Brown grew up in the affluent North Dallas neighborhood of Preston Hollow, where, following his parents' divorce, he lived with his New Age mother. Karen Lancaster always believed her only son was special – he once wrote that she called him "an indigo child with an alien soul." Among her house rules was that mother and son meditate together daily. She instructed him in the predictions of Nostradamus and made sure he kept a dream journal for the purpose, as Brown described it, "of helping him divine the future by way of my external connection to the collective unconscious." (For her part, Brown's mother says she was progressive, but not "New Age", and that her son's comments were made in jest.)
A precocious pre-adolescent reader and writer, Brown produced a newspaper on his family's desktop computer while in elementary school. When he started writing for the student paper at his private high school in the mid-Nineties, he quickly clashed with the paper's censors over his right to criticize the administration. "Barrett always challenged authority, even as a kid, and anytime you go up against authority, you're going to get in trouble," says Brown's father, Robert. "You could sort of always see this coming."
By the time he reached high school, Brown had discovered Ayn Rand and declared himself an atheist. He founded an Objectivist Society at school and distinguished himself from other Randians by placing second out of 5,000 entrants in a national Ayn Rand essay contest. (Brown now expresses regret over this.) By all accounts, Brown hated everything about organized education, preferring to follow his own curricula and chat up girls on the bulletin-board systems of a still-embryonic Internet.
After his sophomore year, Brown told his parents he wasn't going back. He signed up for online courses and spent his junior year in Tanzania with his father, a Maserati-driving conservative, safari hunter and serial entrepreneur who was trying to launch a hardwood-harvesting business. "Barrett loved living in Africa," says his father. "He preferred adventure to being in school with his peers. We weren't far from the embassy that was bombed that year."
Brown returned to the U.S. and in 2000 joined some of his childhood friends in Austin, where he spent two semesters taking writing classes at the University of Texas. After dropping out, he spent a summer doing what one friend calls a "heroic" amount of Ecstasy and acid before settling into the charmed life of a pre-crisis Austin slacker – working part-time, smoking pot and paying cheap rent in a series of group houses with enormous porches. Brown's roommates remember his rooms as being strewn with leaning towers of books and magazines – he especially liked Gore Vidal, P.J. O'Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson – but say he was not especially political. "After 9/11 and Iraq, there were a lot of protests in Austin," says Ian Holmes, a childhood friend of Brown's. "I don't remember him participating in it or being extra vocal, but he was against it all like everyone else."
As Brown built up his clip book and matured as a writer, his ambitions began to outgrow Austin. In 2007, Brown moved to Brooklyn with a group of old friends that called itself "the Texadus." Their Bushwick apartment emerged as a hub for Lone Star State refugees who liked to get high, crush beers and play video games. "People were always hanging out and coming and going," says Caleb Pritchard, a childhood friend of Brown's who lived with him in Austin and Brooklyn. Among the apartment's large cast of characters were a crew of weed-delivery guys from Puerto Rico and Honduras who used the apartment as a daytime base of business operations. "They brought over an Xbox, bought us beer and food and played strategy games with us," Pritchard says. "It was a good cultural exchange for a bunch of skinny white kids from Dallas."
As virtual-world games grew increasingly sophisticated, Brown spent more time in front of his computer. But he didn't play the games like most people. In Second Life, he linked up with a group of people known as "griefers," the term for hackers who in the mid-00s became known for generating chaos inside video-game worlds. Socializing on the bulletin board 4chan.org, they formed the first cells of what would later become Anonymous. In the documentary We Are Legion, about the hacktivist group, Brown waxes nostalgic over his griefer period, when he'd spend entire nights "on Second Life riding around in a virtual spaceship with the words 'faggery daggery doo' written on it, wearing Afros, dropping virtual bombs on little villages while waving giant penises around. That was the most fun time I ever had in my life."
When everyone else went out to the bars, Brown stayed in. Aside from video games and the odd afternoon of pick-up basketball, he also pounded out columns, diaries and blog posts for Vanity Fair, Daily Kos and McSweeney's, as well as restaurant reviews and essays for weeklies like New York Press and The Onion's A.V. Club. Though he had some paying gigs, he published most heavily in unpaid, self-edited community forums like Daily Kos and The Huffington Post. "Barrett wasn't really working in New York so much as getting by with the help of friends and family," says Pritchard. Among his unpaid gigs was his work as the spokesman for the Godless Americans PAC, which led to Brown's first TV appearance, on the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends.
In Brooklyn, Brown resumed shooting heroin, which he'd dabbled in off and on since he was 19. Over the years, doctors have diagnosed him with ADHD and depression. Accurate or not, the diagnoses suggest Brown was drawn to opiates for more than just the high. "When I joined him in Brooklyn in '08, Barrett was already basically a functional junkie," says Pritchard.
Heroin did not mellow Brown when it came to America's pundit class. Brown's critique made clear he didn't want to join the journalistic establishment so much as lash it without mercy. Then, in March 2010, he announced in a blog post the goal of replacing it, of making its institutions irrelevant and rebuilding them in the image of an overly self-confident 28-year-old junkie named Barrett Brown. It was perhaps his first public manifestation of extreme self-assurance that could come off as imperious self-importance. Brown himself did not deny it, once saying, "I don't think arrogance is something I'm in a position to attack anyone on."
The project envisioned by Brown was a new kind of crowdsourced think tank to be "established with a handful of contributors who have been selected by virtue of intellectual honesty, proven expertise in certain topics and journalistic competence in general." He named it Project PM, after a gang in William Gibson's Neuromancer called the Panther Moderns.
Brown conceived his new network partly as a response to what he saw as the sad state of affairs at the two main homes for his work, Daily Kos and HuffPo. After years of vibrancy, both now suffered from "the watering-down of contributor quality," he said. At Project PM, he assured that "below-average participants will have only very limited means by which to clutter the network."
With typical cigarette-waving flourish, Brown declared, "Never has there existed such opportunity for revolution in human affairs."
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