# A timely book on our future #the internet is my religion #jim gilliam








Each one of us is a creator, but together we are THE creator.

“God is just what happens when humanity is connected.”

“If God is humanity connected, then the internet is God incarnate; a manifestation of our connection, a rudimentary form of hyper-connected humanity.”

“# is the symbol of a connected humanity.”

Please read this book and share if freely:  the-internet-is-my-religion

If you are in a place where you cannot read it easily, I have posted it below for you. Please share this book, buy this book and support this author by going here: http://www.internetismyreligion.com/

520 S. Grand Avenue, Second Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Copyright © 2015 by Jim Gilliam
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
First edition, 2015
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015937871
Designed by Jonathan D. Lippincott
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
For Mom
Foreword by Ben Horowitz ix
Introduction 3
Infinity’s Edge 9
Runaway Train 47
Escape from the Evangelical Ghetto 81
Peace 117
Silent all these Years 135
The Long Way Around 159
Breathe 171
Revelations 177
Afterword 183
Acknowledgments 187
Are great leaders born or made? As someone
who invests in and advises CEOs, I care deeply
about that question. Do great leaders come
out of the womb with the charisma, grit, and
courage to move men and women to do great
things? Or are great leaders forged from intense
experience and great training? There are many
seemingly “natural” leaders, but almost none
would say that they were born that way. But if
leaders are made, then why is true leadership
nearly impossible to teach?
I was never really comfortable with my answer
to this question until I met Jim Gilliam. I
first met Jim when he came to pitch my venture
capital firm Andreessen Horowitz to invest
in his company NationBuilder. NationBuilder,
Jim explained, was software that he built to help
leaders communicate with and organize their
followers. It was a breakthrough concept made
possible by a series of prior technological advances,
including the development of the internet
and the rise of social networking.
As interesting as NationBuilder was, it still
had what we affectionately refer to in technology
as “a bootstrapping problem.” Bootstrapping,
taken from the nineteenth-century-era phrase,
refers to starting a self-sustaining process. For
example, how do you start a computer before
loading the operating system into memory? You
need a process before the process. Leadership
software was great, but where would the leaders
come from?
To understand the solution to NationBuilder’s
bootstrapping problem, I first had to understand
Exceptionally tall, impossibly thin, and
white as ghost, Jim does not look like a born
leader. His shy personality and awkward manner
only reinforce this initial perception. Beyond
that, Jim has no military or management training.
He has not worked for great leaders in his
career, and he has no formal training.
Yet Jim is a real leader. He has a clear, comxi
pelling vision, he inspires people to greatness, and
he leads with a focus so intense that if you get in
his way, he’ll burn a hole in you with his eyes.
He had already accomplished amazing things in
life, ranging from turning obscure documentary
films into blockbusters to rallying a community
that he created to help him get a new pair of lungs
after chemotherapy had burned out his original
pair. And then, with no background and no connections,
he built a very promising new company.
If Jim was neither born nor made, where
did this come from? How did this gangly, awkward
man learn to lead?
As I got to know Jim and his story, I learned
the answer to this question and to my larger question
as well. Leaders are neither born nor made;
they are found. This book is about Jim’s journey
to find his inner leader. It’s a journey that all leaders
must go through, but one that almost nobody
ever talks about. It’s about learning to think for
yourself and sharing what you know in the best
and most impactful way possible. I hope that
as you read this book, you will find your inner
leader—and then lead the world to great things.
Ben Horowitz
March 2015
I’d just flown into New York. I was staying at
a random stranger’s apartment near NYU that
I’d found through Airbnb after Facebook informed
me that we had three mutual friends.
The wi-fi password was not on a sticky note in
the kitchen like it was supposed to be. I texted
the owner, but she didn’t know what the password
was. Why was this not a big deal? If the
water wasn’t working, that would be a crisis,
but I could do without a shower before I could
do without internet!
I was a little high strung. Crazy nervous,
really. In two days I would be giving the most
important speech of my life. Standing in front
of 800 of the most influential political and technology
professionals in the world, I was going
to tell a deeply personal story about religion that
I wasn’t even sure I could get through without
crying. I had no idea how they would react, and
I was terrified that I’d be booed off the stage.
The morning of the Personal Democracy
Forum, I sat between Ben Rattray from
Change.org and Jay Rosen from NYU in the
first row as I waited for my turn to speak. It felt
like I was the only person in the entire room
not staring at a glowing screen. Instead, I was
staring at the floor reciting the speech over and
over again in my head. Then three friends—
Lea, Ramin, and Jesse—walked in and sat behind
me. They were the only ones who knew
what I was about to do.
Micah Sifry, the conference organizer and
a great friend, called me to the stage. I repeated
the first line of the speech in my head, Growing
up I had two loves: Jesus and the internet. And then
I started.
In the Christian faith, giving one’s testimony
about how Jesus saved your life is the
necessary rite of passage. It’s the personal story
of transformation that spreads the Good News
from person to person, one by one, to every
corner of the earth. These stories of faith in
Christ formed the basis for the infrastructure
behind the most powerful movement in human
history. So on that day, I shared my struggle
with faith, my story of transformation, my
testimony—with a twist.
Towards the end, people started clapping.
I waited, but then everyone kept clapping and
started standing up! It was the last thing I expected.
I finally got my head together and motioned
that I had one more thing to say, just
one more thing.
When I finished, the place erupted again.
I had managed not to cry, just barely. But,
looking around the room, it seemed like others
hadn’t. Completely exhausted, totally overwhelmed,
and fully unable to process what was
happening, I snuck out through the side entrance
of the auditorium. A couple people from
the audience ran after me. More people kept
coming, but my friends finally found me and
steered me away. Alone, we stared at each other
in disbelief.
“What just happened?!”
“Um . . . I think you just started a religion.”
“Oh my God, I forgot this was being
And then Ramin asked, “Did you see
Twitter?” That got everyone’s attention.
There were thousands of tweets.
Within a couple days, the video had been
seen 300,000 times and I had a major publisher
offer me a $100,000 book deal. Agents were
crawling all over me. They told me I could
sell my story for a million dollars if I wanted
and there would be a hundred copies in every
But what no one knew was that Lea and I
had been working on a book for over a year. It
was through that process with her that I’d come
to discover what I really believed, and why I
knew—and knew I had to tell—my story.
I was an activist and a geek. I saw my
strength as building technology infrastructure
for leaders and had just started a new company,
NationBuilder, to do exactly that. But
I’d learned about the power of stories while
producing documentaries. The stories we tell
create our culture. They illuminate our worldviews.
It took me a long time to accept that
possibly the most important thing I could offer
wasn’t something I would build, but was simply
telling my story.
I believe that there is a new worldview. One
based on internet values and the connectedness
of all humanity—where instead of waiting for
a savior, we create the future. And I now know
that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I turned down the book deals and told the
agents to go away. We’re publishing this on the
internet, for free. For this story, there really is
no other way. I have faith that you will share
it with your friends, family, and community—
that’s the only way it will exist in the world.
But most importantly, I hope that you will
share your own story, your testimony, your
faith in what’s possible when God just happens.
In the beginning was the personal computer.
I was thirteen months old when my parents
moved from Southern California to Woodstock,
New York, so my dad could realize his
lifelong dream of working for IBM, the world’s
then-largest computer company. It was 1978, a
year after the release of the Apple II, and the
beginning of what would become the personalcomputer
Two years later, IBM announced its answer
to Apple and the other personal computers that
were becoming popular with hobbyists—the
IBM PC. A year from the PC’s release, there
was just one small problem: IBM didn’t have
any software for it. The PC would be useless
to the average person without software, so the
PC division launched the Employee Software
Program, which gave employees the opportunity
to create and submit software and, if the
software was accepted by IBM, to receive royalties
on each copy of it that was sold. It was
every computer geek’s dream. The PC specs
were distributed internally and ideas began
flying around. Like everyone else, my dad was
desperate to get his hands on an actual computer,
but the employee waiting list was excruciatingly
long. Finally, in November 1981, he
got the call that his computer was ready.
This was my big chance. To avoid paying
New York sales tax on the five-thousand-dollar
computer, my dad had ordered it from a
store in Nashua, New Hampshire, two hundred
miles away. Which meant that Dad was
going on a road trip. And, as a four-year-old
who had to stay at home with my mom every
day, nothing was more exciting to me than the
possibility of going on an adventure with my
dad. I begged him to let me come along, and
when I was finally sitting by his side in his cool
brown Ford Pinto, I was in heaven. Four hours
later, my dad put down the seat in the hatchback
and heaved two gigantic boxes into the
back. I wasn’t sure what they contained, but I
knew it had to be something special.
Computers of the era were mainframes—
giant multiuser machines that were housed in
their own rooms and accessible only to trained
operators. Each computer cycle was precious,
and they were allocated judiciously only to the
most deserving. These mainframes were real
computers, and real computers were IBM’s
business. The hobbyist desire for a personal
computer had required a response, but IBM assumed
that because the PC could be used by
only one person at a time, it would never have
enough power to do more than one thing at
a time. It was a throw-away machine, as evidenced
by the nonchalance with which the
Employee Software Program was launched.
No one expected it to be more than a silly little
crap computer. Except for my dad and his
buddy Larry Raper.
My dad worked on his new computer all
the time. I sat next to him, keeping as quiet as
I could as he pounded the keys of the magical
machine. The clickety-clack of the keyboard
echoed through the house, always drawing me
back beside him. My mom and my baby sis12
ter, Kelly, happily ignored us. Cryptic-looking
characters appeared on the screen as my dad
typed, and I just knew that he was doing something
important. What I didn’t know was that
he was working on his opus—an operating system
called Program Manager that would allow
the PC to multitask. No one at the company
thought such a thing was possible, so for the
next six months my dad and Larry worked every
night and through the weekends to prove
them wrong. In June 1982, they started beta
testing Program Manager with their fellow
employees, and it stunned all of IBM. What
they’d accomplished was inconceivable, and
my dad spent the next six months taking trips
to the PC division in Boca Raton, Florida, to
explain how it worked.
By the end of the year, the higher-ups in
the company understood that with Program
Manager, IBM had an operating system that
wouldn’t have to be licensed from outside the
company. IBM would own it outright and
could ship it with every computer. Beyond.
Epic. My dad and Larry signed a contract with
Don Estridge, the head of the PC division,
which included an eleven-dollar-per-copy royalty
agreement and a job for my dad at IBM
Research out in Silicon Valley. They had done
the impossible.
Team Gilliam was on fire. Right around
that time, my mom gave birth to my new baby
sister, Kristen; we bought a fancy house in San
Jose, California; and Mom, the girls, and I
headed west while Dad stayed in Woodstock to
pack up our house. The night before the movers
were scheduled to come, Larry called. The
deal was off; without any explanation, IBM
was killing Program Manager.
My dad was beside himself. We’d already
sold our house and bought a new one with a
massive mortgage; the family was waiting in
California, and if my dad left IBM he’d have
to pay back all the moving expenses, which he
couldn’t afford to do. But most importantly,
he needed to know what had happened. Why
would IBM turn its back on such an important
My dad and Larry kept pushing for an explanation
but they got none, so they flew to
Boca Raton to see Don Estridge in person.
He kept trying to appease them with corporate
speak, but my dad wouldn’t let him off the
hook. Finally, Don said that to launch the PC
on time, IBM had made a contract to ship a
software called DOS—what everyone considered
to be a weak operating system, and that
IBM would not own—with every computer. It
hadn’t expected to have its own operating system,
let alone one far superior to everything
else on the market, and designed specifically
for the IBM PC. But IBM had already committed
to DOS, and it didn’t want to hurt its
relationship with the new guy on the scene,
Bill Gates, or his company, Microsoft.
Furious, my dad knew that with their
signed contract, he and Larry could sue IBM.
So they met with IBM’s chief legal counsel,
Nicholas Katzenbach, who had previously
served as attorney general under President Lyndon
B. Johnson. Katzenbach made one thing
clear: IBM owned them. They could try battling
Goliath, but they would most certainly
lose, and the whole ordeal would be hell for
them and their families, both financially and
emotionally. My dad wanted to fight; Larry
didn’t. IBM offered a settlement of $40,000.
To prevent my dad from quitting and going to
work for a competitor, the company spread out
the payments over three years. And they each
got a new PC . . . with DOS.
Historically, that moment was important,
given what happened as a result—Microsoft
slaughtered IBM in the software business
and Bill Gates became the richest man in the
world—but for our family it just meant that
we became Christian fundamentalists.
The Moral Majority and Me
I don’t remember falling off the jungle gym.
It was my favorite place to be at recess, high
atop the playground and away from all the
screaming kids. I knew everyone expected me
to make friends at my new school, but I just
wanted to read my book. Alice gave me access
to a different world filled with strange characters
and endless adventures. Wonderland came
alive every night in my dreams, where I was
chased by the Queen through winding mazes.
I built castles in the sandbox, but when others
came to play with me, I escaped to the top
of the jungle gym. There I perched, reading,
lost in my own daydreams. Then one day I fell.
And unlike Alice after her fall, I was actually
hurt. I needed stitches. But the cool part was
that my copy of Alice in Wonderland was forever
after covered in blood.
Every day after school, I’d rush home for a
very important date: to watch Penny and Brain
secretly save the day on Inspector Gadget. Our
new home in Silicon Valley was nothing like
our house in Woodstock. On Dorsey Lane there
was no lake that would freeze over in the winter,
no deer eating the vegetables in our garden,
no giant woodpile in front of our house. We
were in a new suburban tract home, not in the
middle of nowhere, and I could now visit our
neighbors without climbing a huge hill. And
instead of a forest at the edge of our backyard,
we now had Los Gatos Christian Church.
My parents rarely went to church when we
lived in New York, so I’d never really been to
one before. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have been
anything like Los Gatos Christian Church.
LGCC was not your average congregation. It
was one of the country’s new megachurches,
and it was ground zero for the growing fundamentalist
movement in the United States—and
for Jerry Falwell’s newly established Moral Majority.
When we walked in for our first Sunday
service, we were welcomed by thousands
of members; a choir of singers who all could
have had recording contracts; and information
about the youth basketball, baseball, and soccer
leagues. The church bulletin announced that
fall enrollment was open for the elementary and
middle schools. My parents were impressed.
Christianity had always been a part of their
lives. My mom was raised a Christian and my
dad became one in junior high because, as my
mom liked to tease him, all the pretty girls were
in Sunday school. They both attended First Baptist
Church of Downey throughout high school,
but it wasn’t until a summer night in 1971 that
they finally met. My dad was on break from
University of California, Irvine, and decided
to go to his first evening service in years. My
mom decided to do the same thing on the same
June night. When you’re in college there’s always
an after-party—even after church. When
they bumped into each other there, my mom
recognized my dad as the guy who used to play
guitar and lead the songs in their high school
youth group. She’d just returned home from a
vacation, was exhausted, and felt gross. My dad
was instantly smitten.
There was something special about Kathy.
She was undeniably beautiful, but what hooked
my dad was that she was a math major at University
of California, Los Angeles. Rather than
asking her how old she was, he asked which
math classes she was taking. Recognizing all
the upper-division classes she had listed, he figured
out that she was going into her senior year.
Kathy thought his tactic was pretty clever, so
she said yes when he asked her to a beach party
the following day. He picked her up the next
afternoon in his spotless red Camaro, which
was not nearly as impressive to her as his math
skills were. Over the next few months, driving
back and forth between Irvine and L.A., my dad
learned that Kathy was fiercely moral, creative,
and crazy smart—and that she refused to listen
to the people who said that “good girls” should
just study social sciences. She was a math geek,
the only woman in most of her classes, and intent
on getting her teaching certificate so she could
teach high-school students. And, for some reason,
she thought my dad’s pi jokes were charming.
Q.E.D. They were married nine months
later and within a few years were happily raising
a family. Their love was the pillar of our lives;
Christianity was just part of the scenery.
My dad was the one who changed that.
He’d done everything the “right” way. He’d
gone to college, worked hard, had a family, and
gotten his dream job with the one company he
believed was going to change the world. But
IBM had shunned his software out of cowardice.
He suddenly found himself bound with
shiny golden handcuffs to a company he had
no faith in. My dad lost his purpose, and in the
wake of his devastation, my parents fell headfirst
into Los Gatos Christian Church and its
ready-made community.
It was LGCC’s assistant pastor Mike Williams
who radicalized him. Mike was teaching
from John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to
Jesus, and he insisted my dad read it. The book’s
main premise was that many people who think
that they are Christian really aren’t. You had
to choose: Were you going to be a lip-service
Christian who shows up only on Sundays, or
were you going to dedicate your life to the service
of Jesus? My parents chose. They went all
For the next few years, I existed completely
in the insular, protective, perfectly curated
fundamentalist-Christian bubble that my parents
created for me. I went to school, played piano,
and went to church, all within a one-mile
radius. My dad coached all my sports teams in
the church’s leagues. My parents held monthly
small-group Bible studies at our home. There
was no part of my life that wasn’t church, which
was fine with me, because church was exciting.
On some Sundays we even had to drive
through people yelling at us in order to get to
the service. Apparently, we were very popular.
But that was nothing like when the
preacher from TV came to town. It was May
7, 1986, and I was actually going to get to see
Jerry Falwell in person. My parents and I regularly
watched his Old Time Gospel Hour, and
my dad had even donated enough money to get
his own special printing of the Old Time Gospel
Hour Bible. My mom kept it next to the TV
in the family room. On the short drive to the
church, we passed hundreds of protesters—all
yelling and shaking signs at us. I had no idea
what they were saying, but it was intoxicating.
I was part of something that all these people
cared about! The sermon was electric. Dr. Jerry
Falwell rallied the crowd with the Moral Majority’s
past victories—including the election of
Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980—
and with the victories still to come. I had no
idea what abortion or the “gay plague” was,
but I knew one thing: this was the place to be.
A few months later, I was born again. Many
Christians baptize infants, but in the Protestant
faith, you have to make the decision to let Jesus
into your heart yourself to receive His grace. I
hadn’t yet, but all my friends at church had, my
teachers wanted me to, and I knew it would
make my parents proud. As my dad put me to
bed one night I told him that I wanted Jesus to
come into my heart. I wanted his grace to wash
away my sins. What did I have to do? My dad
said that all I had to do was say a special prayer.
He told me to repeat after him, “Dear Jesus. I
believe you are the son of God, you died on the
cross for my sins, and rose from the dead three
days later. Please forgive me of my sins, and
come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior.
Thank you Jesus. Amen.”
After I finished the prayer, I went to the
bathroom to brush my teeth. I looked at myself
in the mirror and smiled. My dad asked me if
I looked different. I said that I did. Of course
I did—I was giving my life to Jesus. All I had
to do now was declare it to my church and be
publicly baptized.
At the end of the morning service the following
Sunday, I walked to the front of the
auditorium with my parents and told the deacon
I was ready to be baptized. He took me
to a special room and asked for my testimony.
I told him how much I loved Jesus and that
I believed he was my Savior. He smiled, held
my hand while we prayed together, then pulled
out the master calendar. Because there were so
many people accepting Jesus into their hearts at
LGCC, baptisms had to be prescheduled. He
slotted me in for three weeks later.
At Los Gatos Christian Church, baptisms
were a public spectacle. The church auditorium
seated three thousand and the stage made for an
impressive show. It was flanked on the right by a
screen showing song lyrics and on the left by the
baptismal pool. Above everything hung a massive,
backlit cross. Those being reborn did so with
full theater lighting and an audience of thousands.
I was terrified. I was shy and hated being noticed.
But this wasn’t about me. It was about Jesus.
On the evening of my baptism, Dad dropped
me off backstage and a church deacon gave me a
white robe. I changed in the bathroom and then
headed, trembling, to the waiting area. When
it was time, the pastor called me out onto the
platform. Standing in my robe before the pool,
I was introduced to the congregation as a member
making a public stand for Jesus. The eyes of
thousands of fellow believers bore witness as I
was dipped in the water three times, signifying
my rebirth into the body of Christ “in the name
of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I
was eight years old.
For the next two years, I was killing it with
Jesus. I was the star of my baseball team, I had a
ton of friends, I rocked my piano lessons, and I
dominated the playground with my four-square
skills. Little did I know that at the same time,
my parents were listening to Dr. Falwell trash
the West Coast, and California was beginning
to look to them like heathen territory—especially
to my mom. She wanted to raise her
children in a more godly environment. My
parents broke the news that we were moving
the summer before I turned ten. My dad was
transferring to IBM’s facility at the Research
Triangle Park in North Carolina. Leaving Los
Gatos made no sense to me, and I didn’t want
to go, but my parents assured me that we’d find
a similar community wherever we went. And
they were right: I did find a community. But it
was nothing like LGCC.
Rush Limbaugh vs. Tori Amos
We moved to Chandler’s Green, a brand-new
subdivision that had been carved out of a forest
between Chapel Hill and Durham. Our huge
house was surrounded by towering pines, and
I liked to stay up late and watch the Carolina
rainstorms turn the trees into dancing giants.
There was only one other boy in the neighborhood
when we moved in, so I ended up
playing a lot of basketball with my dad. But
the biggest difference in my life was the reappearance
of my dad’s computer. I hadn’t seen
it since we’d left Woodstock, but when we
arrived in Chapel Hill, he put it upstairs in
the family room where we all watched TV.
I started to sit next to him again, pestering
him with questions while he worked on the
One day he brought home a funny-looking
phone thing that plugged in to his computer.
When I asked my dad what it was, he told me
that it was a modem, and that it connected the
computer in our family room to his computer
at work. I watched in disbelief as he punched
commands into his home computer that would
then control the computer at his office. Wait,
what? Computers could talk to each other?!
What were they saying? What was on all the
other computers? My dad didn’t have the answers,
but I had to know. I became curiouser
and curiouser, and I was determined to figure
out how to connect our computer to all the
other computers.
I begged my mom to take me to the library
so I could scour books and magazines for the
answers. But all the computer magazines were
just about computers and not about modems!
So I went to the stacks where they had old, unindexed
magazines and combed through them,
looking for any clue that might tell me what
to do next. I finally hit the gold mine and discovered
that our modem was 1200 bps—and
that I needed special software called ProComm
to use it. By some miracle, ProComm didn’t
cost a thing; I just had to pay for the diskette
that it came on. When the disk arrived a few
weeks later, I immediately loaded the software
on my dad’s computer. Now all I had to do was
find a phone number that actually had a computer
on the other end of it. There was only
one thing that could help me on my quest, so I
begged my mom to take me to the local drugstore.
There I found Computer Shopper—every
computer geek’s Bible—sitting right next to all
the trashy romance novels. But Computer Shopper
was no ordinary magazine. It was two articles
and a thousand pages of mail-order ads for
everything a computer lover could ever want.
Plus the one thing I was looking for: tiny classified
listings of Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes)—
computers to call in every area code in
the country.
Even though we lived in Chapel Hill, we
had a Durham phone number, so that was the
only area code I could call for free. I scanned
through hundreds of listings until I found one
for Durham. I scribbled Bull City BBS’s number
on my hand, carefully concealing it from
my mom as she drove me home. I raced upstairs,
loaded up ProComm, and held my breath
as I dialed the number. The modem made the
most bizarre squealing sound I’d ever heard,
like it was trying to mate with a rhinoceros.
It was the sound I would hear for many years,
the sound that meant computers were talking
to each other. I stared at the screen, waiting
for something to happen—please God, please
God!—then miraculously, line by line, text began
to appear. The only thing that prevented
me from jumping around the room was fear of
missing what was going to happen next.
When the screen finished loading I saw
what every boy who’s been forbidden to play
Nintendo dreams of: free games. Lots of free
games. I gorged myself for a few weeks before
I got bored. I started poking around and
found listings for a few other Durham BBSes,
and saw that BBSes weren’t just about games
or software; they were a whole other world.
Each BBS was a community with its own culture.
And the best part? It didn’t matter what I
looked like or how old I was.
When you’re twelve years old, you don’t
want to stand out. And I literally stood out. I
was 6’2”. But online I didn’t have to slouch.
No one knew I was tall or geeky or awkward.
They didn’t know that I had skipped seventh
grade and was the youngest kid in my class.
I got to hang out with people way older than
me, and they took me seriously. BBSes were
the place to be. They were almost as exciting as
right-wing talk radio.
Rush Limbaugh had only recently exploded
onto the national scene, and my dad was
a full-on dittohead. Rush made liberal-bashing
a sport. We were building a movement mocking
feminazis and tree huggers, and my young
skull full of mush couldn’t get enough of it.
I listened to him every afternoon, along with
WRTP Durham—a 10,000-watt AM station
that was a combination of contemporary Chris28
tian music and conservative talk radio. It was
the perfect station for me because they fused
God and country together, just like Los Gatos.
And it was small enough that I could make
my favorite songs number one on the weekly
countdown by calling in over and over again.
Soon, I was a regular caller on Adam Mc-
Manus’s “Take A Stand” program. I called in
on Earth Day and trashed the environmental
movement, faithfully reciting Rush’s talking
points. Adam was so impressed that he invited
me to come to the station and find out how it
all worked. The first thing I saw when I walked
in was that he had not one but two CD players!
He showed me everything—all the records,
how you can speed up or slow down songs to
make them fit in the allotted time, and that he
just dialed the weather number every hour so
he could report it to his listeners. All the mystery
disappeared from my beloved radio program;
it was just one person taking a stand and
having an impact. I could do that for what I
cared about, too! And there was just one thing
that really mattered to everyone I knew: the
murder of four thousand unborn babies every
I’d been hearing about the horrors of abor29
tion for years, and it was time for me to do
something about it. My parents didn’t think
that a trip to the annual March for Life rally in
Washington, D.C.—commemorating the anniversary
of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade
decision—would make for much of a family
vacation, so I convinced them to put a bumper
sticker on our car that said, the most dangerous
place to live in america is in a mother’s
womb. The sticker caused a lot of grief in our
neighborhood, and resulted in a few notes—
which said things like “the most dangerous
place to live in America is in YOUR mind”—
being left on our car, but I was undeterred. I
had to take a stand, just like Adam and Rush. I
passed out flyers on the Fourth of July. I made
comparisons to the Holocaust and the Vietnam
and Korean Wars, righteously indignant that
this injustice was occurring in our country every
single day.
Meanwhile, my mom was growing frustrated
with my education. After graduating
from UCLA with her math degree, she’d gotten
her teaching certificate as planned, then
taught algebra to rival gang members at Los
Angeles High School. After five years she left
to raise me, and she poured all her energy into
ensuring that I received the best education possible.
In Woodstock, it was at the well-regarded
Montessori school. In California, it was LGCC.
But in North Carolina it was the tiny Cresset
Christian Academy, and CCA just wasn’t cutting
She knew I wasn’t being challenged, but
when she found out that my math teacher was
making me sit off to the side and teach myself
with a different textbook than all the other
kids were using, it was the last straw. One day
I came home from school and my parents told
me I never had to go back. We were moving to
Raleigh, where they’d found a more Bible-believing
church, and my mom was going to
teach us herself. That was fine by me. Raleigh
had a lot more BBSes.
To Mom, being our teacher was a serious
duty, and it gave her the opportunity to fully
shield us from the corrupting influences of the
secular world. Now parent, teacher, and moral
guide, my mom was on a mission to create
the perfect children. She taught my sisters at
the kitchen table every day, but because I was
older, my lessons were assigned in the morning
and then reviewed by my dad when he got
home from work. This new system worked out
perfectly for me, because I was pretty much on
my own during the day. All I had to do was
plow through my schoolwork, and then I could
focus on my real mission: building an intergalactic
empire. Trade Wars was my new favorite
game. There weren’t any graphics, but that
didn’t matter, because you didn’t play against
the computer—you played online, against
other real people! Methodically exploring trade
routes and plotting universal domination was
way more interesting than cell mitosis.
Right after my thirteenth birthday, my dad
inadvertently shoved me further down the rabbit
hole. New versions of PCs were popping up
everywhere, and he decided that it was finally
time to get a faster computer. It was a huge
purchase, and I pored over copies of Computer
Shopper, trying to figure out what model he
should buy. We ended up committing sacrilege
and deliberately got an IBM clone instead of
an IBM. But our act of rebellion didn’t matter
much in the end. His computer was one of the
first models to have Windows, the new program
Microsoft had created to enable the PC to
multitask. When you turned on the computer,
the first thing that appeared was the name of
that program. It was called Program Manager.
My dad gave me the old computer, but I
used his all the time because I needed a faster
computer to crush my new favorite game, Sim-
City. In most games, winning meant killing
someone or destroying something. But Sim-
City was about building. I learned about urban
planning and how systems worked. Then I
learned the secret to winning: what really mattered
was what the programmer thought was
the right way to do something. I could reduce
pollution and make my city more attractive to
residents by building only train stations. Who
needs cars anyway? It was totally impractical,
but it didn’t matter, because I was living in the
world created by the programmer. The SimCity
programmer was God, and understanding
what God wanted helped me build better cities
and make my citizens happy.
The more I played the game, the further
I fell into the SimCity community. My dad’s
computer had Prodigy, a precursor to America
Online. The creators of Prodigy thought
their service would be used for shopping, and
email would be used primarily to send customers
their sales receipts, but I used it to connect
with other SimCity players. We figured out
how to send email to a large group of people
all at once, and we formed an unofficial Sim-
City Club. Together we learned how to hack
the game, cram as many people as possible into
our towns while minimizing pollution—hint,
no roads!—and share our cities. We weren’t
the only ones to figure out this mailing-list
trick, and soon Prodigy started charging people
to send email. This completely shut down
our club, as sending a single message would
have cost over forty dollars, but it devastated
the Prodigy community as a whole, too. It was
like the barista walking around the coffee shop
demanding a quarter before you could talk to
your friends. It was outrageous. Thousands of
people protested. But it didn’t matter, because
Prodigy only cared about people communicating
with one another if they could make
money from it. So I decided that I would build
a space for people to hang out—I was going to
start my own BBS.
There were just two things standing in my
way. First, my computer was way too slow to
run a BBS, and, second, I needed a separate,
dedicated phone line. I didn’t think I could
sell either of those ideas to my parents. But an
unforeseen variable soon came to my aid: my
dad’s love for my mom. She was burning out
on teaching my sisters, so he wrote a custom
program to automate half of the day’s lessons.
He converted the Bob Jones homeschooling
textbooks into a database of questions that my
sisters and I would have to answer with exactly
the correct responses, letter for letter. They
were called our “files,” and my parents realized
that all three of us kids would only be able to do
them at the same time if we had our own computers.
So they bought two for my sisters, and
I convinced my dad that it would be cheaper if
he gave me his—which just happened to be a
lot faster. He said yes. A few months later, my
parents got so sick of me tying up the home
phone line that they got another one. I had everything
I needed for my BBS. 🙂
A few weeks later, I unveiled with great
pride . . . Gilligan’s Island. The afternoon of
the launch, my eyes were fixed on the screen,
waiting for my first caller. But by dinnertime
no one had dialed in, and I was deflated. What
if people didn’t want to be a part of my community?
I connected a phone to the modem so
I would hear if a call came in during dinner.
After two bites of poached chicken and quinoa,
the phone rang and I bolted upstairs to watch
my first user. After scoping the place out, he
posted a public message welcoming me and my
new board to the scene. Holy crap! That was it
for me, I was hooked. I’d built something that
mattered, and I never wanted to do anything
else ever again. I spent all my time designing
and coding my online space. Eventually, the
phone would ring so often that I had to turn
off the ringer.
Then the unthinkable happened. One Sunday
afternoon, I came home from church and
discovered that someone had hacked Gilligan’s
Island. I was mortified, but no one was going to
stop me. I immediately started designing a new
BBS—Infinity’s Edge. This time I was much
smarter and more cynical in how I built it. My
second week online, someone called into Infinity’s
Edge as “Doppelganger.” The person
requested a chat with the sysop—me—and
we started chatting. “Doppelganger” became
an online friend, but after a while Andy (his
real name) and I began talking on the phone.
It turned out his dad also worked for IBM. We
traded ideas back and forth for weeks, until
he revealed to me that he was the one who’d
hacked my BBS—which made us even better
Andy was definitely not a Christian. While
I’d been teaching at Vacation Bible School, attending
Bob Jones University’s Homeschool
Conferences with my parents, and going on
mission trips, he’d been working at a record
store and calling pirate BBSes. He introduced
me to an edgier side of the online world, even
as I relentlessly tried to convert him. Andy and
I figured out how to get on the internet—this
thing we’d heard about that connected all the
important computers in the world. He set up
his computer to war dial thousands of phone
numbers and to keep track of any computers
that answered. Then we called each one to see
if it was a university or a corporate network
that was connected to the internet. Once connected,
we used telnet to connect to any computer
we wanted, for free. We were moving up
in the world.
But to be really cool, I needed a faster modem.
All the elites had fast modems and they
wouldn’t waste their time calling BBSes with
slow ones. My social status was in jeopardy. I
needed a 14.4k modem from USRobotics, the
online equivalent of a Ferrari. The problem,
of course, was my parents. They were completely
in charge of my money; anything I had
ever earned and saved was in their possession,
logged meticulously in a little red book known
as “the card.” So, even once I had saved up
enough money, I would still have to convince
my parents to let me buy the modem. Which
was definitely not on the preapproved purchase
list from the Bank of Gilliam.
School had become a major source of tension,
because I just wanted to hang out on my
BBS all the time. I tried to get through my files
as quickly as possible so I could go online or
sleep. My mom kept complaining to my dad
that I was sleeping all day. They finally figured
out that it was because I was staying up all
night on the computer. Oops. So my parents
were not fans of the new modem plan, and my
dad was becoming increasingly vocal about his
opinion that I was wasting my life. He didn’t
understand what had captured my attention so
thoroughly, and I certainly wasn’t going to explain
it to him. Leaving out a few details didn’t
count as lying, did it?
My dad was the enforcer of rules in our
household, but it was my mom who made
them. Her most important rule was never,
ever, to lie—especially not to her. I’d learned
this rule early on when, as a six-year-old, I’d
discovered that instead of brushing my teeth
at night, I could just wet the brush to make it
look like I had. But then one night my mom
asked me if I’d brushed my teeth, and I lied. I
was apparently not quite the clever innovator
I thought I was, and I learned that the toothbrush-
wetting trick is on page seventeen in the
parents’ guide to six-year-olds. After discovering
my treachery, my mom sat me down and
said: “Jimmy, I know this seems like it doesn’t
matter, but if I can’t trust you on the little stuff,
I’ll never be able to trust you on the big stuff,
when it really does matter.” I hadn’t lied to my
mom since that day. Good people love God and
don’t lie. So whether or not lying by omission
counted as actual lying was kind of a crucial
distinction for me. Especially because of Tori.
Andy had introduced me to a number of
things that I knew my parents would disapprove
of, but it was Tori Amos, a classically
trained pianist who had grown up in North
Carolina as a preacher’s kid, that would have
sent my parents to the altar weeping. Tori’s
songs weren’t played on the radio and she was
ever so clearly a feminazi. I absolutely loved her
music and felt like I was personally betraying
Jesus every time I listened to her songs “God,”
“Crucify,” and “Icicle.” The internal struggle
over whether or not to listen to evil, secular,
rock music was a constant source of discussion
at my church youth group, but even while
agreeing with everyone, I couldn’t bring myself
to talk about Tori. I was racked with guilt
each time I pressed play and heard that the
“good book is missing some pages” or “God
sometimes you just don’t come through.” But I
didn’t stop listening.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
I started working at the local grocery store,
Harris Teeter, when I was fifteen. I worked as
much as the store would let me, determined to
earn my own money. My paychecks went to my
parents, of course, but I soon figured out how
to hack their banking system. To buy things
I wanted without them knowing, I needed
money that was “off the books.” Since I had to
eat while on the job, I realized that I could eat
cheap food, bring home receipts that weren’t
mine, and get reimbursed for more than what
I’d spent. It was easy to get receipts for a burger
and fries from the Chargrill next door, then
eat thirty-seven-cents’ worth of macaroni and
cheese from the frozen-food aisle at the store.
With my off-book cash in hand, I biked to the
mall and bought cassette tapes and CDs they
would never let me buy, like Pearl Jam, Soul
Asylum, and Guns N’ Roses. Welcome to the
jungle, baby!
But the real reason I was so intent on making
money was because I needed a lot of it to
kick-start my new dream of starting an Internet
Service Provider (ISP). Over Christmas,
my parents had finally relented and let me buy
my new modem. People were connecting faster
than ever to Infinity’s Edge and I wanted more.
I dreamed about having a bunch of computers
and giving everyone access to the internet. I
created a business plan based around Linux, a
new open-source operating system, and I discovered
that I could bootstrap it for five thousand
dollars. My plan specified that to cut out
the cost of an office, I had to run it from home.
I told my dad that I needed to install thirty
phone lines in the house. He laughed me out of
the room. But I was serious!
My mom was becoming increasingly concerned
about the possible non-Christian influences
of my online world. She wasn’t exactly
sure that what I was doing on my computer
was wrong, but the fact that she could no longer
control my inputs bothered her. I had all
these “friends” who lived far away and seemed
sort of shady to her, and my dad was frustrated
that I was continuing to waste my time on a
pointless endeavor with no career possibilities.
He thought I should be programming, not
hanging out with people who went by monikers
like “Doppelganger.” I was irritated that
they were giving me such a hard time. I did
all my schoolwork; I wasn’t drinking or doing
drugs. I was a good kid by any metric.
Of course, I was being increasingly exposed
to the non-Christian world. I was working
at the grocery store with regular guys,
listening to forbidden music, and interacting
with many different types of people online. I
was hanging out in online subgroups—with
punks, Goths, and Tori fans—and learning
about people radically different than myself.
I made the mistake of standing up for creationism
on a Gen-X message board once and
got absolutely eviscerated. I was shell-shocked
by the tone and derisiveness of the response,
but I didn’t know what to make of it. In a
pre-search-engine era, I was getting information
from the people whom I interacted with
most frequently online. It was information I’d
never had inside my mom’s carefully crafted
world, and little chinks began showing up in
God’s armor. My faith in Him was still totally
intact, but I was beginning to grow skeptical
of certain church teachings. Meanwhile, my
mom was plunging ever deeper into the fundamentalist
homeschooling community. She
started reading Bill Gothard and subscribed to
Gentle Spirit, a magazine that chronicled the
latest advances in homesteading technology
alongside earnest arguments about the darkness
of lust and the holiness of arranged marriages.
It included pullout sewing patterns for
colonial-era clothing, which she was thrilled
to make but my sisters were less than thrilled
to wear.
I worked tirelessly on my dream of starting
an ISP and the tension between my parents and
me escalated. My dad told me I couldn’t get a
good job spending all my time online and that
if I wanted a future in computers, I should be
programming. Taking away my computer became
my parents’ primary form of punishment.
When my dad caught me sneaking out at night
to visit the non-Christian girl from the grocery
store with the jet-black hair, he locked the
computer up for weeks. But I figured out how
to unlock it and developed a work-around: I’d
pretend to be asleep while secretly listening to
my contraband music until my parents went to
bed. Then, carefully avoiding the parts of the
floor that creaked, I would sneak downstairs,
unlock the computer, and stay online all night.
I felt guilty about the deception, but the internet
was hands down winning the battle for my
heart. It was like having a girlfriend that my
parents didn’t like. They could try to stop me
from seeing her, but I was going to sneak out
at night. I was in love, and my parents couldn’t
do anything about it. At least, that’s what I
thought until I came home from work one day
and saw my stash of contraband CDs strewn
across my bed.
The music my mom discovered was so far
outside the bounds of acceptable Christian listening
that my parents didn’t know how to
react. The sheer volume of Satan’s music was
almost impossible for them to digest; the cover
alone of Soul Asylum’s album Grave Dancers
Union was enough to send me to hell. The records
were everything my parents had feared,
and they revealed the extent to which I’d been
deceiving them in a way that nothing else could
have. All my mom wanted was to raise me to
be a good, moral person, and this was the proof
that something had gone terribly wrong. My
mom had failed. She was utterly devastated.
My dad, convinced this was the internet’s fault,
took away my computer completely.
I was adamant that they were ruining my
life, and they were adamant that I was ruining
my life. Either way, one thing was certain: my
life was ruined. I didn’t know what to do, until
I found the computer in a hidden storage area
in my parents’ bathroom. I snuck it out, then
put it underneath a pile of dirty clothes in my
closet so I could run my BBS without them
knowing. Because the computer was supposed
to be hidden, my parents initially didn’t notice
it was gone. I spent a blissful few weeks
logging on late at night without interruption.
Until, of course, my dad found the computer
in my closet and totally freaked. He took the
computer and put it on a desk in my parents’
bedroom. There was no way I could run my
BBS now. They had disconnected me from my
entire world, taken away all my friends, and
killed my ISP dream, all at once. It was like
death to me. So I did the one thing I could
think of. I ran away.
I didn’t have to spend much time on a rainy
park bench to appreciate the realities of the
physical world. I had just turned sixteen, and
I had no money and nowhere to go. I stayed
awake all night in the pouring rain and thought
about my predicament. There was no way I
was giving up on the ISP. And I absolutely had
to run my BBS and be able to get online. But
clearly none of that was possible while I was
living at home. I had just one option: escape.
By the time my dad found me in the park the
next morning, drenched and shivering, I was
ready to play nice. The plan I’d spent all night
formulating depended on it.
It was the autumn of 1994, and North Carolina
had a law allowing high-school students,
even homeschoolers, to enroll in college classes.
If I took classes at Wake Tech Community College
for two years, got perfect grades, and then
applied as a transfer student to the University
of North Carolina, I would almost certainly be
accepted. And since the classes were so cheap,
I would get two years of my college education
for only a few hundred dollars. While everyone
else was wasting their time in high school, I
could enter UNC as a junior. I’d study law, fin48
ish before I was twenty, and go on to specialize
in some type of technology law. Or at least
that’s what I told my parents. UNC’s internet
operation was well known online because the
university ran one of the biggest download sites
and had put the first radio station on the internet.
I assumed that as soon as I was at school
and living on my own, I could figure out how
to start an ISP. I just had to get to UNC as
quickly as possible.
The first year of my plan worked perfectly.
Mom believed college was the gateway to a
good life. It was the foundation of doing things
the right way, which would ultimately lead to
meeting a good Christian girl, getting a good
job, having a beautiful family, and being successful
in life. Ever committed to my education,
she agreed that even though I would be
exposed to various non-Christian elements,
Wake Tech would be better for me than homeschooling.
The only problem was that I
couldn’t drive. Lessons with my dad had ended
in disaster. Contorting my way-too-tall body
to fit into our Honda hatchback wasn’t conducive
to operating the clutch properly, and the
frustration drove both of us off the deep end. So
three times a week, my mom drove the forty49
five minutes to Wake Tech, dropped me off,
drove home, and then drove back to get me in
the late afternoon. It was hard to hate her when
she was doing something that awesome for me,
so each car ride became a temporary break
from the tension at home. I was taking a bunch
of political-science and economics classes and
bounced my new ideas off her during our daily
stops at Hardee’s for twenty-five-cent softserve
ice-cream cones.
My political-science teacher was an ultraconservative
Republican consultant killing
time between campaigns. I’d been getting the
Republican talking points for years, but now
I was learning about the underlying theory
by reading Friedrich Hayek and Jean-Jacques
Rousseau. I started to develop my own relationship
to concepts like anarcho-capitalism,
glorifying freedom and individual sovereignty.
I was so completely certain of my newfound
belief in the philosophy of rational self-interest
that I even evangelized my mom. I tried to
convince her that there was no such thing as
altruism, that everything a person does is ultimately
about what benefits him. She just raised
her eyebrows as I rambled. And ramble I did,
oblivious to the irony of saying such things to
the woman who spent countless hours patiently
driving me back and forth across the state.
I relished my time away from home. I was
at an almost-college! I saw things I’d never
seen before, like single parents and smoking.
People even swore in public and wore Marilyn
Manson T-shirts. It was fantastic. Then
the online world exploded with buzz about a
movie that had just ripped through the Cannes
Film Festival. It was hitting the United States
on October 14, 1994—my seventeenth birthday.
Suddenly my English paper required
extra research and I needed to go to UNC’s
library for the whole day on Saturday the fifteenth.
Mom drove me all the way out there,
unsuspecting of my secret plan to see Quentin
Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction at the Varsity Theater.
I had never seen an R-rated movie on a big
screen, let alone one with such graphic violence.
I was terrified they would check my ID,
but I had my Carolina T-shirt on and easily
blended in with all the older students. It probably
didn’t hurt that I was almost six and a half
feet tall. The theater was packed, so I literally
had a front-row seat when John Travolta
shoved a giant needle into Uma Thurman’s
chest, and Samuel Jackson quoted Ezekiel before
executing one poor motherfucker. The
film was disgusting and shocking and utterly
non-Christian. I went back to see it again the
next weekend.
That same month, the online world
changed forever. The World Wide Web was
still fairly new and painful to use from home.
Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was
optimized for university broadband connections,
so if you were using a dial-up modem it
would take several minutes to see a web page,
and only hard-core people like me were willing
to put up with the wait. The public beta release
of Netscape changed all that. Netscape was a
web browser that let you see the page within a
couple seconds; the pictures would fill in while
they downloaded. It was the most unbelievable
thing I’d ever seen. Netscape had made
the internet usable for normals. Now everyone
wanted internet accounts, and the number of
websites and ISPs exploded. The internet was
going mainstream and it was more important
than ever that I get to UNC.
I didn’t sleep for the next six months. I
worked overtime at the grocery store, saving
money for my ISP, got straight As at school
during the day, and stayed on the internet all
night. Year one of my escape plan was almost
Cue parental sabotage.
During the spring quarter, my parents announced
that we were moving again—this
time to Lynchburg, Virginia, the mecca of
Christian fundamentalism. We would attend
Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church,
where we’d spend our Sundays worshipping on
the set of The Old Time Gospel Hour. My sisters
would go to Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian
Academy and I would go to his Liberty University.
My plans were destroyed.
I was determined not to let my parents ruin
my life. I went through every scenario I could
think of to preserve my plan. But I wasn’t eighteen
yet, I couldn’t drive, and I had missed the
deadline to apply to UNC as a sophomore. The
biggest issue was tuition. My parents thought
Liberty was exactly what I needed to get back
on track, and they refused to pay for any other
college. By moving to Virginia, I’d lose instate
tuition for my junior year at UNC, and I
wouldn’t yet qualify for in-state tuition at any
community college in Virginia for my sophomore
year. So I had to change their minds.
It was clear to me that we were moving as
part of their unending quest to find the community
they’d lost upon leaving Los Gatos
Christian Church. They’d spent the past seven
years trying to find it again, and they had become
more and more radical as their search
continued. The decision to go to the source,
Jerry Falwell, was the ultimate manifestation
of their desperation. I told them it was pointless
and that they’d just be disenchanted again, as
they had been with all the other places we’d
tried. My protests didn’t matter, of course.
I finished Wake Tech in May, took and
passed the GED, and moved to Lynchburg with
my family in the late spring. My graduation
present was a mission trip to Israel with Dr.
Falwell. When we got back, I spent the rest of
the summer attending Thomas Road with my
parents and refusing to go to Liberty. But in the
end, I couldn’t bear to waste a year, so a week
before classes were scheduled to begin, I succumbed.
I told my parents at our Sunday postchurch
lunch that I would go; I just wouldn’t
stay in the dorms. They were happy. I was not.
I entered Liberty University as a sophomore in
the fall of 1995.
Hot Sex at Liberty University
Going to LU was like being in church all the
time. Nowhere was this more apparent than
every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when
Liberty’s five thousand students and hundreds
of staff members filed into The Vines Convocation
Center—Liberty’s ten-thousand-seat
arena—to attend the mandatory hour-long
convocation. Within the first week, I was
bored with it and began prepping for my next
class during the program. On Friday, a resident
assistant motioned to me that I couldn’t
read during convocation. I was at school, but
couldn’t read my criminal-justice textbook? I’d
been dealing with my parents telling me to do
things that didn’t make sense for years, and I
was sick of it. I stormed out and made a break
for the men’s bathroom. The RA ran after me
and introduced me to the demerit system.
Liberty had a lot of rules, and demerits were
your punishment if you broke any of them. Students
couldn’t hold hands, couldn’t be in the
other gender’s dorms, had to obey the dress
code—skirts below the knees for girls, ties for
boys—most definitely could not have sex, and
absolutely could not have an abortion. That
was the worst possible thing. You also couldn’t
see R-rated movies or, apparently, read during
convocation. These things violated the “Liberty
Way.” What didn’t violate the Liberty Way
was to meet someone at school and get married.
I hadn’t understood what people sometimes
laughingly called the “MRS Degree,” but once
I got there, I did. The Vines Center was nicknamed
“The Furnace” because it was home to
our team, the Liberty Flames, but it was really
because the whole school was one big pressure
cooker. They threw a bunch of horny teenagers
together and let them stew in the cauldron of
sexual tension. One excellent way to bring new
Christians into the world is to birth them, so the
school was designed to marry us as quickly as
possible, after which we could make babies and
be shipped off to infiltrate every level of society
and transform it with our Christian values. Genius!
If you can’t have sex until you get married,
you get married pronto. The whole setup felt
fake and manipulative, and I was miserable—
trapped in the prison of Liberty.
A few days after my forbidden studying session
during convocation, I was desperate to get
online and I had heard there was an internet
hookup in the library. The room I found wasn’t
worthy of the word library. There were almost
no books, and of the few that were there, about
half were about Jesus and the rest were crap.
They didn’t even have a computerized card
catalog; it was all still done by hand. But they
did, thank God, have two brand-new computers—
the only ones on the entire campus connected
to the internet. I was the only person
using the computers, so I was able to spend all
my time there.
During my second week, I was editing
my Netscape bookmark file in HTML, which
is how the cool kids did it back then, when
the deputy librarian came up behind me. He
looked over my shoulder at what I was typing,
thought it was some kind of sinister computer
code, and freaked out. He marched me into the
head librarian’s office and declared that he’d
caught me hacking the computer. The head
librarian began interrogating me, saying over
and over that the computers were only for accessing
the internet. I know, I said, I was just
editing my bookmarks! But the two of them
were convinced that I was going to take down
the school’s new computers and leave them
with no ability to fix them. I kept trying to
explain that I wasn’t doing anything wrong
and that I wasn’t hurting anything, but it didn’t
matter. They got more and more frenzied and
started arguing about what to do with me. I
said I could show them what I’d been doing,
but they paid no attention. Trying to explain
that I wasn’t hurting anything to Liberty idiots
was the last straw. My contempt for the whole
place overwhelmed me and I burst into tears.
This finally got their attention, and they started
to believe me. While rambling on about how
I could no longer do whatever it was I’d been
doing, one of them mentioned that there was
some guy I should probably meet. Which was
how I found Will.
Will was ten years older than me, and he
had just been hired to run Liberty’s Academic
Computing Department. I told him my “hacking”
story and we immediately bonded over
my traumatic experience. I soon learned that
Will’s lab was outdated and staffed by computer-
science geeks, which was not particularly
helpful since no real computer geeks attended
Liberty. I told him I wanted to get the entire
university on the internet. He asked how often
I could come to help. I went every day.
Liberty’s lab ran on an older networking
technology called Novell. I immediately started
exploring how to redo everything in Windows
NT, which would allow me to connect the university
to the internet. I went from having one
personal computer that could connect to other
computers over a modem, to having access to a
network of computers. I now had the opportunity
to create the ISP I had always wanted, while
bringing the internet to the entire school and
making Liberty safe for everyone who wanted
the freedom to edit their bookmarks. I took all
the research I had done for my ISP and applied it
to this, and in a few months we had replaced all
the computers and rebuilt the whole lab.
When we were up and running, the university’s
administration expressed concern that
people would have access to things on the internet
that violated the Liberty Way. Will and
I told them that there was no way blocking
software could really work, and promised to
monitor the traffic ourselves. If there were any
violations, we said we’d deal with it, making
me Liberty’s internet cop.
Early one morning a few months later, Will
got a frantic phone call from a physics professor
before classes started. He said that every time he
typed in a search, it came up “Hot Sex.” Will
and I were horrified. This was our worst nightmare.
We’d been fighting so hard to bring the
internet to LU, and this was exactly the kind of
thing that could shut us down, especially since
it was a professor who had made the discovery.
I had to figure out what was going wrong before
everyone got on campus. I went to Web-
Crawler, the first-ever search engine, typed in
a search and, sure enough, got back “Hot Sex.”
The monitoring software that I’d deployed on
our network also happened to be caching software,
so when the URL hadn’t changed after a
few minutes, I realized that the caching software
was storing the results of the previous person’s
search. Someone on campus had searched for
“Hot Sex”! And Will and I could find out the
exact time of the search and the specific computer
that had been used! Who could it have
been? Hot on the trail, we scoured through the
logs for the original query until we found it.
The search had originated from the computer in
the math department, the only computer outside
the lab or library connected to the internet.
At the time of the original search, the person
logged on to that computer was none other than
the professor who had contacted us about the
problem. He’d come in early that morning for
a date with “Hot Sex” and then tried another
search but “Hot Sex” was clingy. So he went
to the computers in the computer lab and, unable
to escape from his transgression, completely
flipped out. We laughed for about ten minutes
straight. Will then apologized profusely to the
professor for the system error and told me that if
we ever had budget problems this might come in
handy. That was the day Will taught me about
It wasn’t long before I started catching and
busting other people for looking at porn in
the computer lab. It felt wrong to snoop, but
I could easily identify porn sites without spying
on people by searching for key words like
“xxx” in the logs. If I found a violation, I could
look up that IP address and see who was logged
in to that computer when the site was accessed.
What was fascinating to me was that you could
only access the internet in public places like
the library or lab, so all these guys—I never
caught any women—were all looking at porn
in public places. Then one day I found something
odd. The string of page URLs I’d spotted
were definitely pornographic, but not about
women. They were about men. With other
men. Someone at Liberty was gay! It was the
biggest scandal ever! I was about to run into
Will’s office with the explosive news, but I
hesitated. How desperate for an outlet would
someone have to be to risk looking at gay porn
in the public computer lab—at Jerry Falwell’s
Dr. Falwell’s antihomosexual notoriety was
a rallying cry at Liberty. He would give a sermon
at convocation and say Christian things,
but when he really needed to get the crowd going,
he would throw something in about how
gays were destroying the United States, and the
place would erupt. It was uncomfortable for
me. I was a devout Christian, but it didn’t seem
right that people would get so excited and fired
up by hating on gay people. I had interacted
with gay people online, especially through Tori’s
music, and I didn’t see anything to hate.
I thought about this guy who, like me, probably
had been forced to attend Liberty, most
likely by his parents. I realized that he must be
going through hell—so much so that he was
willing to risk everything just to have an outlet
for what he was feeling. So I didn’t report him.
And I began questioning the antigay zealotry
at Liberty.
I also wasn’t really feeling Evangelism 101. It
was a required class taught by Dr. Danny Lovett.
Every class he’d yell, “Jesus is what?” and we
had to respond, “Jesus is awesome!” It was really
just Sales 101, except the purpose wasn’t
to teach us to sell electronics or a car, but to
teach us how to convert people to Christianity.
The way you spread the Word is by telling your
story about how you gave your heart to Jesus.
For homework, we had to share our testimony
with someone, save the person’s soul, and then
write about how many new soldiers we’d added
to God’s army. I took it as an opportunity to
work on my creative-writing skills.
By my second semester I had figured out
how to survive at Liberty. The university’s technological
backwardness had turned out to be a
blessing in disguise. I was responsible for bringing
the internet to LU, got to play with a bunch
of computers in the lab I had helped create, and
I even set up Liberty’s first website. And sometimes
when the lab was closed, Will and I would
get a bunch of people together to play a prerelease
test version of Quake, the most graphically
violent computer game ever created. We
felt mildly guilty as we roamed the catacombs
of virtual hell, but we were having too much
fun blowing each other up to stop. We were,
after all, killing demons. Jesus himself would approve,
I’m sure. It still sucked being at Liberty,
but at least now I had the internet—and movies.
A new movie theater had opened up just a half
mile down Liberty Mountain. Movies that had
already done their first run showed there for a
buck, so breaking one of Liberty’s key rules had
never been cheaper. I figured that if God didn’t
want me seeing Casino, he wouldn’t have made
it so convenient. During the day I would go to
class or the lab, and later, instead of studying, I’d
go to the theater before my dad came to pick me
up. I was hacking the Liberty Way.
Toxic Cocktails
In March I began having trouble sleeping at
night, and, as a result, my grades were slipping.
I couldn’t breathe lying down, so I slept
in my chair. My mom couldn’t sleep either, so
we stayed up late together. She made clothes
through the night for me and my sisters while I
sat upright at my computer. I went to the clinic
at Liberty and they told me I had bronchitis.
But by spring break, the medicine hadn’t done
anything. We were installing new computers
in the lab at the time, so I didn’t want to stop
working, but I could barely stand up. I went
back to the doctor on campus and he told me I
should get an X-ray at Virginia Baptist Hospital
in Lynchburg. My dad took me there, and after
taking the X-ray, they immediately sent me to
Lynchburg General. We were getting worried.
My mom had an appointment that day for her
insomnia, but she canceled it to be with me at
the hospital.
That afternoon they found two liters of fluid
around my lungs. Reclining forced the fluid
into my lungs, which is why I wasn’t able to
breathe lying down. They stuck a giant needle
in my back and sucked the fluid out. I couldn’t
stop coughing. But the big concern was why
fluid was building up around my lungs in the
first place. Late that night I was in the ICU
recovering with my parents when the doctor
came in and said there was still about half a liter
of fluid around my heart. I needed surgery immediately
to prevent a heart attack. The heart
surgeon and his team were called that night for
an early morning surgery, where they would
poke a hole next to my heart to drain the fluid.
My mom wanted answers. What was going on?
The doctor talked around the questions for a
while, but then he said the word tumor, and I
saw the color drain from my parents’ faces. After
he left, I looked at them, puzzled, and said,
“A tumor, is that like, cancer?”
I was eighteen years old. It never occurred
to me that I could be really sick. Biology and
the physical world were not my thing; I didn’t
really even know what cancer was. But I had
seen enough movies to know that if the c-word
was invoked, it meant I could die. And my parents
knew too. In that moment, our relationship
changed forever. All traces of any previous
strain or tension evaporated. We were instantly
united, with one common goal: keeping me
The next morning I had the heart surgery,
which went as well as it could have. The doctors
did a biopsy of my lymph nodes to determine
if the tumor was malignant, and if it was,
whether it was Hodgkin’s disease, which was
easily treatable, or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,
which was not so easily treatable. Simply put,
if I had cancer, did I have the good kind or
the bad kind? We were hoping for no cancer
at all, but we’d settle for the good kind. The
next thing I knew, I was being whisked off
to Charlottesville in an ambulance. We were
headed to the University of Virginia, which
had the best lymphoma and leukemia program
in the region. There they figured out that I had
a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called
T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, which is the
fastest of the fast in terms of fast-growing lymphomas.
So, not the good kind.
I wasn’t sure how to feel. I knew I was supposed
to feel devastated or even depressed. But
I didn’t. Twenty-four hours earlier I’d been
working at the computer lab, and now I was an
eighteen-year-old with a really bad case of cancer.
The next few hours were a whirlwind of
planning. The doctors explained that because
my cancer was growing so fast, it should theoretically
respond quickly to treatment. There
was a 70 percent chance that they could get it,
and were hopeful that it was curable.
The treatment they outlined for me
was pretty daunting. I was going to receive
CHOMP therapy for nine months. It would
start right away with a five-week induction
phase to be followed by two visits every
month, one for five days of methotrexate—the
M in CHOMP—and one for three days of the
CHOP cocktail. For the next five weeks I was
hammered with chemo. Dr. Falwell, Will, and
others from church frequently made the twohour
round-trip from Lynchburg to visit, and
I spent the time offline reading my Bible and
watching the hospital’s private movie channel.
I really appreciated the sense of humor of whoever
decided to screen Malice—in which Alec
Baldwin plays a scheming doctor with a God
complex—to a hospital full of patients. Well
About two weeks into my induction, my
mom was sitting by my hospital bed when I
noticed how bloated and swollen her feet were.
Her face was also kind of puffy, so I reminded
her that she was at a hospital with a clinic
downstairs and it was all right to leave me alone
for a few hours. She went, and was examined
by a second-year medical student who, probably
as part of an assignment, spent two hours
taking her entire medical history. She had
been seeing doctors for years about her high
blood pressure—which was not responding to
treatment and was only getting worse—but no
one had ever taken a full history before. So of
course this random med student made connec68
tions that no one else had and concluded that
my mom had Cushing’s syndrome. It was great
to finally give a name to what had been making
her sick, but it merely raised a much bigger
question—why did she have it? The doctors
did a number of tests and found a tumor on her
adrenal gland, which explained why she had
been up all night making clothes for everyone
instead of sleeping. Now that I knew the
t-word led to the c-word, I waited nervously
in my hospital room all day for the results of
her tests. Late that night, my dad came in and
delivered the news.
Mom had cancer too.
We both tried so hard to hold back tears.
When he left, I lost it. It was the first time
during the whole ordeal that I’d cried.
The little secret about being sick that the
healthy don’t know is that when it’s happening
to you, you have something to hold onto: you
have the goal of beating it. Everyone is cheering
you on, offering support and encouragement.
But when it happens to someone else,
you have nothing. You have no control, you
can’t help, and you have very little ability to do
anything useful. Being in that situation with
my mom made me understand what everyone
else was going through with me. It was much,
much worse to be a bystander than it was to be
sick. How my dad was dealing, I couldn’t even
imagine. I knew he loved me and it must have
been a nightmare to watch me go through
this, but my mom . . . my mom was his entire
August 25th
Because my cancer was everywhere, the only
treatment was chemo. My mom’s cancer was in
one place, so the surgeons just cut it out. After
my induction was over I went back home to
Lynchburg. Twice a month my dad would fire
up the Gilliam cancer bus and take us to UVA
so mom and I could see our oncologist, Dr. Michael
Williams, together. In one of those sessions
she asked Dr. Williams to look at a bump in her
hair. He didn’t think it was anything, but she
insisted he test it. A few days later, we found out
that the cancer had spread through her whole
body. The adrenal tumor had been consuming
all the resources, and so none of the other cancer
cells were able to grow, but when they took the
adrenal tumor out, the cancer went everywhere,
including her bones. There was nothing they
could do; my mom was going to die.
Mother and son both getting rare cancers
was a story made for a church of the television
age. The congregation of Thomas Road
was given updates on us multiple times a week,
and the community leaped into action. People
brought food and cards and did all they could
to help. My sisters were thirteen and fourteen,
going to school and just trying to understand
what was going on. My dad was the true hero,
holding everything together in ways I couldn’t
even fathom. He was terrified that we would
lose our health insurance, so he held down his
full-time job, all while driving me to UVA every
week, dealing with my sisters, and tending
to my mom. He was so busy during the day
that most of the time it was just the two cancer
patients hanging out at home.
My mom and I bonded during our days
together. Dark humor was our favorite coping
mechanism. I would call the methotrexate
Mountain Dew because of its color; but mostly
because calling it urine just wasn’t polite.
Mom, always focused on my future, suggested
I become a cancer doctor because it was clearly
a growth industry.
We told each other stories, and I learned
stuff about her that I never knew. Like that she
was an entrepreneur. She was twelve when she
launched her first enterprise. Already a skilled
seamstress by then, she made “Merry Xmas”
bowties and then enlisted her dad to help her
sell them. I told her how I remembered driving
all over the place with her searching for
fabrics, and she confided that she might have
missed her calling by not pursuing sewing. She
made me promise never to marry someone
who couldn’t sew, because she’d waste a ton
of money buying clothes. I told her how much
I always loved watching her cook, and she
confessed how much she hated cooking. She
reminded me that when I was really young, I
always tried to do things to surprise her, like
make her lemonade or brownies all by myself.
And when she’d been pregnant during that
cold New York winter when my dad was often
in Boca Raton, I’d insisted on getting the
wood from the outdoor woodpile myself so she
wouldn’t get hurt.
Mom was on a lot of pain medicine, but
she had turned down potentially life-prolonging
chemotherapy because she’d witnessed how
miserable it was when I went through it. Eu72
thanasia was something we would never consider
because we were so pro-life, so this was
her compromise: death by omission. She just
wanted to spend her last days peacefully looking
at the lake behind our house, so Dad set
up a bed downstairs in the living room. I tried
to take care of her when he was at work, but
there was a period when I was having debilitating
headaches and had to stay in bed upstairs. I
couldn’t be upright for more than twenty seconds,
so if Mom needed something, I would
hobble down the stairs from my bedroom as
fast as I could, then lie flat on the ground because
I didn’t fit on our couch. I’d rest a few
minutes, then get what she needed and then go
lie down on the ground again. It was ridiculous,
but at least we could laugh.
None of us had been to church in months,
because we didn’t want to leave mom alone,
but one Sunday she insisted we go. Of course,
it was the Sunday before the Fourth of July—
a day more important than even Christmas
or Easter at Thomas Road—so everyone
was there. Walking through the congregation
that day was like walking around with a giant
spotlight pinned on my every move. Everyone
wanted to know how I was doing, how mom
was, how I felt, how my dad was holding up.
It was debilitating. All they wanted to do was
support me and my family—and all I wanted to
do was get away from them.
As Dr. Falwell fired everyone up for the
upcoming God and Country rally (the biggest
event of the year), I kept wondering how
much money was being wasted on it—money
that should have been used to buy the books and
computers that Liberty desperately needed. The
Bible study was irrelevant to me, the Sound of
Liberty singers seemed fake, and by the time Dr.
Falwell started bashing Clinton and pushing all
of us to buy The Clinton Chronicles—a documentary
“investigating” Clinton’s supposed criminal
activity and the suspicious deaths surrounding
him—I was over the whole thing. I wasn’t questioning
God, but I was done with the Church.
Dr. Falwell never told us to vote for Bob Dole,
but when the voter-registration forms were
passed down the aisles as the congregation sang
“God Bless America,” the message was clear. I’d
been wanting to vote since I was a kid, but when
the forms came to me, I refused to take one.
My dad was upset, and asked me why. I
told him I wasn’t going to vote because what I
did wouldn’t make any difference. The church
and politics were one and the same to me, so
rejecting the church meant rejecting politics.
I was no longer a loyal foot soldier in God’s
army. I went home disillusioned and apathetic,
and took refuge in my online world, where no
one knew I was sick. Where I was a normal.
And just when it seemed like our situation
couldn’t possibly get worse, my mom’s parents
came to help. They were a rare source of tension
between my parents because of my grandma’s
effect on my mom. Appearances were
incredibly important to Grandma. She trained
schnauzers for dog shows, clipped them to perfection,
and proudly paraded them about while
calling them her “children.” She was the uncontested
boss of her family, my grandfather
mere furniture. My mom adored and idolized
her mother, and she was always trying to please
and impress her. None of us knew what to expect
from my grandparents’ visit this time, but
we certainly didn’t expect the devastation that
They checked into a nearby hotel, then
came to the house. Within only a few minutes
of their arrival, Grandma was telling my
dad and my sisters what to do. She assured us
that she knew what we were feeling and how
to properly handle the situation, because she
had been through the death of Ricky and Pepper,
her two prized schnauzers. In the days that
followed, her critiques of how my family was
running our household escalated. My dad told
her to cut my sisters some slack given the insanity
of what they were going through. After
attacking my dad for how the girls were being
raised and getting nowhere with him, she
took her complaints directly to my mom. We’d
been trying to buffer her from Grandma’s craziness,
but now she was smack in the middle of
it. My mom resisted, but because she couldn’t
get out of bed, she was a captive audience for
my grandma’s repeated assaults. I was outraged
that she had to spend what little strength she
still had defending herself from the parents that
were supposed to be giving her love and support.
But my grandmother was determined.
She had made it her personal mission to improve
her daughter’s parenting skills no matter
what—an odd focus, given that my mom was
The strain in the house was unbearable.
Finally, in an attempt to patch things up, my
grandparents offered to do something special
for my mom. There was just one thing my mom
wanted: a mother-daughter outing with my
sister Kristen to get her a locket. She’d already
done this with Kelly, and she knew that if she
didn’t go soon, she’d never get the chance to do
it with Kristen. But going out of the house was
a huge ordeal. Because the bone cancer was
ravaging her body, car rides were dangerous. If
her spine moved in the wrong way, she could
die. She had to wear a giant brace anytime she
left the house. She was really self-conscious
about her appearance, but desperately wanted
to have this moment with Kristen. My grandparents
promised to take them to Lynchburg’s
only mall.
On the day of the trip, just Kristen, Mom,
and I were at home. Kristen spent almost five
hours getting Mom cleaned up, doing her
makeup, and preparing her to go out in her
wheelchair. They were ready and waiting by
the door a few minutes before the scheduled
pickup time, Mom nervous and excited. Hours
passed and it started getting dark. We called
the hotel, but we couldn’t reach my grandparents.
I called my dad and he tried the hotel too.
Nothing. That’s when we all knew the truth:
my grandmother was ashamed of my mom and
didn’t want to be seen in public with her. Mom
had always been the perfect child, my Grandma’s
trophy. But no longer beautiful, no longer
something that would reflect positively back on
my grandmother, she was an embarrassment.
And she knew it.
I couldn’t imagine how my grandparents
would try to justify forsaking my mom, but
they never said a word about it.
A week later, my dad needed their help.
He had to work, but Mom had a radiation
treatment scheduled in Charlottesville. So my
grandparents agreed to take her in my dad’s car,
which was the only one that my mom could fit
in with her brace. On their way home from
the appointment, my grandpa fell asleep at the
wheel and totaled the car. Everyone survived,
even my mom. She was saved by her brace.
My grandpa had minor injuries consistent with
someone who had been wearing a seat belt.
My grandma had significant injuries consistent
with someone who had lied about wearing a
seat belt. That night, Mom and I were joking
about this latest twist in the disaster movie that
was our lives. So after all this, we’re going to
die in a car crash? We wondered what could
possibly happen next. She said, “Jimmy, you
should write a book about this someday. No
one will ever believe it.”
I was lying upstairs in my room a few
weeks later when I heard my mom’s voice. She
wasn’t able to talk loudly, so if I could hear her
voice all the way upstairs, something had to be
wrong. I stumbled out of bed and heard my
mom pleading with her parents to leave. She
started yelling at them to get out right as I hit
the top of the staircase. I looked down and saw
my mom—who hadn’t moved on her own for
three months—frantically trying to crawl up
the stairs. Horrified, I rushed down to meet her
where she was, and helped her sit up as best I
could. Then I told her to stay there.
I don’t know what I expected to see when
I rounded the corner into the living room,
but it wasn’t both of my grandparents sitting
calmly on the couch. They hadn’t moved an
inch. Their daughter, so weak she couldn’t
sit up on her own, had been so desperate to
get away from them that she’d crawled off her
bed, out of the room, and to the stairs. And
they had just sat and watched. They hadn’t
left like she’d asked; they hadn’t helped her or
prevented her from hurting herself, they’d just
watched. My grandmother’s head was ramrod
straight, a proud and stern expression on her
face as she stared toward the lake. I went ballistic.
My grandpa got up and tried to talk to me,
so I yelled at him while my grandmother sat
stoically beside him. I told them I wouldn’t let
them hurt her anymore, and that they had better
get the hell out right then and there. They
did. And then I went back to the stairs to help
my mom.
I tried to understand how any of this was
possible. I’d spent an awful lot of my time as a
Christian talking about Satan and hell, but this
was the first time I’d truly seen evil. I saw it up
close and personal, and it wasn’t some big fiery
deity, it was the face of my grandmother staring
out at the lake with no compassion or empathy
for her daughter.
Mom declined rapidly after that. Dementia
set in. One night I heard her talking to herself,
and went downstairs to be with her. She was
really upset and kept saying, “no one else understands,”
and, “we’re going to beat this; no
one else wants us to, but we’re going to beat
this.” The combination of her delusion and
paranoia, plus the fact it was true for me but not
for her, was more than I could handle. I said,
“Yes, Mom, we’re going to beat this.” The last
thing I said to her that I knew she understood
was a lie.
My mom died at 4:46 p.m. on August 25,
1996. I watched Dr. Falwell bury her three
days later. By Thanksgiving, my treatments
were over. I was nineteen and cancer-free.
I knew after my mom died that there was no
point in wasting the life I’d been given trying
to do things the right way. My mom had done
everything she was supposed to do. She did
well in school. She went to a prestigious college.
She got married, had kids, and spent her
days teaching her children, sewing her family
clothes, and being a supportive wife. She was
an exceptionally good person who had even
moved her whole family closer to the church
she believed in. She’d been one of God’s best
soldiers. And in the end it hadn’t mattered.
He’d killed her anyway, and forced my dad to
watch as the life was slowly ripped out of the
person he loved most.
I didn’t know why God had taken her
and not me. Why did I deserve to live but she
hadn’t? I owed it to my mom to make my life
matter and to succeed like she’d always wanted
me to. I just couldn’t do it her way. Life was
short, and mine just might be very short. I
decided that the “right way” was wrong. So
I did the one thing she wouldn’t have wanted
me to do. I quit college and set out to prove
to the world—and to her—that this decision
wouldn’t ruin my life.
Live Free or Die
I knew that the internet was my ticket out.
Companies like Netscape were popping up
everywhere, and, all of a sudden, the internet
seemed like it could provide a real career path.
So I went back to work in the computer lab
with Will, and I began plotting how to get out
of Virginia. I was known as the Internet Kid
within Lynchburg’s tiny tech community and
by all three IT people who were building corporate
computer networks in the area. One of
them, Brad Warner, was a devout Christian.
He traveled around helping businesses with
their computers, and if he had questions about
the internet, he’d come to me. A week or two
after I returned to the lab, he started consulting
with a start-up in the Boston area called
Archive Technologies. The company was going
to compile a large archive of technical information
and sell it online for a subscription
fee. In one of his meetings with the founders
he told them, “If you want to put all this on
the internet, you need to talk to this kid from
My meeting with the founders went very
well. A combination of relatively poor social
skills and no fear meant that I just said everything
straight. They’d tell me what they were
doing, and I’d say, no that’s all wrong, you
need to do it this way. The fact that I was saying
all this to Fred Wang, the former president
of Wang Labs, whose dad had founded Wang
Computers and invented the word processor,
never occurred to me. I just called it like I saw
it. At the end of the meeting they said they
wanted to hire me and move me to New England.
They asked for my salary requirements,
and I randomly threw out eighty thousand dollars
a year. They said, how about seventy-five?
I accepted, went home, and asked Will to teach
me how to drive.
The company was located on the border
of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and
they found me a painstakingly refurbished duplex
in Hampton, New Hampshire. I bought a
used 1988 Acura Legend with the money I had
saved up for the ISP and moved in. It was January
1997. Around the same time, my dad decided
to move with my sisters to Plano, Texas,
just outside of Dallas. He’d flirted briefly with
the idea of becoming Liberty’s first chief technology
officer, but he too wanted a fresh start
in a new place. So my remaining family was
now almost two thousand miles away from
me. I tried to keep going to church, but there
were no evangelical churches—let alone megachurches—
in New England, so for the first
time in my entire life, I had Sunday mornings
free. Things couldn’t have been more different
than they had been only a few short months
before. No mom, no family, and no church. I
was on my own.
I worked constantly, teaching myself new
technologies, gaining confidence in my abilities.
It was nearly a month before I realized
that I could do whatever I wanted, even in
the physical world! I was free, for real. New
Hampshire had some great record stores and
I became a regular at Newbury Comics. Five
or six CDs a week didn’t even put a dent in
my fat new paycheck. I bought Tori bootlegs
and became the guy who impressed the hipster
record-store girl with my obscure import purchases.
I started going to the movies a lot until
one night, it hit me—I could go to concerts.
I’d never been to a real rock concert before, and
when I looked online, I saw that the Smashing
Pumpkins were playing in Amherst—only
three hours away!—that week.
Chemo sucks for many reasons, but the
most obvious one is that it causes you to lose
your hair. It is one thing to be eighteen and
6’9’’. It is quite another to be eighteen, 6’9’’,
and totally bald. I really couldn’t have been
more conspicuous—or looked more like a
skinhead. At one of the spontaneous potlucks
that happened at our home while I was sick,
one of my sister’s friends said I looked like Billy
Corgan. Obviously I hadn’t been watching
much MTV, but the video for “1979” had just
come out, and suddenly it didn’t feel like such a
bad thing to be bald. Billy had single-handedly
turned something traumatic into something al86
most cool. I had to lose my concert virginity
to the Pumpkins. The day of the show I left
work early, made the drive to Amherst, got my
ticket from will-call, and tried to look like I’d
done this before. The music started and everyone
leaped out of their seats. So I stood up, too.
And when Mr. Corgan promised to “crucify
the insincere,” my body started to sway in an
almost rhythmic fashion. That too was a first.
Fundamentalists don’t dance.
Dancing was almost as much fun as my
new job—designing a system to organize a
huge archive of technical product information
and putting it online. I figured out that the way
to do it was to tag the products with what I
called “properties,” not to put them in hierarchical
categories like Yahoo did. The founders
of the company, Fred Wang and Jeffrey Stahl,
saw the beauty of this concept right away. They
invited me to have dinner in Boston at Jeffrey’s
penthouse apartment. His place overlooked the
harbor and I was more than a little bit nervous
because I didn’t know why I was there and I’d
never been to a fancy dinner at a rich person’s
house before. As it turned out, they just wanted
to tell me that they knew their original plan
was outdated and that the only way to go for87
ward was to do it all on the internet. And they
were going to pivot the company to pursue my
way of organizing information. They wanted
to ditch their other partner and replace him
with me so I could execute the idea as the new
CTO. They offered me 5 percent of the company.
I said 10. It was on.
Though my new life was going great, I
couldn’t quite put the past behind me. I was
feeling weak and knew I should see a doctor.
During one of our joint visits to see Dr. Williams
when it seemed like my mom and I were
both well on our way to recovery, we had asked
what was next for us. The doctor told me that
there was a 50 percent chance I would get cancer
again in the first few years after my treatment,
and that if this happened, I would most
likely die. But if I made it three years, I was
pretty much home free. As it had been only
five months since the end of my treatment, I
was worried that something was wrong.
My new doctor, Dr. David Fisher, was at
the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which was
affiliated with Harvard University and was
the largest comprehensive cancer center in the
world. He taught at Harvard Medical School
and did tons of research, so like many doctors,
he saw patients only at “clinic”—which took
place only one or two days a week. I’d never
been to a clinic before and was unprepared for
what it was like. The waiting room was full of
people in varying stages of sickness: some with
no hair, some with IVs in their arms, others
in wheelchairs or with intense scars. I’d never
been around so much cancer in such a small
space before. I went in for a few tests administered
by nurses, then sat in the waiting room
terrified. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking, and
I kept thinking there was no way I’d be able
to tell my dad if I had cancer again. Dr. Fisher
came out with my test results and said not to
worry, that everything was fine. Relief swept
over me. I got out of there as quickly as I could,
went home and told myself that I really was
done with cancer. I had my new awesome life,
and to symbolize moving on, I took out the
bag with all the cards people had given me,
dumped them in a trash can, and burned them.
Soon after, the company moved to Jeffrey’s
office in Boston. I commuted into the city by
bus until I found a loft in an old piano factory
in the South End. I moved into it in June. We
changed the company’s name to the Athink
Group and got to work raising ten million dol89
lars. My favorite thing about living in the city
was that I didn’t need a car. I could even walk
to work. But as the weeks went by, walking
became harder and harder, and I was getting
weaker. So I set up another appointment with
Dr. Fisher, assuming that I just had a bad case
of the flu.
The waiting room at the clinic was completely
packed on the day of my appointment,
and I had to wait for hours to see the doctor.
But unlike at my last visit, I wasn’t nervous at
all. I was sure things were fine and that I was
just overreacting. I read every issue of Entertainment
Weekly to keep myself occupied until,
finally, Dr. Fisher called me into his office.
I’ve never forgotten the look he had on his face
when he said my name. I followed him down
the hallway, and when I sat down he told me
that I had leukemia.
It was the same cancer as before, he said,
but it had spread into my blood. All I could
think was: I’m dead; it’s over. It took me a
while to start talking, but I finally said that my
understanding from my last doctor was that if
the cancer came back, nothing could be done.
He assured me that there was something we
could try. It was a long shot, he explained, but
I could get a bone-marrow transplant if we
found a donor. Siblings were the most likely to
be a match, but we already knew that my sisters
weren’t. Dana-Farber would go to the national
bone-marrow registry to search for an anonymous
donor. The chances of finding a match
were about 10 percent, maybe slightly better
because I was of Irish descent. If I’d been black
or Asian there would have been almost no
hope, which put a whole new spin on the concept
of white privilege. If they found a donor
and did the transplant, there was a 30 percent
chance that it would work. And 30 percent was
better than dead. I kept thinking about how I
was going to tell everyone at work so I didn’t
have to think about how I was going to tell my
dad. I asked how long I had before I needed to
check in to the hospital. Dr. Fisher said I had
a week.
I took the subway home in a daze. When
I got to my place, there was a message on my
answering machine from Dr. Fisher saying it
couldn’t wait; I needed to come in the next
morning. I looked at the phone with dread in
the pit of my stomach, then picked it up, and
called my dad to tell him the one thing he had
prayed never to hear again. I went to work the
next morning and told everyone at the start-up
that had just reorganized around my idea that I
had cancer. I checked into the hospital an hour
Before a patient gets a bone-marrow transplant,
the doctors have to kill off as much of the
cancer in your body as they can. And you need
to stay alive while a donor is found. So when
I checked in that morning, I was walking into
another induction. But unlike my first induction,
I was going to have several different kinds
of radiation in addition to chemo. And they
had to do some targeted radiation on my chest
because that’s where the cancer had originated.
There, and in my balls.
I was told that the reason the cancer had
come back was because it had hung out in what
they call a “sanctuary site” before spreading to
my blood. In this case, the sanctuary site was
my left testicle. I was a bit of a prude to begin
with, but became even more uptight after my
mom died, because I couldn’t shake the idea
that she could see me from heaven. So I wasn’t
really paying much attention to what was going
on in that region of my body, or it might
have occurred to me to mention to Dr. Fisher
that one of my balls was supersized. Whoops.
That’s one lesson they don’t teach you in Sunday
school: Masturbate or Die.
After being neglected for so long, my testicles
were about to see a lot of action. My
Christian upbringing definitely did not make
me more comfortable with this, and I struggled
against overwhelming embarrassment as I was
jostled and arranged by numerous technicians.
To make sure the radiation got to the right
place, and because they couldn’t risk the ink
moving even slightly on my body, they permanently
tattooed me with little dots. It was
unglamorous and felt like a violation, mainly
because I was being treated like a slab of beef.
It didn’t help that the room was, freezing, just
like a meat locker. There’s no room for feelings
when someone is coldly and professionally doing
their job—even if that job is tattooing your
It seemed like Operation Nuke Jim’s Balls
was being carried out by a parade of rejects
from Bedside Manners 101. As we were getting
set up on the first day, a technician nonchalantly
mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to
have kids anymore. The next day a doctor I
hadn’t seen before threw out the possibility that
they’d have to “cut it off.” No one had even let
on that this was a possibility and I was terrified.
When I next saw Dr. Fisher I was embarrassed,
but I gathered the courage to ask him if it was
true. He felt terrible and assured me that no,
that was not going to happen. I never saw that
other doctor again, and can only imagine the
schooling he got. “You told a nineteen-yearold
kid that we were going to cut off his testicle?”
Definitely not a good plan.
My dad and sisters flew out to be with me
during that first week, but didn’t stay very
long. There was major drama in the new Texan
household, and the relationship between my
dad and sisters had become tense. Within the
first day of their visit they were fighting, so I
told them all to just go home. My family was
completely disintegrating and I couldn’t deal.
The people from work were my only friends,
and they became my support system, despite
the fact that they’d known me for only six
months. Fred and Jeffrey both had personal
experience with cancer—Fred’s daughter and
Jeffrey himself had had it—so both were incredibly
understanding. All my colleagues, in
particular Madeline Mooney, the company’s
marketing VP, got me through. They brought
me a CD player and a bunch of my favorite
CDs, and they visited me all the time. My
bedside guests were much different from the
year before. There was an atheist, a nonpracticing
Catholic, and no one who identified as
Christian, as far as I could tell. It took some
doing, but we finally set up the internet so I
could work and, though the connection kept
getting interrupted, I lost myself as best as I
could online. I read Web pages this time, not
my Bible.
I was a week away from being done with induction
2.0 when all hell broke loose. Because
chemo is so toxic, the doctors had to constantly
monitor my blood levels to see how far they
could push me with the treatments. Below a
certain level, the immune system is jacked and
there are certain things you can’t eat. This was
true for almost everyone on the cancer floor,
and we all had signs on our doors with our
food restrictions. Completely unknown to me,
mine said no raw food. How someone ever
mistakenly gave me fresh fruit is still a mystery,
but someone did. Soon after, a nurse discovered
blood in my stool and called the doctor.
It was a weekend, so Dr. Fisher and my other
regular doctors weren’t around, and the on-call
doctor she spoke to said not to worry about it.
But the nurse was worried. So she went over
the doctor’s head and started making noise. She
made a lot of people mad, at significant risk to
her career, but she fought for me.
I was shitting so much blood that the nurse
decided to take me to the ICU herself, where
I was immediately placed in critical condition.
It turned out that the fruit had caused a major
infection in my bowel that was spiraling out of
control. If she hadn’t gotten me there when she
did, it would have been too late to get me the
blood I needed. I was losing so much blood so
quickly that they infused me with two different
bags of blood at the same time. This is dangerous
and they rarely do it because it eliminates
the doctor’s ability to monitor and control a
patient’s reaction to each individual bag of
blood, which come from different donors. But
it worked and I stabilized. The trouble-making
nurse had saved my life.
Then came the many grueling weeks of recovery.
I ate through a feeding tube, lost even
more weight, and was in intense pain almost
constantly. I was forced to lose any remaining
shyness about my body as I gave in to the fact
that every nurse in the building would at some
point be wiping my ass or adjusting my genitals.
They originally put me on a morphine drip,
but it made me nauseated, so they changed it to
Dilaudid, which I knew from the film Drugstore
Cowboy as pharmaceutical-grade heroin.
My brain was the only part of my body that
was still working, so jacking it up on drugs was
the last thing I wanted. They gave me a button
to push. If I pressed it, the pain would go away,
but I’d lose the one thing that made me me. I
tried so hard not to push it. But, in the end, I
gave in—over and over and over again. Every
time I pressed it, I felt defeated and broken. I
just wanted it to end. God had forsaken me.
But the doctors hadn’t. It took a while, but
they slowly weaned me off the Dilaudid, and
I eventually started physical therapy. When I
walked a few steps for the first time everyone
around cheered, and not just because I was so
tall that the hospital gown didn’t cover much.
I towered over them all, a skeletal giant in a
miniskirt. By the time I was stable enough to
leave, an extra month had passed.
At home I waited, wondering if they would
find a donor while trying not to puke up the
disgusting protein shakes I was supposed to
drink. It was critical that I eat a lot of calories,
because the immediate threat to my life was
not cancer; it was losing weight. I had physical
therapy every day, and struggled to walk up
even one step of the stairs—I’d gone from athletic
to barely functioning in eighteen months.
I knew there were no guarantees that they’d
find a donor, so during the many months of
waiting, I worked all the time, trying to do as
much as possible while I could.
In August, the doctors told me they’d finally
found a match. The transplant was scheduled
for September, and in the weeks leading
up to it, I kept wondering about the donor.
How had he felt when he picked up his phone
and someone on the other end said he was the
one person on the planet who could save a
stranger’s life?
When it was finally time, I checked in to
the hospital to kick off the sequel to Operation
Nuke Jim’s Balls. This time they weren’t
just trying to kill off my cancer cells, they were
also trying to kill off my bone marrow. So in
addition to the targeted radiation, I lay in an
oven for twenty minutes a day for full-body
radiation. They also did intensive chemo and
TLI—total lymphoid irradiation—in an attempt
to kill every last bit of cancer before the
transplant. It wasn’t fun, although I did enjoy
telling the nurses I was going off to get baked.
What I didn’t know was that my doctors were
in heavy deliberations about a critical part of
my transplant.
A new technique had recently surfaced in
the medical community. By removing the T
cells from a donor’s marrow before giving it to
the patient, it was possible for patients to live
out the rest of their lives without taking any
immune suppressants or antirejection medications.
In my case that would be a huge win,
because my risk of getting cancer again would
be very high with a suppressed immune system.
But the procedure was experimental and
risky. So the doctors deliberated and, just a few
days before my transplant, Dr. Fisher decided
that the possibility of me surviving the transplant
and living a normal life without immune
suppressants outweighed the risks.
The day of the transplant was tightly scheduled.
The donor went into the hospital at some
faraway location and had a giant needle stuck in
his hip. The doctors extracted a tiny bit of marrow.
I had the same procedure done to me in
case the transplant failed and they had to reinject
me with my own marrow. The extraction
is extraordinarily painful, and I wondered why
my donor had gotten registered in the first
place. Like the nurse, he had gone out of his
way, at great personal discomfort and inconvenience,
to help a stranger. I added another
unknown person to the list of people who’d
saved my life.
After the marrow was flown in, the doctors
hooked it up to my rack of IVs. It looked
like any other bag of blood, only smaller.
Groggy from all the Benadryl, I watched as the
marrow emptied into my arm. That was the
transplant. It couldn’t have been more anticlimactic.
Fourteen days later I walked out of the
hospital alone, my body replenished with the
blood of a stranger. It was the fastest recovery
from a bone-marrow transplant anyone had
ever seen. Doing it T-cell depleted had worked,
the whole transplant was a major success, and
the clinic staff marveled every time I came in
for checkups.
The first day after a long hospital stay is
like seeing the world for the first time. I’d always
been in a car with my dad driving me
home, but this time I took a cab. I looked out
the window at the city, and everything looked
so real. I knew I was supposed to be worried
about graft versus host rejection, but I was a
two-time welterweight cancer-fighting champion.
There was just one thing on my mind
during that bumpy cab ride home: I wonder if
DSL is available at my apartment yet?
Yahoo Killer
Athink’s funding fell through while I was sick,
so we began shutting the company down. I was
the last to go, finally leaving at the beginning
of 1998. Madeline took a job as the VP of marketing
at Lycos and told the CEO, Bob Davis,
that he should hire me. The night before
my interview with Lycos’s VP of development,
Dave Andre, and its VP of engineering, Sangam
Pant, I scoured their website. And found
bugs. So when they took me out to lunch the
next day, I ripped apart one of the most successful
websites in the world. Dave stepped
away from the table, made a call to alert someone
about the bugs, and then offered me a job.
They didn’t actually have a position open, but
they wanted to create a new team to integrate
all their products. With me on board, they officially
created the “integration team,” of which
I would be half. My boss, Dennis Doughty,
and I were given free rein to see what we could
pull off.
It was exhilarating to be back in the game
again, a twenty-year-old college dropout with
stock options, working at the center of the internet
revolution. But I was overwhelmed. I’d
only ever worked on a team with a half-dozen
people, and Lycos was a huge company with
hundreds of employees. All the developers
seemed much smarter and more experienced
than I was, and I was struggling to understand
all the different proprietary technologies Lycos
had created. As I dug in, I realized that the
scope of the problems was immense. I was paralyzed.
I didn’t know where to start. At the end
of my first week I passed Dave Andre’s office
on my way out for the night. No one else was
around and he waved me in. He asked how everything
was going, so I was honest and told
him what I was feeling. With no hesitation, he
dropped the most influential piece of advice
I’ve ever received. He said, “Jim, you can code.
You have all the power. Just go do it.” So I did.
Lycos was a search engine, and like all
search engines at the time, it was trying to figure
out how to make money. The key was to
make our search engine into something that
would appeal to advertisers. Like Excite and
Yahoo, Lycos paid the browser, Netscape, to
send traffic our way, and we were all trying
to keep people on our sites longer, because the
longer people were on our sites, the more ads
they saw. Lycos’s CEO, Bob Davis, was a sales
guy, and his strategy was to cut deals with new,
venture-funded dot-coms and split the revenue
on all the ads that we sold. We would increase
our ad inventory, help the start-ups, and the
Lycos logo would be all over the web.
I didn’t really care about all that. I cared
about our search results, which seemed to be
the one thing that no one was paying attention
to. We were a search engine, but our results
sucked, mainly because it took between six and
nine months to refresh the search catalog. This
meant that even our partner sites didn’t show
up in our search results, making the entire sales
strategy pointless. If I could fix this, our search
would be better and we’d actually sell more
So I created an internal web-based tool
called LINK to manage all the information
from our partner sites and publish out a new,
much smaller, search database every day that
could be merged into the main search results. If
someone searched for Los Angeles weather, we
would show a picture with the current weather
for L.A. If the user clicked it, he’d be routed to
Lycos Weather, powered by one of our partners.
If she searched for Boston Red Sox, we would
show her the previous night’s box scores. The
people cutting the partner deals were thrilled.
Dennis, LINK, and I were heroes, and our little
team was promoted to be in charge of Lycos’s
most important page: search. It was now
officially our responsibility to make sure that
we were pushing out the best search results on
the internet. Which meant that we had to take
on Yahoo.
Yahoo was unquestionably the most
popular site on the internet, due to its huge
directory of websites curated by several hundred
full-time editors. So, for roughly forty
million dollars, Lycos purchased a company
called WiseWire, which trained machines to
categorize webpages. It was the key element
in Lycos’s plan to beat Yahoo. There was just
one small problem: WiseWire sucked. A few
months later, Netscape quietly acquired a small
company called NewHoo, which intended to
compete with Yahoo by having volunteers
curate the links instead of paid staffers. It was
genius. Getting paid to categorize websites all
day gets boring fast, but when you’re doing
it in your free time on a topic that you know
a lot about, it’s fun. Netscape had outflanked
everyone. Yahoo was using paid editors, Lycos
was using machines, and Netscape was using
volunteers. I knew immediately Netscape was
going to win.
Then Netscape upped the ante by opensourcing
NewHoo and renaming it the Open
Directory Project (ODP). A fundamentally
open project with volunteers loosely coordinated
around a technology platform was a revolutionary
new model for getting things done
on the internet. This could completely undercut
Yahoo if enough volunteers signed up. But
Netscape couldn’t really do much to promote it
because they made millions of dollars from redirecting
searches from the Netscape browser to
search engines like Lycos. They would be pillaging
their own revenue stream. But I realized that
if Lycos adopted the ODP, people would flock
to volunteer, because their work would be seen
by millions, which, in turn, would feed the Lycos
search engine. If Lycos relied on the internet
and volunteers and chose to put their full weight
behind the ODP, it would become the biggest
thing out there. A directory that was broad,
authoritative, and free? Yahoo would never be
able to hire people fast enough to compete. And
that’s how we’d beat them.
The idea caught on internally—earning me
the moniker Yahoo Killer—but it was highly
controversial because it meant we didn’t need
the company we’d just paid millions for. The
WiseWire folks argued against the idea because
Lycos wouldn’t own the ODP. But Lycos had
just acquired another company, Wired Digital,
and when they got wind of my plan, they
wanted their search engine, Hotbot, to use it,
too. A few months later, in April 1999, Lycos
stopped using WiseWire, and flipped both Lycos
and Hotbot—two of the biggest search engines
on the internet—to the Open Directory
Project. The press was stunned. Even Netscape
was surprised. The ODP, invented by Chris
Tolles and Rich Skrenta, was given rightful
attention for being what it was, a revolutionary
industry first. Lycos’s participation took it
to the next level and the ODP started to explode.
As predicted, there was a huge incentive
for people to participate because, through our
distribution channels, there was a massive audience
for their work. With over one hundred
thousand categories, ODP quickly dwarfed the
Yahoo directory. All the information fed into
LINK, which we supplemented with sites in
our ad network, before pushing everything
back into our search results. Having your listing
on the ODP meant power and visibility. It
became the most authoritative directory on the
internet, and it ultimately grew to over four
million sites organized by eighty thousand editors
all over the world.
I received a really big award at Lycos’s
all-company retreat that summer.
A few months later, our team made a huge
discovery. In our ongoing efforts to make search
results better, Dennis set up an eye-tracking
lab and began scientific testing of how people
used search. We watched where people looked
on the pages and noticed something shocking:
people didn’t look at the ads. Not only that,
but the more we tried to make the ads stand
out, the less people looked at them. Our entire
advertising philosophy was based on making
ads flashy so people would notice them. But
we saw, quite counterintuitively, that people
instinctively knew that the good stuff was on
the boring part of the page, and that they ignored
the parts of the page that we—and the
advertisers—wanted them to click on.
This discovery would give us an edge over
everyone in the industry. All we had to do
was make the ads look less like ads and more
like text. But that was not what the ad people
wanted, and the ad people ran Lycos. The advertiser
was seen as our true customer, since
advertising was where our revenue came from.
Our team argued that our customers were also
the people searching, and without them, we’d
lose the advertisers. The eye-tracking revelation
wasn’t enough to convince them, so we
tried another tack.
In the ultracompetitive world of search engines,
the biggest factor aside from the quality
of the results was how fast they loaded. We
were constantly trying to take things out of the
pages to make them load faster. So I created a
program that took queries coming into our site
and ran them on all the major search engines,
ranking them in order of speed. Yahoo was the
fastest and Lycos was down near the bottom. In
order to get the company’s attention, Dennis
set up a computer in a main hallway to show
the results in real time. We started pushing
to make the pages lighter, and specifically, to
make the ads text—or at least make the images
in the ads much smaller. We pushed and pushed
but the executives kept pushing back, telling us
that that was not how the advertisers wanted
it. We knew that what the advertisers wanted
was bad for them and for us, but no one would
Part of the problem was the treadmill of
quarterly earnings reports. Lycos was the fastest
company to ever go public. We were a publicly
traded company in which all the employees
had stock options, so the mood of the company
rose and fell along with the stock price. Every
quarter you tell shareholders how much profit
you made. If it’s less than they think you should
have made, the stock price goes down, employee
morale goes in the toilet, some employees
leave for other companies, and the company
descends into a death spiral. So we had to hit
not our own quarterly revenue targets, but the
press’s quarterly revenue targets—no matter
what. Ideas that could help the company in
the long term but that might have a negative
impact on quarterly earnings were shot down.
Which meant that we had millions of people
coming to our website every day and telling us
what they wanted, but we were giving them
something else. It was only a matter of time
before the treadmill killed us.
Then a new search engine came on the
scene that was getting a lot of buzz. Less than a
year later, Google released its ad product—and
it was all text. They had seen the same thing
our team had seen in the eye-tracking lab,
and because Google was data and engineering
driven, they made the right decision. While
we were focused on giving advertisers what
they wanted, Google told advertisers what
they needed. Google knew that people would
be more likely to click on ads relevant to their
original search queries. If someone searches for
“Red Sox” they might click on ads for tickets
or scores, but they won’t click on a beer ad, no
matter how flashy it is, because it’s not what
they want right at that moment. This was the
exact opposite of what the advertising world
thought, because they were still operating with
a television mindset. But Google was willing to
trade the short term for the long term, and they
owned the industry as a result. They had figured
out how to align the interests of the user
and the advertiser. Advertisers weren’t allowed
to buy ads that weren’t useful on searches,
which was great for users, and advertisers no
longer had to pay for ads no one was clicking
on. When Google launched its ad program, it
was the beginning of the end for Lycos.
Everyone kept framing my fight to give
users what they wanted as a matter of purity,
which baffled me. There were people who
didn’t think you should make money on the internet,
but I wasn’t one of them. I just thought
you should make money on the internet by
creating something useful that people wanted.
It was obviously the only long-term way to be
successful when alternatives were only a click
away. The entire industry was being driven into
a ditch by idiot MBA hucksters who saw the
internet as a resource to plunder for gold. They
had no respect for the most beautiful thing ever
created, and I hated that Lycos was more than
happy to sell them ads. Our entire business was
being propped up by the money changers in
the temple. I was disgusted. I wanted to make
something great that I could be proud of, not
swim in a cesspool with the bottom-feeders.
One day, Shumeet, Lycos’s chief scientist,
ran to my desk and said I had to see something.
We went to his office where he showed
me a new program that allowed him to see
and download music that was on other peoples’
computers. Whoa! I asked him what the
program was called and he said, “Something
weird, like Napster?” I’d never really hung out
with him before and was pleasantly surprised
by the visit. I didn’t realize that I was being
A few weeks later, Sangam, our VP of engineering,
told me that he and Shumeet were
leaving Lycos to join eCompanies—a Los Angeles–
based company created by Jake Winebaum,
who ran Disney’s online operation, and
Sky Dayton, the founder of Earthlink, a hugely
successful ISP. eCompanies was going to be
an incubator of other internet companies. The
premise was that it wasn’t the idea behind a
business that mattered, but how quickly and effectively
that idea was executed. Shumeet had
apparently convinced Sangam that they needed
someone who could actually build things, so
Sangam offered me the position of chief architect.
My role would be to advise the tech
teams of each new company on how to best
build its products. Go start a bunch of internet
companies in California? Um. Yes, please. It
was my dream job. I knew leaving Lycos was
risky because I had a boatload of stock options,
and if I waited for them to fully vest, they
could be worth several million dollars. Going
would mean leaving all that on the table. But
Lycos clearly didn’t get it, and eCompanies was
where I wanted to be. So I left at the end of
1999. I was so adamant about being completely
done with Lycos that I sold all my shares immediately,
instead of obsessing over when to
cash out.
When I sold ended up being at the height of
the market. All the stock options I’d left on the
table were worth almost nothing a year later.
The Red-Eye
I headed west right after New Year’s, and I
started working for eCompanies on January
17, 2000. I had a new job on a new coast in a
new millennium. I acclimated to Los Angeles
quickly, mainly because I never saw any of it.
I was consumed with work. In the mornings I
would drive down Barrington in Brentwood
to Coffee Bean and get a red-eye—a brewed
coffee with two shots of espresso. At work I
ate Starburst licorice and drank Mountain Dew
and coffee. Sangam, Shumeet, and I became
such an effective and tight team that the two
of them made me an honorary member of the
Indian mafia. It was the best compliment ever.
The flagship company being incubated at
eCompanies was Business.com. Business.com
was supposed to be the Yahoo of business, and
it was Jake Winebaum’s primary focus. They
had even spent $7.5 million—a record figure at
the time—to get the domain name. The company
had big plans for the site and had contracted
with USInteractive, a Web-outsourcing
company, to build it. After five months, with
millions of dollars spent, and over thirty people
working on the site, they hadn’t published a
single webpage. eCompanies was all about execution;
if our flagship company couldn’t launch
on time, we were done. So Jake came to me
and asked if I could save it. He said that all they
really needed was a search engine and a directory.
And it had to be live in exactly seventeen
days. Could I do it? There was no way I could
say no to a challenge like that.
The first thing I had to do was get to the
development team. Because there were so
many people working on the site, they were in
a separate office in Brentwood. What I found
there was not good. Calling it an office was too
nice. It was more like a sweatshop. Thirty developers
were crammed together with all their
computers emitting heat in a room where the
air-conditioning hadn’t worked for weeks. It
was summertime in California and it was hot.
The conditions were miserable, and the developers
were not talking to one another. The situation
was not salvageable. I went back to Jake
and told him that I wanted to fire the entire
USInteractive team. I would keep a couple of
core people and bring them back to the Santa
Monica office, where we’d make it happen.
Jim McGovern, the president of Business.com,
thought I was completely nuts and said no way.
But Jake overrode him and let me do it. That
first night I wrote the code to publish webpages
for the entire directory. Now I just needed to
make the search engine.
The next seventeen days were batshit crazy.
What USInteractive had built wasn’t working,
because it was way too complicated. So I created
a simpler, entirely new architecture for the
site. But because the USInteractive system was
so complex, it had required dozens of computers
and a giant database machine. Since they’d
already blown the hardware budget, I had to
use those machines, which meant they had to
be reconfigured to accept my new architecture,
something akin to creating a race car out of
a broken 747. Since I was the only one who
knew the architecture, I had to do it all myself.
And because it was a complete overhaul,
I couldn’t connect to the computers from the
office. I had to actually go to where they were.
All the machines had been set up at Exodus—
a secure, earthquake-proof hosting facility
near Los Angeles International Airport.
Hundreds of dot-com companies had their
servers there, so you had to be preapproved and
fingerprinted before getting in. Hosting facilities
are designed to be computer friendly, not
human friendly, so just like the hospital, it was
freezing cold and miserable, and all I wanted to
do was leave. I think that’s why the place was
called Exodus. Every night I worked in a cage
somewhere in El Segundo, then drove back to
the office in Santa Monica to code. But it was
worth it.
On the morning of the seventeenth day, I
was interviewed by CNN. I had barely slept
in two and a half weeks, but I was the happiest
person in the world. We had done it. That
afternoon, Jake asked me to be Business.com’s
CTO. I was a controversial choice because of
my age, but they didn’t really have any other
options; I was the only one who knew how
anything worked.
That night, I collapsed into bed. I was
twenty-two years old and one of the youngest
CTOs in history. I was in charge of forty people,
and I was making a ton of cash doing what
I loved. Without a college degree. Without
having done things the “right way.” The world
had officially been proven wrong. My life was
not ruined. It was awesome.
The bag was heavy and awkward. I shifted my weight
and kept dragging it, looking back nervously at the giant
pine trees dancing across the darkened lawn. Terror
coursed through me. Was I being watched? I had
to hurry. In the door, up the stairs. In my bedroom,
I stopped, letting the heavy load lie on the floor. It
would just be until I figured out what had happened
and what to do, I reminded myself. I looked at my
mother’s motionless body for another minute and then
rolled her under my bed. A siren started wailing.
I jerked awake, disoriented, and I clawed
for the ringing phone. The clock read 6:54 a.m.
“Jim, are we going in to the office today?”
“What? Why? Is the site down?”
“Turn on your television.”
I made my way to the TV, trying to shake
off the recurring nightmare that had haunted
me for the past year. I reached for the remote
and stared as the second tower of the World
Trade Center fell.
Think Different
I was thirteen when I first discovered the gothic
subculture online. I didn’t know anything
about the goths except that they looked about
as un-Christian as humanly possible, with, perhaps,
the exception of actual Satanists. But I
couldn’t resist checking out their music and,
after falling in love with Sisters of Mercy and
Siouxsie and the Banshees, I became drawn to
the culture’s romantic, religious imagery and
its comfort with death and darkness. Where
else was it not a bad thing to be deathly pale,
tall, and skinny? I dreamed of one day visiting
Manhattan’s legendary goth club The Batcave.
But in all my years of working, I’d never taken
any time off. Some major product launch always
happened in the fall, so my summers were
spent cramming, and every August I would politely
decline yet another invitation to Burning
Man. Then, in May 2001, I learned that Björk
was playing Radio City Music Hall later in the
year, and decided that that was the perfect time
to take my first break. Which is how I ended
up in New York City three weeks after 9/11.
The city I set foot in that September in no
way resembled the New York I remembered.
Penn Station was overflowing with memorials;
the huge walls of flags and flowers seemed
never ending. The usual buzz of the city was
gone, replaced by a heavy quiet. Missing-person
photographs posted by desperate loved
ones were everywhere; the station protected
at gunpoint by military guards. I found myself
unconsciously walking toward Ground Zero,
joining others who were silently circling the
perimeter. The air was thick with soot and the
only sound was coughing. Shop windows were
covered in debris and makeshift memorials
lined the streets. I made my way through Wall
Street, where military personnel stood beneath
the famous sign. And then I arrived at Battery
Park and saw something that I’d never seen in a
U.S. city—tanks. Battery Park was filled with
tanks. New York City was a war zone.
My graduation trip to Israel in the summer
of 1995 was eye-opening on many levels,
but the thing I remembered most was the inescapable
military presence. When I went to
the mall because the airline had lost my luggage,
I saw soldiers around every corner. It was
hard to concentrate on finding underwear with
so many machine guns around. I remember a
teenage girl laughing with her friends outside
a store. She could have been any teenybopper,
except she accessorized with an Uzi.
The most disconcerting thing was that this was
normal for them. We drove past a McDonald’s
on our way to the Dead Sea and there were
four military Humvees out front, as if Ronald
McDonald himself were under siege. I couldn’t
imagine living like that every day.
Looking at the tanks in Battery Park, my
eyes drifted upward to a giant billboard of a
man’s face towering above the barbed-wire
fence. Calm and omniscient, looking down
over all the military might, FDR offered one
simple message: Think Different. I couldn’t
stop staring. Franklin Delano Roosevelt—the
man who’d been president when Pearl Harbor
was attacked and when the United States entered
World War II—was now floating high
above the evidence of our military reaction,
telling us to think different. But he was speak121
ing on behalf of Apple, the paragon of American
consumerism. It was kind of a mind fuck.
Yet it somehow said everything about what we
were doing as a country. We were responding
to a religious attack with military might and
consumerism. Framing the events of 9/11 as
an attack on our way of life, President George
W. Bush told us to do our part and keep shopping;
the military would protect us from the
The next day, the observation deck at
the Empire State Building reopened. Looking
out over New York City’s marred skyline,
I couldn’t shake the feeling that our government’s
response was wrong. Not only wrong,
but destructive. The people who had wreaked
such physical and emotional damage on the
United States were not stupid—they were fundamentalists
on a mission. Something I knew
more than a little bit about.
Not too many years earlier I’d ranted about
the horrors of abortion to anyone who would
listen, believing we should do whatever it took
to stop the immoral taking of innocent lives. I
never condoned violence, but I’d been aware
that a small group of fundamentalists did. They
bombed abortion clinics and killed doctors,
justifying their actions as part of a war to save
the unborn. These people believed it was their
responsibility to do something about the fact
that a baby was dying every twenty seconds in
America—even if that meant killing people.
How was that different than the terrorists behind
the 9/11 attacks who believed it was their
duty to take action against what they saw as
an oppressive force killing their families and
friends? Both were extremist reactions born
out of religious fundamentalism.
I left the Empire State Building, my mind
reeling. I was a geek. I sat in front of computers
all day looking for patterns. But the conclusions
I had drawn on the observation deck were
incredibly disturbing. If the world of Christian
fundamentalism was not all that different from
Islamic fundamentalism, if fundamentalism
was fundamentalism and terrorism sometimes
grew out of it, then it was not inconceivable—
given the way I’d been raised—that I could
have been a suicide bomber if I’d been born in
Iran or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. It was an utterly
terrifying thought. I hadn’t thought about
God or country in so long. Was fundamentalism
itself bad? Was I still a fundamentalist? It
was too overwhelming to think about, so I de123
cided to go get wasted and dance with a bunch
of goths.
Heads turned when I walked into the Batcave,
not because of my oh-so-sexy pale skin
and death-warmed-over look, but because the
goths are an insular group, and I was clearly
an outsider. I ordered a Red Bull and vodka.
Then another. And finally, for the first time in
my life, I stepped on a dance floor and danced.
For hours. I was tall enough—and drunk
enough—to spin the disco ball above all our
heads, a dancing giant fascinated by the drops
of light spilling over waves of darkness. I fell
asleep on the couch right next to the dance
floor with the knowledge that my world had
been turned upside down. I dreamed of swaying
pine trees.
I woke up to a bouncer prodding me. I
stumbled onto Thirtieth Street and wandered
deliriously toward Hell’s Kitchen.
When I got back to L.A., I quit my job.
Googling for God
I hadn’t seen my family in three years. After
my mom died, we stopped celebrating the
holidays. No Thanksgiving, no Christmas—
nothing. I went to visit them once in 1999 but,
obsessed with my work and being successful, I
hadn’t seen them since. So when I finally visited
Plano, Texas, in early 2002 I was shocked
by what I found. My dad was in a deep depression,
devastated by losing my mom and pissed
at God for destroying his family. The girls, now
eighteen and nineteen, were living together
and in a lot of trouble. It was a mess. My sister
Kristen was arrested for drug possession during
my visit, and I decided, like the good conservative
I was, that I would help her to help herself.
We set up a bond agreement that she would pay
off every month and I went back to California,
shaken by the depth of my family’s collapse.
Why would God do this to us?
It had been years since I’d really thought of
Him. I’d never questioned God’s existence, just
like I’d never questioned my parents, teachers,
preachers or friends who taught me about Him.
But the world was in shambles because of fundamentalism,
and my family was in shambles
because God had taken my mom from us. Did
God even exist? Because if he did, he was an
I needed some facts and, most of all, I
needed to know where I stood. The litmus test
of being a good Christian in my family was
your belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and
your political activism; God and country, inextricably
linked. I’d been to church once since
my mom died and hadn’t been politically active
since the Fourth of July service at Thomas
Road. So, was I still a fundamentalist? Was I
even still a Christian?
Every summer when I was a kid, our teachers
assigned us a Bible passage to memorize
before the fall. Whoever recited the passages
perfectly on the first day of school earned a trip
to the water park. The entire foundation of
my fundamentalist Christian upbringing centered
on the Bible being the inerrant word of
God; my parents always said that most “Christians”
weren’t really Christians because they
didn’t follow the word of God literally, word
for word. So I was all about the memorizing
thing. Almost none of the other students would
memorize the passages, but I always did, and
each September, I impressed the teachers with
my perfect recitations. Sermon on the Mount,
Psalm 23, John 10—I could do them all. The
only thing better than missing school to go to
the water slides when the lines were empty,
was doing it in Jesus’ name.
In Sunday school and Bible study it had
been a given that the Bible was created when
God spoke to a few very special humans who
wrote down exactly what he’d said, word for
word. It was the cornerstone of my faith; my
family’s requirement for any church we might
attend was that they affirm the inerrancy of the
Bible. So after years of building search engines,
I decided to finally use them to do a little research
of my own. The inerrant Word of God
seemed like a good place to start. I googled
“who wrote the Bible” and learned that there
were no actual scripts from Jesus’ time, that the
authors of the four Gospels never knew Jesus,
none of the Gospels were written down until at
least forty years after Jesus’ death, and that people
continued to revise the scripts for at least a
hundred years afterward.
It took me a while to get my head around
what I’d discovered: The New Testament was
created from oral testimony and was written
and revised by multiple authors over many decades.
Basically, The Bible was a giant game
of telephone—played thousands of years before
telephones existed.
Next I found out that there were a bunch of
Gospels that hadn’t been included in the Bible.
The collection even had a badass name—the
Apocrypha. All those many years of memorizing
and studying and discussing the Bible, and
no one thought it was important to mention
that there were other writings about Jesus that
weren’t in the Bible? That at some point many
years after Jesus’ time, a group of guys sat around
a table and decided what should or shouldn’t be
in the good book? That they had decided what
the inerrant word of God was? What could possibly
be in the Apocrypha that I hadn’t been
allowed to read? My life operating system was
based on a first-century urban legend edited by
a bunch of self-serving aristocrats hundreds of
years later. This was the Greatest Lie of Omission
Ever Told. It was time for an upgrade.
Lone Star
My sister Kristen almost never called me. So
when she called and told me she needed my
help, I flew out the next day. I landed in Dallas,
thinking she was home in Plano, but she was
actually in Austin trying to get away from her
“friends.” She picked me up and we spent the
two-hundred-mile ride back to Austin talking.
The picture Kristen painted of her life was
grim: she was addicted to speed, couldn’t get
a proper job, and was broke. We arrived at her
“place,” a motel she rented by the week, early
the following morning, and I began thinking
up another plan to help her help herself. A
few hours later, she went to get breakfast and
I heard the worst sound any brother could ever
hear—my baby sister screaming at the top of her
lungs. I raced outside just in time to see Kristen
being cuffed and wrestled into the backseat of
a police car. She kept yelling to me over her
shoulder that she hadn’t done anything wrong.
And then she was gone. I stood, in a total daze
and watched the cop car drive away. I had no
idea where she was being taken or how to find
her. I didn’t even know where I was. So I called
my best friend Ramin and asked him to figure
out where the hell I was and to find me the best
criminal-defense lawyer in Tarrant County—
the one who played golf with the judges.
I knew Kristen had been paying her bail
and had no drugs in her possession, so why
she’d been arrested was a total mystery. I called
the local police department and they couldn’t
tell me where she was. I started to panic. If I
didn’t figure out what was going on, Kristen
was going to spend the night in jail. It took
hours, but I finally learned that she was in the
Austin City Jail. After racing there, the officers
told me that they were holding her for the
officials in Plano and couldn’t release her under
any circumstances. And I couldn’t see her.
So I drove three and a half hours to Plano and
learned that they had a warrant out for her arrest
because her bail had been pulled. There
was nothing I could do that night. I headed
back toward Austin and tried to sleep for a few
hours at a motel. Instead of sleeping I was sick
the whole time imagining what she was going
through, alone and afraid.
The next day I figured out that Kristen
had been the victim of a bail-bond scam.
She’d been paying off her bond on time every
month—part of why she was still broke—and
was about to make her last payment. But, instead
of allowing her to do that, her bail bondsman
had pulled it so he would get all his money
back, leaving Kristen broke and in jail. Then
he could go back to her and have her pay him
again, which she would have to do in order to
get out. When I finally got in touch with the
guy, he tried to get me to put her back on a
payment plan. That’s when I realized my plan
to help her help herself had failed—and would
fail again. Alone, Kristen would end up going
back to this asshole or someone else like him
who would only extort her for more money.
I saw in an instant the entire market built on
taking advantage of desperate people like my
sister, preying on the poor and fueling their
downward spirals.
Like any good conservative, I’d grown up
believing in the twin virtues of rugged individualism
and self-reliance. But the idea that
Kristen could just pull herself up “by her bootstraps”
was absurd. These were great concepts,
but they made no sense in real life. I knew that
she wouldn’t be able to get back on her feet
without help from other people—in this case,
me and a lawyer. And somehow Ramin found
the one lawyer who really did play golf with
all the Tarrant County judges. We met, and
I asked him to get her out of jail and let me
take her out of state, away from all her druggie
friends. He said he could do it, for four thou131
sand dollars. It took another day and a half,
more drives between Austin and Plano, and a
maze of bureaucratic hell, but the lawyer got
the judge to agree, and on the third day, she
was finally released. When she came out and
saw me she started crying. As we hugged I said,
“We are going to California—right now.” She
jumped in the car.
After a two-day drive, we got to my apartment
in downtown L.A. Kristen moved in
with me, kicked drugs cold turkey, and started
to piece her life back together. And I ditched
As a young boy, I had a big epiphany one day
and told my parents that God had to exist because
he had to start everything. They both
smiled widely and congratulated me for my
brilliance. Was creationism a fairy tale, too? I
began looking at alternatives for how the universe
could have been created. As it turned out,
a lot of people had been asking similar questions
and were working diligently to figure it
out in an obscure little field known as science.
Who knew? I was amazed by my first field trip
to the foreign land of scientific inquiry. Facts
were substantiated and theories were declared
as such. My favorite theory postulated that
universes might just come into existence from
time to time via forces we don’t yet understand.
Emergent behavior, which posited that
a number of elements acting independently
sometimes create unpredictable effects, made a
lot of sense to me, since that’s basically how the
internet evolved. What was most comforting,
though, was that there wasn’t one definitive
answer; there were plenty of ways that the universe
could have happened that seemed significantly
more plausible than a glorified children’s
story about six days and an earthling named
But what about human beings? Life didn’t
just start on earth by itself. God had to have
made it—there were zebras and insects and a
bunch of weird stuff in the oceans. That all had
to come from somewhere, right? But scientists
had looked into that, too, and, though it was
a dirty word in my house, evolution kind of
made sense to me. I learned about self-replicating
molecules and mutation and natural selection.
So this was how humans had come to
exist on earth; a perfect example of emergent
behavior. My dad had always said that God
must have created the world because it was so
amazing. But I saw the opposite—there was no
way someone or something could have conjured
up all that amazingness. It made much
more sense that, like I’d seen with the birth and
development of the internet, gazillions of independent
actions kept colliding over and over
again, generating unpredictable results.
I’d needed to know if there was a factual
reason that God had to exist. And there wasn’t.
Everything—the universe, the earth, animals,
human beings—could have been created without
God. So twenty years after my first epiphany,
I had another one: It’s all just one big
coincidence. Now, everything made sense to
me—and the burden I didn’t know I’d been
carrying since August 25, 1996, lifted. It wasn’t
my fault that my mom had died. Taking her
and leaving me wasn’t some inscrutable part of
God’s plan—it was just random. There was no
comfort in thinking God had a reason to sacrifice
my mom, but it was incredibly comforting
to know that sometimes bad shit just happens.
Getting rid of God filled me with an incredible
sense of peace. The terrible recurring
nightmares about my mom stopped. I could get
on with my life, because I knew who I was.
I wasn’t a fundamentalist or a conservative or
even a Christian.
I was an atheist.
In early 2003, my dad called me and said he
was moving to Newport Beach, California—
and he wanted me and Kristen to move in with
him. Live with my dad? No way! But maybe
this was a chance to heal the wounds that had
formed in his relationship with Kristen—and
to help my dad come out of his depression. Plus,
the air would be cleaner in Newport Beach. I’d
had pneumonia a few times and couldn’t figure
out what was going on. Thinking maybe it
had something to do with the conditions in my
apartment, I headed down to Orange County
with Kristen.
It was weird to be in the same house as my
dad again. Religion wasn’t a part of either of
our lives anymore, and because neither of us
was technically working, though I was blogging
and coding, we sat together and talked
about the news. As the War on Terror heated
up, I was reminded daily that, though I was no
longer a Christian, a lot of people in the United
States—including many of those holding important
leadership positions in the country—
were. As our leaders frothed at the mouth with
the rhetoric of war, I could see the secret fundamentalist
references hidden in some of the
propaganda. For the first time in years, I was
captivated by politics.
George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 had
deeply troubled me since my trip to New
York. I understood the logic behind targeting
Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the blaring, nonstop
U.S. nationalism didn’t sit well with me. I
spent a lot of time on Metafilter, the first community
blog, where thousands of people were
posting in an attempt to figure out what was
going on in our country. Many online conversations
centered on the context surrounding
Al Qaeda—figuring out who they were,
what they wanted, and why they wanted it. As
the Bush administration laid the foundation for
an invasion of Iraq and the mainstream media
aired nothing but support, people online were
openly skeptical. Al Qaeda was not based in
Iraq, none of the 9/11 terrorists were in or from
Iraq, and UN inspectors had concluded Iraq
had no WMDs. Invading Iraq was inexplicable
both from a tactical and a strategic standpoint.
The people online were looking at it from a
secular point of view and were baffled. There
was no logical reason for the invasion. I realized
the invasion of Iraq would never make
sense from a secular point of view. But it made
perfect sense from a religious one.
The focus on WMDs was a cover. No one
was talking about the obvious fact that a Christian
country, led by a born-again Christian,
was about to attack a Muslim country. If I’d
still been a Christian fundamentalist, I would
have enlisted right then. This was the greatest
opportunity to further the kingdom of God
since the Crusades. The hard-core Christians
knew exactly what was going on. And so did
the Muslim world. Though she was scathingly
criticized for saying it, Ann Coulter was the
only one with the balls to say what Christian
fundamentalists were thinking. A few days after
9/11, she wrote, “We should invade their
countries, kill their leaders and convert them to
Christianity.” A year later, Jerry Falwell called
the prophet Muhammad a “terrorist” on 60
Minutes. This sparked riots in the Middle East
and resulted in a Muslim cleric calling for his
death. And now, George W. Bush was about to
give Osama bin Laden exactly what he wanted:
an unprovoked holy war in the Middle East. It
was off-the-charts insane.
In early February 2003, my dad and I
watched as Colin Powell spoke to the United
Nations. When his speech was over, we looked
at each other and didn’t say a word. It was really
going to happen. A month later, Howard Dean
gave a fiery speech at the California Democratic
Party convention, criticizing the party for its
response to the war. Video of his speech went
viral on Metafilter and all the political blogs
just as Bush’s war rhetoric was ratcheting up.
Four days later, on March 19, 2003, the United
States started dropping bombs on Baghdad.
The war on Iraq had begun.
The Heart is a Battlefield
When my mom was dying, she asked my dad
for a tape recorder so she could leave her last
words for each of us. My sisters and I had never
heard the tapes, but we knew they were in a
box of my mom’s things that Dad had never
been able to open. While he and Kristen were
out one day, I decided to find them. I knew
there were a bunch of boxes in his closet, so
I snuck in and carefully opened each of them
until I found the right one. The box contained
her wedding ring, two unlabeled tapes, a few
three-by-five note cards, and my parents’ wedding
photos. My mom was so beautiful in the
photographs, and their love was as evident as I
remembered it from my childhood. I carefully
put everything else back and took the cassettes
with me.
A few days later, I bought a tape player
at Target and waited for Dad and Kristen to
leave. As soon as they were gone, I started listening.
The first cassette didn’t have anything
on it—I fast-forwarded and rewound it, but it
was blank. The second one had Mom’s voice. I
hadn’t heard her voice in nearly ten years, but
I could tell her message was for my dad, so I
didn’t listen. I fast-forwarded to see if there was
something for me later in the tape, but there
wasn’t. Disappointed, I returned the tapes to
their place in the box. But as I replaced them,
I saw the three-by-five cards and pulled them
out. One of them said “Jimmy” on it. My heart
lurched. After a minute I started reading, the
card trembling in my hand. I can’t remember
what the first part said because of what was at
the end. The very last thing my dying mother
had written to me was, “Your heart will be a
battlefield for Satan.”
Holy. Shit.
For years I’d been ignoring the gnawing
fear that my mom would be horrified that I
wasn’t being a good Christian—and that was
even before I became an atheist. I knew how
badly she wanted me to succeed, so I’d focused
solely on that—and on proving that dropping
out of college wouldn’t ruin my life. But being
a good person was more important to her than
worldly success, and I knew it. Her note was a
stark reminder of how far I’d strayed from her
beliefs. I had to prove to her—and to myself—
that I could be an atheist and still be a moral
My mom’s moral code centered on one
thing: truth. She hated lying in any form and
believed we had a moral obligation to tell the
truth, even when it was inconvenient or uncomfortable
to do so. She’d done this herself
many times, even as a high school student.
There was the famous story in my family of
when she stood up against doctoring the stats
in her Junior Achievement program, even
though everyone hated her as a result. The
Iraq War was being waged in the name of her
beliefs, and it was based on lies. This was my
chance to fight for truth. I was under no illusions
that I could really change anything, but if
I looked back on this moment in ten years and
saw that I hadn’t done everything I could have,
I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. So I had
to help stop the war.
A few days later, I stumbled on an op-ed
by Thom Hartmann “How to Take Back
America,” an impassioned plea to those opposing
the war. He made a persuasive case for
antiwar activists to take over the Democratic
Party. Structurally, there was no way a third
party could ever win, so the only viable option
to stopping the war was to elect an antiwar
Democrat who could beat Bush in the 2004
election. I knew he was right. Howard Dean
seemed like the best bet—in addition to being
staunchly antiwar, he was a doctor and a
centrist. He had balanced the budget when he
was the governor of Vermont, and like me, he
believed that health care was the United States’
number-one priority. So I decided to register
as—gasp!—a Democrat and to support Dean in
the Democratic primary.
Orange County was not known as a Democratic
stronghold, so I tried my best to get
involved where I could. I went to a Young
Democrats meeting and did some voter registration,
but I was unimpressed. Then some of
the bloggers supporting Dean started using a
new internet tool called Meetup, which helped
online communities connect offline. There
were groups for knitters and hikers and pub
crawlers. It was the fastest way for Dean’s supporters
to meet and organize. The campaign
saw this grassroots upswell and began officially
promoting the Howard Dean Meetups nationally.
It became a phenomenon.
On April 2, 2003, I went to the Diedrich
Coffee shop in the Irvine Spectrum Center for
one of the first ever Meetups. Fifty strangers,
thrown together by the internet, met among
throngs of teenagers shuttling between Hot
Topic and Forever 21. We stared at each other,
no one quite sure what we were supposed to
do. Finally, we went around the room and introduced
ourselves. I told everyone that I had
never voted before, but that I’d just registered
as a Democrat so that I could vote for Dean because
we had to stop the war. I was applauded.
My story caught the attention of a woman
named Maggie who asked if she could quote
me for her blog. I told her I’d blogged about it
already, and the next day she commented on
my post. We became fast friends and it wasn’t
long before we formed an offshoot of the Orange
County Howard Dean Meetup just for
The online base of operations for the antiwar
movement was MoveOn.org. Everyone
was trying to understand what was going on in
the country and why the media wasn’t telling
us the real story, so MoveOn.org sent out an
email pitching the “Great MoveOn Interview.”
The idea was to match two people from the
same area code and have them interview each
other for an hour. They would report back
what the other person said, and then MoveOn.
org would do some fancy linguistic analysis
that would miraculously figure out how the
media each person consumed affected the way
he or she talked about the war—or something
like that. I thought it was brilliant, so I signed
up, and because I lived in Los Angeles, I was
paired with a Hollywood producer named Da144
vid Blocker. We had a great conversation and
he subscribed to my blog. A month later, he
forwarded me an email from another producer,
Robert Greenwald. Robert needed a researcher
for a few months who “didn’t need to be paid
very much.” I searched his name on IMDb and
found out that he’d made dozens of television
movies and miniseries featuring such icons as
Farrah Fawcett and Sally Field. But when I saw
that he’d executive produced Unprecedented, a
documentary about the 2000 presidential election
that I’d seen just a few months before, I
knew I wanted the job.
Crucify the Insincere
The next day I met with Robert at his office,
which was a converted motel in the shadow
of the giant Sony Pictures Studio lot in Culver
City. He was deeply troubled about what
was happening in Iraq and immediately started
pitching me his idea for a film. Despite the
Bush administration’s ten-month propaganda
campaign to convince Americans that Iraq had
WMDs, no nuclear weapons or even chemical
weapons had been found. It was July 2003.
The administration was now saying that Iraq
had nuclear programs. But as Robert reminded
me, “a program can be just a piece of paper!”
An article online by former CIA analyst Ray
McGovern had caught his eye and after talking
with Ray, Robert learned that there were a lot
of credible insiders who wanted to go on the
record with the truth. So Robert’s plan was to
make a documentary showing how the government’s
weapons-of-mass-destruction language
kept shifting, exposing the lie that the mainstream
media was ignoring—as fast as humanly
possible, so we could end the occupation. Was
I in? Hell yeah.
I got to work researching and documenting
every statement about WMDs by government
officials. I had to put them in chronological
order with the original transcript for context
and then cross-reference them with the facts. It
should have been an exceedingly boring task,
but it felt like the most important thing I’d
ever done. The final document was one hundred
pages long, with another thousand pages
of transcripts. I knew exactly when each quote
had been said, who had said it, where the person
had said it, whether the news reports had interpreted
it in the right context, and who owned
the footage. I triple-checked everything; I was
determined to get it all exactly right. I drove
back and forth between Newport Beach and
L.A. daily. The whole thing—the all-nighters,
the large quantities of Mountain Dew, the
nights spent under my desk in a sleeping bag—
felt like my internet start-up days. None of us
knew if anyone would ever actually see the
film. The whole reason we were making it was
because the mainstream media wouldn’t cover
the story, so we knew it definitely wasn’t going
to air on NBC or PBS. But there was no time
to dwell on that. We had to move fast.
My biggest challenge was getting the actual
video footage. Without it, my research
was useless. I could get clips either from news
programs or official government sources, but
news programs charged a lot and took a while,
and government sources, while they gave the
clips for free, took forever. Even a few days was
too long for me to wait, so I investigated ways
to save the streams from the White House and
C-SPAN websites. If I could save the streams,
I should be able to copy the footage into our
new editing software, Final Cut Pro. We’d
be able to start editing with the low-quality
streams right away, then swap it for the higher147
quality footage whenever I received it. But
the video-streaming technologies at the time
were designed for companies that wanted to
prevent people like me from downloading the
videos and copying them. I fired up a packet
sniffer to figure out the URL of the stream and
then found an obscure shareware program that
would save the file. No software could convert
that into something Final Cut would accept, so
I brought my home computer into the office,
hooked it up to a video-output box and then
played all the streams onto VHS tapes, which
were then digitized into Final Cut. Rube
Goldberg would have been proud.
With my hacked-together pirating machine
(barely) working, we finished the film in
four months. Because we couldn’t go through
normal media channels, we had to get creative
with the film’s distribution. So we partnered
with MoveOn.org and the Center for American
Progress, a brand-new liberal think tank, to create
an alternate distribution model based on the
internet—and people. On November 3, 2003,
MoveOn.org sent an email asking its members
to donate thirty dollars toward an anti-Bush ad
campaign. In return, they’d receive a copy of
our movie, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the
Iraq War. None of us knew how many copies
we would sell, so we printed five thousand and
hoped we’d sell at least half. An hour after the
email went out, Robert got an email from Wes
Boyd at MoveOn.org saying we had already sold
out. Within two days, we had sold thirty thousand
copies and raised nearly a million dollars.
I felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle. My dad
called to congratulate me and asked if he could
take me to lunch. I said yes, unaware that he had
some big news of his own.
Back in May, I’d dragged my dad to my
second Dean Meetup, and was happy when he
decided to keep going to them. Thrilled that
my dad was taking such an interest, I didn’t
catch on to the real reason until he told me that
he’d asked my friend Maggie on a date. Obsessed
with work and rarely at home, I hadn’t
paid much attention to their developing relationship.
So I was pretty dumbfounded when,
over some chips and guacamole, my dad told
me that he and Maggie were getting married
in December. As in, the month after the one
we were currently in. What!? My dad had been
in one relationship since my mom died, but it
hadn’t been serious. I was shocked and a little
bit worried. I asked him if he was sure—they
hadn’t known each other that long! But he said
when he knew, he knew; it had been that way
with my mom, too. That’s when I saw in his
eyes what I’d missed over the past few months:
he was happy.
Our first theatrical screening of Uncovered
was on November 11, 2003, at the Laemmle
Theater in Santa Monica. When I drove up to
park, there was a huge line all the way down
the street outside the theater. Robert was upset
that we had scheduled our screening at the same
time as some big movie premiere. But the big
movie premiere turned out to be ours! Starving
for answers about the war, people had come
out in droves. There was so much demand that
we moved the screening into the biggest theater
they had, and scheduled another one for
later that night. People waited outside during
the entire first screening for a chance to see it
during the second screening. We even had a
few protesters. Watching the film I had poured
my heart into with over five hundred people,
including my dad, Maggie, and Ramin, was
the greatest experience I’d ever had. When I
worked at Lycos and Business.com, I had built
sites that millions of people used, but I had
never sat in a room full of people while they
laughed and booed and yelled at something I
had helped create. It was exhilarating.
After selling thirty thousand DVDs, we
had what Robert liked to call a “high-class
problem” because we didn’t actually have
thirty thousand DVDs. It would take a month
to make them, but people didn’t want to wait.
We shipped out the five thousand we had, and
then MoveOn.org came up with the brilliant
idea to ask the people who already had DVDs
to host screenings. They could register their
screening on the website, and anyone could
punch in a zip code and find one nearby. By the
next week, over two thousand screenings had
happened all over the world, and more than a
million people had seen the film.
The last time I’d felt that high was when
thousands of volunteers were connected
through the Open Directory Project. But this
was so much more meaningful because the
cause was so much more important. People organizing
over the internet were able to do what
multibillion-dollar media conglomerates and
the most prestigious newspapers in the world
could not—expose the lies behind the Bush administration’s
invasion of Iraq to the world. We
were going to stop the war!
On December 19, my dad and Maggie got
married. It was a simple ceremony at the Orange
County courthouse. My whole family
was there, together again, happy. I looked at
the friend who was now my stepmother, and
realized that she was in my life, in my sisters’
lives, in my dad’s life because of one thing.
People connecting through the internet.
Some People Say
I wasn’t the only one intoxicated by our success.
Everyone who’d worked on Uncovered wanted
to do it again, and the next project wasn’t hard
to find. Throughout production, we had marveled
at the disaster that was the mainstream
media. At first we couldn’t understand how
they consistently got everything wrong, but
eventually the problem became obvious. The
administration’s unofficial cheerleader, Fox
News, kept calling anyone who contradicted
the White House or the Pentagon a traitor. If
someone went on TV and questioned the Bush
administration’s position, the person was silenced
and ostracized. Meanwhile, all the other
networks were busy mimicking Fox, trying to
capture a share of its sky-high ratings. Fox was
a virus infecting the media and the public. If we
didn’t do something, Fox News would remain
the unchecked mouthpiece for the Republican
Party, Bush would almost be guaranteed to win
reelection, and there’d be no hope of stopping
the war. We had found the target of our next
documentary. And I’d found a girlfriend. So I
moved from Newport Beach to Los Angeles to
be closer to her and to eliminate my commute.
It was my job to find usable footage, which
was complicated by the fact that we couldn’t
get it from Fox. So we set up a half dozen
TiVos to record Fox 24/7, but who was going
to watch Fox twenty-four hours a day?
MoveOn.org sent an email to its most active
members asking if any of them would be willing
to watch and report back to us what they
found. About twenty-five people—most of
them over the age of fifty—signed up to work
in shifts around the clock. Because the most
important thing was what the reporters were
saying, I wanted to experiment with saving
the closed-captioning on the live feed so we
could search for key words in the transcripts.
This would make it possible both to identify
patterns and to find clips. It ended up being one
of our most potent weapons and helped our
volunteer watchers discover some of Fox’s favorite
phrases. My personal favorite was “some
people say.” Whenever a Fox News personality
wanted to insert some idea without sourcing it,
he or she would preface the Republican talking
point with the phrase “some people say.” Once
those magic words were uttered, there was no
need to offer facts or evidence. We found the
phrase hundreds of times in our transcripts, and
it became one of the funniest parts of the film.
We produced Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s
War on Journalism in total secrecy, hoping to
surprise the media. Our premiere was in New
York and I boarded the airplane wondering
how it would be received and if anyone would
even care. I was the most optimistic one on
our team, because I knew that there was nothing
the media loved more than talking about
the media, so I figured we’d draw plenty of
attention. I flew out on JetBlue, the new airline
touting live television in-flight. A few hours
into the trip, I was flipping through the channels
and literally jumped out of my seat. There,
on MSNBC talking to Keith Olbermann, was
Robert! When I had boarded the airplane no
one had even known that the film existed; now
its existence was being broadcast on television?
Once I landed at JFK, I found out that, just a
few minutes after I left for the airport, The New
York Times had asked Fox News for a comment
on our film for a feature story embargoed until
the movie’s release the next day. Olbermann
had just left Fox, was still tuned in to the gossip
mill, and couldn’t wait to stick it to his former
employer. MSNBC called Robert, and a few
hours later, he was filming in the network’s
L.A. studio. It was wild, but it was a precursor
for the attention that the movie would generate.
Now the premiere was a big deal and our press
conference the next morning was filled with
media outlets, including Fox News, which had
sent one of its reporters, Eric Shawn. He gave
us our money quote: “it’s unfair, it’s slanted,
and it’s a hit job. And I haven’t even seen it
yet.” I immediately put it on the website. We
held our breath for the next few weeks to see if
Fox would sue us for using the footage without
its permission but, presumably afraid of more
attention, they never did.
After the premiere I finally relaxed and realized
almost immediately that I wasn’t feeling
quite right. I’d moved into a new apartment a
few weeks earlier, and noticed that I was get155
ting winded going up the stairs. I went to a
holistic doctor who put me on a strict diet of
lean meat and vegetables, and I forgot about it.
We did house screenings again, and even had
a small theatrical release of Outfoxed. Fahrenheit
9/11 had just been released, and a lot of people
were in the mood to watch lefty documentaries.
Unlike Uncovered, Outfoxed was a lot of fun,
and became a big hit. I analyzed LexisNexis
and found that there were three times as many
stories connecting Republicans with Fox News
after the release of our film. We were changing
the misperception that Fox News was “fair and
balanced,” and we were helping to stop other
news outlets from copying them. We started to
see our films as a way to influence the larger
media narrative; how many people saw them
was actually less important than their effect on
the broader public dialogue. I’d loved hacking
BBSes and the internet, but now I was hacking
the media. Being an activist was addictive, and
it was exhilarating to cause so much trouble for
the bad guys. It was geek crack.
And then we lost the election. I’d been invited
to the Frontline Club to talk about the
film, which is why I was drinking beer at a bar
in London with Greenpeace activists at six a.m.
the day after the election. Everyone else was
depressed, but I was too much in shock to feel
anything. I just couldn’t believe it. We all knew
that Kerry was a shitty candidate, but how the
hell had this happened? People had the correct
information! We’d given it to them! We’d exposed
the lies, but people didn’t care. They had
still reelected Bush. I was crushed and disoriented
and not accustomed to failure. I’d believed
that if we uncovered the truth about the
war, the American people would do the right
thing. But they hadn’t.
I returned to the United States shaken. I
started working on a new documentary, but
my heart wasn’t in it. We hadn’t stopped the
war. We’d failed. Plus, I couldn’t really breathe.
It had become harder and harder to walk up the
hill to my car from my girlfriend’s apartment.
I was also having doubts about my relationship
and I agreed to see a therapist with her to try
and work it out. The therapist, ever concerned
with “being present,” made us read a stupid
book on mindfulness. What became clear in a
relatively short amount of time—in addition to
the fact that wherever I went, there I was—was
that I was sick and not doing anything about it.
When our therapist asked me why I was ignor157
ing the fact that I couldn’t breathe, I realized it
was because I didn’t want to know the reason.
Which was stupid. So I made an appointment
to see a pulmonologist on the following Monday.
And I didn’t know why, but I suddenly
knew that I had to break up with my girlfriend
right away.
Dr. Stanley Kahan took one look at me and
asked who’d referred me. I told him no one; he
was just the closest pulmonary specialist to my
office covered by my insurance. Pause. “Uh, so
you just came off the street?” he asked. “Yeah,”
I said. He was flummoxed by my nonchalance.
He immediately did a pulmonary-function
test, which revealed that my lung capacity was
25 percent of what it should be. Sometimes
doctors don’t tell you things straight, but Dr.
Kahan told me in no uncertain terms that I had
to stop being an idiot and make this my number-
one priority. My lungs were obviously a
mess for a reason, so he ordered a CT scan and
X-ray. I came back for my results a few days
later, and Dr. Kahan told me I had restricted
lung disease due to scarring. What he didn’t
know was what was causing it or if it could be
stopped. In my case, it was most likely caused
by one of the three things that had saved my
life: chemotherapy, radiation, or the bone-marrow
transplant. To learn more he had to do a
biopsy on the scar tissue.
I got the results from the biopsy on August
11. They weren’t good. They’d found that
the problem was radiation fibrosis—untreatable
scarring of the lungs due to radiation. It was
late onset and progressing slowly, yet steadily.
But that clearly wasn’t the whole story. Only 40
percent of my lungs were scarred, so I should
have had 60 percent capacity, not 25 percent.
Dr. Kahan needed another biopsy of the scar
tissue to locate the source of the additional restriction.
He was hoping to find and diagnose
something he could treat. He told me that his
goal was to get me to a place where I could
function, and he mentioned that I might be a
good candidate for a lung transplant. Wait, as
in . . . replace my lungs with someone else’s?!
When I got back to work I immediately
googled lung-transplant survival rates and
learned that 87.8 percent of people make it three
months, 76 percent make it a year, 54 percent
make it three years, and 39 percent make it five
years. I learned that people recommended for
lung transplants have life expectancies of two
years or less. Two years?! I’d had no idea I was
that close to death. Before completely panicking,
I called Dr. Kahan and asked how long
he thought I had. Like all doctors, he hesitated
to throw out specific numbers, but said it was
definitely less than twenty years. I knew with
some certainty that I was going to die young.
UCLA Surgeons are Pussies
The next lung biopsy was a disaster. The first
one had been noninvasive, but this biopsy
would be a real surgery at a real hospital, Brotman
Medical Center. The surgeon had to cut
open my chest to extract a piece of lung tissue.
Several days after the procedure, as I was
walking out of my hospital room to go home,
the right side of my chest started bubbling out
like a balloon. It turned out that the surgeon
had nicked a piece of my lung and I was bleeding
internally. They stopped the bleeding, but I
now had a hole in my lung and could no longer
function without an oxygen machine. When
I was released, I went to Newport Beach with
Dad and Maggie to recover. That night, an
oxygen machine accompanied by a dozen tanks
of pure O2 arrived. The plastic tubing I stuck
up my nose felt like shackles. I did not want to
stay in Newport Beach, and I desperately tried
to come up with a scenario in which it would
be possible for me to remain independent, but
by morning it was obvious that I could not live
on my own. On September 6, Dr. Kahan called
with the biopsy results. There was nothing to
treat. My lungs were wrecked and I needed a
We quickly learned that lungs are an extremely
scarce resource, and that there’s a rigorous
process for getting on the waiting list.
Everyone was trying to figure out some reason
to not put me on, and the reason to deny me
was painfully obvious: I was a cancer survivor.
For my body to accept new lungs, my immune
system would have to be suppressed, which,
because of my history, would leave me open
to infections and tumors. If I got cancer again,
I would certainly die and the precious lungs
would be wasted. The odds of getting on the
list were not in my favor. So I had to get to
There were three hospitals in the area with
lung-transplant programs, UCLA, USC, and
Cedars-Sinai. I pored over the publicly available
statistics and found that UCLA had the
best survival rates. They also performed more
transplants than anyone else, because they had
a special technique to revive lungs that were
too damaged for other hospitals to use. As a
result, they did sixty lung transplants a year
while Cedars-Sinai did five. If I were on the
list at UCLA, there would be a much greater
chance of getting a transplant in time. But on
September 26, I got a call from the appointment
scheduler at UCLA’s heart- and lung-transplant
program. They wouldn’t see me, and the scheduler
couldn’t tell me why. Maggie was livid and
needed answers. She kept calling until she found
out that I’d been denied because the extensive
scarring in my upper chest made the surgery
too difficult. I was pissed. So I blogged about it.
My friends and family were outraged when
they saw my post. Ellen, one of the Outfoxed
volunteers, wrote a scathing email to UCLA,
which prompted my sister Kelly and others to
do the same. They accused UCLA of declining
the “difficult” cases to minimize its risk of
failure in order to keep its success rates high.
I joked on my blog that I was going to register
the domain uclasurgeonsarepussies.com.
Everyone liked that. Meanwhile, Dr. Kahan,
who had been consulting on my case since the
beginning, started working on getting me into
A month later, I got a call from the very
same UCLA scheduler who had initially told
me that I’d been denied. She needed to set me
up with a time to meet Dr. Joseph Lynch. I
thought she was confused because I had already
been rejected from the program, but she was
adamant that I was on her list as needing an appointment.
I had no idea what had happened,
but I definitely wasn’t going to try to convince
her that it was a mistake!
Being accepted into the transplant program
wasn’t a guarantee that I’d get on the list—it
only meant I was being considered for the list.
I met with Dr. Lynch at the UCLA clinic and
began the gauntlet that I would have to run
over the next few months. There were tests and
then more tests. There were meetings and then
more meetings, all supervised by the delightful
and ever-helpful insurance people. Everyone
was trying to find a reason not to give me
the lungs: UCLA because they didn’t want to
risk a bad transplant that would waste a lung
and lower its numbers, and the insurance company
because it would cost them a half-million
Finally, I was scheduled to meet with the
head surgeon, Dr. Abbas Ardehali. At our
meeting I asked him why I’d been rejected and
then accepted to UCLA’s program. As it turned
out, the emails that Ellen, Kelly, and others had
sent to a generic UCLA email account actually
went somewhere, and had then been forwarded
to Dr. Ardehali. He didn’t like the accusation
that UCLA surgeons were afraid to do tough
surgeries. He was most certainly not a pussy.
He was a bad motherfucker and wasn’t about
to let someone tell him what he couldn’t do. So
he overrode those refusing to see me and told
them to get “the kid” in.
All my friends called in to put pressure
on UCLA. Someone even called in as a documentary
filmmaker following my story. My
activist colleagues were not about to let them
turn me down. But no one fought harder than
Maggie. She yelled and cried on the phone,
frequently at the same time. She started a
blog, CheckOnJim.com. She wouldn’t let
up until she got results. Still, the transplant
board was split. The opponents of giving me
the transplant referenced the high likelihood
that the cancer would come back, as well as
the difficulty of the surgery itself. The scarring
had wrapped around my lungs in such a
way that the procedure would be incredibly
complicated and there was a very real chance
that I would die on the table. But the big
positive was that I was young—most people
needing lungs were much older—and otherwise
healthy. My biggest advocate was Dr.
Lynch, who officially recommended a double
lung transplant. Most people on the transplant
board—most importantly the medical director,
Dr. David Ross, who was the one that
had initially refused me—had never actually
seen me. But Dr. Lynch had, and told them
over and over again that I looked great, I just
needed some new lungs. He fought them until
they were convinced. In January 2006 I
got a call from UCLA that I was on the list.
My dad, Maggie, and Kristen were on their
way home from a Chinese restaurant when
I texted them the good news. Maggie called
immediately and told me that my dad’s fortune
cookie had said, “Soon, you will witness
a miracle.”
Usually the process to get on the list takes
just a couple of weeks, but it had been months
for me, and I was getting sicker. I knew I
didn’t have much time, so I had to figure out
what my chances were of actually getting
the lungs before it was too late. The matching
system between organ and recipient is a
computer algorithm that takes into account a
number of variables. For example, there could
only be a five-hundred-mile radius between
the lungs and UCLA, because they’d only
have four hours to get them to me. But the
biggest issue for me was that the lungs had to
actually fit, which was complicated because
I wasn’t just insanely tall; I was also insanely
thin. I started to run the numbers. I looked at
the population statistics and calculated that if
I were on the list at 6’5” it would take about
nine years to get the lungs. I was 6’9”. So my
only shot at survival was if one of the Lakers
happened to be an organ donor and suddenly
dropped dead in a way that didn’t damage his
lungs. Statistically, I needed to exist in the
computer as 6’2” or under to get the lungs in
time. At my next appointment, I immediately
asked what size lungs I was eligible for. And
they said I was in the computer as eligible for
donors who were 6’1” or taller. Relieved, I
settled in to wait.
And then to wait some more.
The Call
I distracted myself for a year by making another
movie. But by January 2007, I was down to
145 pounds, my lung capacity had dropped another
5 percent, and I was getting weaker and
weaker. My fingertips were frequently numb,
which was terrifying because it meant that I
couldn’t type as much—and that I had time to
I’d had a pretty crazy life. But after all the
drama and successes and fighting and failures,
there was only one thing that mattered to me:
had I honored my mom with my life? The
truth was, I couldn’t really say yes. She’d always
wanted me to be successful in life, and
I’d figured out how to do that. She wanted me
to be a moral person, so I’d fought against lies
and tried to make the world a better place. But
it didn’t feel right. Something important was
still missing.
I was nearing death. The transplant board
was worried. The doctors looked into why I
hadn’t been matched yet and saw that my height
was in the computer as 6’5”, not 6’1”. They
realized what I’d figured out a year earlier—
that I would never get matched at that listed
height—so they finally changed it to 5’11”.
At 9:40 a.m. on Thursday, February 1, my
phone rang. Then Maggie’s phone rang. Then
my dad’s phone rang. It was time.
My dad is an annoyingly slow driver. Family
legend has it that his only moving violation
was for driving too slowly. He even slows
down when the crosswalk countdown gets
below five, so that he’s perfectly positioned to
stop when the light turns red. But that morning
he flew through the carpool lane driving
at the speed limit. It may have been the
first time he ever drove above sixty miles per
hour. When we screeched into the emergency-
room parking area, the nurses were waiting
to whisk me away for presurgery prep. It
was 10:30 a.m.
As with the bone-marrow process, transplants
are a highly coordinated event. That
morning, UCLA had gotten a call from the
United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)
to say that they might have a match for me.
As soon as UCLA said they wanted the lungs,
everything switched into motion. I was called
to come in, and a doctor from UCLA was sent
to get a visual on the lungs. During that time I
would be prepped. If the doctor called back to
say that the lungs looked good, I would be put
under and the lungs would be put in a cooler
and helicoptered to us. If the final check in
the surgery room went well, they would cut
me open and take out my failing breathing
That was definitely going to be the tricky
part. Because of all the scarring in my upper
chest, my lungs were attached to my ribs.
Which meant that Dr. Ardehali would be
scraping them off, an obviously intricate and
very dangerous process. Back when I’d had the
lung biopsy, all they’d had to do was take out
a little piece of my lung and they had nicked
me. That hadn’t been UCLA, of course, but
still. This time they were actually going to
scrape out my lungs. But the only thing that
surpassed Dr. Ardehali’s ego was his skill, so I
put my faith in his hands.
No one but family is allowed in the presurgery
prep area, so obviously all of my friends
were there. Ramin, who is from Iran, got in
by telling the staff he was my brother. All my
documentary-film friends—so adept at being
in places they weren’t supposed to be—showed
up. As I lay in bed with nurses hooking me up
to things, signing papers and waiting for the
lungs to arrive, we celebrated victory. It was
literally standing room only as everyone huddled
around my rolling bed trying not to get
tangled in the curtains separating me from the
other patients. Everyone had worked so hard
for this moment. There was just one minor detail
That minor detail was etched across my
dad’s face. I could see he was excited, but the excitement
was laced with anxiety. He knew that
in a couple of hours a nurse would walk into
the waiting room and tell him that the surgeons
had stopped my heart. Not something any parent
ever wants to hear. A machine would take
over, pumping oxygen through my blood while
Dr. Ardehali and his team swapped the lungs.
The procedure would take three hours, and I
knew my dad would be holding his breath the
entire time. When they were done, the surgeons
would turn off the machine, and then wait for
the lungs to inflate . . . or not. I had seen this on
television. I called it the money shot. I watched
it over and over again, fascinated by the miracle
of it. More than anyone else, I think my dad was
aware that I either was going to breathe then or
I would never breathe again.
At 12:30 p.m., the doctor who’d flown
to check out the lungs called to say that they
were good. He and the lungs were getting on
the helicopter. I said quick goodbyes to everyone
and was wheeled into surgery. They
rolled me into the freezing room and plopped
me down on the even colder table. There were
cameras and tons of equipment and a bunch
of strangers rushing around doing very important-
looking things. When they finished
hooking me up to a series of tubes, I knew
it was only a matter of minutes before I was
going to be put under.
Deathbed conversions have a special place
in the hearts of Christians. Even if you have
renounced God your entire life, your soul can
be saved if you accept Jesus at the very end. It
is an example of His grace. Rumors abound of
famous nonbelievers turning to God in their
final hours. Christians say that the nearness of
death focuses and sharpens the mind, making
the truth clear. That’s totally what happened
for me, minus the Jesus part.
Lying on the table in the center of a
highly regimented whirlwind, I found myself
strangely at peace. Gone were the sounds of the
room. Gone was the freezing table beneath me.
Gone was any fear of the surgery’s outcome.
There was only one thing I was aware of: the
countless people who had gotten me to this
moment. The friends who’d just been crowded
around my hospital bed; the people who had
emailed UCLA on my behalf; Maggie, who’d
never stopped fighting for me; all the people
who were blogging and advocating for me;
and the nurses and surgeons, in whose hands
I was placing my life. All these people—most
of whom I didn’t know and never would—had
come together to save me, to give me life. I
couldn’t possibly deserve this. How could I
ever repay this debt—a debt not of money but
of life?
And that’s when I truly found God.
God wasn’t up in some mythical heaven.
God was right there, talking to me, touching
me, helping me—and blogging furiously in the
waiting room.
God is just what happens when humanity
is connected. And it was only by the grace of
God—their grace—that I might be saved.
And in that, I had total faith.
I woke up twenty hours later. Standing before
me were not the pearly gates of Heaven, but the
coffee-stained teeth of my smiling father. We
had done it. My heart was beating. I was, with
the help of machines, breathing. I was alive.
Three different DNAs. Individually, they were
useless, but together they equaled one functioning
human. “Me.” It was a miracle. I had
been born again, by the grace of a connected
humanity. But, as I learned over the next few
months, connecting humanity isn’t always
grace-full. Figuring out how to get my body
working again was the hardest thing I’ve ever
done. Besides relearning how to breathe, I had
to ensure that the three DNAs found peace
with one another and didn’t start a holy war in
my body. It was painful. Often it seemed impossible.
It was really, really messy. Kind of like
everything else in the world.
It’s one thing to believe in humanity connected.
It’s another to have humanity actually
connected in your own body. I guess I’m pretty
thick-headed, because it took turning my body
into a mash-up for me to get it. Some part of
me knew when I stole the computer out of my
parents’ room so I could get online. Some part
of me knew when a stranger saved me with his
bone marrow and a nurse risked her job to save
my life. Some part of me knew when eighty
thousand people came together to organize the
web and when thousands of people came together
to expose the lies of the Iraq War. Some
part of me knew when my little sister needed
help and when my dad found love again. But
it took the collective gift of my family, friends,
advocates, and doctors for me to truly understand.
We are all connected, inextricably
linked. We always have been, and now it is impossible
for me to ignore.
I never understood why I would get so upset
when people disrespected the internet. Yes,
it was a tool to get things done, to connect
people, and it was even sometimes a weapon
to wield. But my whole life it felt like something
more than that. After the lung transplant
I finally got it. The internet illuminates what
has always been—our interconnectedness. The
internet is not a tool or a thing. It is how we
communicate with God. It is sacred. Holy. All
that time I thought I’d been far from God I
wasn’t. I’d been talking to God everyday for
years—online. The internet saved me from the
hell of Christian fundamentalism and the despair
of atheism. And then it saved my life.
If God is humanity connected, then the internet
is God incarnate; a manifestation of our
connection, a rudimentary form of hyperconnected
When I was ten years old, sitting beside my
dad watching him code, I noticed that there
was one character he kept using over and over
again. “What’s that called?,” I asked, pointing
to the mysterious # above the 3 on the keyboard.
“Some people call it the number sign,
but I call it pound,” he answered.
No one agrees on what to call # and no one
really knows where it originated either; it just
seems to have always existed. In the modern
technological era, the octothorpe was first used
to fill space on what would otherwise have
been a blank button on the touchtone telephone.
Today, hashtags are used to start something.
You can put anything after # and what
follows becomes a community, a movement,
something that matters. It has become the symbol
of the internet. For me, # is the symbol of a
connected humanity. It represents my faith that
people, connected, can create a new world.
It took me a while, but I finally figured
out how I could truly honor my mom—how
I could make her proud of me. What mattered
most to her wasn’t me going to college
or getting married or having a great job. Yes,
she wanted me to be a moral person. But what
mattered most to her was simple. She wanted
me to believe in God.
And I do.
I believe in #. I believe that we are God,
the internet is our savior, and our purpose is to
create the world we want. Each one of us is a
creator. And together, we are The Creator.
All I know about the person whose lungs I
now have is that he was twenty-two years old
and six feet tall. I know nothing about who
he was as a person, but I do know something
about his family. I know that in the height of
loss, when all any family should have to do is
grieve, as their son, as their brother, lay motionless
in bed, they were asked to give up to
seven strangers a chance to live.
And they said yes.
Today I breathe through someone else’s
lungs while another’s blood flows through my
I have faith in people. I believe in God.
And the internet is my religion.
You have been given a very special gift—your
Most people spend that gift waiting. Waiting
for a promotion, waiting for permission,
waiting for a savior. But you can’t wait. Life has
no rollover minutes.
I used to believe there were many ways to
sin. Now I believe that the real sin is wasting
your life. Because it’s not just your life. Everything
we achieve is built on the contributions
and sacrifices of others. It’s our mom driving
us to school, a friend loaning us rent money,
an acquaintance introducing us to our future
life partner. It’s the farmers who grow the food
we eat and the scientists who invent the cures
that keep us alive. We are all connected, we
are all in debt to each other, we all owe every
moment of our lives to people we know—and
to countless people we will never meet.
So what do we do? How do we pay back
that debt?
Every one of us has a skill, a talent, a passion:
something special and unique that no one
else has. It’s your purpose to figure out what
that thing is and to contribute it to the world.
And if you don’t honor it—because school, or
society, or your parents say you shouldn’t—
then you’re wasting your gift.
When I left my dot-com job, I had no idea
what I was meant to do. So I started saying
yes to all the things I would normally say no
to—especially the things that I was too shy to
try. The more uncomfortable I felt, the more
it meant that I needed to go for it. I started
dancing, I went camping with strangers in
Alaska, I ate vegan food out of dumpsters with
anarchists, I even let some random modeling
agency take pictures of me (that one was genuinely
a terrible idea). Bit by bit, I discovered
who I really was.
But it wasn’t until I started unpacking my
own story that I fully understood what I was
meant to create. Stories are how humans create
meaning, so to understand the meaning of my
life, I had to understand my story. As I dug in, I
found two things: building things and being in
community. That long exploration eventually
led to creating NationBuilder, the infrastructure
for leaders to build thriving communities
so that everyone has the freedom and opportunity
to create what they are meant to create.
Understanding your story is not easy, and
it’s nearly impossible without talking to others
about it—sit down with a friend and start sharing
all the crazy stories of your lives with each
other. You’ll be able to help them see things
they never saw, and they will do the same for
you. Frequently we don’t appreciate the thing
we are exceptional at, because it comes so easily
to us. Other people can see that in you, while
you just take it for granted. Embrace it, master
it, and contribute it to the world.
And then make it bigger. As big as you
can imagine. Bigger than you could ever do
by yourself. Because you don’t have to do it by
yourself anymore. You can build a community,
you can raise money, you can harness the gifts
and talents of strangers you’ve never even met,
because they believe in your story, your vision,
you. You can lead.
Every person who makes this leap, this
commitment to fulfilling their purpose, will
take us all one step closer to unlocking the
potential of a connected humanity. One step
closer to becoming the God we want to be.
What would the world look like if every
one of us were doing what we are meant to do?
If we were each creating what we are meant to
I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.
Writing this book was very hard. Partly because
books are hard to write, but also because
I’m very shy and far more comfortable envisioning
the future than remembering the past.
So I needed a lot of help. I am especially grateful
Jesse Coleman, for replacing parentheses
with em dashes (among other editing magic),
while booting up an entire book-publishing
operation. Georgia Cool, for replacing em
dashes with colons: she is a wonderful copy
editor. Jonathan Lippincott, for designing the
book and cover.
Robert Greenwald, for teaching me the
power of stories. Kerry Candaele, for helping
me appreciate the potential of my own story.
Micah Sifry, for putting me onstage to tell that
story. Felicia Horowitz and Bob Endres for
offering their homes as writing retreats. Jesse
Haff, Laura Harris, and Andrew Rasiej, for
very helpful feedback on an early draft. Seth
Godin and Jessey White-Cinis, who, when I
asked them both what the icon of the internet
religion should be, each independently came
up with # . . . surely a sign from God.
Ramin Bastani, my dearest friend, for his
never-ending encouragement and support for
this book. Ben Horowitz, for writing the foreword
even after he read the book and found
out how “witheringly judgmental” I was as a
teenager. The NationBuilder community, both
staff and alumni, who carried me through all of
this and who make it possible for me to create
what I am meant to create, every day.
My dad, for spending hours telling me stories
about my early life and answering all my
random text messages about obscure details.
Maggie Gilliam, for detailed blogging of everything
related to my lung transplant. Kristen
Gilliam, for fearlessly letting me share her
story, as it had such an impact on me. And my
mom, Kathy Gilliam, who asked me to write
this book nineteen years ago.
And finally, Lea Endres, the most extraordinary
and selfless leader I will ever know. She
didn’t just write this book with me, she wrote
the last five years of my life with me, helping
me become the leader I need to be.