May 18, 2024

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Oprah once called Christiane Northrup’s writing a ‘bible.’ Today, the ’90s New Age guru spreads covid disinformation.

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For much of the pandemic, there has been a tidy pattern to Christiane Northrup’s days.

A retired celebrity doctor with a New Age fandom, she would take her position at a sunny desk in coastal Maine, snap on a camera, and hold forth on spiritual topics such as chakra alignment and energy fields. With a flowery dress and glittering jewelry, she sometimes serenaded her online audience of half a million or so by plucking an enormous harp.

Then Northrup would land on a gloomier theme: covid-19. Northrup would claim that the virus was part of a plot involving Deep State brainwashing and treacherous depopulation schemes. She encouraged fans to check out QAnon, called the Centers for Disease Control a “covid death cult,” and described the vaccines as crimes against humanity.

“We are, indeed, at war,” she said in one recent dispatch. “It is good versus evil. Dark versus light.”

Last year, these apocalyptic-sounding messages put the doctor on a watchdog’s list of the top sources of falsehoods about the coronavirus vaccine for, among other things, sharing posts that falsely claimed the shot would lead to a 800% increase in chronic illnesses for children. The White House then called for her to be booted from the public square.

To those familiar with Northrup from the ’90s and 2000s, when she hosted PBS specials and became a beloved household name,(Oprah Winfrey once called her writing “a guide, a bible”) the doctor holding forth at her desk could seem radically transformed. Exiled from some circles, she found a hero’s welcome in the MAGA set and on anti-vaccine speaking tours that also featured former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Infowars host Alex Jones.

To some who knew Northrup personally, all of this came as a shock. Bill Manahan, a Minnesota doctor who befriended Northrup in the 1980s, said, “It’s like she went to the dark side.”

He and others wonder: what happened to Christiane Northrup?

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If Northrup, 72, has an answer to this question of her own, she is determined to not share it with the press. She declined to speak for this story. But in interviews with acquaintances past and present, passages from Northrup’s books, and her many public statements, it’s clear that Northrup has long positioned herself as a brave rebel against medical orthodoxies, blending topics mystic and scientific.

Northrup grew up in the ski town of Ellicottville, N.Y., where her father was a local dentist. When asked about her medical skepticism, as she was in an October 2020 podcast, she will tell this story: At age five, her six-month-old sister would not eat and died at a hospital. When her brother was born, some time later, he also refused to eat. The family, against medical advice, signed him out of the hospital and the boy eventually recovered under home care.

In the ’70s, Northrup earned a medical degree from Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine and was eventually accredited and practiced as an obstetrician and gynecologist. She then moved to Portland and taught classes at Maine Medical Center.

In 1985, the doctor branched off and co-founded a private clinic called Women to Women in the nearby town of Yarmouth, Maine. Here, she championed the idea that women had an innate, yet suppressed, wisdom about their own health. Among other treatments, former employees recalled that the clinic espoused the curative benefits of positive-thinking mantras and macrobiotic food.

“Chris taught me to think outside the box of my conventional education,” said Susan Doughty, who worked as a nurse at the clinic. “She was a role model to many of us in women’s healthcare for women’s rights and true informed consent.”

Northrup’s 1994 book, “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” landed her on the Oprah Winfrey Show. This coveted endorsement thrust Northrup into the A-list of American gurudom. Follow up volumes, put out by the New Age publishing behemoth Hay House, climbed bestseller lists. These works, with names like “Dodging Energy Vampires,” approvingly covered topics like psychic mediums; karma-cleansing rituals; past-life therapies; shamanic prayers; orbs and fairies; electromagnetic vortexes; and spirit-channeling. Northrup had a riveting stage presence — a dissident physician bestowing medical advice the timid mainstream wouldn’t touch — and shared venues with figures like spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

A divorce in 1999 brought some money woes, Northrup recounted in a later interview with Maine Magazine. She soon segued into the enterprise of multilevel marketing, collaborating with a skin care and supplement company called Usana Health Sciences, Inc. In time, Northrup’s brand stretched to include spinoff oracle cards, workshops, a radio show, Flourish!, and her own line of purportedly libido-boosting and youth-restoring Thai herbs and creams, called Amata Life (“Did you know that you CAN feel luscious and youthful,” ad copy read, “well into your 60s, 70s, and beyond?”). In 2003, property records indicate, she purchased a 5-bedroom home in Yarmouth worth an estimated $1.5 million.

Criticisms were never far away, including over Northrup’s opposition to vaccines for children. In one book published in 2005, the doctor claimed, against the medical consensus, that inoculations would lead to a whole host of illnesses including, “childhood asthma, allergies, diabetes, ADHD, autism, and possibly even cancer.”

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In 2015, Northrup withdrew her medical license in Maine, state records show. By the time the pandemic forced the closure of all nonessential businesses in March 2020, she was spending much of her time at home caring for a boyfriend, Ron. He had been diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder and decided to make use of a newly passed Maine law allowing suicide in cases of terminal illnesses. In April, according to his family, Ron drank a lethal drug and ended his life, according to Nothrup’s posts and news accounts.

Northrup grieved, friends recalled, and her mourning coincided with a growing suspicion about the pandemic. The two themes wove together in a flood of confessional videos posted on Instagram and Facebook. Her daily entries had the tone of religious ritual — “a little ministry,” she said — and the retired doctor gave her fandom a cosmic moniker: the Warriors of the Radical Light.

That summer Northrup began inveighing against face masks, warning in her videos to the Warriors that there were “dark forces that are working to keep us low vibe.”

“Here is our agenda: to not feed the reptiles, not feed the reptiles,” she said later. “How do you feed them? Fear. Anger. They don’t hang around high vibe people.”

Some followers would eventually jump ship, comments on her posts and records from the Maine board of medicine show. But the odd thrill of Northrup’s torrent of videos lay in her eccentric persona: she toggled from 5G and nanoparticles, to showing off fluffy new kittens, to recounting her trips to the hairdresser and alfalfa baths, back to warnings about chemtrails. It was like catching up with a zany aunt who, with a conspiratorial wink, would tell you what they really thought of this pandemic business: “It’s a scamdemic.”

Northrup posted the conspiracy clip “Plandemic,” helping it go viral, and the QAnon propaganda movie “Out of Shadows,” urging fans to watch (“I want you, personally, to look up Q,” she said). She soon collaborated with and promoted a posse of other online conspiracy characters, like anti-vaccine crusader Del Bigtree and former sports commentator David Icke — who has been involved in antisemitic circles — marveling in one clip, “I feel my community has grown exponentially.”

At one point Northrup recounted dreams she had of Donald Trump, which she took as a celestial cue to back him in the 2020 election. And while she did not make it to the Jan. 6 march on the Capitol — she was doing a cleansing fast — in a video afterward Northrup heralded the date as a “fateful day of epiphany.”

She became a frequent target of a podcast called Conspirituality, which takes a critical look at New Age stars and released polemic play-by-plays on Northrup. And Zubin Damania, a physician and YouTube comedian, dedicated a segment to debunking one of Northrup’s viral clips about vaccines morphing people into antennas. He said, “Northrup is selling falsehoods that harm people.”

Several complaints reached the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine, a records request showed. (One letter, from a former patient, charged the physician was “abusing her title in order to gain followers and to spread misinformation and to manage a cult.”) But the board was powerless. The group’s director, Dennis E. Smith, explained, “she is not licensed by the board nor engaging in unlicensed medical practice.”

A spokesperson from Maine Medical Center sought to clarify that Northrup had never been fully employed there. A Dartmouth representative did not comment. The Oprah Winfrey Network, which still features her work, and her publisher Hay House declined to speak.

Rebekah Borucki, a Hay House author, said she severed ties with the company, in part over their promotion of Northrup. “Christiane did so much for so many,” she said in an interview. “Now, I think she’s caused a lot of harm.”

Most of the New Agers whose stars rose alongside Northrup, though, have kept relatively quiet. Deepak Chopra, who blurbed and recommended Northrup’s writing, texted, “I have not spoken to her in over a decade so not sure if I’m any use,” adding a smiley emoji with a single tear.

Manahan, the Minnesota doctor, said, “I called her and I said, ‘Chris, listen, sometimes being a freethinker can lead us to where we don’t have any boundaries, a place where it’s beyond the pale or what makes common sense.’”

Manahan added, “Then I just said, ‘I can’t talk to you anymore. It’s too painful for me.’”

In the spring of 2021, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit with offices in London and Washington, D.C., put out a condemnatory report naming Northrup, along with 11 other public figures, as the source for the majority of “all anti-vaccine content” circulating online. (“The cost of allowing her to remain on these platforms has been paid for in the number of lives lost to covid-19,” the group’s director, Imran Ahmed, said.) The White House put pressure on social media companies to kick the “disinformation dozen” off their platforms. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, disputed the center’s findings as overblown, but eventually stripped Northrup of her Instagram. In a podcast interview, Northrup said she lost access to PayPal and Venmo. She soon migrated to alternative social platforms, like Telegram, where her following has soared past 80,000. (Many of her Facebook videos were taken down, but her page, with 565,000 followers, remains. Her Twitter account, with 115,000 followers, is active.)

Northrup said in a video post on social media she felt oddly encouraged by all the critical attention, once telling fans: “How have you been strengthened and illuminated by what’s going on? Are you a new person, like I am? I’m way different.”

She paused and added, “Actually, I’m just way more myself.”

Meanwhile, an Oklahoma businessman named Clay Clark recruited Northrup for a roadshow organized to protest pandemic health orders. As part of these events, which tour mostly Pentecostal churches across the country, Northrup joined speakers including pillow salesman Mike Lindell and politico Roger Stone. Reached by phone, Clark said, “Dr. Christiane Northrup is on an unapologetic search for truth, and one of the only doctors I could find speaking out.”

Clark also shared footage of a recent tour stop in Arizona. In it, Northrup bounded onstage and said, “The covid shot is a murder weapon. There is no reason to take it,” and watched as the crowd rose in applause.

Northrup has continued her crusade online, recently sharing posts about Disney agendas, biolabs in Ukraine, and the YouTube sermons of a Christian prophetess known for claims that Trump’s election was divinely-ordained. In podcast interviews Northrup also shared plans to develop a dating app for the unvaccinated (“for people with golden DNA”) and suggested a new book could be in the works.

In December, the winter solstice provided an opportunity for her to reflect on all that’s transpired over the last two years.

As the sun set, she took her seat at the desk in Maine and communed with the Warriors of the Radical Light on Facebook. Northrup cradled her harp and wore a talismanic necklace. For the next hour she cooed to the camera about elves and lizard cults and curses radiating from the White House. She waved off the vaccine (“your health comes from God”) and summoned battalions of warrior angels (“not the cherubic little angels, these are the big guys”) to come to her aid.

She concluded with a prayer: “Heavenly Father and Mother, Mary, Jesus, Joseph, Saint Michael, everybody in this vibe tribe, this high-power vibe tribe, we thank you.”

Northrup said, “All of us have gone through grief and loss and burned away the dross of relationships that no longer served.”

She clasped her hands, gave a bow, and cut off the camera.

Sam Kestenbaum is a writer based in California.