little he could do. He did not have the keys, he told them.
“It was as if I had just poured oil onto the fire,” Perrièretells me when I meet him in the same courtyard three years later. He describes how the group of young men grew furious at his response, even though he had already handed over the keys to his own car. They started shooting in the air and gangingup on the slender man standing alone in his yard.
That was until one member of the group — a scrawny street kid brandishing a rusty machete — peered closer at Perrière and, his eyes growing wider, whispered something to the leader. The man turned around to stare at Perrière with a strange expression on his face.
Perrière held his breath.
“Charlie Perrière, really? Is it really you?” the fighter asked after a few seconds.
Suddenly, he was warmly patting the older man on the back.
“And then he began apologizing, and telling me, ‘My mom is simply fanatical about your music, my brother!’” says Perrière, smiling at me with amused disbelief as he recalls the moment from a chair in his verdant garden.
The leader told the gangsters to give Perrière his car keys back, and told the youths that no one was allowed to return and pillage this particular house.
Most people in the West would struggle to pinpoint the Central African Republic on a map. Its international claim to fame is the dire poverty of its citizens and its terrifying, bloody, seemingly never-ending wars. The 2013 war reached a peak when a mostly Muslim faction, Séléka, swept into Bangui, staging a coup d’état and eventually forcing the president to flee.This provoked a violent backlash from mainly Christian and Animist groups known as“Anti-Balaka” militias. Hundreds of thousands of citizens ran from their homes. Those who did not manage to escape were slaughtered, their bodies thrown in the river or stuffed down water wells. Youths armed with machetes, their eyes glistening in a drugged haze, spiked decapitated heads as trophies on sticks and paraded them around the streets. Aid workers watched helplessly as armed thugs took over the towns and villages, stringing human intestines across the roads as barriers — a gruesome warning to others to proceed no further.
Here in Bangui, one of the ways of finding normalcy amid the chaotic years of cries and gunshots has been through another form of sound — the country’s rich music tradition. Whether the rhythmic drumming of the tam–tam, the strumming of the guitar, or the bubbling sounds of the balafon, a xylophone of wood and animal skins — music is a constant here. And Perrière is one of its undisputed kings. His fame probably saved his life.
Years earlier, he was the leader of the favorite orchestra of one of the most notorious, colorful and strange despots in history, Jean Bédel Bokassa. Today Perrière is still considered a national star — yet, like every story involving the feared Bokassa, Perrière’spath to celebrity was far from a conventional one.
It was the late 1960s,and Perrière, a talented but struggling teenage musician, was tired of surviving on a shoestring. As he made preparations to leave his native country for a new life in the Congo, he had an unexpected meeting that would change his life.
Perrière was a star singer in his church choir,and he had been performing with an orchestra that was invited to play in front of Bokassa. After the concert, when the players were invited to salute the great leader, Perrière was summoned to report directly to the man himself. The prospect was exciting — but also terrifying.
Bokassa is often caricatured as one of Africa’s most tyrannical dictators, a ruler who fed his opponents to crocodiles, adored diamonds and women, and crowned himself as emperor of Central Africa. The anecdotes from his time abound with absurdities, stretching from the beginning to the end of his reign.The night he seized power in a coup d’état on New Year’s Eve in December 1965, he brought his deposed predecessor (who happened to be his distant cousin) to the palace and wrapped him in a tight hug before dispatching him to prison, notes historian Brian Titley in his book Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa.Following Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, the French troops who drained the emperor’s alligator pond at Villa Kolongo discovered bone fragments belonging to some 30 victims, writes historian Martin Meredith in his book The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Mutilated bodies were also found in the residence’s refrigerator, while locals testified that others were regularly fed to the lions.
While these horror stories are well documented, few of the historical accounts of Bokassa pick up on one of the emperor’s greatest passions — music. A soldier who blitzed through the ranks to become the head of theCentral African army, once he became president, Bokassa realized that military might would only take him so far. As he sought to consolidate and aggrandize his power and influence both at home and abroad, he believed music would be an effective tool.
“Bokassa tried to use radio and musical groups as part of his effort to create a cult of personality to support his rule,” writes Jacqueline Cassandra Woodfork in her book Culture and Customs of the Central African Republic.And he was determined to make Perrière a part of these efforts.
Bokassa had heard Perrière sing, and upon making inquiries he was disappointed to learn of the youngster’s plans to leave the country.
So that night at the presidential palace in central Bangui, the despotic leader addressed the terrified musician in a kindly but firm tone — and one that left little room for doubt.
“He told me: ‘As head of state, I can’t forbid you from going to Congo, but…as a father, I wish that you wouldn’t go,’”recounts Perrière.“After that meeting, my mother had advised me that I had better stay,” adds Perrière, who quickly agreed. “If I had run away to Congo, it would have been like treason.”
So he stayed. But it was a long time before he heard from the great leader again. Months rolled by with no news, and Perrière wondered if Bokassa had forgotten about him.Then, one day, a presidential security vehicle showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Perrière’s mother’s house, sirens blasting. The president — at that point he had not yetappointed himself emperor — was summoning Perrière for another meeting at the palace.
This time Bokassa actually congratulated Perrière for staying put. Perrière recalls that the leader was seated at a long table with ministers around him. “He turned to me and said, ‘My son, do you know why I sent for you?’ I said, ‘No, your Excellency.’ And then he said, ‘It was to thank you, because I gave you a piece of advice and you respected it. That means that you are a nationalist at heart.’”
Perrière continues his story: “He then asked me why I had wanted to go, and I told him, ‘My father is dead, my mother is raising my 10 brothers all on her own, I am the oldest of the family and I need to help my mother. We have no help here, we have no means of developing [our lives].” He told Bokassa that his band played on rented instruments, which swallowed up most of their earnings.
Bokassa turned to his ministers and ordered them to procure instruments for what would become Bokassa’s “Imperial Orchestra.”This marked the start of Perrière’s decades-long career making music as a private bandmaster for one of the world’s most feared and murderous despots.
Despite their radically different statuses, Bokassa may have seen something familiar in the young Perrière. Bokassa himself was an orphan; his father had been killed in a dispute when Bokassa was 6 years old, and his mother killed herself soon after. As a teenager, Bokassa was educated in missionary schools and had initially planned to study for the priesthood, before joining the French Army when World War II erupted. After he helped to establish the newly independent country’s national army, Bokassaformed a music band among the military, dubbing it Commando Jazz, writes Luke Fowlie in The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture.
For Bokassa, music was a power-wielding political tool, so much so that he made his personal orchestra— called “Tropical Fiesta” — into a key tool of his global diplomacy, taking the musicians with him on state visits all over the world.
“He told me once: ‘Listen, Charlie, the young generation don’t understand the importance of music in a country. … It is the artists who enable others to get to know a country,’” recalls Perrière. “This was his goal: to introduce a country through its music.”
“He adored music,” says Aggas Zokoko, the orchestra’s lead singer and the band’s leader in recent decades. “I think the connection Bokassa had with musicians was unlike any other connection he had with others.”
Others have a more cynical take on the emperor’s personal orchestra. “He had what we call lafolie de grandeur,” that is, megalomania, says Alex Ballu, a veteran radio star and cultural journalist in the Central African Republic.“He needed musicians to travel with him, to augment his presence, to sing his praises and so on.”
Such practices were also common in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), under Mobutu Sese Seko, a bespectacled dictator known for his distinctive leopard skin hat as well as mass violence and corruption.
“Popular groups were required to literally sing the praises of their leader,” writes Fowlie. “Bangui’s chosen orchestras became emissaries for the Bokassa government, touring internationally throughout Central and West Africa as well as Europe.”
Though Bokassa saw music as a diplomatic tool, he also loved it with an all-consuming passion that was obvious to all.
“Once, we were traveling to Vakaga (in north Central African Republic) when the plane was struck by lightning mid-flight and we almost crashed,” recalls Zokoko. Upon landing, some of the musicians were so shaken by the experience that they ran away and hid, refusing to perform that night.
“And Bokassa noticed and said: ‘OK, lower the mic down a bit for me. I will sing with you.’ And he did!”
While Zokoko describes the singing asmerely “not bad,” his eyes light up as he remembers the emperor getting more and more into the spirit, taking up a guitar and beginning to serenade one of his wives from the stage.
“It was a beautiful evening that I will never forget,” says Zokoko wistfully.
Bokassa also constructed the country’s first major recording studio in the grounds of Berengo, his palace near his home village and the place he envisioned as the future capital of the Central African empire. While some historians see the move as a cynical effort to win the love of the people through music, the country’s musicians benefited financially in a way that they have rarely done since.
“The first time I played for him it was in Berengo,” recalls Zokoko, who had been recruited by Perrière. He describes Bokassa sitting in the palace with his family, as the orchestra played purely for the leader’s personal pleasure.
“Sometimes we would just perform for him alone. He’d sit on the sofa. Afterward, he would say, ‘Thank you, my children.’”
Every aspect of each performance was meticulously planned, and the musicians, who had previously struggled to make ends meet, suddenly found themselves catapulted to stardom, traveling around the world, dressed to the nines.
“He would clad us in all the top fashions,” muses Zokoko. “We would play in front of all of these heads of states in beautiful suits.”
“He wanted all the artists to look good, to portray grandeur,” Ballu, the music journalist, says. “The ministers didn’t like the musicians much, as they would often be chatting up their wives,” he adds, laughing. “But Bokassa always defended them, and paid them good money.”
But it was far from all fun and games. “When you worked with the emperor, everything had to be done perfectly,”Perrière says. “By the book, just like in the army. … When the emperor loses his temper, everyone is in trouble,” he adds, recalling a bitter experience when he found this out for himself.
“Once, I sang a song that he didn’t like,” he recalls. “It was a song for his birthday.” Performed and broadcast live over the radio, the musicians hadn’t even had a chance to finish playing before “suddenly the curtains began closing in front of us. We turned around and there were armed security guards standing behind us, gun barrels pointing.” The next thing Perrière knew, he was being marched off to prison.
He spent one month behind bars, an experience which, shaking his head, he describes as “terrible.”
“My wife was traumatized. It was very difficult.”
Upon being let out, Bokassa summoned Perrière and explained to him the particular line in the song that he didn’t like, a lyric he deemed too insulting for Bokassa’s image as a strong man.
“You, the artists, everything you say or do, it’s heard by the whole world,” Bokassa told him. “You can build someone up or break someone easily. So the advice I’ve always given you is: ‘When you compose a song, make it go through a censor in order to avoid any problems.’”
From that point on, all of the songs went through a censor.
Perrière’s month in prison was far from a unique incident. Tropical Fiesta and other bands playing for the government had to comply with the emperor’s every wish. Fowlie writes that another orchestra, Centrafrican Jazz, was dissolved in 1975 at the height of its popularity, allegedly over a spat between Bokassa and his wife, who is said to have favored the group.(Some allege that the group became so popular — even with Bokassa’s mistresses — that the ruler split it up out of jealousy, according to an article by musician Sultan Zembellat.)
As Bokassa’s rule continued, he became more dictatorial and his eccentricities grew. He had maintained a historical admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte since his time as a young trainee in the French military, and during his reign this respect morphed into blind obsession, culminating with Bokassa crowning himself “Emperor of Central Africa” on December 4, 1977, the 173rd anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation.
Bokassa invited Pope Paul VIhimself to crown him. Though the pope, along with a multitude of other state leaders, declined the invitation, preparations for the coronation progressed full steam. To emulate Napoleon, Bokassa dressed himself in a 30-foot-long scarlet mantle, designed by the same atelier that had prepared Napoleon’s. It was decorated with pearls, diamonds and rubies.
“The whole country was mobilized to take part in the coronation,” Perrière remembers. “There were white horses brought especially from France, all the gold-gilded carriages… it was extraordinary.” The total cost was an eye-popping $20 million USD — a bill footed entirely by France — while the population of the Central African Republic was mired in deep poverty.
Just before the coronation, musicians from all over the country were asked to compose songs. Perrière’s entry was chosen as one of the official songs for the ceremony. “I was stuck for one week trying to compose it. I turned it over and over in my head. And afterward, it simply came to me, just like that.”
The song, titled “Révérence à Nos Souverains” (“Reverence to Our Sovereigns”), became a hit, and it is still featured on compilation albums of African music.
Alongside the Imperial Orchestra, other renowned musicians were invited to attend, among them Manu Dibango, a star from neighboring Cameroon. The scenes that greeted him upon arriving at the presidential palace in Bangui surpassed his wildest expectations, Dibango wrote in his autobiography Three Kilos of Coffee.
“Money flowed like water,” Dibango wrote. “The church was sumptuously decorated.”But the night ended somberly. “That evening by moonlight, we were giving our concert when a violent storm suddenly erupted, the carriages were soaked, the projectors broke down, the musicians got drenched. The dignitaries thought only of hiding themselves in their Mercedeses.”
And, just like a sudden tropical storm, two years later, Bokassa’s swift downfall began.
The key event that triggered his dethroning came in 1979, when around 100 schoolchildren were massacred at Bangui’s central prison, following Bokassa’s orders to arrest them. The children had been taken while protesting an order that forced them to buy overpriced school uniforms made in a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives.An independent judicial inquiry subsequently concluded that the prison massacre was carried out “almost certainly” with the personal participation of the emperor, writes Meredith in The Fate of Africa.
The incident proved to be the final straw for the French, who had been bankrolling Bokassa and his government.In September 1979, while Bokassa was away on a state visit to Libya, French troops helped restore former president David Dacko (Bokassa’s cousin) to power. Bokassa fled by airplane into exile on the Ivory Coast. The Imperial Orchestra was disbanded, and some of its musicians, Perrière included, moved abroad.
Several years later, in 1986, Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic, hoping to be forgiven and welcomed back.Instead, the deposed emperor was arrested, marched off to jail and then put on trial.
Today, upon landing at Bangui M’Poko InternationalAirport, the first glimpse any visitor catches of the Bokassa era are the small, toylike airplanes from the 1960s and ’70s, in fadedyellow, red and white.For years, people have believed that the planes are haunted by the ghost of the emperor,since it was Bokassa, Titley writes, who established the national airline, and the small airplanes date back to that time. During the 2013 war, the planes gained an unexpected — if ill-fated — second life as shelters for people fleeing marauding gangs.The displaced have since been forced to leave the airport and return to rebuild their destroyed homes. More than 40 years after Bokassa’s lavish and garish coronation, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by war and strife, the ongoing pillaging of natural wealth, and rampant corruption. The avenues Bokassa built are crumbling, the buildings gutted and reduced to skeletal remains, weeds growing in what used to serve as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Life expectancy is just 52 years — the shortest anywhere on the planet, according to the World Bank.
“Bangui la Coquette” (“Bangui the Flirt”) was the city’s nickname back in the Bokassa era. It’s now “Bangui la Roquette” (“Bangui the Rocket”), the locals quip wryly, due to the brutal fighting that has destroyed many parts of the city.
Bokassa’s Berengo palace has been extensively pillaged. When Perrière was being held at gunpoint in his front yard, Berengo was already being used as a base by child soldiers fighting with a motley crew of armed gangs, answering to the highest–paying militia leader of the day. In recent years, Russian soldiers and mercenaries have descended on the former royal palace, setting up training camps for soldiers inside the grounds, according to a 2019 CNN report. In exchange, Russian companies reportedly “won” exploration rights at a number of sites to look for diamonds and gold.
And yet, when I visited Bangui on a reporting trip in January 2018 — my fourth one after meeting Perrière in 2016 — I could still feel Bokassa’s presence in the ruined city. Vintage French magazines like Paris Match with Bokassa on the cover were being sold on the streets, locals pointed out the sprawling boulevards and other structures built by the former ruler, while the music and songs of the Bokassa era rang out around the city.
And Tropical Fiesta is playing once again. One night, I went to a show. The venue was in a garden next to a ditch, off the main road in Bangui. Lit up sparsely by a few functioning street lamps, it was guarded by a half-broken gate.
A balafon player began striking a few notes. A drumbeat, a clash of cymbals, and then guitarists, singers, and dancers emerged onstage, clapping, smiling, and dancing to the complex beat of a Central African rumba.
As the music got started, more and more people began to arrive, many middle-aged, but also several youngsters, as well as children weaving inbetween the adults’ legs.
Clutching large bottles of beer, the older men looked up at the stage with a faraway gleam in their eyes. The women, wearing figure-hugging dresses made out of colorful cloth, shook their hips languidly.
Before long it became a party — families, friends sitting around plastic tables, chatting and waving away mosquitoes, while others invited friends and lovers to dance.
Zokoko, who now heads Tropical Fiesta, was there, getting ready to sing, surrounded by friends and fans. The violence in and around Bangui had died down, and the usual rhythm of life had slowly begun to resume. Just a few years earlier, during the fighting that swept through Bangui in 2013, live music had virtually stopped, Zokoko explains to me during a pause in his performance. It resumed slowly at first, with people dancing only until 8 or 9 p.m. and then going home because of the fear of attacks. “And we don’t make as much money as before,” he adds bitterly.
Yet the songs played on, people sang along, their eyes half-closed, smiling as if trying to spirit themselves back to a different era, before the country was riven by war and armed gangs.
Alongside the music, a certain nostalgia for the era of Bokassa had emerged. Several years ago, youth activists dug out the emperor’s throne, long stripped of its diamonds and rubies, from a dump behind the city’s main stadium. Painting it a bright yellow to represent the gold that once encrusted it, the youths decided to set the throne on a display on one of the capital’s busiest avenues.
“We were furious to find this object abandoned for decades” Heritier Doneng, a youth leader of Patriotes Centrafricains, a group that describes its aim as defending the country’s cultural values, tells meon my reporting trip in 2016.
“Yes, people speak of Bokassa because they’ve had enough of this suffering, of the misery without end that we are experiencing here in CAR,” he adds. “Bokassa serves as an example, a model of the economic revolution. In his time, we were the best in Central Africa, now we are the worst.”
Bokassa hasearned a reputation as a “builder,” responsible for commissioning Bangui’s spacious boulevards, stadiums and many other buildings. “During the reign of His Majesty, the town of Bangui was more beautiful than Brazzaville, more beautiful than Libreville, than Yaoundé, Malabo and N’Djamena,” says Zokoko, naming neighboring capitals.“Today we are back to zero.”
“It seems that people have forgiven him a lot,” Perrière muses about his former boss.“Because all the regimes who came after couldn’t do what he did. Those rulers who came after brought a lot more suffering since.”
After a moment’s pause, Perrière adds quietly: “Bokassa was a dictator, he took decisions himself. Now it’s a democracy, things are moving slowly, and people are beginning to miss Bokassa.”
Rehabilitation of the reputation of a nation’s former authoritarian and brutal strongman is a familiar trend, seen everywhere from the enduring veneration of Stalin in Russia to the nostalgia for Brazil’s violent military dictatorship of the 1970s.
“Bokassa had his brutal side, particularly toward the end, but he was also the only of CAR’s presidents who had a vision for the country and built things,” says Yale University professor Louisa Lombard, who has published three books on the Central African Republic.
Lombard describes Bokassa’s reign as “a time of calm and hope in the country, in a region that had not yet turned to full-on civil war, and at a time when France was still providing a lot of support.” It is not surprising then, Lombard adds, that most people look back on the time with nostalgia, pinning the credit on Bokassa. “The country feels utterly humiliated. …There is an enormous desire for national solutions to the country’s problems.”
“Bokassa always used to say, ‘You can’t feed people with politics.’ But today, everything has become political,” Zokoko says. In the 2016 presidential election, there were 30 candidates, inspiring Zokoko to compose a song titled “My Beautiful Country, Where Everyone Wants to be President.”
Since Bokassa’s demise, numerous politicians have sought out Zokoko and other members of the former Imperial Orchestra, asking to have songs written for them. Sometimes those requests are impossible to turn down.
The same year that the Séléka descended upon Perrière’s front yard, they tried to storm a venue where Zokoko’s band was playing. “Someone from the Séléka came with 16 armed thugs and wanted to get inside. And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Mother’s Day celebrations there, you can’t go in.’ And so, they realized who I was, and asked me to compose a song for them!” Zokokoadds, explaining that even though he was only paid 5,000 XFA ($8.50) for it, he was relieved to get the armed group off his back.
“Some politicians still haven’t paid me,” he notes.
Today, the violence has subsided, and the atmosphere is more free, though the concert scene has not yet fully returned, and violence pops up sporadically, such as in November 2017, when a concert for peace by a local band playing was derailed by a grenade attack that killed four people and injured 20 others.
Today, the music of Bokassa’s band is heard everywhere: at weddings, birthdays, funerals and more, serving as a kind of social glue, a way to start repairing the splintered communities throughout the country.
“We sing about togetherness,” says Zokoko. “We sing the songs of yesterday, in Sango” — the primary language here — “and in French. We are not politicians, we are musicians, but we want to give this ambience of social cohesion, so that it comes back to us.”
Sipping a beer and laughing at the 2018 concert, Pascal, a beefy former director general of a security company with the look of a nightclub bouncer, says he comes to hear the band play whenever he can.
“Musicians are like philosophers,” he says wistfully. “They have the power to reunite everyone with their songs.” He describes the impact of the band’s diverse membership, which includes people from various religious groups, as well as some who are typically marginalized by society here, such as a musician with a disability.“Christians, Muslims, disabled — all united. We are brothers and sisters, it’s the politicians who wanted to divide us. God knows, the solidarity between us will return. Look around:Everyone is here,” he says, gesturing at the bustling compound.
Perrière, however, is not at the party. After Bokassa was deposed, Perrière emigrated to France in order to get treatment for his son who was sick. There, he worked a succession of different jobs, including in a coffee house, before later deciding to return home and resume his musical career. But he did not rejoin Tropical Fiesta; instead he returned to his religious music roots.He became a born-again evangelical Christian and turned to composing mostly religious songs — as well as to moonlighting as an occasional wedding singer, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye as he hands me a CD of songs he recently recorded for a local bride and groom. The studio in his house is named SDJ — “Studio of Jesus,” he tells me. Today, he divides his life between Paris and Bangui, living off of profits from his music career,as well as the money earned by a Bangui restaurant that he runs, which caters to the country’s elites.
As for Bokassa, despite being sentenced to death twice, first in absentia while he was abroad, and then in a courtroom in 1987, his sentence was gradually eroded in the ensuing years. In 1993, as part of a general amnesty, he was set free, having served just six years in prison. Perrière was among those waiting at the jail entrance for the former emperor, who had newly reestablished his own strong belief in God. Bokassa emerged from behind bars clad head to toe in a white robe and declaring, “I am the thirteenth apostle.”
Bokassa died in November 1996 of a heart attack at age 75, and he is survived by as many as 60 children, according to theNew York Times’ obituary.In 2010, then-president François Bozizé officially rehabilitated Bokassa, and even went as far as to posthumously award him the state’s medal of honor, declaring that Bokassa has “given a great deal for humanity.”
For Perrière, his former boss remains somewhat of a mystery. He found Bokassa both paternal and petrifying.
“Everyone was scared of him. Everyone. It was standard,” says Perrière, while at the same time going on to describe how in his more tender moods the emperor would call him “my son,” and how in turn he and others would call Bokassa “Papa.”
Perrière speaks of his time with Bokassa with a sense of wonder, replaying scene by scene in his mind and then pausing to remember more.
As for Tropical Fiesta, Perrière is glad some of his songs continue to be sung and danced to throughout Bangui and beyond, and he stays in touch with his former bandmates. “I help them, I give them advice,” Perrière says, smiling. “They play old songs, but they also have a new repertoire.”The fact that the musicians of Tropical Fiesta did not put down their instruments, that they have continued this long and even play new songs, offers a glimmer of hope for the country.
“Many groups sing for reconciliation,” he adds quietly, after a moment’s reflection.“Whether it’s effective or not, everyone needs to make their contribution for peace.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported some of Inna’s reporting from the Central African Republic as part of its Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
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The Deke Duncan show on Radio 77 had it all — the latest hits, bouncy jingles, and a DJ who was born to be on the airwaves. In the 1970s it ran around the clock, several days a week, playing to the smallest audience in the world: Deke’s only listener was his wife. Radio 77 was based in a shed in Duncan’s backyard in a small English town, and everything on the show was a figment of his imagination. “My ultimate ambition would be to broadcast my radio station to the rest of Stevenage,” he told the BBC’s Nationwide TVshow, when they visited his shed in 1974.
In a new podcast episode from Snap Judgement andNarratively, Duncan, now 75, reveals how he made up the news, the weather, and even the commercials — and kept Radio 77 alive for over forty years. It was Britain’s ‘pirate’ radio stations that inspired him, he said, recalling the rock’n’roll ships that broadcast illegally from international waters in the 1960s. But the young DJ’s dreams had been dashed when the BBC turned down his job application.
“They said, ‘I suggest you go away and get yourself a real job,’” Duncan recalled. (Check out an original Radio 77 show, recorded in 1974.)
Instead, he carried on “broadcasting” Radio 77 in his back yard. He was joined by friends Richard St. John and Clive Christie, and the trio took turns in the “air chair.” They ran Radio 77 like a professional station, filling space between the pop hits with fake ads for the Radio 77 record store, which of course didn’t exist. “It was just so much fun,” Duncan recalled. “I just wanted to do it forever.”
Duncan’s radio aspirations quickly took over his life: He traveled to the United States to try out as a radio jock, but failed. His friends moved on, and his wife left him. The only constant in his life was his make-believe radio show, where he could slip on his headphones and enjoy his imaginary world. Somehow, he kept the station running, on and off, for forty years.
Then, in 2018, something amazing happened that would make Deke Duncan’s wildest dreams come true.
Listen below to the “Radio 77” episode of Snap Judgement by Jeff Maysh, co-produced by Narratively. (Our story starts around the 3-minute-30-second mark of this episode.)
It’s March 14, 2020, and my dad hurries to my brother’s house to warn him that “the government is going to be seizing things.”
Rarely has my dad ever gone to my brother’s house, especially unannounced.
“I’m worried about you,” my brother tells him. “And I wish the reason you came over was to say hi like a normal person.”
“Here we go again,” my dad says. He tells my brother to take what he’s saying “with a grain of salt,” then leaves in hurry.
It is then that my brother and I realize my dad is lost in an abyss of conspiracy theories.
A slender green toy alien sits inside a water-filled pickle jar in my dad’s garage, perched on a wooden ledge in front of old Christmas and birthday cards pinned to the wall. Photos of my brother, sister and I when we were younger are there too, along with drawings we made in kindergarten. Beneath this green plastic being, mechanic tools litter the ledge. Dust covers everything: nuts, bolts, wrenches, ratchets, sockets and the pickle jar.
This toy alien in the pickle jar has been in my dad’s garage for as long as I can remember. Its black oval eyes peer out at its surroundings, while its small black hole of a mouth makes it look like it’s gasping for breath. As the years have gone by, its green color has blended into the water, giving the alien a murky appearance. The alien is isolated from the rest of the world by thin glass. Viewers can peer in and see its suffering. Someone could easily untighten the lid, pour out the water, and the alien would finally be free, but no one ever has. Much like the alien trapped in the pickle jar, my dad has become trapped, not behind glass, but in his own mind.
My dad is a conspiracy theorist. Among other things, he firmly believes that aliens exist and that the government is keeping that fact from the public. This interest has grown to consume his thoughts, and his idea of reality has become distorted. Isolation, a lack of close friends and family, the internet, and poor influences have caused him to doubt the reality of the world. In the past year, it’s become difficult to even have a normal conversation with him.
Also in the past year, he’s found a network that affirms his beliefs. This network is destroying his life and relationships with those around him. It is known as QAnon.
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theorist group with enough influence and reach that the FBI has called it a domestic terrorism threat. Its members were the driving force behind Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that posited that Bill and Hillary Clinton were running a child sex-trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. That theory led a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch to travel to the nation’s capital and point a rifle at an employee of the pizzeria.
Since then, the child sex-trafficking ring conspiracy has grown to become an all-encompassing theory of global power, supposedly involving the Obamas, the Bushes, the Vatican, Disney, Hollywood, the CIA and many others — including the FBI, following the release of their document identifying QAnon as a terrorism threat. All of these groups are allegedly involved in a “deep state” plot to control the world.
The QAnon story itself began on October 28, 2017, when an anonymous user named “Q,” whose name references Q-level clearance at the Department of Energy, made a post on 4chan, an online imageboard popular among conspiracy theorists, in a thread called “The Calm Before the Storm.” The thread’s name alludes to remarks made by President Trump during a White House dinner with military leaders on October 7, 2017. After the dinner, Trump elusively told reporters that “this is the calm before the storm.” When asked what he meant, he said, “You’ll see.” The 4chan post, released shortly after the president’s remarks, claimed that Hillary Clinton was in the process of being extradited for her supposed sex-trafficking crimes. The storm had begun.
“I remember seeing Q on CNN and Fox, and initially I didn’t believe in it,” my dad tells me. (During a 2018 Trump rally in Tampa, Florida, which was broadcast on all of the major news networks, QAnon followers stood behind Trump holding up a giant letter Q and signs in the shape of a Q imprinted with the American flag.) My dad also recalls when QAnon began to pop up on 4chan and YouTube, where he spent hours on weekends and late at night looking into various conspiracy theories, from well-trod theories like whether the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job, to the more outlandish, like a theory that the U.S. government is controlled by a shapeshifting race of aliens.
“Q? What is that?” he’d ask himself whenever he’d see posts from the anonymous user. Eventually, he no longer saw Q posts on 4chan and wondered what happened to them. After doing some investigating, he found Q on the imageboard 8chan, an even more unruly version of 4chan where anti-Semites, homophobes, white supremacists and other hostile groups thrived. But then 8chan disappeared from the web altogether.
The real reason 8chan was removed from the web, in August 2019, was because its network provider, Cloudflare, cut service after a mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, posted a racist manifesto on the site days before his deadly rampage — not the first mass shooting connected to 8chan. My dad wasn’t aware of that, and to him, the major news networks’ dismissal of QAnon, 4chan’s mysterious removal of the thread, and 8chan’s disappearance could only mean one thing: “They’re trying to cover something up.”
Hillary Clinton never was extradited and the storm never began. But the anonymous user named Q quickly caught the attention of more and more members of the 4chan community, who began dissecting Q’s cryptic posts to understand what was actually being said. Q followers refer to the posts as bread crumbs.
The bread crumbs usually feature abbreviations and acronyms, which make them difficult for followers to decipher, while some information, Q followers say, is intentionally false. None of that has stopped “Anons,” as the followers of Q call themselves, from drawing conclusions and speculations, which they share across various social media sites. In one post, Q wrote the word “mockingbird,” with no context, and also included, “HRC detained, not arrested (yet).” Followers assumed Q was referring to Operation Mockingbird, an early 1950s CIA program that attempted to manipulate major news networks for propaganda purposes. Now, the thinking goes, major news networks were being manipulated to cover up the fact that Hillary Clinton was in detainment.
Dustin Nemos, a former real estate agent from Delaware, now an Anon, tells me that he was “there from the very beginning, and started to look at the claims as evidence.” It didn’t take long for him to become convinced of the legitimacy of Q’s claims, because “there were so many coincidences.” These “coincidences” often involved Trump himself promoting QAnon theories, either directly or indirectly, by retweeting posts by Anons.
Nemos relates the Q posts to a game. “They play this credibility game and show they’re legitimate without anyone pointing out any national security violations,” he says. Because the posts are cryptic, and deliberately contain false information, Nemos believes QAnon is able to avoid government officials going after them. “It’s almost like an intelligence operation at work.”
In December of 2017, Nemos created a YouTube channel where he would interpret bread crumbs by Q. The channel was a success, gaining 50,000 subscribers, but by February of 2018 it had been banned from YouTube. “I started seeing a sort of organized resistance from the fake news,” he says. “They were attacking it.”
The primary belief of QAnon followers is that the deep state is working against President Trump. Major media corporations are controlled by the deep state, and any criticism of Trump is made because these fake news networks are trying to protect themselves from the upcoming “storm,” which will bring about mass arrests. “The Q movement was designed for President Trump to go around the corrupt Department of Justice the same way he goes around fake news by using Twitter,” Nemos says.
Nemos reestablished his presence on YouTube in March of 2018 and has since amassed nearly 100,000 subscribers. And he’s only one of many. He believes that if all of the QAnon YouTubers combined their viewership, they’d have numbers that “match fake news websites like CNN.” There’s also a network of what Nemos considers “independent journalists” reporting on their findings about Q.
Sarah Westall, a former business owner from Minnesota, is among these “journalists.” She doesn’t consider herself an avid follower of Q, but she is interested in “trying to figure out what it really is.” Her writing wraps itself around narratives constructed by Q followers. “They really want what’s best for the country,” she tells me. “They’re tired of letting the deep state control everything.”
Westall’s distrust of the U.S. government began rising during the 2008 recession, when she lost her business and then set out to understand the cause by investigating the financial system. “I learned how corrupt our banking system was and everything else,” Westall tells me. She expanded her investigations to include other aspects of society and couldn’t believe the information she uncovered. “There’s this thing called truth trauma,” she says, “and I’ve got it.”
Westall’s investigations eventually led her to Jimmy Rothstein, a retired New York City Police Department officer. Rothstein told her that while he was a police officer, he worked on child sex-trafficking cases, which led him to unearth that America’s elites were involved.
In 2019, Westall learned that a group of Anons were planning on publishing a book of their findings. She offered her interview with Rothstein, and it was accepted. QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening was released on February 26, 2019, and went on to become among the top 15 books sold on Amazon.
Nemos, who also contributed to the book, was not surprised by its success. “The demand for the truth was out there,” he says.
My dad has always had an interest in aliens — a fascination with their possible existence. I remember watching science fiction movies with him late at night when I was very young, which often gave me nightmares. When I was about 8, we watched one that involved a young man in the military being abducted by aliens. The young man couldn’t recall everything that had happened to him, but he would have flashbacks that played out on screen. During one, a group of gray aliens stood at a control deck, taking notes, while the man was chained naked and a drill closed in on his urethra. He let out a chilling cry. My dad watched our old box TV with intrigue as the cheap sci-fi flick played. My heart raced, and I covered my eyes.
This fascination with aliens increased after the debut of the History network’s show Ancient Aliens. My parents divorced when I was 9, and whenever I’d visit my father’s house, he’d have hours of the show recorded. I’d watch episodes with him sometimes, and we’d talk about the possibility that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, or whether there were giants buried in the Serpent Mound of Adams County, Ohio, or if Hindu texts contained references to an intergalactic battle held in Earth’s sky. At this point though, it was a casual interest for him. He still also watched NASCAR and the local news, and worked on his car or in the yard.
Not long after my parents divorced, my dad’s life came to a virtual standstill. My mom gained full custody of my twin sister and me, as well as our older brother, and my dad wasn’t able to see any of us very often. He kept the same box TV, phone and poor internet service for years. He developed paranoia about social media and the possibilities of tracking. He gradually isolated himself from the outside world. Lately, I’ve only known him to leave Orange County, California, every couple of years to go watch races at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Research suggests that conspiracy theorists tend to be isolated from their peers and turn to conspiratorial beliefs for a sense of community. This feeling of belonging, the psychological trait of wanting to be a part of something larger than the individual, is believed to be due to a lack of self-certainty.
This research rings true when it comes to my dad. I’m ashamed to say that there has always been a certain distance between us. Rarely have we said “I love you” to each other or taken an interest in each other’s personal lives. It is a passive relationship, and it’s one of my greatest regrets. Clearly, my dad was lonely during the years after the divorce, and that’s when he turned to conspiracy theories.
After 10 years of not living with my dad, my sister and I moved back into his house in 2016. My mom had decided to move to San Diego, and my sister and I, who had established our lives in Orange County, didn’t want to leave. (My older brother had already moved out on his own.)
It quickly became clear to us that our father’s interest in conspiracy theories had developed into an obsession. After we moved back in, he decided to purchase a new TV. Shortly afterward, the internet, which at the time was so slow it hardly existed, was upgraded to high speed. The fast internet and new features of the upgraded TV made the outside world much more available to him. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The ability to search through endless amounts of information has not opened his eyes to different possibilities. It has closed them.
Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher and co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous, tells me that he became concerned about the conspiracy group after Charlie Kirk, founder and president of the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, retweeted a Twitter post from QAnon on July 7, 2018. “I started to realize that QAnon was creeping into the mainstream,” View says. The tweet falsely claimed that the Department of Justice had released a chart showing that the number of human-trafficking arrests under Trump had been far greater than under Obama. (Kirk deleted the retweet the next day, after receiving criticism from other prominent Twitter users like David Frum of The Atlantic.)
“They often told me very similar stories,” View says, recounting his interviews with QAnon members at the January 2020 Red Pill Roadshow in Tampa, Florida. All my life I’ve known something is off — that the global narrative is an illusion and there’s something beneath the surface, they would tell him. “A lot of QAnon people were conspiratorial before it came around, but this gave them a framework,” says View. “If you believe anything off the beaten path then you’re welcome to the family.”
QAnon members believe that “the Cabal,” or the deep state, is operated by people in the upper echelons of society who kidnap children and perform sacrificial rituals on them. They believe that members of the Cabal record each other raping or eating children and use it as potential blackmail against each other. The only way that someone can enter the Cabal is if they’re willing to participate in these blackmail recordings, to ensure that they will never betray the group.
QAnon members tend to see every major event through this same lens. Everything leads back to the Cabal. Shortly after Harvey Weinstein (who Anons believe is part of the Cabal) was convicted of rape, Bob Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney. When Q posted about the Iger resignation on 8kun (a rebranded version of 8chan), with the message “the silent war continues,” Anons speculated that Iger was a member of the Cabal and Weinstein was going to expose him.
Although the alleged workings of the Cabal sound bizarre, Dustin Nemos and Sarah Westall firmly believe it’s the truth. “We have our alien people, we have our conspiracy people, but most people [who are] part of the Q movement just want to see justice in a lawful way and see the country made great again,” Nemos says.
Many who follow Q attach their own conspiratorial ideas to the theory, which has led to some divisions in the ranks. The most notable division is about whether John F. Kennedy Jr. is Q.
On April 8, 2018, Q wrote a post in which he linked JFK Jr. to President Trump, then referenced JFK Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1999 and Hillary Clinton’s election to the Senate in 2000. The post prompted QAnon members to speculate that Clinton was responsible for JFK Jr.’s death, while others posited that JFK Jr. had never died at all. Instead, these Anons now believe that Q is JFK Jr., evidenced by the fact that the shape of his gravesite resembles the letter Q. Furthermore, they believe JFK Jr.’s ultimate purpose for talking through Q is to let QAnon followers know that he’ll be Trump’s running mate in 2020. Some say that Vincent Fuska, a QAnon member with a large following, is actually JFK Jr.
Nemos doesn’t believe in that conspiracy theory within the conspiracy theory, and he even says he has debunked it. While visiting a Trump hotel, he spotted Vincent Fuska and sized him up. “JFK Jr. was 6 foot 3 inches. I’m around 5 foot 10 inches. I took a picture with Vincent and confirmed he couldn’t possibly be JFK Jr.,” he tells me. Yet the JFK Jr. theory has persisted among QAnon followers, including my dad.
In this day and age, it’s surprisingly easy to advance such a theory. In the past, a conspiracy theorist would have to “go to the library, do some research about [their] theories, print out some pamphlets and get someone else to join,” View says. “That isn’t the case anymore. Now you can make a tweet that JFK Jr. isn’t dead and get thousands of retweets.”
During the two-year period that I lived with my dad, he’d always want to talk about conspiracy theories with me. I’d usually dismiss his theories or let them go in one ear and out the other. But sometimes, I’d listen.
While I was taking an astronomy course at my local community college, we learned about the moon. After class I went home and talked to my dad about it, about how the moon looks like it’s constantly in the same position from our perspective because of the rate at which it rotates; how it’s lit up because the sun is shining on it; and how it has different phases because of its rotation around the earth. My dad interjected: “That’s what you are told to believe.” To him, the moon is a hollow object that was either created by the government or was put there by an alien force.
In 2018 I moved out to attend the University of California, Irvine. I don’t live far from my dad now; it’s only a 30-minute drive. I occasionally visit to talk about school and see how he’s doing. Each visit though, he seems to be falling deeper into the conspiratorial abyss. One day, I told him about a story I did for my school’s radio station about China’s efforts to grow life on the dark side of the moon. “You think that’s all they got up there?” my dad responded. He proceeded to show me pictures of a military base that has supposedly been established on the moon. The pictures were grainy, and to my eyes they were clearly of rock formations that merely looked like buildings, but he genuinely believed them to be proof. Again, I didn’t know what to say. The encounters were frustrating, because he’d go on for hours connecting each theory and explaining that the government was trying to keep people from knowing this information.
Something happened though, and at the time I didn’t realize that it was because he’d become heavily invested in the overarching QAnon conspiracy theory. He had stopped watching major news networks entirely and was now consumed by information about numerous intersecting conspiracies. He began talking about the Vatican, top government officials being involved in a pedophile ring, the significance of JFK Jr., satanic rituals, and of course, Hillary Clinton.
By now my dad’s beliefs were driving him further away from his family. My sister continued living with him after I went away to school. Periodically, she’d send me text messages saying that he was scaring her and she didn’t know what to do. Whenever he’d get off work, he’d watch conspiracy theory videos on YouTube that purported to explain how various world events were connected. He persisted in trying to show them to her, and whenever she’d turn him down, he’d become frustrated and yell at her, insisting, “This is what’s wrong with your generation! None of you want to know the truth about how the world works!”
Then my older brother came to visit our dad, along with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was born late last year. It was shortly after the news had broken that Jeffrey Epstein had committed suicide. The event plagued my dad’s mind because of his belief that Epstein was a member of the deep state. Rather than speak with his son and grandchildren, he went on a rant about the government’s involvement with Epstein and other conspiracies. Frustrated, my brother told him to stop. Which he did. Then he asked if he could show them something.
He played a YouTube video that showed images of violence and destruction, along with an ominous message: The government is trying to kill everybody.
“Dad, can you turn that off, please, nobody wants to hear that,” my brother told him.
I also went to visit my dad shortly after Epstein’s death. At the time, my sister was planning a trip to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek through the northern part of the country. She’d spent months planning the trip, but hadn’t told my dad. She was nervous that he’d tell her not to go, and she feared he’d be jealous that she was going on the journey with my mom’s new husband. While I was visiting, she finally built up the gumption to tell him, a week before she was supposed to leave.
He was taken aback and seemed in disbelief. When he asked her why, she responded, “Because I feel like I haven’t done anything with my life.” With tears welling up, she added, “I feel like I’m stuck.”
My dad became rageful and yelled at her, “You’re stuck! Your life is stuck? I’ve been stuck for over 20 years!”
He hounded her, trying to look her in the face, as she stared at the cement floor, tears falling. He stuck out his index finger, while clutching the others, and pointed it directly at his temple. “Every single day I want to put a bullet in my head!”
My sister went to her room, crying, and I stayed with my dad in the garage. He was audibly annoyed, but still expressed worry about his daughter. After some time, he pulled out his laptop and showed me another conspiracy theory.
This made me consider that, perhaps, conspiracy theories were a way for him to escape his surrounding world, allowing him to avoid the reality of his life.
My dad had had a lonely childhood. His own father had left the family when my dad was young, and his mother was emotionally detached. From what I’ve been able to piece together, he seemed to rely on the guidance of others to mold his worldview, often taking whatever information was handed to him. He’s told me that while growing up he encountered many Vietnam veterans who told him “crazy shit,” and he’s talked often about his first boss, who seems to have left quite an impression on him.
He was a skilled mechanic even when he was still in high school. He often reminisces about the time an auto shop owner came to his 10th-grade class and asked, “Who’s the best mechanic in this school?”
My dad instantly stood up: “I am. There’s not a single person here who knows a car as well as I do.”
Satisfied by the answer, the shop owner offered him an apprenticeship.
This shop owner, an older man with red hair and a Scottish drawl my dad still likes to poke fun at, became a source of guidance for him. He gave my dad the opportunity to practice his future profession, and also offered musings on life (and provided alcohol). I imagine my dad standing in the garage of the auto shop, sipping a beer, with this Scottish man standing before him. Drills blare and hydraulic jacks move cars up and down. “Listen kid, there’s a lot you don’t understand about the world,” he tells him.
I imagine my dad in that pivotal moment. I picture him feeling hesitant, then thinking to himself, Maybe he’s right?
Anons refer to believing in the Cabal as being “red-pilled.” The idea comes from the science fiction film The Matrix, in which Morpheus, a futuristic rebel, gives a regular cubicle worker named Thomas Anderson (the soon-to-be Neo) the option to take either a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill will keep him ignorant, returning him to the world as he has always known it, while the red pill will strip away the facade and awaken him to the shocking truth about reality. The parallel of political party colors is obvious as well, as followers of Q tend to be Republican.
The idea of waking up from a dreamlike state and confronting reality isn’t anything new. It stems back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, notably to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which tells the story of a group of prisoners forced to interpret the world based on the shadows they see projected on the wall of a cave. One prisoner decides that he wants to see the outside, breaks free, and goes on an intellectual journey to understand the true meaning of the world. He eventually returns to urge the other prisoners to leave, but they dismiss him and threaten to kill him if he tries to set them free. The allegory is essentially about humans being willfully blind, for fear of learning the true nature of the world.
In 21st-century America, the shadows on the cave wall are mass media networks, which the general public, who are the prisoners, are forced to watch because of the Cabal. The Anons view themselves as those who have escaped the cave. It’s ironic because the cryptic posts that Q provides his followers act as shadows. The modern world has become insular, and people are able to dictate what information they feed themselves. Anons choose Q. The problem with QAnon, according to Travis View, is that “they’re saying to reject everything. Don’t trust any outside sources — except what we provide for you.”
They believe that once the “oncoming storm” that Trump elusively mentioned in 2017 is complete, it will bring about a “Great Awakening,” a period when mass arrests will occur and “people wake up to the way things really are,” as Nemos puts it.
I try to imagine: What would it be like to believe in this alternative narrative? Would it be terrifying?
As COVID-19 has taken hold of the world, major news networks have tirelessly reported on its unfolding. But Anons and “independent journalists” who look to Q for guidance have reported on the pandemic in a different way. Although Q has been silent about the virus, Anons have decided to construct their own narrative about what the outbreak implies. They believe that the virus is the storm they’ve been expecting. While some Anons believe lockdown restrictions have been put in place for the deep state to exercise their authority, and have taken to the streets to protest, others say COVID-19 was introduced to the public as a military operation to weed out members of the Cabal. The only people who can be affected by the virus are those who have drunk the blood of children. People like Tom Hanks aren’t actually being quarantined when they contract the virus, but arrested.
Some followers have gone a step further and said that the stay-at-home orders are in place so that the military can rescue children who are being held captive underground by the Cabal. Vincent Fuska, the man some Anons believe is JFK Jr., supports the theory. “35,000 and many more to come,” he tweeted recently, supposedly a reference to the number of children rescued, along with a link to an article written by an “independent journalist.”
On one Q-focused website my dad visits, the creator made a meme of Pepe frogs wearing MAGA hats, sitting in a theater while President Trump hands out popcorn and tells them to enjoy the show. The meme alludes to the spread of COVID-19, and the post that followed showed executive orders that President Kennedy signed authorizing seizures of public property in the event of an emergency. These posts are what prompted my dad to hurry off to my brother’s house with his dire warning about the government this March.
“Our democracy is predicated on being suspicious about power,” Timothy Melley, a professor of English at Miami University and author of several books exploring the history of conspiracy theories, tells me. “Whether it’s Obama or Trump, we’re supposed to say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to know for myself.’” The problem, though, he explains, is that President Trump is “willing to personally articulate at his rallies that there are government deep-state elements that are deliberately trying to take him down and undermine him.”
What happens when a nation’s leader is conspiratorial? People who are susceptible to conspiracy theories become manipulated and go into overdrive, because a person in power finally represents them. People, like my dad, lose themselves
Dad, if you’re reading this, please know that I love you and I’m concerned for your well-being. I’m sorry for not always being there for you, emotionally as your son, and taking you for granted. The world right now is a terrifying, confusing place, and the weight of it all can be crushing and demoralizing. But I can’t stand by and watch you give yourself to this groupthink filled with false hopes, while also knowing there are so many others like you.
For readers who also have family members who’ve dabbled or are lost in conspiratorial thinking, please consider them as a human being. Think about: why have they shunned themselves into a world of lies? And what can we do to help them?
In February, I texted my dad to ask if I could interview him about conspiracy theories. He messaged me back, saying, “You mean conspiracy facts!” and “Are you sure you want to be red-pilled?” I told him yes. I am ready for it.
I meet with him on February 27, 2020, and he is eager to talk. Our conversation begins in his garage, with his mechanic tools and NASCAR memorabilia on the walls. The pickled alien looks over it all.
We both light cigarettes, and I sit near an engine block he’s been working on for years. Before he delves into our talk about conspiracy theories, he tells me to look up a song. It’s David Gilmour’s “There’s No Way Out of Here.”
“OK, I want you to listen to the lyrics in this song,” he tells me.
The song opens with a guitar strum and a lonely harmonica that pulses with low tones. There’s no way out of here, when you come in, you’re in for good, Gilmour sings in an apathetic voice.
“OK, who wrote this song?” he asks.
“Gilmour?” I respond.
“That’s what everybody believes, but a guy named Ken Baker did. Who was Ken Baker?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Ah,” he lets out. “Why is it that nobody knows who Ken Baker is? If you look online, you can’t find a single thing about this guy. Keep listening to the lyrics.”
There are no answers here, when you look out, you don’t see in, Gilmour sings. My dad gestures at himself and tells me that there’s an energy being held captive in the body, and that this energy moves from body to body during various life spans.
“Like reincarnation?” I ask him.
“Some people call it that, but who’s keeping that energy in there?”
I shrug again.
“There’s people out there who are trying to keep this information from the world. Now, what happened to Ken Baker?” my dad asks me again, but he quickly answers his own question: “They took him out because he was trying to expose the truth.”
My dad looks me in the eyes. His face is tired with age. He looks confused.
“This shit’s heavy, Reed, you don’t realize how deep it goes. You want to talk about conspiracies, we’ll talk.”
Yes, it is heavy, and it hurts, I want to tell him, butI love you, and I’m sorry that I won’t take the red pill. I hope you can find your way back home.
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The night of December 18, 2004, began as an ordinary evening for Blair Cobbs’s father, Eugene. At 33, the elder Cobbs was already a seasoned veteran of the drug trafficking trade. He was flying solo to his hometown of Philadelphia, having taken off from Compton Airport near Los Angeles. After a quick fuel-up in Missouri, it was somewhere over West Virginia that things began to go bad for the self-taught pilot. He was flying above a snowy, wooded landscape when mechanical problems compelled him to scramble for the nearest landing strip. He was forced to attempt an emergency touchdown at the Wheeling Ohio County Airport. It was going to be a tricky landing, as the tower was closed and lighting was limited.
Eugene descended late, missed the runway, and skidded on the ramp, before regaining altitude and hurtling into a ravine in the woods surrounding the airport. Miraculously, he exited the aircraft basically uninjured, save a minor head wound. But he had little time to linger. It’s unknown whether he turned to consider the plane’s $24 million haul of cocaine, but what he did do was flee through the woods, leaving it all behind.
When he came to a road near the airport entrance, he flagged down the first driver he saw. He waved a wad of $100 bills and asked for a ride. The driver said that Eugene, who asked where exactly he was, had a gash on his head.
Airport officials would not discover the wreckage until early the next morning, when a worker on a routine field check noticed that a section of the eight-foot perimeter fence near runway 21 was damaged. The plane was then spotted, and proper authorities and responders were dispatched. Airport manager Thomas Tominack’s initial reaction was that the pilot was lucky to have survived, as portions of the aircraft, including a detached wing, were strewn throughout the vicinity. “The survival rate at that particular crash scene would have been very, very, low,” Tominack says. “It was a bad crash.” He notes that the plane didn’t even land at the airport, but rather bounced off the ramp before hitting the top of the fence and landing in a ravine amid a patch of what locals call “tanglefoot.”
The second thought responders had was that there sure was a hell of a lot of cocaine on board. “I know one thing,” Sheriff Bernie Kazienko told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it was the most dope I’d ever seen.” Indeed, it was the largest drug seizure ever in West Virginia at the time, with 525 pounds inside the airplane. According to the Northern District of West Virginia’s District Attorney’s Office, investigators “uncovered numerous packages of cocaine wrapped in various forms, including duct tape, saran wrap, vacuum sealed bags, and even as Christmas presents.” Photographs were taken of the tall stacks of cocaine. Longtime West Virginia lawman Richard Ferguson recounts that “it was like after somebody killed a large bear or something,” with everyone wanting their turn to pose with the evidence.
Eugene’s first order of business after the crash was to get the hell out of West Virginia. He checked in to a Holiday Inn Express outside of Weirton under the name of Marquis Munroe. He stayed for one night before making his way out of town.
Meanwhile, investigators began piecing things together at the crash site. With no pilot present, they moved on to the plane itself. Records showed that the Aerostar had been purchased in Alabama for $290,000 in cash. The invoice was signed without a personal signature, only the name of a company, Pacific Designers Inc., out of Beverly Hills. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had been keeping tabs on the plane, and by the time of the crash they were familiar with the identity of the pilot, according to United States Marshal Terry Moore.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had also been keeping an eye on Eugene, who was described as a notoriously bad pilot known to frequent small, quiet airports where he could fuel up and depart quickly. According to the Post-Gazette, the FAA had put his plane on a watch list, having cited him on four occasions since 2001, offenses including reckless flying, disregarding air traffic control signals, and lying about his medical status. The FAA had ordered him to retake his flying exam. Eugene had refused, and his pilot’s license had been revoked. He continued to fly, however, using his plane to deliver drugs all over the country. Prior to the crash, federal agents in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago had all been looking into his cocaine distribution business.
“On December 20, 2004, the DEA was able to obtain a warrant for Mr. Cobbs’s arrest,” says Moore. Subsequently, “There were many attempts to locate him throughout the U.S. He had ties to Philadelphia and California, so pretty much the span of the United States. And nobody was able to find him at the time … Mr. Cobbs was a fugitive from justice.”
Eugene Cobbs went on the lam. Back in California, his son, Blair, was about to have his world changed forever.
At the time of the crash, Blair Cobbs was 15. He remembers vividly the day he learned that something was wrong. He had been living easy with his father and stepmother, along with a younger sister, in a grand, white Victorian mansion in the Hollywood Hills. (Documents would later reveal that Eugene Cobbs had a cover business under the name of Builders Plus Management, Inc. Blair’s stepmother owned a beauty salon.) Blair attended the Beverly Hills school that served as the inspiration for the high school in one of his favorite movies at the time, Clueless.
“I was pretty well off,” Blair tells me over coffee at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. “You know, when you’re doing good it just sort of seems normal, especially when you’re a kid. It’s like, ‘You don’t have an airplane? I have an airplane. We all got a Bentley. No? Well you’re going to get one, surely.’”
Blair’s life hadn’t always been so luxurious. His mother died when he was 11, and his grandmother, whom he was close with, died the same year. He and his stepmother never really bonded. She had a son Blair’s age from a previous relationship, and Blair never felt accepted. As a young teenager, Cobbs, who is mixed race, was picked on relentlessly. In middle school, he was perceived as the white kid in a predominately black school, with red hair to boot. “Even though I’m mixed, I don’t really have a race as far as my features,” he says. “I was called cracker. … Those were a really bad few years.”
But by 2004, after a change of schools, those days were behind him. “Everything was cool sailing for like a year in Beverly Hills.”
Then one day he came home to a DEA raid. His stepmother was crying, and all he knew was that something really bad had happened. She didn’t have a lot of details. Maybe his dad was alive, maybe not. Cobbs couldn’t get a straight answer. “That’s when it really hit me,” he says. “You can feel it before it happens, that you lost it all.”
In the ensuing months, Cobbs struggled in his father’s absence. He didn’t know about the crash, but he began to piece things together. “It kinda crept up on me that it must have been something illegal when I started noticing [unusual] things,” such as his phone being “obviously” tapped, full of echoes and strange noises every time he picked it up, and an unmarked white van parked in front of his house, around the clock, with men wearing headphones seated inside. The strange feeling of being under surveillance actually stirred some hope inside the young teen. “Maybe my dad’s not dead.”
Six months after the crash, it was summer in Beverly Hills, and his dad was still gone. Then Blair experienced another day in which everything changed. His stepmother instructed him to pack everything he could fit into one duffel bag. His sister did the same. They were given a couple of “horrible fake IDs” and ushered into a car. His stepmom drove south toward Mexico. When they got to the border, the children were dropped off by their stepmom, given minimal instructions, just a list of checkpoints about where to go — and with that, the kids walked into a foreign country alone. First a taxi, then a bus, deep into Mexico. That’s when Cobbs bottomed out: fear, dread and utter uncertainty. Would they live or die? Only the task of taking care of his younger sister drove him. “Just as long as my sister’s OK, that was propelling me to keep moving forward, because she was there with me.”
Somewhere near Tepatitlán de Morelos, in the state of Jalisco, a full 1,623 miles into their journey, they finally saw their father. They could breath easier, but only a little bit.
From Tepatitlán, the Cobbs family moved on to Guadalajara. There, using a fake name, Blair enrolled in a high school with an intense Spanish program, to try to get him up to speed on a language he did not speak.
They lived with their father and his girlfriend, and though Eugene wasn’t around much, Blair’s sister was now safe, and with that knowledge Blair struck out on his own, wandering the city, getting to know the streets. “The whole city was all about circles; one highway circles the whole city, called Periférico. You can get almost anywhere through the Periférico.” He felt like a drifter. And though he was getting to know the city, he felt like he didn’t know himself. The fact that they were all using aliases triggered a deep sense of loss in Blair, a loss of self. “You start forgetting yourself completely,” he says.
No identity, no roots. Blair felt as if he didn’t belong to any group, that he had no culture to claim. “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not Mexican.” He was out of place yet again. The Americano in Mexico. Sticking out like a sore thumb.
Eugene Cobbs had shaken U.S. law enforcement, but his problems had not eased. Looking back, Blair says he understands why his father tried to shield them from the reality of the situation, but, still, the kids knew it wasn’t good. “Things always happened,” Blair remembers. “It was a very hazardous place. … You’d get held up at gunpoint, or people would break into your crib with AKs,” he says with the nonchalance others might use to describe a noisy neighbor. If it wasn’t a gang, it was the cops, he says, and if not them then simply citizens, random people looking to get a piece: “Because you look like you have some money, because you look like you don’t belong there.” Each day he lived with a prevailing fear that the bad guys were closing in. It felt like they were just waiting “until someone knocks us off.”
Blair doubted he would ever get out of Mexico.
Then he met a friend. On a lonely Mexican basketball court, he ran into 15-year-old Rodney Pinz, who was from the States and spoke English. The two started hanging out, but the fugitive’s son remained guarded. “Even if I couldn’t tell him who I really was, it was cool to have at least one friend,” Cobbs says. “That friend probably saved my life.”
Pinz remembers a presence of fear engulfing Cobbs’s home. “He definitely seemed down,” Pinz says. “So I invited him into my world. I had him meet friends, meet girls, good stuff, teenage stuff. He would come to my house. My family made him food.”
A shared affinity for boxing led the pair across town, “to the ghetto,” Pinz says. “Like the ghetto ghetto” — where they found a gym known as El Lobo (the Wolf).
Blair Cobbs had long revered the sport of boxing. But while he was eager to learn, he was short on skill. He had no idea how to block or defend. He took a shitload of punches. He remembers his first sessions at El Lobo: “I beat the first guy I ever sparred, and then I got beat up real bad by the next guy. I didn’t know the rounds lasted more than 30 seconds. I got tired.”
Black eyes were a constant companion as a result of his new hobby. It mattered not.
“I never stopped coming.”
One Saturday, after about a week at the gym, Cobbs had an opportunity to box a real bout. “You think I should fight?” Pinz remembers him asking. “I was like, ‘Man we just got here.’ But he fought and he won!”
An old trainer at the gym started tutoring him, working to bend him into fighting shape. Cobbs began working out at the gym from sunrise to sundown, sparring and learning combinations. The trainer put him through 10- to 12-round full-body sparring sessions. Cobbs was still just a kid, but he was already fighting professionals.
At nightfall, he would grab an agua fresca or something to eat at a taco stand and then return. Besides sparring, he’d swim and run. “I never stopped working,” he says. In reality, he simply had nowhere else to go, and nothing else he cared about. “So I would just train until I couldn’t train anymore. And then I’d show up again.”
Since he’d left California, Cobbs’s hair had grown into a high, red-tinted Afro. When they asked him his name at the gym, “I used my middle name, Romero,” he says. “And a very conventional last name. At the time I really liked Roy Jones, so I just called myself Romero Jones.”
Each weekend, the local gym held “smokers” — unregulated amateur boxing exhibitions. Fighters showed up looking to make an impression. Cobbs was an outsider, and the spectators were usually not on his side. But he learned how to work the crowd. How to win their favor.
Blair kept boxing throughout his teenage years, while the darkness within him grew. He enjoyed the sport but hated life on the run. Outside of the gym, he struggled. But inside the ring, this mentality made him dangerous. He didn’t care what happened to him. “You can knock me down, knock me out,” he says. It didn’t matter: “You’ll have to kill me in that ring.”
When he was 18, Cobbs had grown to around 130 or 140 pounds. He was tough to beat at that weight. So for one fight he was matched up against a guy in a heavier class, a Mexican fighter who weighed about 180 pounds. After winning nearly every recent match, now Blair was about to get his ass kicked, and to make matters worse, his dad was in the crowd to see it, one of the few times he attended. In the first round, Cobbs got hit hard, the punches too heavy to block. It was a small ring, and there was nowhere to run. He was getting destroyed. The bell rang for the second round. Things were just about to turn from bad to worse, and then Cobbs remembers thinking, “What would Mayweather do?”
At the time, Cobbs was watching all of the professional fights he could, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the brash superstar with the flashy trunks and the nickname “Pretty Boy,” stood out. It was the effortlessness in Mayweather’s movements that really impressed the young boxer, the way he beat his opponent, the way he broke him down. “Pop, boop, pop, pop, boop. This motherfucker is making this shit look so easy,” Cobbs remembers.
During the second round of his big fight, Cobbs recalled how Mayweather liked to use a shoulder roll to pick off shots and then get close, get inside and land short shots. By midway through the second round, he was doing it himself — shoulder roll, block, defend — and the tide was turning. That’s when his opponent reared back for a big right hand, a right hand “that had death written all over it.” If it landed it would have meant the end for Cobbs. But he saw it coming and pulled back and delivered his counterpunch, striking his opponent’s exposed chin, and boom, his adversary hit the canvas. The crowd started chanting, “Romero! Romero!”
“I think that was the pivotal point where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I just never stopped,” Cobbs says. “That moment lasted forever. I never stopped no matter how bad it got in my life.”
Indeed, things would get worse for young Blair before they got better.
Blair and his sister returned to the States the same way they entered: on the sly. After spending roughly three years on the run, their father sent them to Edgewater, New Jersey, back to living with their stepmom. After an arduous bureaucratic process, they also regained their actual identities.
The kids got out of Mexico just in time. Their father was kidnapped for ransom in late 2008. When the price was met and Eugene was released by his captors, he was almost immediately arrested.
Blair Cobbs tells the story of his boxing exploits in a fever, but when it comes time to discuss his father, his cadence slows, and the discomfort he feels about those experiences is clear.
Eugene Cobbs was taken into police custody at Valle Real, “a gated, exclusive community outside of Guadalajara,” according to Federal Marshal Terry Moore. After four years on the lam, Eugene was extradited to Houston and then transferred to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he pled guilty and was sentenced to more than 12 years — 151 months — for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and operating as an airman without a license. After his arrest, he was discovered to have at least five aliases, with matching IDs.
Blair tried to push the news from his mind. He tried to keep boxing. From his stepmother’s house in New Jersey, he bounced around to different gyms in New York City.
But it wasn’t long before the redheaded stepchild felt like he’d worn out his welcome in New Jersey. So he returned to the place of his birth, Philadelphia. While his sister stayed behind with their stepmom, Blair moved into the half-abandoned house on a corner lot that his grandmother had once lived in.
When asked about what he did for work in Philly, he answers, “Oh my God,” before contemplating and reeling off a résumé of dead-end jobs, the first one at Abercrombie & Fitch, which at $7.25 for a few hours a week turned out to be little more than enough to pay for the TransPass he needed to get there.
Despite his vast life experience, none of what he had learned would help him deal with being alone in Philadelphia. He didn’t have much, but he was constantly getting robbed. “They would rob me going to work, or going to get a job. Because at that particular time getting a job was almost a full-time job, you know, going out applying at this place or that, I would be out all day if I needed to, for possibly one opportunity.”
His house didn’t contain much to begin with, but it was soon looted of nearly all of its possessions. Then the electricity was turned off. Followed by the heat and gas. Wintertime. Putting on every piece of clothing he owned just to survive the night. “I’ve been in plenty of those situations,” he pauses, thinking. “I was in one situation, where I was broke … I ran through everything I could find [of value]. I was panicking. Because I was really hungry. A couple days went by, and I hadn’t eaten. You know, I’m working and everything, but I haven’t eaten. I don’t have any food money. When I find a little gold ring. Possibly my grandfather’s engagement ring or something. It saved my life.”
He took the little gold ring to a Cash For Gold joint at a nearby shopping center. He only secured around $30. “But it was the most important 30 bucks in my life. It kept me alive,” he shakes his head, the memory sparking a wry smile. “And, uh, yeah, so that was pretty tough.”
He worked at Chili’s as, he says, “probably the worst waiter in the history of waiters.” And then there was Sky Chefs, preparing flight meals near the airport. “I ended up getting put in the frozen food section. I was in the refrigerator,” he says incredulously. “Freezing my ass off. And they would be pushing you, making you work hard as fuck. And you had to get there at 6 o’clock. I didn’t have a car. I would get up at like 2:30 in the morning to try and catch the first bus I could possibly get.” But in the end it never mattered, because after a series of connections, buses and trains to get there, he still arrived late nearly every day. He made it three weeks and one paycheck, and he was out. After that, he finally found the one job that would hold him until he turned pro, at a coffee shop. There, a bit of stability allowed him to get back to training.
He trained at James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym, the former stomping grounds of Bernard Hopkins and “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon, in West Philadelphia. On June 28, 2013, at age 24, he made his professional debut, flooring Martique Holland in the first round in Ruffin, North Carolina.
He quickly got off to a 4-0 record. But then the fights stopped coming. He got a lesson in the politics of boxing. The most important thing to know about the fight game is that “you can’t do it by yourself,” he says. “The biggest problem with boxing in America is that you need funding to get to the elite level. You can be very good and it almost doesn’t matter because you need funding. You need support. A lot of backing.” He could best all of the killers in Philly and it wouldn’t be enough if he didn’t have the right team behind him and a promoter to get him on the right cards and the right fights.
Around the time of his first professional fight, his father was also making a change. On April 10, 2013, Eugene Cobbs decided that prison life no longer suited him. He’d been serving time at Fort Dix in New Jersey before being transferred to a minimum-security facility, FCI Morgantown, in West Virginia, after earning marks for good behavior.
It was the morning hours, before 10 a.m., and Eugene Cobbs had been assigned cleaning duty in the parking lot. But at 4 p.m., when the prison guards did their count, they discovered that prisoner Cobbs was unaccounted for.
“He walked away from FCI Morgantown,” Marshal Moore says.“Due to the security of the facility, it’s fairly easy to walk away from. It’s not an over-the-wall escape or anything like that; there was no hidden tunnel. He was cleaning a parking lot and just walked away.” A fence surrounded the facility, but it was only three feet high. Eugene’s prison garb was discovered nearby. Moore was tasked with tracking him down.
By the time of Eugene’s second manhunt, Moore, who had entered the Marshal Service immediately following graduation from Fairmont State University in West Virginia, had expeditiously ascended the ladder to supervisory deputy. He was 29 years old, and despite a right arm marked in ink, he looked every bit of 16, with short blond hair and a baby face. He openly shares a penchant for vacations to Disney World. His ambition and enthusiasm for the job are evident, and they extended to the pursuit of Eugene Cobbs.
Moore says that at the time he’d seen his share of escapes. Nine out of 10 times, the guy would scramble, nervously, maybe call a girlfriend to rendezvous at the nearest hotel, or meet up with his drug dealer. “We get them relatively quickly,” and they usually don’t make it far, he says. But when Moore answered the phone this time and heard the name Eugene Cobbs, he stood on alert. He remembered the first chase. “I knew it would be a good hunt,” Moore says. “I was like, this is going to be something.” Not easy for sure, Moore knew, recounting that Eugene had previously eluded justice for four years.
Moore explains that after escaping, Eugene walked to a nearby garage, Dinsmore Tire & Auto, where he called a cab. The driver took him to a Kroger grocery store in nearby Sabraton, West Virginia, where he waited while the escapee went inside and received a Western Union money order. The cabbie then drove Eugene an hour and a half to Pittsburgh and dropped him at a Greyhound station.
“We had aired Mr. Cobbs’s picture on the news to see if anybody had seen him. And I got a call from a local cab company who advised that they had picked up Mr. Cobbs on April 10,” Moore recounts. “We immediately obtained warrants for Mr. Cobbs.”
A second international manhunt was now taking place for Blair’s father: “The Coke-Plane Fugitive,” as one newspaper dubbed him. Moore says Eugene Cobbs was a clever and experienced criminal, who “knew how to avoid detection.” Moore believed that he would follow a similar game plan as he had the last time. “After he made it onto that bus,” Moore says he knew: “He’s making his move. He’s going to Mexico.”
Moore started interviewing family members and acquaintances, and nobody knew a thing. “So we’re kind of stale on his trail at that time, and that’s when I really start to dig into the escape investigation.” Moore went to the tire shop, watched a surveillance video of the fugitive getting into the cab, then another of him entering the Western Union. Through subpoena requests, the investigative team got information from Western Union that indicated that Blair’s stepmother was the one who had wired Eugene the money. She was eventually arrested for assisting in the escape.
But the account of how Moore eventually got his man is much less cinematic. The marshal was seated at his desk, the phone rang, and he was given an anonymous tip. Simple as that. “In this case,” Moore says, “the tip was the golden ticket” that allowed him and coordinating authorities to ascertain Eugene’s exact location. On June 23, 2014, Mexican law enforcement arrested Eugene Cobbs in Tepatitlán. He did not put up a fight, although he did present false identification documents. But Moore saw the photos from the arrest scene and was given a description of the suspect’s tattoos. “I knew at that point, 100 percent, it was Cobbs,” he says. “It was a good grab.”
Eugene was extradited from Mexico that very day and escorted to Los Angeles, where he was taken into custody by deputy marshals, then transported, once more, to West Virginia.
Moore describes Eugene as a “gentle” guy, who never showed a penchant for violence; each time he was arrested, he surrendered peacefully. “He never tried to be that hardened criminal that gives you problems.” (Eugene Cobbs declined requests to be interviewed for this article.)
Back in Philadelphia, by the time Blair found out his dad had escaped, Eugene was soon back in custody. “It was very short-lived,” Blair says.
On August 11, 2014, Eugene Cobbs pled guilty to the escape and was sentenced to 14 months, to be served consecutive to his prior sentence.
Meanwhile, Blair’s boxing career was stuck in neutral, and he remained at his 4-0 mark, with no fights on the horizon. He wasn’t going anywhere if a promoter didn’t sign him. It stung even worse that nearly all of his rivals and competitors were getting inked to deals, while he had to “bleed for everything,” he says. Here he was, in his peak fighting years, 23 years old, and he couldn’t even get a fight.
It was at that point that he decided to take a gamble on a flight to Las Vegas to try to get noticed, to try to get backing. It was a risky proposition. He had a steady job and a girlfriend, Melissa. And to top it off, he and Melissa had recently welcomed a son of their own into the world. He made the trip anyway.
Once in Vegas he was able to get a few sparring sessions in front of some prominent eyes. But in the end, his manager at the time made a mess of things, Cobbs says.
The trip was an abject failure.
To make matters worse, when he got back to Philly, he’d lost his job at the coffee shop. He soon lost his apartment. “Now I’m homeless,” he says. “And I don’t even care, not about boxing, like I’m finished with life.”
His girlfriend and son stayed with one of her acquaintances, but Blair, unable to support himself, let alone a family, bounced around.
Sometimes he slept in his car.
Other times it was abandoned buildings.
Things in Philly remained bleak. So futile that Blair remembers jokingly thinking, “I wish I could sell drugs,” he laughs, “but I couldn’t sell drugs. I didn’t have any fucking friends.”
It took him nearly a year to get back on his feet, both mentally and spiritually. To get up and take another shot.
“I’m in this continuous state of being reborn. Constantly moving from one place to the next. But dying too. Going through the worst experience I could possibly go through and surviving that to move on, to another level. But did I really survive or did a piece of me just die in order to live on?” he ponders. “That’s a question I ask myself. There was a lot going on from a mental perspective.”
Finally, Cobbs caught a break. He hooked up with Kenny Mason, a trainer who had worked with recent middleweight world champion Julian Williams. Cobbs began to find a rhythm with Mason. Mason also gave him a place to crash. Sort of. “I was living in Kenny’s closet,” he says. (It was literally a walk-in closet.) But it was in that closet that Cobbs found God. “I went through an experience of growth,” he says. “Learning how to think, how to manifest my dreams into reality.” He prayed and meditated. He put up a vision board. It wasn’t a great situation, but he says it’s what he needed. And it wasn’t all bad, if not for the dog he shared the closet with. “The dog wanted to evict me.”
He found a church, Casa de Gloria. And he got back to the gym. It was there, at Joe Hand’s Gym, that he met Bernard Hopkins, a boxing legend and one of the most successful fighters in history. Hopkins offered him some desperately needed encouragement, and Cobbs picked up his training even more. He started training other boxers as well, to earn some dough.
He decided to give Vegas another shot. He couldn’t stay in Philly any longer. “Let’s just go,” he told his girlfriend. Through it all, he says Melissa stuck with him. “I think it’s just that we didn’t have anybody else,” he marvels. “We didn’t have anything else but each other.”
“We took those couple bucks I had from training and just took off,” Cobbs remembers. “We only stopped for gas, too afraid [the car would break down] — we gassed it while the car was still running, because I’ll be damned if we didn’t make it.”
There was no alternative. Cobbs saw only two options if he remained in the city: Death or jail.
“As we left Philadelphia you could feel the weight being lifted. As the miles started passing, the freer we started to feel. We were as happy as hell. It didn’t matter what happened in Vegas. It was better than being there.”
The car was packed: father, mother, son. Everything they had.
“Straight to Vegas. Two days.”
Once in Vegas, Cobbs and his family were still homeless. They lived out of their car north of Vegas at a pit stop frequented by truckers. Sometimes they pitched a pop-up tent. It didn’t matter. He calls it one of the most peaceful times of his life. “We were happy there,” he says. “No responsibilities or obligations. It was just us living, day to day. And being appreciative of each moment that passed. Because each moment was a better moment.”
After all that he’d been through, somehow Cobbs now looked at the world with optimism. In Mexico he had felt low and therefore he was low. He’d hit rock bottom in Philadelphia. Now his new attitude led him out of the hole. He could feel the universe conspiring for his success.
He hooked up with a distant relative who put him and his family up for a few weeks. He and Melissa got jobs, his at the Cromwell Hotel. Soon enough, they had a place of their own. And after his cousin put in a word with an ex-boxer, the former super-bantamweight titlist Bones Adams, Cobbs had himself a trainer. Adams had a gym behind his house in Las Vegas, right down the street from Cobbs’s new place. Just like the rhythm in the ring — pop, pop, pop — all of the things he needed in his life started to click into place. Next, he hooked up with a manager, Greg Hannley. Hannley staked him, with around two grand a month, so that Cobbs could train full time.
Adams says that right from the start he saw the potential. “Phenomenal skills, strong, fast, and athletic as can be. He does things most people can’t.” Adams does admit, however, that at the time, “He was very wild … out of control, crazy [in the ring].”
His first fight in three years was on May 18, 2017, in Tijuana, where he scored a second-round technical knockout. He was finally 5-0. Pop, pop, pop. By year’s end, he’d be 7-0. In 2018 he was named the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame prospect of the year.
In 2019 he was signed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and won the North American Boxing Federation welterweight title (an achievement, but not the heralded World Boxing Council or World Boxing Association titles he and other boxers are mainly chasing). Golden Boy Promotions touts his three 2019 fights as “the most prominent fights of the year in boxing.” Ringtv.com (“The Bible of Boxing”) said of his November 2019 win over Carlos Ortiz: “The Blair Cobbs show continues to be a thrill a minute,” while noting that his lively post-fight interview “was just as entertaining as his fight.”
In the summer of 2019, Blair’s father was released early from Fort Dix. Eugene is now living with Blair and his family in Vegas, and just like his son, the father is looking for a fresh start.
Blair, the rich kid from Beverly Hills, the American in Mexico, the poor kid in Philly, they’re all part of him now. But he has evolved. He’s even earned himself a new moniker: He’s now Blair “The Flair” Cobbs, a nickname given to him by an onlooker during one of his sparring sessions. But Blair has taken the handle and run with it.
What does “The Flair” mean? “It encapsulates everything that everyone would ever want to be,” Cobbs says. “People want to be a rock star. People want to have charisma. They want to be great, greater than they are. They want to believe, to have the passion and drive that they can do anything. … Someone who’s genuinely one of a kind. That’s what ‘The Flair’ is.”
Fight insiders still describe Blair Cobbs, a southpaw, as a wild man in the ring, and spectators love the passion he brings. He’s brash and has a swagger — and to top it off, when he enters the ring he even lets out a “Woo!” in the style of legendary pro wrestling star Ric Flair.
But he’s also quick to point out: “[It’s] ‘The Flair’ who has that confidence. Blair Cobbs doesn’t.”
“That’s a real person within me,” he says. “Living through all kinds of crazy shit, I kept dying and reinventing myself. I kind of just developed these multiple character personalities and [The Flair] just comes out whenever the cameras are on me.”
Some people will say that, at 30, he’s too old to be a prospect. But Cobbs will tell you the time off just means he’s fresh. That he hasn’t taken the punches, and that his boxing age is young.
He still likes to put on a show, but Adams, who recently stepped aside as Cobbs’s head trainer, says he’s done a good job of cleaning up the recklessness in the ring. And his biggest asset is the most important: “He doesn’t want to lose,” Adams says. “He has the will to win.”
On Valentine’s Day, 2020, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, “The Flair” scored a split decision victory over Samuel Kotey, who had sported an impressive 23-2 record going into the bout. He hopes it’s the stepping-stone he needs for a title shot later this year.
Blair Cobbs remains undefeated. And he believes that his best chapter is yet to be written.
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Whenever Gabe Fonseca invites someone over to his Los Angeles apartment for the first time, he worries what they’ll think of his cereal box collection. He has over 200 on display in one small room, affixed by magnets to sheet metal on the wall. “It’s admittedly weird,” says Fonseca, a 39-year-old TV writer who has worked on shows like Jessica Jones and Private Practice. He cringes imagining negative reactions to the collection: “They’re gonna be like, ‘This dude is weird.’” But despite Fonseca’s anxiety, most visitors dive right into the nostalgia. “People go in and they [say], ‘Oh, you collect cereal boxes?’ And then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I remember that one,’ or ‘Do you have that one?’”
Fonseca’s collection spans the past four decades of cereal, showcasing the creativity of graphic design and cereal engineering, while telling a history of American popular culture. Many are named for hit TV shows, music or films of the day. There’s a box of Urkel-Os next to Strawberry Shortcake. A New Kids on the Block cereal box floats atop Donkey Kong Junior cereal and Jurassic Park Crunch: The Lost World. The classics are here too: Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch and more.
Fonseca began collecting cereal boxes about 10 years ago, amassing hundreds of them, which were soon piling up inside his home. “My wife was like, ‘This is ridiculous. You need to open these and flatten them and store them somewhere else,’” he recalls. She also suggested that he start a YouTube channel, as a way to preserve and document boxes for posterity before throwing them out.
So in 2014, Fonseca launched Cereal Time TV. In videos posted every Saturday morning (a nod to the iconic TV time slot when kids watched cartoons while eating sugary cereals), Fonseca talks and reviews cereal. He covers classics and new ones, as well as diving deep into the breakfast food’s history. An episode about Hostess Donettes cereal, for example, covered donut-shaped cereals of the past (Fonseca prefers powdered Donutz cereal from the late 1980s). With 250-plus episodes, Cereal Time TV has amassed more than 8 million views.
Fonseca is a part of a (mostly male) online community that obsesses over cereal. They dissect the taste of the newest Cap’n Crunch variety with the precision of Ruth Reichl rating a gourmet meal, and analyze the box of a classic movie-tie-in cereal with the enthusiasm of a highbrow art critic.
Dan Goubert, 23, another cereal enthusiast, says his fixation began when he was young, but it has always been about more than just the cereal. One day when Goubert was about 7 years old, he bounded down his family’s basement stairs, looking for a computer game to play. Among the games in his parents’ collection, he discovered the curiously named Chex Quest, which came free in Chex boxes in the late 1990s. A kid-friendly twist on the classic first-person shooter Doom, the game’s main character wore armor made of Chex cereal. His arms and legs poked out of the rice squares, and he defeated his enemies by teleporting them back to their home planets (instead of killing them).
“It’s just a really good example of how cereal can grow into something more,” says Goubert. “I was always infatuated with it, and I still am.”
Although Goubert wasn’t born until the late 1990s, he credits “the coolness of ’90s retro commercials” with fueling the creation of his blog Cerealously.net, where he reviews cereals and Pop-Tarts, as well as reports on the latest cereal news. More recently Goubert has started co-hosting The Empty Bowl, a “meditative podcast on cereal.” Goubert says the ritual of eating a bowl of cereal — “the scientific balance [of] the milk in the cereal consistency, and the clanking of the spoon on the bowl” — can be an exercise in thinking deeply, even for non-cereal-obsessives. The Empty Bowl has a devoted following, including Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who praised the podcast on Twitter, while the Cerealously blog has garnered mentions in Forbes and amassed more than 17,000 followers on Instagram.
Like Goubert, Thomas Hicks, a 30-year-old actor and model, says he embraced a love of cereal at a young age and has been obsessed with it his whole life. He says he used to stash boxes of Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries in his closet to keep his siblings from eating them. He recalls waking up in the middle of the night, too excited about his morning bowl of cereal to sleep. Hicks’s YouTube channel, Cereal Snob, has over 3,000 subscribers, and the most popular video has more than 85,000 views. His approach is different than Goubert’s — he doesn’t focus on packaging, branding or underlying philosophical implications – he critiques the cereal itself. And while Fonseca basically likes every cereal he reviews, Hicks is more critical. He believes that the perfect cereal has yet to be created.
Even as he lists his favorites, Hicks can’t help noting their flaws. Crunch Berries falls short because “it hurts you … it’s the shape of the pieces, and they’re coarser around the edges.” Golden Grahams and Fruity Pebbles “get soggy too fast.” And Lucky Charms “wouldn’t be edible without marshmallows.”
“I just think really highly [of cereals]. And most of them don’t stack up,” says Hicks. While his reviews can be harsh, Hicks claims they come from a place of love. “When I see a new cereal, I want it to be better than the ones I’ve had before,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen.”
Despite their different approaches, all three men exude an infectious joy for their favorite breakfast food — and they have formed connections over this shared bond. When Goubert gets the scoop on a new cereal, he’ll text Fonseca, who will text Hicks. Fonseca hopes one day he’ll be able to cast Hicks in a TV series (and yes, he does try to craft cereal scenes in the shows he currently writes for).
“There didn’t feel like there was ever any, any competition,” between the three of them, Fonseca says. “We all kind of have the same love of cereal.”
But the world of cereal connoisseurs hasn’t always been so congenial.
Throughout cereal’s long life, there have been two constants: change and conflict. Invented in 1863 by James Caleb Jackson, an enterprising doctor, cereal was originally a health food. Jackson’s wheat flour–based Granula was a far cry from today’s sugar-laden favorites. It was bland, boring and so difficult to chew that you had to soak it in milk overnight to make it edible.
It took another doctor to turn cereal into an iconic mass-produced food: John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg’s first cereal was a Granula knockoff — it even had the same name. Jackson sued, and Kellogg changed his to “Granola.” But it wasn’t until Kellogg and his younger brother Will developed an easily digestible, bland breakfast food called Corn Flakes that they really put cereal on the map. Dr. Kellogg championed bland foods, at least in part because he thought a simple diet could help prevent masturbation. So when Will added sugar to Corn Flakes and began selling his sweeter version to the public in 1906, it kicked off a decades-long feud filled with lawsuits, accusations of stolen recipes, and public acrimony that divided the Kellogg family.
Still, supersweet cereals didn’t become especially popular until Post debuted its sugar-coated puffed rice cereal, aptly named Sugar Crisp, in 1949. The ensuing sugar cereal craze of the 1950s saw the introduction of Sugar Krinkles and Sugar Smiles, as well as now-iconic cereals like Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks (all have since dropped “sugar” from their names).
The introduction of television into the American home brought commercials with animated cereal mascots. The Trix Rabbit debuted in 1959, followed soon after by Cap’n Crunch with its naval-captain mascot Horatio M. Crunch, and Lucky Charms with the ginger-haired Lucky the Leprechaun. Toys and prizes inside cereal boxes, such as baking soda–powered atomic submarines and Star Trek badges, also became more prevalent around this time (although Will Kellogg is credited with inventing the concept back in 1909).
A couple of decades later, when baby boomers felt the pull of nostalgia and birthed the collectors-market boom for comic books and toys from their childhoods, some craved the ephemera of classic cereals, and the rarity of 1950s and ’60s boxes made them valuable collectors items.
According to Dan Goodsell, founder of Welcome (an online chronicle of the history of cereal) and co-author of the book Krazy Kids’ Food!, the heyday of the cereal-collecting market was in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Goodsell says his own cereal lust began young. He’d tag along with his mom to get groceries, so that he could select that week’s buy. “I always had a sort of collector nature, even as a kid going to the grocery store. I always looked at it as an adventure,” he says. “I have a very intense collector nature in my DNA.”
As an adult, Goodsell began searching for cereal boxes from his childhood, the ones he remembered from Saturday morning commercials in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He considers original cereal collectors like himself to be “next-level collectors,” a different breed than those that were riffling through bins at flea markets for Incredible Hulk comics or trading with other collectors for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun still in the box. Instead, he was on the hunt for the absurdly hard to find.
“A lot of stuff that you’re looking for, you will only get one shot during your lifetime to buy,” Goodsell says. “If you want a Fruity Freakies box” — a childhood favorite of his introduced in 1975 — “there’s three of them out there probably … so if you want to get one of those, you’re gonna have to pry it out of the hands of one of those three people, and good luck with that.”
This was the pre-internet era, when enthusiasts would eagerly anticipate the arrival of Toy Shop, the toy collector’s bible. The biweekly magazine was one of the few ways to get information on the pricing and availability of everything from Barbies to Hot Wheels, and it also ran sales listings and wanted ads. There were ads for subscription newsletters and zines too — the analog version of eBay crossed with a blog. It wasn’t long before Toy Shop began listing all of the available vintage cereal boxes on the market.
Aside from Goodsell, there are two other big names from that first generation of serious cereal collectors: Duane Dimock and Scott Bruce. And there was no love lost between Dimock and Bruce. “Scott and Duane never got along with each other,” says Goodsell. “[They] feuded in the day.”
Dimock, now 62, claims that he was the first person to collect cereal boxes as a category. “There were a few people collecting cereal boxes,” he explains, “but … they were collecting Batman cereal to complete their Batman collection.”
He started collecting in 1987, going to swap meets in the L.A. area to buy cereal boxes, mostly ones from the 1960s like Quisp and Quake. It wasn’t long before he’d amassed hundreds of boxes and was known as the collector. Today, Dimock’s most prized possessions include some of the earliest U.S. cereal boxes, including an early Kellogg’s cereal and Jackson’s Granula from 1869.
“Duane probably was the absolute original guy,” says Goodsell. Bruce (who declined to comment for this article), meanwhile, had been a driving force behind the lunch box collectors market. He’d started a zine called Hot Boxing, which helped build interest in vintage Barbie and Yogi Bear lunch boxes — and, depending on who you talk to, drove up the prices. In January of 1990, he wanted to do the same for old boxes of Sugar Pops and Frosted Flakes. That’s when he sent a letter to Dimock, asking for his opinion on the best boxes to feature in his new zine, Flake. He signed the letter “Mr. Cereal Box.”
Dimock was incensed. He says Bruce had called him a few months earlier, asking about the state of the cereal box market and discussing their shared interest in collecting. “All during the conversation, he never mentioned he was going to do a fanzine,” Dimock says. “He just wanted to buy because he liked cereal boxes.” Dimock was outraged that now Bruce was trying to turn his passion into a business opportunity, and in the process would likely drive up prices.
Dimock never replied to Bruce’s letter. Instead, he started plotting. “I suggested to a cereal collector friend, [that] we make fun of this guy and expose what he clearly was trying to hide,” says Dimock. So, he got to work on Snot Boxing, a parody of Scott’s lunch box zine, and sketched out the cover for a parody of Flake, which he called FAKE.
Flake premiered in February, and just a few months later Dimock’s ad for Snot Boxing ran in Toy Shop. “Steve Bob’s Snot Boxing Fanzine,” it read, with this description: “a parody (or real) look at a lunch box fanzine.” There was also a line teasing the release of FAKE.
Not long afterward, Dimock received a letter from Bruce, written on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes stationery. “After all parody is the sincerest form of flattery,” it read. “Send me a copy of both ‘Snot Boxing’ (I love it) and ‘FAKE.’” The letter ended with “P.S. You’re a sub-genius.”
The feud was on.
Dimock did send a copy of Snot Boxing to Bruce, and soon after, he got a phone call from a lawyer named Beverly Kogut — who he later learned was Scott Bruce’s wife. She claimed that the zine constituted “unlawful defamation” and demanded he cease publishing it and send an apology to everyone who had subscribed. She threatened him with a lawsuit and said that he would have his “lunchbox collection taken away.” Duane says he laughed. “You mean my cereal box collection?” he replied.
Kogut followed up with a letter threatening litigation and warning Dimock not to bring any of his parody zines to an upcoming collectibles show in Dallas. She included a draft of an apology for Dimock to send to his subscribers, for “any injury to the good reputations and good names of Scott Bruce, his wife, and any of Scott Bruce’s publications.”
Around this time, another of Dimock’s ads for FAKE appeared in Toy Shop. By coincidence, it was just below an ad for Bruce’s Flake. Kogut faxed a letter to Toy Shop demanding that they “screen all ads in the lunch box and cereal sections … for statements or pictures which defame or advertise publications which defame Mr. Bruce, his wife, or his lunch box and cereal box businesses.”
In July of 1990, Dimock went to the collectibles show in Dallas. He’d paid for a table and arrived with not only copies and covers of his Bruce-mocking zines but also a flyer with a caricature of Scott Bruce on it. The cartoon Bruce, identified as “Steve ‘Pailhead’ Bob™,” had red beady eyes, spiky hair and a “kick me” sign affixed to his shirt.
As he handed out his flyers, Dimock wondered how Bruce would react. Would he yell at him? Hit him? He soon found out. As Dimock walked back to his table, he saw Bruce there examining his stuff. “I come up to his side and said, ‘Scott … my pal,’” Dimock recalls. “I was impressed, he did the smartest thing he could had done; he meekly walked away … saying nothing.”
It’s unclear if Bruce actually had a hand in pumping up the prices of vintage cereal boxes by publishing Flake. Some sought-after boxes were still hovering in the usual price range (about $200) after Bruce came on the scene, but others had started to sell for much more. In one issue of Flake, Bruce claimed that a 1983 box of Sugar Smacks had sold for $5,000.
Bruce and his wife never did sue Dimock, who never actually published the first issue of FAKE, despite having made a satirical cover with Bruce’s face on a box of “Steve Bob’s Self-Butter Crunch.” Bruce continued to publish Flake for at least three more years. Both he and Dimock continued to collect cereal boxes. Dimock refused to sell any of his boxes to Bruce, and almost 30 years later, there’s still animosity in Dimock’s voice when he talks about Bruce.
The intensity of the Dimock-Bruce feud may seem odd to outsiders, but it begins to make sense when you consider how much of this subculture is built around nostalgia. Cereal can be a connection to the past. Eating a bowl of a decades-old classic, like Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, can be a Proustian experience, with one bite of a sugary square mixed with milk bringing back a rush of happy childhood emotions.
“Taste and smell are really strong memory inducers,” Fonseca says. “When eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles or eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, you can really be transported back to that time when you’re a kid … a simpler time when … we didn’t have any responsibilities.” And while most people are satisfied with the euphoria of simply tasting a cereal from their childhood, others want more. “There are the crazy people like me,” explains Goodsell, “who get so buried in nostalgia, they want to own stuff and have it in their house.” Or publish fanzines, create websites and blogs, make YouTube videos and podcasts … even lash out at someone they see as trying to muscle in on and profit from their passion.
Nostalgic obsession can take on many forms. For Fonseca, the most extreme form of his obsession was the hunt for a lost cereal: Buñuelitos. Initially released by General Mills in U.S. Spanish-language markets, it was a honey and cinnamon flavored corn puff cereal. Fonseca loved it, but he hadn’t been able to find a box for more than two decades. Buñuelitos became his white whale.
Then, a few years ago, he was visiting a friend in Minnesota. It was the closest he’d ever been to the suburban Minneapolis headquarters of General Mills. The company follows Fonseca’s YouTube channel, Cereal Time TV, and sends him boxes from time to time, so he reached out and was invited to the corporate archives. Fonseca was like a kid in a candy store. “Oh, my God, this is amazing,” he enthused, as archivists showed him cereal memorabilia they thought he would like. There were dozens of old boxes, classic cereal prizes, and even original animation cells from a few commercials.
Before Fonseca left, they gave him something to take home: a small snack pack of his beloved Buñuelitos.
But cereal companies aren’t just using nostalgia to build bridges with online cereal influencers. It’s become big business. Like TV and film studios, the cereal world constantly revives and reboots hits from the 1980s and ’90s, from Garbage Pail Kids Cereal (with marshmallow “barf bites”) to the recent relaunches of Oreo O’s and Pop-Tarts cereal.
That pull of the past can also create problems, especially when it bumps up against the push toward the future. Cereal is always changing, like when General Mills removed the high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors from Trix in 2016. Red 40, Blue 1 and Yellow 6 were replaced by colors derived from purple carrots, radishes and turmeric. Fonseca thought it was a bad move. “They looked really pale and bland,” he says. “I think that was a little off-putting to people who expect Trix to be these brightly colored … shapes and pieces.”
Goubert agreed. “Eating muted, artificial color-free Trix makes my inner flame of childhood glow a little dimmer,” he wrote on Cerealously.
Trix fans revolted, with some saying it was now basically “a salad.”
Hicks wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “I fully support people who are against artificial flavors, but I don’t think you should do it with cereal,” he explains. “Lots of my fans … want to have the cereal they ate as kids.”
In the end, General Mills kept the new, healthier Trix, but also released a “classic” version to appease those clamoring for them to bring back the artificial flavor and coloring.
Nostalgia drives people’s cereal love, as they aim to return to the “moments of happiness” and innocence of their childhood. What drew most enthusiasts to cereal in the first place was the novelty: the many variations of Cheerios, from Honey Nut to Apple Cinnamon; the inventive cereal shapes, from waffles to four-leaf clovers, cinnamon buns to SpongeBob. The surprise within the box: Which Jungle Book figurine or baking soda–powered submarine would they find?
Fonseca, Goubert and Hicks are in favor of innovation and experimentation, found in cereals like Post’s Sour Patch Kids or Honey Bunches of Oats: Maple Bacon Donuts flavor. Actually, they think the cereal companies haven’t gone far enough. Goubert wants them to explore more nuances within the taste palate. “There’s all kinds of layers to donut cereals,” he says. “There could be a sour-cream donut cereal, or a jelly-filled donut cereal.” Fonseca thinks the “miniature breakfast food” genre, which has seen its share of toasts, waffles and donuts, is tragically lacking a mini-pancake-shaped cereal. Hicks would like to see a beignet cereal, as well as attempts to harness savory flavors, like a cheesy mashed potato or pot roast cereal — though he admits those “would take cereal scientists a lot of work.”
Despite their wish lists, today’s cereal connoisseurs are noticeably positive. There are no heated disagreements or feuds. “Maybe it’s from the marketing we grew up with back in the day,” Goubert jokes. “All these mascots and the fun commercials.” In fact, the biggest conflict within the group is Fonseca and Goubert’s long-running debate about whether Krave is a good cereal. Fonseca considers it a knockoff of the mid-’90s cereal Hidden Treasures, which he describes lovingly as “golden pillows that were filled with fruity … frosting.” It has, to his mind, set a benchmark that no other pillowed cereal — including Krave — has lived up to.
“It might be like a cilantro-style thing,” Goubert says, “where some people are just born with a genetic disposition to think [Krave] tastes like dog food.” His own love of Krave, as he writes on Cerealously, comes from “the unique blend of multigrain and graham flavor in every biscuit: it’s like someone melted Teddy Grahams, graham crackers, Nilla Wafers, and Life Cereal into a single bowl, molded the golden paste into a rounded rectangle, and lovingly slathered a chocolate sliver inside.”
While their blogs and web videos follow in the footsteps of their predecessors’ newsletters and zines, today’s cereal obsessives seem both genial and self-aware.
And their hobby has even gone academic. Dimock now gives lectures on the history of cereal. One product he talks about is Korn-Kinks, from 1890. It was one of the first cereals with a mascot: Kornelia Kinks, a racist caricature of an African-American girl. He cites it as evidence of the way cereal from each era is reflective of the larger American culture at that time, for better or (often) for worse. And in contrast to that particularly ugly example, cereal boxes can show the country’s progress too. A few decades after Korn-Kinks, in 1936, a sprinting Jesse Owens became the first black athlete to have his image emblazoned across the Wheaties box, and today the beaming face of tennis superstar Serena Williams adorns the iconic orange box.
But despite this focus on serious historical issues, even Dimock seems to have mellowed a bit. A few weeks after being interviewed for this story, he sent the writer an email. “Isn’t it funny, how insignificant most everything really is,” he wrote. “I will be interested in you seeing things I can’t see. Good or bad.”
It seems this community of collectors has grown and changed over time … just like cereal.
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