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How a cyberphilosopher convinced followers to cut off family

A portrait of the Mississauga man behind Freedomain Radio

The Globe and Mail

As Barbara Weed remembers it, while relations with her youngest son turned quarrelsome a year ago, she could see 17-year-old Tom spend hours listening to podcasts from a website in Canada.

"From his room all I could hear was this voice droning on," said Ms. Weed, a municipal councillor in Leamington Spa, a small English town near Coventry.

She thought it was the same teenaged petulance Tom's brothers eventually outgrew.

Instead, one day last May, Tom, who had turned 18, didn't come home.

He left a one-paragraph note: "Dear family. I need to take an indefinite amount of time away from the family, so I've moved in with a friend. Please do not contact me. Tom."

Unbeknownst to her, throughout the fall Tom had been writing on the Canadian website, Freedomain Radio, comparing family life to a prison, in posts with titles such as "Confirming the evil of my parents."

The man running the website is a Toronto-area resident named Stefan Molyneux, who encourages people to cut contact with their parents, even outlining scripts they can follow in the breakup.

Ms. Weed's was one of several cases in Europe and North America that appear to have followed the script of the pied piper from Canadian suburbia.

"It makes no sense," Ms. Weed said.

Mr. Molyneux is a one-man Internet hub, churning out hundreds of online messages, essays, books, podcasts and videos of himself staring into a camera and talking intensely about relationships, politics or the economy.

And he isn't shy about what he does. He says he knows of 20 cases where supporters left their relatives. His website, he says in an interview, is "a Canadian success story," the most popular philosophy site in the world.

About one of his self-published works, he says that "100 years from now they'll remember this book." (podcast 888, at 21:44).

Having read his books, with titles such as "On Truth," having watched his videos or sat through hundreds of podcasts, his supporters bond online, sharing each others' tales of alienation and family estrangement.

The confessional tone, the devoted loyalty of the supporters, their estrangement from their family, Mr. Molyneux's unaccountable role, all this have led aggrieved parents and former members to charge that FDR is a cyberversion of a therapy cult.

"The C-word?" Mr. Molyneux says with a smile when asked if there are misconceptions about FDR.

"I'm sure a few marriages broke up because of feminism, it doesn't make feminism a cult."

He is a self-assured 42-year-old whose verbal agility comes from being a DJ and debater in university before studying theatre. He has a master's degree in history from the University of Toronto and graduated from Humber School for Writers but he says his lifelong calling is philosophy.

His website is his full-time job. He works from his home in a bedroom community of recent detached houses in Mississauga, west of Toronto, under the flight paths of Pearson International Airport, taking donations, selling subscriptions, even dishing advice on a weekly online call-in show.

Mr. Molyneux won't say how much revenues FDR generates. At one point, he thought incorrectly that someone had leaked subscribers-only podcasts to the Globe and Mail. "I cannot allow for the discussion or dissemination of any contents of any Premium Podcasts, since those are bonus conversations specifically reserved for donators, which of course I rely on for my income," he e-mailed.

A search on the website shows that 67 people subscribed for the "Philosopher King" $50 monthly plan. Another 58 signed up for the $20 plan and 46 for the $10 plan. This would work out to $59,640 a year. And there are also various donation plans and paraphernalia.

Mr. Molyneux describes FDR as a philosophical website with libertarian leanings. However, large parts of it revolve around the idea of withdrawing from what he calls unfulfilling or abusive families.

His critics say he is a meddler with an inflated sense of self-worth, a manipulator who aggravated problems and drove vulnerable people away from their kin.

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