A fascinating article in today’s Sunday Times, but first a warning note. The “journalist” was Decca Aitkenhead, who has published many admiring and uncritical interviews of prominent feminists including Jess Phillips MP, Laura Bates and Caroline Criado Perez for the paper. Before we come to the article, some of the most recent comments from readers online:
“The more he talks, though, the more I wonder whether toxic masculinity might have been a culprit, too”
A classic example of a so called ‘journalist’ going into an interview with a thesis, then seeking proof of her thesis, then without any evidence or justification, triumphantly announcing how she was right all along, that his problems were caused by the very thing she objects to about him ie ‘toxic masculinity’ (whatever that is).
Cathy Newman did exactly the same thing in her infamous Channel 4 interview.
Clearly the interviewer set out to imply it was a mental health issue. Even when she accused them of not seeking medical help he refutes her twice and says I did and to the best facility in North America and they nearly killed me/made me worse.
Immune problems are real and so is severe reaction to strong medication. Anyone who says that you cant be harmed by the advice of a medical professional has clearly never been ill.
Why do journalists feel they need to add their interpretation and bias to a story rather than just reporting the story? It is an insult to our intelligence.
I’m really none the wiser from this. I’m left with the thought that the interviewer wanted a hit job and achieved it. Why would she want that?
The Peterson’s greatest lapse of judgement was to speak to this journalist, especially if they had bothered to complete some basic due diligence. A brief review of her journalistic output indicates that her specialism is to scrape the bottom of barrels.
I thought this was going to be a normal interview with Jordan Peterson. After speaking with him at length, and with his daughter for even longer, I no longer have any idea what it is. I don’t know if this is a story about drug dependency, or doctors, or Peterson family dynamics — or a parable about toxic masculinity. Whatever else it is, it’s very strange.
Peterson, a clinical psychologist, is a conservative superstar of the culture wars. Born and raised in Alberta by a librarian and a teacher, he spent the first three decades of his career in relative academic obscurity, churning out papers and maintaining a small clinical practice. All that changed in 2016 when he challenged, on free-speech grounds, a new Canadian law he argued would legally compel him to use transgender people’s preferred pronouns. Practically overnight the Toronto professor became a YouTube sensation, posting videos and lectures attacking identity politics and political correctness, and dispensing bracing advice about how to be a real man. His 2018 self-help bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has made him arguably the world’s most famous — and certainly its most controversial — public intellectual.
For three tumultuous years wherever Peterson went uproar and adoration followed. His explosive confrontation with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News in 2018 resulted in the network calling in security experts after some of his supporters posted abuse and threats online. To the millions of young men who idolise him, the erudite, unflappable 58-year-old is a kind of fantasy father figure. Life is tough, he warns them; they need to stop whining, tidy their room, stand up straight and deal with it. He accuses the “neo-Marxist radical left” of trying to “feminise” men, and defends traditional masculine dominance. According to Peterson men represent “order”. To his critics he represents the respectable face of reactionary misogyny, and a dangerous gateway drug to online alt-right radicalisation.
If his rise to fame was dramatic, what has happened since he disappeared from public view 18 months ago sounds fantastical — in his daughter’s words it is “like a horror movie”. A movie in which her father gets hooked on benzodiazepines, becomes suicidal, is hospitalised for his own safety and then diagnosed with schizophrenia. Against his doctors’ advice she flies him to Russia to be placed in an induced coma. He emerges delirious, unable to walk, and ricochets from one rehab centre to another, ending up in a Serbian clinic where he contracts Covid-19. Back home in Canada at last, from where he speaks to me earlier this month, he breaks down in floods of tears and has to leave the room. When I ask if he feels angry with himself for taking benzodiazepines, his daughter jumps in, arms waving — “Hold on, hold on!” — and tries to bring the interview to a close.
If this was a movie, its director would unquestionably be the 28-year-old Mikhaila Peterson, CEO of her father’s company. She and her Russian husband appear to have assumed full charge of his affairs, so before I am allowed to speak to him I must first talk to her. Unrecognisable from the ordinary-looking brunette from photos just a few years ago, Mikhaila today is a glossy, pouting Barbie blonde, and talks with the zealous, spiky conviction of a President Trump press spokeswoman.
According to her website she has suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, since early childhood, which necessitated a hip and ankle replacement at 17. Other symptoms — chronic fatigue, depression, OCD, nose bleeds, restless legs, brain fog, itchy skin, the list goes on — forced her to drop out of university, “and it finally occurred to me that whatever was happening was likely going to end in my death, and rather soon. After almost 20 years, the medical community still had no answers for me.” So she decided to cure herself.
In 2015 Mikhaila began to experiment with food elimination. Starting with gluten, she removed one food group after another from her diet, until for the past three years she has eaten literally nothing but red meat — almost exclusively beef — and salt. This has, she claims, cured everything. She now makes podcasts and blogs about her “lion diet”, charging about £70 for 60-minute online consultations to teach her followers how it can cure them too.
Needless to say the medical profession does not endorse this diet. Nevertheless, in 2018 her father adopted it and within months declared it had cured his depression, anxiety, psoriasis, snoring, gingivitis, gastric reflux, even the floaters in his right eye. He stopped taking the SSRI antidepressants that he had been on for 14 years. He was, he proclaimed, “intellectually at my best”.
Like every medical autodidact I’ve ever met, Mikhaila rattles off pharmacological jargon at 100 miles an hour, sweeping from one outlandish tale to another with breathless melodrama that becomes increasingly exhausting to follow. She wants to give me the “nitty-gritty nasty details” of the past 18 months herself, “because Dad is still not fully recovered, and he’s still extremely prone to anxiety, so any recounting of the story knocks him out for a couple of days”. After 80 minutes on Zoom, the one thing of which I’m certain is that, were I as close to death as she assures me her father repeatedly was, this is not the person I would entrust with saving my life.
The problems all began, according to Mikhaila, in October 2016. By then she, her husband and her father were consuming only meat and greens — the full lion diet would come later — and ate a stew that contained apple cider, to which all three had a violent “sodium metabisulphite response. It was really awful — but it hit him hardest. He couldn’t stand up without blacking out. He had this impending sense of doom. He wasn’t sleeping.” Peterson himself has said he didn’t sleep for 25 days, a claim that has been widely disputed, given that the longest period of sleeplessness recorded is 11 days. Mikhaila brushes this away impatiently. “He was in really bad shape, right.”
Peterson had plenty of reasons to be unsettled. His book 12 Rules would be coming out a year later; his job at the University of Toronto was in jeopardy due to the transgender pronoun controversy. “So that was incredibly stressful,” Mikhaila agrees. “And then just going from not being known to being known was stressful. But our entire family agrees, the main problem here was this weird health thing.” They consulted doctors, “who didn’t really know what was going on”, until the family GP prescribed “a really low dose of benzodiazepine”, the family of sedative drugs that includes Valium. It seemed to help. “And we were, like, OK, whatever.”
By early 2019 Peterson was a household name, his book a global bestseller, when disaster struck. His wife of 30 years, Tammy, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. “We did a whole bunch of research and it was this extremely rare cancer that is extremely deadly.” Tammy suffered all kinds of surgical complications, and Peterson spent months at her hospital bedside, terrified she would die. That summer his doctor raised his benzodiazepine dose, but instead of soothing him it seemed only to make matters worse. “Dad started to get super-weird. It manifested as extreme anxiety, and suicidality.”
On another psychiatrist’s advice he quit the drug and started taking ketamine, but cold turkey sent him into benzodiazepine withdrawal. Another psychiatrist, a family friend, told him to resume the benzodiazepine and check into a rehab clinic to help wean him back off it slowly. After six weeks in rehab in Connecticut he was in a worse state than ever, still on the benzodiazepine plus now additional drugs, unable to stop pacing or writhing with agitation. Frightened he would kill himself, Peterson transferred to a public hospital in Toronto in November, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The hospital wanted to treat him with electroconvulsive therapy, but Mikhaila and her family were having none of it. “It’s not like we’re uneducated in these things, right?” she says. “We kept telling them, no, the problem was his medication. But they wouldn’t listen to us. So we started calling rehab clinics around the world. We rang 57 of them. And this one place in Russia was, like, ‘Yeah, we do detox.’ So we thought, what do we do? It’s got to be dangerous because no one else will do it. But my family agreed, let’s give it a shot.”
The Toronto doctors “were not OK with it. We had to sign papers taking responsibility for whatever happened. And they were annoyed about it enough that they wouldn’t give us his discharge papers. Which is not even legal, right? It was a complete mess.”
In January last year, with the help of her husband, a nurse and a security guard, Mikhaila put Peterson on a private plane to Moscow. The clinic there was more familiar with detoxing patients from opiates than benzodiazepines; they took one look at Peterson and said he’d been deliberately poisoned. “And I was, like, no, it’s the meds!” To complicate matters further, the clinic intubated him for undiagnosed pneumonia. Did she feel her father was in safe hands? “Well, my husband was translating everything, which was terrifying. But the clinic looked really modern. It didn’t look sketchy.”
The medics administered propofol, the drug that killed Michael Jackson, to induce an eight-day coma, during which they “did something called plasmapheresis, which takes your blood and cleans it. Benzodiazepines have such a long half-life, there’s a theory that maybe some of the withdrawal is because you still have benzodiazepines in you. So the plasmapheresis got rid of everything.”
When Peterson regained consciousness, it became clear that they were not out of the woods yet. “He was catatonic. Really, really bad. And then he was delirious. He thought my husband was his old roommate. Oh, it was horrible.” Did she panic? “Yeah! I lost a whole bunch of hair. I’ve never been that stressed in my entire life. We’d brought Dad here and it was, like, what did the detox do? Was it too hard on his brain? I thought, I’m f***ed if this goes badly. The entire world is going to blame me, because who brings somebody to detox from these medications in Russia? It’s, like, this is really bad.”
Peterson was transferred to a public hospital near Moscow, “for people with severe head trauma, basically. It was like a Soviet-era hospital from a movie. But it was full of really — thank God — really, really, really, really skilled doctors. So I went the next day, and Dad was back!”
The doctors had put him on new drugs; he was alert. By now it was February and Peterson had no memory of anything since mid-December. He had even forgotten how to type. Over eight days he learnt to walk again, and was then transferred to another clinic to convalesce. In late February his family flew him to Florida, rented a house in Palm Beach, hired nurses and thought he would recover. But ten days later all the old symptoms came back. Unable to stop moving, in pain, Peterson was suicidal again. “And I was, like, what is going on?”
Mikhaila contacted a clinic in Serbia — “this, like, top-of-the-world private hospital” — and flew her father to Belgrade, where he was diagnosed with akathisia, a condition of restlessness classically linked to benzodiazepine withdrawal. Finally Mikhaila had found doctors who corroborated her own theory. They prescribed further sedatives and antidepressants and an opiate; her father seemed “stoned” but “at least started to relax”. Father and daughter released a podcast, updating fans on his recovery. And then Serbia went into lockdown, so she moved into her father’s clinic with her husband, their nanny and three-year-old daughter — and all five of them promptly contracted Covid.
By now my head is spinning. The blizzard of obscure pharmaceutical terminology keeps on coming, as Mikhaila reels off the names of more antibiotics and antidepressants and antipsychotics prescribed to her father, recounting her objections to this one and that one until it all becomes a blur.
The long and the short of it is that late last year Peterson flew home to Canada. His akathisia — the intense agitation and restlessness that makes him suicidal — has improved significantly but not disappeared. No one can understand why it still plagues him. He still isn’t free of meds. Having gone through several more doctors in Toronto, Mikhaila is currently corresponding online with “thousands” of akathisia sufferers, who are “telling me what worked for them”.
Has she ever, I wonder, felt perceived by the medical profession as the problem? “Completely, yes. Hundred per cent. I’ve been problematic for a while.” She starts to laugh. “I’m pretty pushy when I think something is wrong.” She doesn’t have any actual medical training, though, I point out. Doesn’t she worry about the responsibility she has assumed for her father’s treatment? “But because of my experience of being ill, I’ve done a lot of research. There’s this trust people have of doctors that I don’t have. Because doctors are just people, right?”
This opinion is not uncommon in North America, where surprising numbers regard YouTube as a viable substitute for medical school. Whatever your opinion of Peterson, however, his scrupulous deference to scientific data is indisputable. His public image is defined by scholarly precision; “There’s no evidence for that,” is practically his catchphrase.
I am dying to ask him why he submitted to this medical circus, orchestrated by his daughter against his doctor’s orders, when we speak the following day. But at the end of this long and often bewildering account from his daughter, I still can’t tell if her father will be cogent or incoherent. I don’t know what to expect. And Mikhaila will, of course, be monitoring our conversation.
Peterson is as impeccably groomed, composed and meticulously courteous as ever when he appears on Zoom a day later. He looks gaunt and pale, though, and I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of his vulnerability.
As the professor is famously data-driven, I ask what medical evidence was so compelling that it persuaded him to detox in Moscow. He looks slightly blank. “I don’t remember anything. From December 16 of 2019 to February 5, 2020,” he says, “I don’t remember anything at all.” He reassures me that he did, nonetheless, consent to being treated in Moscow, so again I ask why.
“Well, I went to the best treatment clinic in North America. And all they did was make it worse. So we were out of options. The judgment of my family was that I was likely going to die in Toronto.” Why would he put his life in the hands of his family and not the medical profession? “I had put myself in the hands of the medical profession. And the consequence of that was that I was going to die,” he repeats blankly. “So it wasn’t that [the evidence from Moscow] was compelling. It was that we were out of other options.”
I’m curious about the extent to which his mental health was troubling him in the months and years leading up to the crisis. On his book tour he’d delivered a different lecture each night at 160 cities in 200 days, addressing crowds of many thousands. Feted as a psychological authority in possession of all the answers — busy dispensing advice to fans about their mental health — how worried was he about his own? “Well, I don’t think it’s a mental health issue. I think it’s a physical health issue. I have an autoimmune disorder of some sort, and much depression is autoimmune in nature.”
Now I’m confused all over again. Throughout all his medical ordeals there wasn’t ever a formal diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder, was there? “Yeah, there was,” Mikhaila jumps in. “In Russia and in Serbia. Fibromyalgia.” That isn’t an autoimmune condition, is it? “I mean,” Peterson says vaguely, “these sort of autoimmune conditions aren’t very well understood — and fibromyalgia is a good example of that. It’s terra incognita.”
Then he starts talking instead about post-traumatic stress disorder. “One of the markers for post-traumatic stress disorder is derealisation. Like when the things around you don’t seem real. And I was in a constant state of derealisation from October 2016 till …” — he checks the day’s date with a mirthless chuckle — “January 12th of 2021.”
Being Jordan Peterson, he explains, has involved five years of untold pressure. “I was at the epicentre of this incredible controversy, and there were journalists around me constantly, and students demonstrating. It’s really emotionally hard to be attacked publicly like that. And that happened to me continually for, like, three years.” In 2017, 200 of his colleagues “signed a petition at the University of Toronto to have me removed from my tenured position. And my faculty association forwarded that to the administration without even notifying me.” When he gave a talk at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, “protesters were banging on the windows. It was like a zombie attack. They arrested a woman who was carrying a garotte, for God’s sake! And I was harassed directly after the demonstration by a small coterie of insane protesters who were in my face for two blocks, three blocks, yelling and screaming.”
Was it frightening? “I guess I’d have to say yes, definitely. I was concerned for my family. I was concerned for my reputation. I was concerned for my occupation. And other things were happening. The Canadian equivalent of the Inland Revenue service was after me, making my life miserable, for something they admitted was a mistake three months later, but they were just torturing me to death. The college of psychologists that I belonged to was after me because one of my clients had put forth a whole sequence of specious allegations. So that was extraordinarily stressful.”
He was — and remains — intensely frustrated that journalists keep casting his work as “fundamentally political”. “I really don’t like upsetting people,” he says. “I’m a clinical psychologist, it’s in my nature to help people. I’m not interested in generating controversy. I’ve been trying to help people [understand] that they need a profound meaning in their life because their lives are difficult.”
His fans’ enthusiasm for his tough-love message quite unravels him. “The response has been continually amazing. I don’t know what to make of it. What should I think of the fact that I have 600 million views on YouTube?” He certainly thinks about it a lot; he references his viewing figures repeatedly, with a kind of awestruck wonder. “So it’s the scale of exposure that’s — well, I mean, it’s not unparalleled, because there is no shortage of famous people, but it’s certainly unparalleled for me! I mean, when all this hit me I was already 55 or something. I’d laboured under relative obscurity. But now I’ve had this incredible view into the suffering of thousands and thousands of people, and I can’t go out without people coming up to me. And they’re usually quite emotional, and I’m …” His voice trembles, then cracks.
“You don’t have conversations like that, that often, outside of the clinical sphere. So part of what’s overwhelming to me is how it’s direct evidence of how little encouragement so many people get.” His face crumples into tears. “They’re starving …” He breaks down. “Sorry,” he sobs, “I haven’t done an interview for a long time.” He gets up to leave and returns a minute later carrying a towel to dry his eyes.
“And things just fell apart insanely with [his wife] Tammy. Every day was life and death and crisis for five months. The doctors said, ‘Well, she’s contracted this cancer that’s so rare there’s virtually no literature on it, and the one-year fatality rate is 100 per cent.’ So endless nights sleeping on the floor in emergency, and continual surgical complications.” He looks shellshocked. “So I took the benzodiazepines.”
Those drugs are notoriously addictive, I point out; he had surely heard enough horror stories about housewives hooked on Valium in the 1960s to be wary? “No, I really didn’t give it a second thought. They were prescribed and I just took them.”
Maybe they really were the cause of all his problems. The more he talks, though, the more I wonder whether toxic masculinity might have been a culprit, too. His family history of depression might tell us something about the price to be paid for his bootstrap philosophy; that when life became excruciatingly stressful, Peterson’s stand up, man up, suck it up mentality didn’t work. At the very point when the most famous public intellectual on the planet was preaching a regime of order and self-discipline, he was privately in chaos. Parallels with Donald Trump come to mind; another unhappy man closed off from his emotions, projecting strong man mythology while hunkered down in a bunker with his family against the world.
Peterson’s critics will undoubtedly point out that he built an entire intellectual philosophy upon the principle that life is all about pain and suffering; that the strong, manly response is to square one’s shoulders and battle through it, not to take drugs to numb the pain. “No, I’ve never said that. Look, if you’re a viable clinician you encourage people to take psychiatric medication when it’s appropriate. What I really encourage in people is to understand that it isn’t useful to allow your suffering to make you resentful. And, believe me, I’ve had plenty of temptation to become resentful about what’s happened to me in the last two years.”
When I watched the podcast he made last June with Mikhaila in Belgrade, I tell him, I thought he looked angry, and wondered who or what he was angry with. “Well, pain will make you angry.” Is any part of Peterson angry with himself for taking benzodiazepines? He hesitates. “I wouldn’t say angry. But it’s not like I failed to see the irony. That was another thing that continues to make it difficult to stomach. You know, should I have known better? Possibly.”
Mikhaila interrupts sharply. “Well …” but he continues. “I mean, I did do my thesis on alcoholism.” She raises her voice and waves her arms. “This is — hold up, hold up! You had a side-effect from a medication. Should you have known better that benzodiazepines can cause akathisia in people who take SSRIs?” “No,” Peterson defers. Enunciating each word, she spells out: “This. Wasn’t. A. Benzodiazepine. Dependency. Problem. This was an akathisia side-effect from psych meds.” Her father nods. “Right. Yes, that’s right.” Mikhaila checks the time. “We have to wrap up.” He glances up. “I’m doing OK, by the way.” “Yeah, yeah, I know. But still.” Is he absolutely sure, I try once more, that what he experienced wasn’t an understandable response to intolerable stress? “There’s no way akathisia is that,” Mikhaila snaps.
Peterson’s wife is making a miraculous recovery from cancer. His greatest source of stress right now is “fear that the akathisia will come back. It’s unbearable. And there’s always this sense that you could stop it, if you just exercised enough willpower. So it’s humiliating as well.” Does it generate a self-punishing voice in his head, accusing him of being weak? “Yes, definitely.” He worries that akathisia must look like weakness to everyone else too. “It’s certainly how it appears. Grotesque, for sure.”
He suffered akathisia for 26 days in November, and five in December — “and those episodes would last five to seven hours.” So far in January he has suffered none, “but I can feel it lurking”. Every morning he takes a 90-minute sauna, scrubs himself in the shower for 20 minutes, walks for between two and four hours, “and then I can begin to have something resembling a productive day”.
One thing that has not changed is his politics. Asked about the storming of the Capitol in Washington, he clicks back into more familiar, self-assured Peterson mode. “I thought that the continual pushing on the radical leftist front would wake up the sleeping right. I saw it coming five years ago. And you can put it at Trump’s feet, but it’s not helpful. I mean, obviously he was the immediate catalyst for the horrible events that enveloped Washington — and perhaps it’ll all die down when Trump disappears. But I doubt it.” Should Trump be impeached? “I think he should be ignored.”
Incredibly, throughout all of this he has managed to write another book — Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life — the sequel to his self-help bestseller. I ask how he feels about the prospect of its publication this spring. “Well, I’m ambivalent about it because I can’t judge the book properly. I didn’t write it under optimal circumstances, to say the least, so I can’t make an adequate judgment of its quality.”
Why didn’t he postpone the book until he was better?
“I can tell you why I did it. How I could do it. It was easy. Because the alternative was worse.” He’d lost a year to Tammy being ill, then a year to his own illness. “If I would have lost the book, I wouldn’t have had anything left.” I tell him I’m amazed he managed it, and he looks pleased.
“If you would have seen me, believe me, it would have been more amazing. When I recorded the audio book in November I was akathisic almost the entire time.” His voice raises and fills with pride. “I would go to the studio virtually convulsing in the car. I was moving just frenetically, and then I’d get upstairs into the studio and force myself to not move for two hours.
“If you would have asked me to lay odds on the probability that I would live to finish the recording, I would have bet you ten to one that I wouldn’t have. But I did the recording. And it was the same with the book. Because not to would have been worse. So, to the degree that I can explain how I was able to manage it, I’m not going to talk about willpower or courage, I’m going to talk about the lesser of two evils.”
Except, of course, that he has ended up framing his story in terms of his willpower and courage.
Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson is published on March 2 (Allen Lane £25)
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