The first sign of trouble was brief. Just a couple of comments during the hustle and bustle of regular life.
Karen Amsden was chatting to her son in the driveway while picking up her grandchildren when she mentioned something about a quote by Anne Frank, one of the most famous victims of the Nazis who wrote a haunting diary before she was captured and murdered in the Holocaust.
“He just said something about, ‘That’s not even real. The Holocaust isn’t real,’” Amsden recalled.
She thought her son was joking. Now she says it’s clear he was not.
Amsden is many things: A grandmother to two boys; a longtime social worker, and now in her late 40s, she is also dabbling in acting at the theater in her small Utah town. And she says she is also the mother of an extremist.
It has not always been that way and Amsden says she still hopes to get back the son she watched grow up, the one that seems to have disappeared.
“It’s complicated,” she said of how her son has slipped away from her, from being someone she described as a friend to all to being arrested and accused of plotting to disrupt a Pride event as a member of the Patriot Front extremist group.
“I’m looking for a solution or some advice myself because I feel the things I’ve tried aren’t working,” she said.
Mom tells how a pacifist young man embraced hate
It used to be different between Amsden and her son, Jared Boyce, who is now 27.
“We were really close,” she said of her only child. Growing up in Utah, he was kind and caring and had friends from different backgrounds and races, she said.
He did have struggles, in particular, after his father left the family to live as an openly gay man, Amsden said. She remembered her son’s relationship with his father becoming strained, though it was mostly nonexistent after his father left.
What came into sharper focus was the apparent desire for Boyce to find his own place in the world.
“I don’t blame his dad for what Jared has decided to do but he has struggled to find acceptance,” Amsden said.
“At one point he was into Buddha. And pacifism. He even has a Buddha tattooed on his arm,” she said, adding he had another tattoo reading, “Don’t give in to hate and anger and rage.”
But hate and anger and rage appear to be where he eventually found his place.
As he turned to the internet in recent years as his marriage was breaking up, Amsden said her son was sucked in by a group that radicalized him and made him feel like he needed to act to save people from evil.
When CNN reached out to Boyce to ask about his views, he responded by texting a video of a drag queen dancing in public in front of a large audience before their costume tears and exposes genitalia.
There was no message with the text. Boyce’s mother interpreted it as being emblematic of her son’s belief that he has to work with Patriot Front to save children from being groomed by gays.
She acknowledged that’s a bigoted, false trope and says she believes he learned it from Patriot Front, a White nationalist hate group that formed in the aftermath of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Amsden says Boyce joined the group online in 2018 and has been trying to convince her since then that his online “brotherhood” is righteous and good.
She said he has been trying to convert her with the group’s manifestos but she keeps telling him she has no interest in people who spew hate against gays, immigrants, Black people and more.
But she’s at a loss for what to do.
A turning point for mom, if not for son
Amsden had hope that Boyce might break from Patriot Front after he and 30 other men allegedly associated with the group were arrested after they piled into a rented truck with shields, flags on long poles and a smoke bomb. Police charged all 31 with conspiracy to riot on the day of a gay pride parade in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
CNN reached out to the lawyer listed as representing one of the men, but has not heard back.
Boyce spent the night he was arrested in jail, and his mother hoped that might be a wake-up call for him, that the group he was involved with was no good and could keep him away from his young sons – aged 3 and 5.
Amsden was watching her grandsons that weekend, as Boyce said he wanted to go on a camping trip. But when he got back and she chastised him about the arrest, she found his position had hardened.
Instead of coming to his senses, he was more determined than ever that he and his associates were doing the right thing. And that pushed Amsden to the end of her rope.
She says she has tried loving Boyce. She has tried patience with him. She has tried helping him. She gave her adult son a place to stay when his marriage fell apart. She gave him gas money when he didn’t have enough. She has tried to reason with him. She’s yelled at him. She says she has argued and listened.
And now she cannot take it anymore, so she told him to leave her basement where he has been living.
“I am not kicking him out of my house because I want him to suffer and be miserable and homeless. I just want him to realize where the love and support really is coming from,” she said.
“It’s not coming from them. He feels like it is. But they’re not going to take him in and help him out and find a job,” she added of the men in his group.
“I’ve tried everything. He has chosen the Patriot Front over his family,” Amsden said through tears. “It is a slap in the face.”
Stay connected, but set boundaries
Amsden says she is desperate to keep her family together but is at a loss as to how to bridge the gap with her son.
Psychiatrist Joseph Ma Pierre says that desire can be a valuable one.
“If we’re talking about family members or loved ones, I think the most important principle is just to try to stay connected,” said Pierre, who has studied for decades why people join groups, and is a health sciences clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
“So that if that person then decides that they want to come back out of the rabbit hole or make a change, there’s something to come back to.”
But he cautions those reaching out to someone who has become engulfed in hate or lies should set boundaries for their own mental health, to avoid getting sucked in.
“I think sometimes being able to say, ‘Look, let’s go out for coffee, but we’re not gonna talk about whatever the (stressful) thing is, right, let’s just talk about other things,’” Pierre said.
That may be the best or only option when relatives and friends have become “true believers” in a cause and are not willing or able to be challenged, he said.
“For the true believer, it’s not just the belief. It’s that, ‘I define myself based on that belief’ and that’s when it becomes very difficult to undo,” Pierre told CNN. “At that stage, it becomes very dangerous (to argue) because then people view the threat to the ideology, the belief, as a threat to themselves.”
Earlier in a person’s radicalization, when they might be what Pierre calls a “nonbeliever” who is not really connected, or a “fence-sitter” when someone is flirting with new ideas, other approaches might work.
There is no blanket response because each circumstance will involve different circumstances that lead people to that point, the psychiatrist said. Are they feeling lonely, angry, worried or scared? Could professional help be needed with mental health?
And while challenging beliefs can drive people more into their corners, offering alternative views and evidence can be worthwhile if someone is at the earlier stages.
Pierre suggests those dealing with a troubled loved one find a support group for themselves where others understand them and may even have people who have left hate and extremist groups who can talk about why they were attracted and how and why they changed their minds.
“If we expect them to ever come out of the proverbial rabbit hole, we have to understand what brought them in in the first place,” Pierre said.
Traveling around America, I find families strained
For most families, it is not extremism that has entered their family, but the political polarization that has entered into the equation and has begun to tear at their relationships.
I have heard many versions of this scenario playing out in households as I travel around America to report for CNN.
People whisper to me how they no longer speak to their aunt because she is a “crazy socialist liberal” who rejects any and every idea that has any link to conservatism. Others tell me they no longer invite their grandfather to be around their children because he’s turned into an “angry right-wing nut job from the cult of Trump” who is spewing “xenophobic nonsense.”
Americans have cut off longtime friends too. They’ve removed acquaintances and friends from feeds on Facebook and other social media. They’ve disinvited colleagues to parties. All because it is too stressful to have them around when talk turns to politics or religion or anything of substance.
You may have felt the strain at social gatherings yourself. Many folks are at a loss about what to do and just walk away. It’s too tiring and too toxic to try to fix this part of a world that already feels overwhelming.
One of the things that is making dealing with extremism and polarization more difficult is the massive amount of misinformation and disinformation now available to the public.
“We are not dealing with the same set of facts,” Pierre says. “So when you try to reason with each other you are coming from two different worlds.”
Here too there are ways to bridge the gap such as agreeing to disagree on issues that cause friction and moving on to other subjects that can draw out understanding and bring back the joy of togetherness.
Handing down hate
But in any relationship that has become difficult, there may come a point when walking away may be the only way to preserve one’s own mental health, Pierre added.
That’s not an option yet for Karen Amsden. She says she will always love her son but he is not the only one she is concerned for.
She is afraid for his children, her precious grandsons, and how they are being taught to hate.
“They’re both amazing kids,” Amsden said of the boys.
But she is heartbroken when they parrot their father’s extremist beliefs.
“We’ll be driving out and (he) will see a rainbow flag and go … ‘My dad hates the rainbow flag. The rainbow flag is bad.’”