When I woke up that Wednesday, flicked on my phone and read the local news raging like a California brushfire across my Facebook feed, my heart sank. Eugene Antifa had unmasked a wolf among us. Bethany Sherman — local cannabinoid queen, the business darling of the local media, founder, owner and CEO of OG Analytical — was, and in fact still is, a white nationalist.
My partner lay back in bed, incredulous. An acquaintance of Sherman, he could barely believe that someone who frequented the same progressive circles, who was a leader and something of a socialite in the hippy-dippy biosphere of the Whiteaker community had crossed city lines to bake swastika-styled cookies for the likes of a white supremacist with the Twitter handle titled @GenocideJimmy.
Sherman’s friends and acquaintances, including her own business partner, chemist Rodger Voelker, also reeled with shock. The questions had yet to be asked, but they simmered in everyone’s subconscious: How and when did Sherman morph into a proud white nationalist Mommy? Had she always been one? How had this facet — this glaringly huge and horrible aspect — of her identity escaped the notice of friends and family, not least of all her co-workers and co-owners?
Bethany Sherman had laughed among us, hosted parties in the stronghold of the far-left anarchic neighborhood, and tested the medical efficacy of cannabis for a wealth of Eugene people hailing from all shades of the rainbow: black, brown, white, queer, Latino, Jewish, cis and straight.
Not once did anyone suspect that she had fed and supplied the hateful rally on April 24, 2017, where her boyfriend, Matthew Combs, threw a sieg heil from behind the safety of a balaclava.
I wished I shared in the collective shock that was shaking everyone else to the core. As I surveyed the photos of her boyfriend with his outstretched arm raised high, eyes defiant, a familiar feeling — a feeling of dread laced with shame and anxiety — settled in my stomach.
The last time I had seen a sieg heil performed by a real person, I was lying on the carpet in my bedroom. The person performing the salute was my husband. He’d pinned me to the floor and planted his foot on the naked space between my breasts and belly. Chest jutted, chin erect, shoulders rolled back to attention, he held his right arm above me and uttered the words “Deus volt” (Latin for “God wills it”) before striding out of the room in triumph.
I curled up on the floor shivering, trying to understand what just occurred: My husband had forced me to the ground and performed a hate symbol over my naked body.
His salute was not ironic. I’m Jewish. And after years of denial, reality came crashing down. My then-husband of six years was a Nazi sympathizer.
Unlike Bethany Sherman, my ex-husband’s love affair with “white identitarianism” — aka Nazism — had been in plain sight all along. How many times had he slung the word “kike” at me from the across the house? At first the slur was a joke, then a tease and, finally, a taunt. His rants escalated: “You Jews are running the show,” and “Ever notice all big banks are run by the Jews?”
Finally he skipped his way into full-blown denial: He was convinced Adolph Hitler was trying to protect the German people from avaricious banking monopolies, and that “six million” was an imaginary death toll concocted by a cabal of Christ-killing Semites who wanted to trigger the Apocalypse.
“Hitler wanted Germany to be for Germans,” he told me, before explaining that “concentration camps were just holding centers until they [the Jews] could be relocated to Palestine.” The gas chambers didn’t exist, my husband assured me, and he proceeded to show me “proof” in the form of photos he’d snipped from the internet.
I know what you’re asking: How could I have let my marriage go so far and yet remain blind to the fact that my husband had fallen prey to neo-Nazi rhetoric? How did he become a Nazi?
All these questions and more were hurled at me from across the dining tables of restaurants and cafes as I attempted to date in the aftermath of our divorce. Hours of therapy didn’t help explain away his behavior, which was borderline insane.
Initially determined to piece together the real reason why America was “no longer great,” my ex-husband, armed with a degree in economics, embroiled himself in the big-banking Bilderberg conspiracies that then segued into the New World Order takeover tales peddled by alt-right talking heads like Alex Jones.
While I prepared a Seder brisket in the other room, my ex imbibed alt-right news sources like Breitbart before they were “cool.” Russian bots weren’t to blame for his intellectual compromise: He was more than capable of dredging up obscure doomsday theories on his own. His fascination with pre-war Germany took on a spiritual tone as his research began to delve into the occult side of Nazism.
There are two kinds of Nazis: the ones who show up at rallies and have more in common with a criminal gang than a political party, and the other kind, the pseudo-intellectual, psycho-spiritual elite who attempt to justify their claims of supremacy through an alchemic fusion of racial evolution and occult “science.”
My ex was not in love with Hitler. The brand of Aryanism to which he subscribed was more oblique than the beliefs of the men who showed up in Springfield on Genocide Jimmy’s lawn. Goebbels, Evola, Blavatsky, Henry Ford, Charles Manson and even Martin Luther were thinkers who radicalized my then-husband, both philosophically and spiritually. The man was beyond experimental. He was seeking something and, in so doing, floundering through the dark abyss that is the deep web.
On the surface, my ex-husband was a paragon of civic virtue, an upstanding Eugene resident seemingly immune to the radical potholes of far-flung ideologies espoused by racial theosophists. We’d met as children, grew apart as teens and rekindled our high-school romance amid a flurry of emails that sprang between us while he served in Iraq.
Although we married only a few months into our correspondence, we wouldn’t actually live together until his discharge from the military in 2012. Up until then, everything I knew about my husband barely scratched the surface of his resume.
Similar to Bethany Sherman, he was educated, successful and smart. Born and bred on the SoCal coast and commissioned straight out of West Point, he was removed from economic circumstances that might give rise to the pejorative stereotype of an “ignorant” redneck.
During the day he worked as an unassuming analyst in downtown Eugene; by night he completed his master’s degree through UC Berkeley’s online campus. He’d been to Temple Beth Israel and Ahavas Torah, celebrated Seders, lit up the menorah with my grandparents and donned a kippah now and then.
He remarried me underneath chuppah and signed a ketubah, which stipulated that our children would be raised in the Jewish faith. He even allowed me to pick an apartment on the edge of south Eugene so that I could walk to the nearest synagogue on Shabbat.
Nothing in our courtship had alerted me to the fact that he would fall prey to a pile of manuscripts written by dead men on the wrong side of history. Once we settled into married life, my husband’s disillusionment with the status quo began to surface.
In the wake of his military service he sought answers. What really precipitated the Iraq invasion? Why were soldiers endlessly sacrificed in a war that took place halfway around the world? Where conventional answers failed to provide comfort, alt-right conspiracies staved off his sense of helplessness. And white supremacy gave more than mere answers: It imbued a sense of meaning.
One some level, he went insane. Like a sleeper agent, he led a double life in which he said one thing but lived another. Racists are like misogynists — they don’t realize that they are the assholes in the room.
The misogynist claims that he’s not sexist — after all, he’s got a mom and daughters (strangely, wives and girlfriends are never rounded up as references against sexism). With all of these social attachments to women, how can a sexist be a sexist when he loves his women so?
According to a racist, they can’t be racists because of their proximity to people “of color.” Like Bethany Sherman — who pointed to her associations with diverse peoples as proof she could hold hands with Nazism and still maintain an equitable magnanimity to others, especially those who patronized her business — my ex-husband unflappably maintained that he was neither a racist nor an anti-Semite. He was just a “white identitarian” who wanted rights for other whites like him.
In his ideal world, there were white communities for white kids and all-black boroughs for blacks. Jews would have a Jewish community where they could raise families, far away from everyone else, ad nauseam. He wasn’t a racist, he told me, he was a “cultural preservationist.” He wanted the colors of the rainbow to remain unique and distinct, and to make sure they didn’t bleed together.
After all, my ex reasoned, he was an older brother to a set of adopted orphans from West Africa, so how could he possibly be racist? “They have lower IQs because they’re African,” he clinically explained to me one evening after I tucked his siblings into bed. “It’s genetically been proven blacks aren’t as smart.”
It was precisely that idea in and of itself that made him a racist.
I wish I could say that I didn’t see his affair with Nazism any more than I noticed the affair he later had with a co-worker. I wish I could say that I was as oblivious to the one fact as I was to the other. I can’t.
Like a frog in a frying pan I stayed in the simmering water until it boiled over, turning my eye away from the obviousness of his habits, subtle and slow growing at first — hours upon hours frittered away on video games that spilled over into real life, chat rooms and gamer boards where he brushed shoulders with the seedy side of Reddit subforums and wound up on sites like 4Chan and 8Chan, embroiled in a conspiratorial rage that absconded with his good sense.
His descent into Nazism was a slow slide, and I almost got sucked into the undertow. If he hadn’t constantly reminded me that I was Jewish, I wonder if I might have gone along with his rhetoric and woken up one day an anti-Semite myself.
He tried to red pill me. That’s what they call it: “red pilling your woman.” A reference from the Wachowski Brothers’ cult series The Matrix, “red pilling” is a term as obnoxious as it is paradoxical. To take the red pill implies that you’re finally manning up to reality and swallowing the truth with a capital T.
But, in recent years, red pilling has become synonymous with gaslighting the unsuspecting political opposition (in most cases, a woman) to your point of view. Red pilling is nefarious because it takes advantage of the preexisting proximity in the relationship — in my case, the trust a wife places in her husband and vice versa — and uses it as a springboard to introduce radical ideas that the victim would never entertain.
The absurdity of a Jewish woman, the grandchild of a man who narrowly escaped Nazi clutches by hiding on a boat bound for Argentina, siding with a neo-white supremacists’ version of history and denying that Hitler had any ill will towards the Jews, let alone ovens with which to bake their bodies, is a goal as difficult as it is outlandish to attain. Yet my ex-husband tried to do just that.
In coming years, psychologists will discover that the age-old adage “you are what you eat” will morph into the unassailable truth that your beliefs are determined by your browser’s search engine. Months after the divorce, I was still mystified how my smart, SoCal ex had stumbled into Nazism.
I researched white supremacist groups and visited the same sites that my husband frequented. After a month of clicking on platforms that ranged from The Drudge Report to The Daily Stormer and reading about the alleged takeover of Illuminati Elite, my computer turned into a Nazi.
Up until then I hadn’t realized that my computer, like me, was ethnically Jewish. The ads that normally filtered through my Facebook feed were preoccupied with celebrity gossip, yarn sales and timely reminders from Chabad.org advising me to pre-order kosher lamb legs for Pesach.
As it turned out, becoming a Nazi was not unlike catching a common virus like the flu, and then having it spiral out of control as it hijacked your immune system and ultimately your common sense. As I tried to retrace my ex-husband’s descent into madness, my very Jewish computer became an alt-right conspiracy theorist whose new interests included obsessing over the “fake news” of the far left and praising President Donald Trump’s (then candidate Trump’s) candor and can-do promises which, as of yet, remain largely unfulfilled.
Online advertisements included everything right of the aisle, from saving unwed mothers to praying for the heart of America, to religious church tours of the Holy Land, promotional sales for Mylar bags (in what appeared to be a far-sighted effort to prep for the inevitable reign of the Anti-Christ), guns, guns, NRA ads and, yet again, more guns, collector’s coins, how-to advice on hoarding gold and book reviews for authors who re-envisioned history “as it truly happened,” along with white-power graphic tees that made the unabashed claim, “Hitler Was Right.”
My ex-husband wasted no time recruiting others to his ideological army. When his attempts to lure long-time friends failed, he studied mesmerism and surrounded himself with a posse of younger men, all of whom fit a social profile: awkward, alienated, angry.
He loved-bombed them with my home-cooked food, small gifts and, above all, lavished them with male attention. He invited them to play video games and drink beer, get high and, afterwards, when their defenses were down, plied them with his ideas about God, race and supremacy. He led meditations and taught them about male chastity and other esoteric liturgies espoused by obscure and fascistic occultists like Julius Evola.
Thirsty for a father figure, these young men lapped up my husband’s teachings. Was it any surprise that his ideological conquests had backgrounds flecked with mental conditions such as Asperger’s, schizophrenia, paranoia, depression and PTSD.
In one such case, my ex performed a Reiki-like energy transfer on a devotee who was clinically diagnosed as a schizophrenic with a history of attempted suicide. Whether through a placebo effect or his hypnotic capabilities, he was able to overcome the young man’s inhibitions. The boy began to laugh hysterically and experienced what he claimed was an overwhelming sense of joy, followed by waves of peace.
This peace, however, did not last. The young man returned to our house two weeks later, yet again on the verge of killing himself. My ex’s response was swift and harsh: He handed the boy a loaded semi-automatic pistol and told him that, if he was really serious, he should quit wasting everyone’s time and get it over with.
Where was I when these events occurred?
In the kitchen. Cooking. Like Bethany Sherman, I fed the would-be army that my husband aspired to raise.
After the divorce I found myself in the rabbi’s office, stunned with shame at my own self-betrayal — the betrayal of my people, my identity, strength, logic and moral compass. The rabbi was quick to point out that my experience paralleled generations of conditioned self-loathing that Jewry had appropriated from their host countries in order to survive. But what was my excuse? I had remained married to my husband out of love and not by force.
Psychologically, I’d been Stockholmed, surrendering my will to the prevailing force within my marriage. Although I was still responsible for the concession of my own power, I consigned myself to the sting of my husband’s criticisms, which covered everything from my weight and my heritage to my incompetence as a housekeeper and, more pointedly, my failure to carry a pregnancy to term.
The divorce came about in the same manner as the marriage. He announced his intent to leave on email. The majority of his family supported his decision on the grounds that I was infertile and both a non-Christian and a Jew.
I took these criticisms to heart until a pair of condoms surfaced from inside his wallet, along with a string of “sext” messages on my ex’s phone. He promptly moved to Springfield and got engaged.
Eventually he relocated to another state with a new wife in tow.
As my marriage came crashing down, I was left to sort through the rubble of lies that once disguised the insanity of the man I called “husband.” There isn’t a day I don’t wake up wondering what I could have done to stave off his descent into white power radicalism. I’ve spent hours trying to understand why he married me, a Jew, only to become a Nazi apologist.
But there are no easy answers. Even as I write this, mutual friends apprise me of his ongoing efforts to draw in and proselytize others into his fold.
In the wake of Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office I struggled with the shame of my marriage and the infinitesimal but acute link that tied my past to a man that became a white supremacist.
Some of my Facebook acquaintances exposed my guilt. Why hadn’t I left my racist husband long ago? I was guilty of supporting Nazism through marriage. They reasoned that I, like Melania Trump, carried a shared culpability. They told me that, if I frequented the coffee shop where they worked, I would be refused service due to my prior marital association with a Nazi.
Fortunately the ostracizing I faced wasn’t universal. My community of friends, accrued through synagogues and knitting bees, welcomed me with open arms. I cried my eyes out, face down on the bed of my acupuncturist and on the sofas of several therapists who listened without judgment. I made friends who didn’t shun me for my bizarre and frightful association with a Nazi, or scoff as I struggled through the self-hate that I’d been schooled in for the past six years.
It was a slow process of re-education — one that keeps occurring every day.
No one is safe from their own predilection for power, love, meaning and, above all, acceptance. I loved my then-husband and wanted his acceptance. My ex-husband wanted power, and accrued a following of needy individuals seeking answers but, above all, a sense of significance.
The truth, with a lowercase t, is that there isn’t much difference between the desires of humanity on the alt-right and the far-left, among Nazis, Jews or my knitting circle. The desire to be a participant in something greater than oneself is a formidable urge embedded within every human being, regardless of his or her religion, race or creed.
The need to be safe in numbers, to harness the unpredictability of life, to understand invisible forces beyond one’s control drives modern man, as it did the hominids from which we evolved.
What would I have done if my community — my neighbors, friends and relations — had abandoned me to the abysmal emptiness of the hatred I’d come to endure?
When I read about Bethany Sherman’s holing up with Jacob Laskey and Jimmy Marr, my heart aches for her and especially for her children, who are vulnerable to indoctrination now more than ever. I’m filled with a mixture of anger and compassion that I’ve often leveled at myself: anger at an intelligent woman who should know better — and compassion for someone who has surrendered her strength to an organization that does not have her best interests at heart.
All I can manage to do is shake my head in recognition. That could have been my name in the headlines. She could have been me. “There go I, but for grace.” ■
The identities of the writer and her ex-husband have been concealed to protect the writer, her family and the community. Jacob Laskey was recently arrested on charges of assaulting an acquaintance with a knife.