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20 September 2023

Mikhaila Peterson’s life at the molten core of the culture wars

At the key moments in the drama of Jordan Peterson, his daughter is usually there.

By Kara Kennedy

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mikhaila Peterson. You’ve definitely heard of her father, though: Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who in recent years has become the molten core of the culture wars.

 When we spoke on Zoom last month, the bleach-blonde Peterson, 31, told me that she saw her father’s rise to fame in 2016 as “apocalyptic and doomy”. “Newspaper reporters were swarming our house,” she said of that time. “This downtown Toronto, semi-detached house. It just got worse. Dad was on the cover of a newspaper being compared to Hitler.” Today, Peterson sees her father as having great foresight. “I thought that he was forecasting trouble that didn’t necessarily exist, and then you move over to 2023 and look at what’s happening.”

But this is not just about Jordan Peterson: his origin story and his huge success. He is more of an industry than a celebrity. Few have asked how much of a role his daughter plays in the world’s most influential, culture-war inflected self-help operation.

Mikhaila Peterson lives in a house in Arizona with her husband, who is also called Jordan, and a daughter from her first marriage. When we spoke, she had recently resumed recording for The Mikhaila Peterson Podcast, appeared on Piers Morgan Uncensored, and was preparing to launch a hangover-cure supplement called Fuller Health. She has a growing cult following separate from her father’s, with nearly 800,000 Instagram followers and 1.1 million YouTube subscribers. Peterson is keen to make clear that she doesn’t influence her father’s views. “When he’s on stage lecturing, or when he’s talking on his podcast, I’m not involved at all, not with anything he’s saying. But in the background, I’m extremely involved. When he first started getting opportunities, invitations to podcasts or invitations to talks, I helped sort who he should talk to.”

She told me that she says no a lot, which I can personally vouch for: our interview took six months to arrange. “I got really good at saying no for him. I was like, ‘No, don’t spend an hour talking to this person because they don’t have the reach this other person has.’ I do a lot of PR whenever there’s some sort of scandal.”

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If Peterson had it her way, her father would “go back to the psychological, how-to-improve-yourself stuff. Get away from the politics. But” – yet again, she is keen to emphasise his independence from her – “he does whatever he wants on that end.”

In recent months she has been working on her biggest project to date. In November, she and her father will launch the Peterson Academy, an online university that offers $4,000 degrees. She told me the project is “way more massive than I originally anticipated. We have professors from Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and one from MIT. Each of them has filmed eight-hour online versions of university courses.”

[See also: Capitalism is driving the culture wars]

My interview with Peterson was initially due to take place in February, but then she became ill: “I just got sicker and sicker over a period of four months, until my internal dialogue went away. I have a six-year-old, so I kept getting colds and I thought that maybe it was from school.” Finally, they realised their waterfront Miami apartment had black mould, and Peterson, her personal assistant told me, moved to the Arizona desert to convalesce and escape the humidity of Florida.

Unravelling the mystery of the Petersons’ power starts with Mikhaila’s long medical history. Her website lists a litany of illnesses and symptoms that have afflicted her: “Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, major depressive disorder, bipolar, OCD, chronic fatigue, idiopathic hypersomnia, rashes, acne, chronic bronchitis…” The list goes on. Peterson told me she has “a hard time remembering things before I was 22 because I was on seven medications, including antidepressants, which made it difficult to remember things. So things are pretty fuzzy for a lot of my life. I was also too young to understand that I was sick.”

After years of experimenting with potential fixes, Peterson, who was three months into breast-feeding her child at the time, changed her diet to eliminate everything except meat. “Within six weeks I stopped crying in the morning. Five months later my lingering anxiety went away. It wasn’t easy. I had cravings, muscle cramps, diarrhoea, and I missed food. It was socially awkward. But anything was better than the arthritis and the sense of doom.”

The word “doom” comes up a lot with the Petersons. Since 2017 Mikhaila has only eaten beef. In 2018 her father joined her, claiming that within months it cured his depression, anxiety, reflux, fatigue, psoriasis, floaters in his right eye and gum disease. According to Jordan Peterson, any slip from the all-beef diet is “catastrophic”. He told the podcaster Joe Rogan in 2018 that once “we had some apple cider… and I was done for a month”, adding that after this unfortunate slip: “I didn’t sleep that month for 25 days. I didn’t sleep at all for 25 days.” The longest period of human sleep deprivation ever recorded is 11 days.

In late 2019, Jordan Peterson entered a Russian detox facility seeking treatment for withdrawal from long-term benzodiazepine use. His daughter reported at the time: “He’s had to spend four weeks in the ICU in terrible shape, but, with the help of some extremely competent and courageous doctors, he survived.” Nobody knows why he was shipped off to Russia rather than a hospital in Toronto, but it’s widely believed that it was under the instruction of his daughter. Of the episode, he later said: “I don’t remember anything from 16 December of 2019 to 5 February 2020.” The episode was perplexing but, at the same time, was really nothing new. At the key moments in the Peterson drama, there are usually two key players, and they are usually rare medical circumstances and Mikhaila, seeking extremely courageous doctors who will say and do what ordinary doctors will not.

I wondered if there was some deeper reason for her strange medical beliefs. Mikhaila Peterson knows the rest of the world thinks that eating three New York strip steaks a day cooked medium looks weird. She told me that she cried out of frustration because she was craving a cucumber and had to settle for a… steak.

Despite fearing cucumbers, Peterson has had cosmetic treatments. She’s been open about getting lip Botox. But she hasn’t spoken publicly about how, at 20, while suffering with multiple chronic illnesses, she had breast enlargement surgery. “I was around a bunch of people that were commenting on my boob size, you shouldn’t be around those people.” After two years and worsened health, Mikhaila had them removed. In a few weeks she will talk about this on her YouTube channel, and warn women that “fat transfers are a much safer option. It doesn’t give you boob-job boobs, if that’s what you’re going for, but way safer. I got my boobs removed and then I had a fat transfer at the same time.”

She can’t vote in the US, but if she could, the Republican candidates Vivek Ramaswamy, Donald Trump, or the Democrat Robert F Kennedy Jr, commonly known as RFK, would be her top three choices for president. “I think [RFK’s] tapped into a lot, I admire him for sure… I was never a huge Trump person. I’m still not a huge Trump person, but I do like aspects of all three of those candidates.”

The Peterson father-daughter team characterises an era. Jordan Peterson is a culture wars general who believes he is dutifully defending Western civilisation, while his Instagram-loving, self-diagnosing daughter monetises her life online. Whatever the past ten years come to be labelled as by future historians, for now this time belongs to the Petersons, a family from Canada, but also from the internet.

[See also: The real cause of generational warfare]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers