Flat-Earthers. Anti-vaxxers. People who doubt the validity of President Obama’s birth. So-called “truthers” concerning the tragedies of 9/11 and the shootings at Sandy Hook. And now there is QAnon. We think we’re far too educated and sophisticated to fall for conspiracy theories.
But are we really?
Richard McCaslin may have thought he was not the kind of person to get wrapped up conspiracy theories. But he did, and his tale is expertly conveyed in the book American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness by Milwaukee-based writer Tea Krulos.
Krulos was busy writing another book about people who call themselves “Real Life Super Heroes” (RLSH) when he received an email from Richard McCaslin, an RLSH who went by the name Phantom Patriot. In his email, McCaslin he was responsible for trying to burn down the Bohemian Grove and to check out his claim on Wikipedia.
At first Krulos wanted to ignore McCaslin as some type of kook. Yet something compelled him to check out McCaslin’s claim on Wikipedia. Krulos read about the Bohemian Grove, a men’s only resort attracting the rich and powerful, which shunned the media and practiced mysterious rituals.
Intrigued, Krulos needed to know more so he acquainted himself with McCaslin and fell into a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. He managed to escape. But would McCaslin?
McCaslin was born in 1964 in Zanesville, Ohio. McCaslin had an unhappy childhood and said high school sucked mostly because he couldn’t get a date. After high school McCaslin joined the military leaving in 1988.
After being honorably discharged McCaslin got involved in the world of real life super heroes. He also attended stunt school and moved to California hoping to become a stunt man. He didn’t find much success, which caused him a great deal of grief and he ended up moving from place to place and job to job.
McCaslin did find some achievement and pride playing Batman at Six Flags Astroworld in Houston, Texas. He even went on a “date” with his country star crush Chely Wright before she came out as a lesbian.
Sadly, this happiness wouldn’t last.
Feeling defeated and dejected, McCaslin, who had a lifelong fandom of comic books, brushed off his own comic book writing and artistic skills (he initially had a series starting in 1985). He created a new series based on various conspiracy series and characters who come to save the day.
This could have lead to some amount of accomplishment and success for McCaslin, who showed some talent for the genre. But he was too caught up in the world of conspiracy theories and was eventually arrested after he tried to burn down the Bohemian Grove and spent some time in prison.
Unfortunately McCaslin’s stint in prison didn’t knock some sense into him, and after his release he fell further into the twisted world on conspiracy theories, alienating various friends, yet finding solace and belonging with his fellow believers. He even brought Krulos along for the bumpy ride of various conspiracy theories that both appalled Krulos and had him riveted. And he kept in touch with McCaslin both in person and in emails to a very tragic, yet not necessarily surprising end.
Richard McCaslin and his story in American Madness is enthralling from beginning to end. It is also very infuriating, and at times, quite sad. Krulos is an expert weaver of interesting tales. He writes in excruciating detail on how one person can be taken in by conspiracy theories and how they define and destroy a life. I found myself aghast and scared by McCaslin’s mindset and actions. And at times I had to put American Madness down to keep myself somewhat sane, yet I was desperate to know more and more about McCaslin’s eccentric and maddening journey and in conspiracy theories as a whole.
Not only does Krulos tell McCaslin’s story he also goes into depth about various conspiracy theories like President Kennedy’s assassination to those who spread conspiracy theories like Alex Jones and his InfoWars program. Krulos also provides the sources to these various theories.
But what I really appreciated was Krulos’s compassion and empathy towards his subject, Richard McCaslin. Though at times, Krulos was gobsmacked by McCaslin’s ideas and behavior, he is never condescending in American Madness. And he makes the reader wonder what could have become of McCaslin if he hadn’t fallen into the conspiracy theory trap.
American Madness is a timely and important read in this age of every evolving conspiracy theories and those who believe in them.