They’re worried their mom is becoming a conspiracy theorist. She thinks they’re the ones living in a fantasy world.

A family struggles with truth and trust in a country divided by disinformation.

A road outside Oakland, Maine.
A road outside Oakland, Maine. (John Tully for The Washington Post)

In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease, Celina Knippling resolved to administer facts to her mom like medicine­. She and her four siblings could do nothing about the lies that had spread outward from Washington since Election Day, or the violence it had provoked. But maybe they could do something to stop dangerous political fantasies and extremism from metastasizing within their family. Maybe they could do something about Claire.

And so on one Saturday in February, Celina meticulously assembled a spreadsheet of every court case filed by former president Trump and his allies to contest the 2020 election. From her home outside Baltimore, she coded by date, state, case number and outcome. She analyzed how many lawsuits had been won, lost or dismissed and on what grounds. She broke down whether the presiding judges had been appointed by Democrats or Republicans.

Celina, 50, was not overly hopeful. She knew that her mom no longer trusted the mainstream media to tell the truth, nor the country’s democratic institutions to adjudicate an election she was certain had been stolen. It was her anti-Trump children, Claire Ryan contended, who were brainwashed.

Celina Knippling put together a spreadsheet with facts about the 2020 election to present to her mother.
Celina Knippling put together a spreadsheet with facts about the 2020 election to present to her mother.
A portrait of Claire Ryan at Celina Knippling's home in Maryland.
A portrait of Claire Ryan at Celina Knippling's home in Maryland.

LEFT: Celina Knippling put together a spreadsheet with facts about the 2020 election to present to her mother. RIGHT: A portrait of Claire Ryan at Celina Knippling's home in Maryland. (Andrew Mangum for The Washington Post)

Nevertheless, Celina gathered her spreadsheet and her notes and emailed them to Claire, 71, who lived in Maine with Celina’s stepfather. She had to know whom her mother trusted more: her own children, or strangers on the Internet.

She got her reply an hour later.

Claire suggested that Celina watch a video called “Absolute Proof” being promoted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the most visible proponents of the false narrative that the election had featured widespread voter fraud. The 120-minute-long video was hosted on a platform called Rumble and purported to reveal conclusive evidence that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump. It repackaged claims that had already been disproved by the media and dismissed by the courts, which was spelled out in the exhaustive set of court filings and links Celina had sent her mom.

“Please share with everyone you know to save our country!” Lindell urged viewers on his personal website.

Celina lost her temper. It was bulls---, she said.

“Your response was to find some idiot’s video...and think that somehow that proves your point,” she wrote back. “I gave up my weekend to make sure you had access to see what real evidence and research looks like, and you somehow think a video is … what? Evidence? Proof?”

What Celina wrote as a closing rebuke: “You used to be smarter than this.”

What Celina had been thinking for months now but could not find a way to say: “I want my mom back. I’m terrified for her.”

Laurie Nelsen in her backyard in Oakland, Maine.
Laurie Nelsen in her backyard in Oakland, Maine. (John Tully for The Washington Post)

Something fundamental had changed since Claire and her husband “pulled the cord on mainstream media” a few years ago, said Laurie Nelsen, 46, the second-oldest of Claire’s five grown children. Much of the day-to-day anxiety over Claire’s well-being had fallen to Laurie because they lived just a few miles away from each other in Oakland, Maine.

As a pathologist, the bulk of Laurie’s work happened at a microscope, where she looked at human tissue up close and gave medical diagnoses based on what she saw. Now she was inspecting her relationship with her mother, staging the illness and trying to make sense of how things had gotten so bad.

[Life amid the ruins of QAnon: ‘I wanted my family back’]

Like other families with split political affiliations, they had some yelling matches after Trump took office, especially over the former president’s immigration policies. Claire was a Canadian-born Catholic drawn to the Republican Party by her fierce opposition to abortion, and Trump had won her over with promises to champion her position. Celina, Laurie and their three younger siblings skewed left despite their conservative upbringing in South Dakota. They had never felt such disdain for a politician before.

By the end of the Trump administration, the bounds of their political disagreements had shifted, Laurie recounted, becoming at once more intense and also less about policy and legislation in Washington. They had learned to live with their disagreements over abortion. Now it felt like they were occupying different realities altogether.

Over the course of 2020, amid a presidential election, racial justice protests and a pandemic, the five siblings began to trade increasingly worried text messages and emails about some of the things Claire was saying and posting on Facebook. There were comments they noticed about child trafficking and sacrifice, a key theme of the extremist QAnon ideology. There was her vitriol toward Pope Francis, whom she had referred to as “the anti-Pope.” After Election Day, they took turns pushing back on a stream of disinformation Claire posted online, including the unfounded claim that the CIA murdered U.S. soldiers abroad to help cover up voter fraud.

Claire Ryan with her daughter Laurie in an undated family photo.
Claire Ryan with her daughter Laurie in an undated family photo. (Courtesy of family)

Laurie worried that Claire was losing her mental grasp or that she was flirting with political extremism. She could no longer quite tell the difference, she said.

From their homes across the country, the siblings fact-checked and fact-checked and fact-checked, to no avail.

Soon, well-intended corrections gave way to confrontations, concern gave way to anger.

Celina had gotten there first. Early in 2020, she became enraged when she looked up an Internet personality Claire mentioned, Stefan Molyneux, and found he was a proponent of white supremacist narratives. She stopped talking to Claire for months. She would rather pretend her mother was dead, she said, than to be associated with anyone going anywhere near those types of ideas. Celina suspected that Claire’s husband, Kelly, was pushing an extreme worldview on her.

As their disagreements escalated, Laurie’s husband suggested that she consider doing the same. But Laurie thought about the doting grandmother Claire was, how she would patch jeans and sew masks, how she’d digress from political arguments over text to share pictures of a new haircut. She struggled to reconcile the dichotomy.

Claire and Kelly had moved to Maine from South Dakota in 2015 to be closer to Laurie’s family and to her other daughter, Jenny Allen, who lived nearby with her husband and son. But even before the pandemic, they did not see each other much. Sometimes when they did get together, Claire said, they would argue so intensely about politics that she would have to threaten to leave to end the conversation. Most of their communication now happened through screens.

Laurie speculated that right-wing Internet communities and websites had given Claire a sense of belonging, somewhere she could turn to feel like she was a part of something. And the social isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Laurie said, had further sealed Claire and her husband in something of a political echo chamber. It made them even more difficult to talk to.

Claire and Kelly had moved to Maine from South Dakota in 2015 to be closer to Laurie’s family and to another daughter, Jenny Allen.
Claire and Kelly had moved to Maine from South Dakota in 2015 to be closer to Laurie’s family and to another daughter, Jenny Allen. (John Tully for The Washington Post)

Their conversations often came back to Trump and followed a familiar pattern: One of the siblings would fact-check something Claire said or posted on Facebook, and Claire would accuse them of trying to censor her.

“Do you think you have the right to control my vote and to completely lambast me over it. It is sickening to me. If you want to be an MSM cheerleader not knowing or caring how much they have been [bought] then you go ahead,” Claire texted Laurie in December.

“I don’t care that you voted trump, I think it’s sad that you can’t accept he lost. … I can’t say no fraud at all took place, but no where near on the scale of hundreds of thousands of votes it would take to overturn it,” Laurie wrote back.

“Millions, not thousands,” Claire replied.

“Why is this important enough to compromise your relationships with your kids? Why does he mean more to you than us?”

Laurie felt like she was hurting her mother by trying to get her to see the truth. But she also worried she would be hurting her by not doing so. Trumpism, she felt, had delivered Claire into a black hole of baseless beliefs, and the reach of that disinformation was starting to feel dangerous ­— to the country, to their family and to Claire’s own well-being.

Early in the pandemic, Claire had sewn masks for the family even before they had become adopted widely, Laurie said. Now Claire doubted the seriousness of the risk presented by the coronavirus because of what she was reading online about it. Laurie agonized about Claire singing at church again, going to the grocery store again, getting her hair done again.

She was distraught when Claire told her that she would not get inoculated against the virus because she heard “abortion cells” from hundreds of terminated pregnancies were used in the vaccines, which Laurie refuted.

[After days of halting statements about vaccine morality, multiple Catholic leaders call the shots urgent, important]

The truth took some difficult parsing. The vaccines did not contain fetal tissue from recent abortions, nor were any abortions performed for the purpose of vaccine development. Several of the common lab-grown cell lines that were used to test or develop the vaccines, however, were first derived decades ago from cells collected after at least two abortions and copied over time for scientific research. Weighing those facts, the Vatican and many prominent Catholic leaders nonetheless encouraged vaccination, but it was not uncommon for conservative Christians to worry that the vaccines were morally tainted.

But Laurie had lost their argument before it even started. She felt as though the facts did not matter, like her expertise as a physician did not matter. Truth was a process born of trust, and maybe that was what was missing between them now.

She had diagnosed the problem. She could not treat it.

If she wanted a relationship with her mother, she would have to accept part of her and ignore the other.

“She’s the sweetest grandmother. She cooks and cleans and sews, she patches jeans. She’s like something from another time period,” Laurie said. “But she espouses these ignorant and racist views and refuses to be corrected on them. And it causes a lot of pain.”

All she could think to do was buy a subscription to the news network for Claire and Kelly. At least that would be one source of information that was not filled with fantasies.

Claire Ryan grew up in a Catholic family in Montreal where she was the oldest of 10 children.
Claire Ryan grew up in a Catholic family in Montreal where she was the oldest of 10 children.
Laurie Nelsen holds a rosary made by her mother, Claire Ryan.
Laurie Nelsen holds a rosary made by her mother, Claire Ryan.

LEFT: Claire Ryan grew up in a Catholic family in Montreal where she was the oldest of 10 children. RIGHT: Laurie Nelsen holds a rosary made by her mother, Claire Ryan. (John Tully for The Washington Post)

Claire bristled at terms like “conspiracy theory” and “unsubstantiated claim.”

She had raised her kids to think for themselves, she said, and from her vantage point they were now trying to deny her the same respect. And who gave them the right? She was smart. She had gone back to school to finish her college degree in education counseling after they were mostly grown. She had “been in the trenches,” she said in email correspondence with The Post, working to support people who had severe mental illnesses and in a domestic-violence shelter.

She grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Montreal where she was the oldest of 10 kids, she recounted. Her mother, who was also the oldest of 10, had been a fierce advocate against abortion. She recalled how each night her grandparents would pray the rosary.

“I come by my pro-life values honestly,” she said. “So far we have eliminated a whole generation of American citizens in the name of freedom of choice. The ramifications are not insignificant, an intentional understatement.”

A painting by Claire of Howard Knippling, her first husband, is displayed in Celina's home alongside a framed image of Claire and her current husband, Kelly.
A painting by Claire of Howard Knippling, her first husband, is displayed in Celina's home alongside a framed image of Claire and her current husband, Kelly. (Andrew Mangum for The Washington Post)

She met her first husband, Howard Knippling, in South Dakota in 1966 during an exchange program. The two struck up an epistolary romance and were married in 1969. Celina was born the following year — then Laurie, Mary, Jenny and finally Michael. In 1994, after a quarter-century together, Claire and Howard divorced after many attempts at counseling, she said, in large part because he struggled to control his anger. He died in 1995 of an unexpected heart attack, a few days before Christmas. It was a one-two punch of trauma and loss that followed each family member in its own way, the first of many that would at once pull the family together and push it apart. Claire had been “like a half-widow” during that time, Laurie said.

Since Claire became a citizen in the 1980s she had almost always voted for Republicans, though she had affection for Jimmy Carter because of his moral decency. It had been during the 1970s that she first became suspicious of the news media, she said, which she blamed for helping to sell abortion rights to the public. Reflecting on the 2016 election, she said her support for Trump was tepid at first but that he won her over through his commitment to appointing antiabortion judges and his tough immigration policies. She would have preferred the neurosurgeon Ben Carson over Trump, she said.

“I cannot and will not support a candidate who supports abortion, I’m that committed,” she said. “I don’t care if Donald Trump or Donald Duck is running for president, if he will protect life, I will give him my vote.”

But Trump’s election led to escalating political arguments between her and her children like never before. She rejected their accusations of racism, especially when it came to her belief in strong border enforcement. She said during screaming fights that she felt as though they blamed her personally for all of Trump’s actions. She felt the same disdain from coverage in the mainstream media, which she refers to as the MSM.

“The MSM were, to a person, arrayed against him, from the day after the [2016] election, and over time that’s where my suspicions finally landed,” Claire wrote in an email. “Even a [broken] clock is right twice a day, but they couldn’t throw Trump even a crumb. It sickened me and I stopped watching MSM in 2017.”

Claire said she did not read Q-Anon message boards, but she did have friends who sent her Q-Anon links on Facebook. She noted that some of the videos she had watched were “too fantastical to believe.”

“That’s not real life,” she wrote. “But I am still convinced that Trump won the legal vote and by a landslide. And now the question for me is: Is my vote worth a plug nickel, given what I saw happen in the past election?”

Claire was steadfast in her belief that “paid infiltrators” had “facilitated” the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. She said she abhorred violence, however, and acknowledged that perhaps some of the rioters were Trump supporters.

She had not been tricked by an epidemic of disinformation, she said. She chose whom and what to believe for herself. She did not want her children to be too disappointed when the proof came out that the election really was rigged against Trump, she said.

[The Trump presidency was marked by battles over truth itself. Those aren’t over.]

“Something was too slick to believe, given the recent events,” she wrote to a family member who had emailed to check in. “Almost as if it were expected or scripted. No one demonstrated the appropriate emotions. There’s a story there, in my opinion.”

“The Cassandras of this world have it tough. I have to accept it. That’s why I pray,” she added.

She said she would no longer correspond with The Post after an article published in the paper’s opinion pages in January called for a “post-Trump fumigation” of Washington.

“The disrespect and disgust behind such words convinces me that my words, no matter how well-intentioned, will never get fair play,” she wrote. “I cannot escape the Post’s dehumanization of Republicans through many articles and cartoons. It is too similar to the war of words against the Jews in the 1930’s and so I withdraw my participation.”

Celina Knippling resolved to administer facts to her mom like medicine in an effort to stop false narratives and extremism from metastasizing within their family.
Celina Knippling resolved to administer facts to her mom like medicine in an effort to stop false narratives and extremism from metastasizing within their family. (Andrew Mangum for The Washington Post)

Claire could be equally strident with her children. She said things to them like, “You don’t know anything except what you are fed.”

But she was still their mother.

Midway through 2020, Celina was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery to have her uterus, cervix and ovaries removed. She had not been speaking to her mom at the time — but Celina told Laurie and Laurie told Claire.

Together with Jenny, they drove 12 hours from Maine to Maryland in masks and gloves. Claire stayed an entire month. It was a measure of devotion and love that left Celina stunned and grateful.

“She’s the type of person when she loves something she wants everyone to enjoy it,” Celina said. “Her TV shows are really good. She sat around doing crafts. It was a great visit. It wasn’t all about Facebook posts. It was just getting to hang out. And I really do think at heart that’s who she is.”

In 2010, Celina had dealt with thyroid cancer, which she called “cancer light” compared with what would follow. Then in 2015 she was diagnosed with Stage 4 oral and neck cancer, she said, which was especially excruciating.

“People say things like, ‘You’re a survivor.’ And it’s like, no, my sisters survived my cancer, my mom survived my cancer. They dragged me kicking and screaming and saved my life,” she said.

Claire Ryan with her daughters Laurie, Jenny and Celina after Celina was diagnosed with cancer in June 2020.
Claire Ryan with her daughters Laurie, Jenny and Celina after Celina was diagnosed with cancer in June 2020. (Courtesy of family)

Her mom had also traveled to Maryland in 2015 to help her during her treatment. Claire would measure Celina’s bottles of Ensure to make sure she was getting enough nutrients, which was difficult because of Celina’s extreme nausea.

That was when Celina began to notice her mom’s politics shifting further to the right. She said her stepfather, Kelly, would sit alone downstairs listening to Alex Jones, the widely discredited right-wing provocateur who had promoted the baseless “Pizzagate” narrative and claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre was staged.

[The Pizzagate gunman is out of prison. Conspiracy theories are out of control.]

Kelly had become a difficult topic between them. Celina sometimes read the comment sections of right-wing sites and was shocked to find people there who talked about committing acts of political violence. It was so far beyond normal conservatism. If Claire was echoing some of the things these people were saying in their anonymous posts online, she blamed Kelly for exposing her to it.

Celina was apprehensive but ultimately relieved to have time alone with Claire during her latest fight with cancer. The time together was healing, she said.

But when Claire went back home to Maine in July, their fights began again.

Celina decided to ask for some space until after Election Day.

“I do love you and genuinely loved having you here, but I can’t take it when I see posts or words coming from you that are straight out of KR’s head,” Celina wrote. “You’re a loving, kind woman and the knowing or unknowing hate and intolerance makes me wish I had died instead of having to see it because it is not you.”

“How are you doing, and I only want to know that,” Claire wrote back.

“I’ll let you know in November,” Celina wrote.

“I don’t hold against you how you vote you do hold against me how I vote but you don’t have the right to take my vote away. What kind of a wimp would I be if I allowed my children to boss me around and tell me how to vote,” Claire wrote.

“I hope you get the help you need to get away from Kelly. You don’t realize how much different you are when his poison isn’t being force fed to you 24x7,” Celina wrote.

Claire thought the attacks on her husband were unfair and even condescending. Weeks after she cut off contact with The Post she agreed to talk again, in part to defend Kelly and herself.

“The trouble is that they’d rather believe that I don’t have these ideas on my own. But I do,” she said. “I don’t think they give him credit for the good life I have with him. I’m not on their doorstep needing anything from them.”

Kelly himself declined to comment.

A few weeks before the election, Celina’s younger brother Michael in South Dakota texted his sisters to say he had finally had enough and needed to start pushing back on some of the things Claire was posting online. He wanted to keep it agreeable, he told his sisters. But soon every exchange began to feel like a confrontation.

“She is neck deep in the kookaid for sure,” Celina texted. “I can try to get cancer again to get her out of Ground Zero Toxic Horses--- land.”

A snow-covered road outside of Oakland, Maine.
A snow-covered road outside of Oakland, Maine. (John Tully for The Washington Post)

The toxicity reached new levels after the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.

The siblings were shocked to hear their mom insist that the failed insurrection was a “false flag” to trick Trump supporters into making the movement look bad. As political tides turned, they worried that Claire’s assurances that Trump would be inaugurated Jan. 20 echoed the violent fantasies spread online by a converging coalition of self-styled right-wing militia groups and Q-Anon believers. They wondered again if she was following Q-Anon message boards without telling anyone.

It was “full on tin foil hat,” Laurie wrote to Celina. “She is losing it. I’m worried about her.”

“How do we force her into an intervention?” wrote back Celina. “It’s so sick, that I don’t know what to do.”

“She’s so brainwashed, it’s scary,” wrote another family member who they had asked for advice. “Sorry for you guys that this beautiful brilliant woman has fallen for this.”

Their private concerns and disagreements increasingly burst into extended family feuds on social media that left them all rattled.

On Jan. 10, Claire posted a video on Facebook tied to an elaborate and disproven narrative that circulated for a few days on social media that alleged the Italian government had interfered in the 2020 election.

“The proof is out,” Claire wrote on her news feed.

“Fake news,” responded Jenny, according to screenshots she shared.

“The bible says foolishness is a sin,” Jenny wrote in another message.

Jenny Allen in Oakland, Maine.
Jenny Allen in Oakland, Maine. (John Tully for The Washington Post)

It was out of character for Jenny, who had looked on at the battles between Claire and her sisters with unease. She had tried her best to compartmentalize her mother’s politics so it did not interfere much with their relationship. But at the same time, she said, if her mom was willing to post something publicly that was not supported by evidence, then she believed it should be fair game to challenge those beliefs.

“I’m glad that [mom] taught us to think for ourselves. And I respect her being able to think for herself. But that means we’re going to have these conversations, we’re going to do our research and come to the table and discuss our differing opinions,” Jenny said. “But in the end, if I make a big pot of chili, I will still bring her some, and vice versa.”

“Vegan chili,” she added.

The siblings each raged about “long-lost family” in South Dakota, on their deceased father’s side, who had started jumping into their Facebook threads with their mom.

“They’re saying how we must be a hateful family to be talking that way to each other. It’s really frustrating because I wouldn’t say anything if I didn’t love her,” Jenny said. “I see all kinds of things on Facebook where I’m like, that’s nuts, and I don’t say anything to those people.”

Claire took it very personally.

“Just for the record, if certain FB friends continually jump onto my posts to censor me, including family, I will remove their posts or block them. You don’t have to agree with me, but you have no right to censor me. I consider it bullying,” Claire wrote on Facebook.

“I consider spreading these hateful lies that has led to terrorists killing cops bullying,” Jenny wrote back.

Later, Claire vowed to quit Facebook altogether.

They had all thought things would get better after Election Day. Now it felt like this was just how things were going to be.

On Inauguration Day, Celina typed out a message to her mom: “The others won’t say it but I will: you are dangerously close to being cut off from your family,” Celina wrote. “We love you but you’re pushing all of us away with every email text or post.”

She decided not to send it.

Celina wondered how much of it all was her fault. She regretted being cruel to Claire when she was angry at her, which carried echoes of how her father had behaved. Maybe that pushed Claire away. Maybe hard doses of truth were not a cure for the divisions between them. Maybe they could just live their separate realities, and find better ways to be mother and daughter.

Or maybe their relationship was already too far gone.

Toward the end of February, Claire invited Laurie over to her house for coffee and scones. They did not talk about politics. Laurie urged Claire to get the coronavirus vaccine like she had just done, but Claire again declined.

They left it at that.

“It’s when we try to convince each other, that’s when things get so divisive,” Claire said. “There are videos, there are interviews that I find that are meaningful, but when I send them to the kids they get upset. So I’m not going to send them anymore.”

About this story

Photo editing by Natalia Jimenez. Design and development by Emily Wright.

Jose A. Del Real is a reporter on The Post's national political enterprise and investigations team.