Jordan Peterson’s weird family empire

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Before Jordan Peterson became the world’s most polarizing intellectual, he was a salesman. In the late 1990s, he flew to corporate HQs across North America to pitch a piece of hiring software called ExamCorp, a 90-minute psych assessment he’d developed with colleagues as a young assistant psychology professor at Harvard. It was simple, a personality test and some computerized tasks—click certain objects, generate words that start with, say, the letter H. Peterson told managers it could help them hire the right person for a position, and that tests like these had reliably predicted the job performance of corporate administrators, factory workers, pharmacists and U.S. Navy servicemen. No one bought it. They said it was too expensive, too time-consuming. They balked when they tried the test for themselves and didn’t like their results. When they asked Peterson who his other customers were, he had to admit that there were none.

Peterson didn’t need to sell the software to pay the bills—by this time, he was making more than $100,000 a year as a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and earning extra income from a part-time clinical practice. But he kept up the software side gig for 12 years because he liked the challenge of turning esoteric psychological research into a profitable real-world product. He developed more evaluations, including “The Self Authoring Suite,” a series of self-help writing exercises, and “Understand Myself,” an online personality test. Then, finally, he landed his first paying customer. In 2009, the Founder Institute, a start-up boot camp in Silicon Valley, hired him to develop a proprietary assessment that could predict which of its applicants would become successful entrepreneurs.

But it would be several more years before he’d find a substantial customer base. In 2016, he posted a series of videos called “Professor Against Political Correctness” to YouTube. In those videos, he famously attacked U of T’s human resources department and lamented the demise of free speech, the folly of identity politics and the corruption of liberal arts education. Then he blasted Bill C-16, the federal amendment that protects Canadians from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, and vowed never to use trans people’s preferred pronouns if coerced by law. If a trans person approached him and had a conversation about it, he’d consider it, but legally requiring citizens to do so, he argued, was a step toward tyranny. Moreover, if something as fundamental as gender was no longer fixed, then order—the symbolic “masculine” force keeping chaos, “the eternal feminine,” in check—was in jeopardy.

At that point, Peterson was more a fed-up academic screaming into the void than an ideologue issuing a rallying cry. But overnight, he was drafted into the culture wars. Critics painted him as a privileged professor denying trans lives. Activists hounded him online and on campus. Hundreds of U of T faculty petitioned for his termination; the dean’s office and HR sent letters of warning but never fired him.

Sympathizers saw a free-speech champion defending traditional values. Peterson found a massive new audience, drawn in by contentious opinions and delighted to find a deep back catalogue of psych lectures he’d uploaded to YouTube. In those videos, he dashes across auditoriums preaching plucky self-responsibility and weaving Nietzsche, the New Testament and, later, The Lion King into stories with simple, sensible morals like “Clean your room” and “Make friends with people who want the best for you.” His tough-love sermons inspired thousands of people, especially wayward young men, to pick themselves up and do something with their lives. Fan mail filled his office; he eventually stopped trying to read it all. Peterson had found acceptance, adulation and, coincidentally, customers. In the first week of those videos going live on YouTube, at least 25,000 people signed up for the $10 and $30 psych exercises on his website, making him at least a quarter of a million dollars.

Controversy has since become the lifeblood of his business empire. Following the pronoun scandal, when Peterson was denied federal funding to pay for research assistants, Rebel Media co-founder Ezra Levant came to the rescue by launching a campaign that raised nearly $200,000 for Peterson’s research. Every time Peterson publicly clashed with a protestor or combative interviewer, more people followed him on Twitter or uploaded clips to YouTube with titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS Feminist on Toxic Masculinity.” His YouTube channel has more than 200 million views and some 3.5 million subscribers. For a time, Peterson was the second-most-lucrative creator on the crowdfunding website Patreon (after the left-leaning podcast Chapo Trap House), netting roughly $80,000 a month. He promised 45-minute one-on-one Skype sessions to anyone who pledged at least $200 per month. “I’ve figured out how to monetize social justice warriors,” he told the podcaster Joe Rogan.

At Joe Rogan’s L.A. studio in January 2018

Peterson’s reach is now vast and powerful—he has nearly 10 million followers across his social media platforms, including, most recently, TikTok. All that attention has helped turn him into one of the bestselling authors in Canadian history. For a Canadian non-fiction title, 10,000 copies sold is considered a bestseller. Twenty-five thousand is sensational. Peterson’s 2018 book, 12 Rules for Life, sold five million. It was translated into more than 45 languages. For a time, it was the bestselling book on Amazon and the most popular audiobook on Audible. It spent several weeks at the top of bestseller lists, selling more copies than any title by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book made his publisher, Penguin Random House Canada, tens of millions of dollars, and Peterson millions. The tour that followed earned him millions more in speaking fees. In 2018 and 2019, he lectured to sold-out halls in 160 cities, more dates than any of Drake’s world tours. There are now hundreds of pieces of merchandise available on Peterson’s website, including lobster-print pillows ($33) and hoodies ($57) that proclaim the first rule from his book, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”

Fame has boosted the bottom line, but it has also deeply taxed Peterson. For almost three years straight, he worked 16 hours a day, bombarded by trolls on Twitter and stopped by admirers on the street. He had panic attacks and hardly slept. He became dependent on tranquilizers, then almost died in a Russian hospital. He’s still returning to stable health. When he wakes up, he can barely stand. He spends several hours sitting in a sauna before he feels functional enough to begin the day. His worst symptoms are still lurking—“I can feel the pulse,” he says. And yet, after all he’s been through—the physical and mental trauma and the brink of death—he has just released a new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, which restarts the relentless hustle that nearly killed him. The question, for a man who is already a millionaire many times over, is why?

Even Peterson’s most ardent hater would admit he is a man of exceptional intelligence. Unlike many of his fellow academics, he is also a charming and engaging public speaker who can translate dull esoterica into riveting stories that resonate with the audience’s personal experiences. In 2018, an author and businessman named Rob Moore interviewed Peterson about entrepreneurship and uploaded the video to YouTube with the title “Jordan Peterson Reveals How to Sell Anything to Anyone.” Depending on how you read it, that is either a compliment or a criticism.

Halfway through the 12 Rules book tour in 2018, Peterson had lunch with the Texan billionaire Jeff Sandefer at a steakhouse in Des Moines, Iowa. Sandefer had made his fortune in the oil industry before launching the Ed Foundation, which funds conservative politicians and libertarian think tanks. He’d flown his Cessna up to Iowa to talk to Peterson about his other passion: education.

Like Peterson, Sandefer had clashed with public universities. In the 1990s, he’d developed a successful entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas, employing part-time instructors with professional experience. In 2002, when the school replaced those teachers with tenure-track professors, he quit in protest and founded the Acton School of Business, a private MBA program based in Austin. It’s infamous for its 100-hour workweeks, and reviews describe it as either an invaluable, “life-changing” experience or “a failed experiment” for trust fund kids. Sandefer said he’d been drawn to Peterson’s philosophies because they aligned with one of Acton’s educational pillars: learning how to live a life of meaning.

The reason for the meeting was that Peterson had been teasing plans to found an online educational institution for more than a year, promising Patreon supporters that their money would help build it. Sandefer, meanwhile, was about to lose his ability to offer students an MBA because Hardin-Simmons University, through which Acton was accredited, was cutting its budget. Sandefer needed something new to entice students.

Two months after their lunch date, the duo announced the nine-month Peterson Fellowship at the Acton School of Business. “The Acton curriculum provides an institutional analog to the psychological content I have been sharing in my online videos, podcasts and books,” Peterson wrote in a blog post about the fellowship, which would consist of a four-month online course followed by five months of in-person instruction in Austin. The cost: $65,000. The post cited Acton’s top marks in “student competitiveness” in the Princeton Review, a rating system that has no affiliation with Princeton University and is based mostly on student feedback. The fellowship’s website featured a sleek black-and-white photo of Peterson, grizzled and glancing out over a rugged landscape—more movie poster than higher-education ad. “Are you everything you could be?” it beckoned. “Choose your future.” Peterson fans were sold, and some 2,500 people applied for just 50 slots.

An ad for a short-lived Peterson Fellowship MBA program

Soon, there was grumbling on the Jordan Peterson subreddit, where his fans usually share memes and debate his teachings. People began telling different versions of the same story: Acton had offered them a position in the program—so long as they accepted within 72 hours. One initially enthusiastic Redditor posted an email exchange with the school, in which he expressed concern over the vagueness of the program’s descriptions and asked how Peterson would be involved, if at all. Sandefer himself wrote back, saying, “I applaud your skepticism; it’s a valuable trait. However, it doesn’t sound as if this is the right opportunity for you. The work we’ll be doing together requires a tolerance for ambiguity and will be messy.” In his post, the Redditor appealed to Peterson directly, explaining, “The Acton MBA seems like a wonderful standard program, but fellows applied for this because of YOUR NAME, not because of Acton. If you just signed off on this as a branding deal I’m profoundly disappointed.”

Sandefer didn’t respond to an interview request, but I spoke to two Peterson fellows, one from the inaugural class in 2019 and another from the second cohort, which was cut short by Covid before in-person classes began. They told me that Peterson had no direct involvement in the program—no face-to-face time over Zoom or the like—but that the fellows briefly beta tested educational projects related to his online institution. When Acton lost its MBA-granting status because of budget cuts, the school spun it thusly: “In order to allow us to innovate freely and continue to disrupt business education, we are relinquishing any and all accreditation to free us from bureaucratic constraints.”

As Peterson continued to round the globe promoting 12 Rules, his daughter, Mikhaila, entered the public eye. In the summer of 2018, she appeared in the U.K. Times and on Joe Rogan’s podcast to dish on her father’s sudden fame, and to introduce her own brand: the Lion Diet, a supercharged paleo menu consisting solely of beef, salt and water.

The diet’s origin story is now Peterson canon. Growing up, Mikhaila suffered from a long list of ailments, including sleep problems, depression and rheumatoid arthritis that forced her to get hip and ankle replacements. After a string of horrendous experiences with prescription medication—including OxyContin withdrawal, which she described as the feeling of ants crawling under her skin—she decided to take her health into her own hands. She slowly eliminated foods from her diet until she was eating only beef, a change she claims fixed all her conditions and allowed her to stop taking medications entirely.

Mikhaila’s carnivore diet quickly became a family affair. Her father, after some initial skepticism, joined in, and soon reported similar results: he lost 50 pounds, and claimed his lifelong depression and anxiety had vanished, and that a laundry list of other health issues—psoriasis, gum disease, leg numbness—were suddenly cured. On Instagram, Mikhaila posted a picture of her mother, Tammy, looking fit and trim in a bikini, with the hashtag “#meatheals.”

With his wife, Tammy, in Comox, B.C., in the spring of 2018

Nutritional scientists have described the Lion Diet as an “immensely bad idea,” and Mikhaila herself admits she has no science to back it up. Yet she advises people to try it themselves and has repeatedly attempted to monetize the idea. At one point, you could pay $120 to Skype for an hour with Mikhaila about eating nothing but beef. She also briefly sold memberships to a club called the Lion’s Lair, which included “daily contact with me” and “meetups around the world,” for $599 a year.

Many posts on the Peterson subreddit dismiss the Lion Diet as a swindle. But Mikhaila is a talented, tireless promoter. She tells her own story with conviction. “Over the years, I learned that everything I’d been told and everything I believed in regarding the medical community was wrong and harmful,” she has said. “The actual best way to do science on your body is to test things out on yourself.” On social media, she documents and promotes her wellness regimen: 12-day fasts, cryotherapy, infrared saunas. And like any good influencer, she lives the kind of life her fans dream about. She has plump, perma-red lips and a penchant for designer sneakers. She owns a condo in downtown Toronto with her husband and she works out of a rental suite in a five-star hotel that was last listed at $6,500 a month. She has posted pictures of herself riding in private planes and lounging poolside with an IV drip pumping an anti-aging molecule called NAD+ into her arm.

Of course, Mikhaila’s claim to fame is her proximity to the messiah. For a while, Mikhaila was her father’s deputy, helping to manage his business affairs while developing her own branch of the family empire. In early 2019, however, Tammy was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer, and Peterson dropped everything to care for her. He named Mikhaila CEO of Luminate Enterprises, one of two companies that together oversee his books, lectures, online courses, podcasts and social media channels. Mikhaila’s prior experience was an incomplete psychology and classics major, a bachelor’s degree in biological and biomedical sciences, and a four-month stint working Ryerson’s media services desk. She now presides over a multimillion-dollar empire.

Mikhaila took over a business in crisis. Her mother teetered between life and death for five months until she recovered in August 2019, after a second surgery. But by that point, Peterson—so wracked with anxiety by the compounding pressures of overnight fame, public persecution, constant travel and high expectations, plus the overwhelming fear of losing his wife—had developed a dependence on benzodiazepine, a tranquilizer that his family doctor prescribed in early 2017, shortly after he became a household name. (Mikhaila says her father was prescribed the drug after a severe autoimmune reaction to sodium metabisulfites in alcoholic apple cider.) At Peterson’s request, his doctor had increased his dosage during Tammy’s hospitalization, but that only made his anxiety worse. He also experienced a condition called akathisia, the unbearable sensation of being constantly stabbed with an electric cattle prod. So, he resolved to get off the anti-anxiety meds entirely.

Benzodiazepines are notoriously difficult to kick. Quitting cold turkey can cause fatal seizures, and gradually decreasing the dose—the accepted method of treatment in North America—can involve two years of gruelling withdrawal symptoms. Peterson spent more than two months in rehab in the northeast U.S., but as doctors tried to wean him off the benzodiazepines, the akathisia worsened.

When he returned to Toronto, Peterson was in such agony—“it was like being whipped, constantly,” he said—that his family checked him into hospital. He would say to Tammy and Mikhaila, “How can I possibly go on like this?” The family says the doctors offered no answers.

In December 2019, the Petersons held an emergency family meeting. Mikhaila had a plan. Her husband, Andrey Korikov, a Russian-born business consultant, had found a clinic in Russia that would perform an “ultra-rapid” detox. Peterson’s doctors vehemently advised against it—removing the benzodiazepines from Peterson’s system so quickly could kill him, and Russian health care is far less advanced than North American medicine (the country regularly finishes in the lowest third of global health rankings). Feeling that they’d exhausted all other options, however, the family made the difficult choice to send Peterson to Moscow.

With Mikhaila in Moscow in February 2020

Before the New Year, Mikhaila pulled him out of the hospital, hired a nurse and a bodyguard for her father, and together they all flew to Russia. Clinicians there heavily sedated Peterson for nine days and performed plasmapheresis, a process that draws blood, filters out toxic substances and returns the blood to the body. When Peterson woke from his slumber, he was benzodiazepine-free but bedridden and delirious. He thought he’d been kidnapped by “tree people” in Florida, and that their leader was going to kill him to impress his girlfriend. He berated Mikhaila, asking why she’d brought him there.

Peterson spent a month in a Russian ICU before convalescing in Florida, where Mikhaila signed him up for weekly NAD+ treatments. Last summer, the family sought additional rehab in Belgrade to deal with lingering neurological damage caused by the benzodiazepines and the detox. At the time, Serbian officials were under-reporting coronavirus cases and deaths, and the country’s Covid restrictions were lax. On Instagram, Mikhaila posted a video of herself at a crowded nightclub with the caption, “Coronavirus? Never heard of it.” Peterson later tested positive for Covid-19, as did Mikhaila, Korikov and their two-year-old daughter.

With Mikhaila at a restaurant eating—what else?—steak in Serbia during the early stages of his recovery

While Peterson was sidelined, Mikhaila managed the family business. She hired a handful of new Luminate staffers—the company now employs a director of operations, a digital marketing officer, a product manager and an executive assistant. On her dad’s YouTube channel, she updated his followers on her family’s “horror movie” of a year. During media interviews and the introduction to Peterson’s weekly podcast (mostly lectures from the 12 Rules tour), she segued from dire family news to plugs for the Lion Diet or her dad’s social platform, Thinkspot. Under her stewardship, the Peterson brand has become ad-packed, highbrow, beef-fuelled reality TV.

Their audience kept growing, but Mikhaila was genuinely panicked about the rapid detox. “I’m fucked if this goes badly because the entire world is going to blame me,” she said. Not only was her father in life-threatening danger, but his health woes also exposed inherent contradictions. Peterson, who has written disparagingly of addicts and dispensed advice on how to kick drug habits, had developed a dependency on prescription meds, and he’d nearly died after Mikhaila defied doctors’ orders. One of Peterson’s 12 rules is “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” yet for years his house was in utter chaos.

Remarkably, Peterson slowly recovered, and in late 2020, he returned to Toronto. Doubters will argue Mikhaila recklessly played with her father’s life, but in the end, he is alive today and free of his dependency. Would he have eventually reached this state had he stayed in Toronto? She is convinced the answer is no.

Since Peterson returned home, the line between Jordan and Mikhaila has blurred. She appears on his podcast—or is it him on hers? The episodes are a lot like his lectures, only now with more star power. The Petersons talk for hours with celebrity guests like the actor Matthew McConaughey and the self-help author Mark Manson about topics both classically Petersonian—postmodernism, privilege, “left-wing ideological thinking in the academy”—and not: hostage negotiations, breathing techniques, international trade. Compared to the pugnacious interviews on which he built his brand, the podcast is relatively benign—a safe space for Peterson and like-minded thinkers. Often seated at his side, Mikhaila is both kin and collaborator. Not only is she caring for her still-frail dad, she’s trying to make sure his one-man brand endures. The balancing act must be exhausting.

The Petersons’ story is carefully constructed to protect that brand, and Mikhaila is fastidious about the details. She insists her dad had a drug dependency and avoids the word addiction. Dependency, from their point of view, indicates a physiological affliction, while addiction implies a neurological craving.

Despite the fact that Peterson regularly rails against the crutch of victimhood, his daughter has lately framed him as a victim, stuck in a situation of someone else’s making. In January, he agreed to his first media interview in years, hoping to set the record straight about his health before the release of his new book. Mikhaila spent two hours briefing the U.K. Times’ Decca Aitkenhead on her dad’s medical history. Then, during the interview, she played publicist, interjecting with a “hold up” if she objected to a question. An hour in, despite Peterson’s assurances that he could keep going, Mikhaila declared, “I have to shut this down.” Aitkenhead’s feature painted Mikhaila as a micro-managing crackpot and Peterson as a fallen hero who’d contradicted his own strongman philosophy by taking drugs “to numb the pain” of mental illness. Furious, the Petersons published the interview audio and transcript, a 40-minute response video, two blog posts, a few Instagram photos and a flood of sanctimonious tweets in response. Mikhaila called it a “hit piece” and insisted that journalists, not Peterson or his book, were responsible for the controversy surrounding her father. “Turns out the entire mainstream media is a tabloid now,” she said.

Perhaps they were fishing for attention. More likely, they were vying to regain control of the family narrative, their stock in trade. “What I’ve increasingly realized is something like: the best story will win,” Peterson has said. “I hope that what I’m doing is telling the best story.”

When Peterson was looking for a publisher for 12 Rules back in 2017, Penguin Random House in New York passed, so its Canadian counterpart secured worldwide rights. He didn’t need to write another book, at least not for the money. Yet during the most trying years of his life—touring in 2018, at his wife’s bedside in 2019, in rehab in 2020—he slowly eked out chapter after chapter. “It was hellish,” he said. But writing propelled him; it was a balm to his “anguish and lack of hope for the future,” he said. “If I would have lost the book, I wouldn’t have had anything left. No job. No function.”

Peterson says he is “ambivalent” about Beyond Order given the suboptimal circumstances in which he wrote it. Nevertheless, he approached Penguin Random House in New York with the book last year. The American publisher didn’t make the same mistake with the new title. They arranged to release it under Portfolio, a little-known business imprint that typically publishes corporate histories and prosperity-minded self-help books.

In November, Vice reported that dozens of employees at Penguin Random House Canada, which holds Canadian rights to Beyond Order, had filed complaints to management, begging them not to publish it. The company held an internal town hall where several staffers broke into tears, ashamed to work for a company that would publish a book by, in the words of one young employee, an “icon of hate speech,” and worried that doing so would negatively affect trans people. In response, the publisher argued that Peterson had helped millions of people on the fringes, where they were at risk of being radicalized by the alt-right. In a statement, Penguin Random House Canada vice-president Sue Kuruvilla said the company is committed to publishing a variety of voices and that “sometimes, that means publishing ideas and perspectives that some will disagree with.” Of course, it’s also a publisher’s job to make money selling books, and Beyond Order will no doubt sell. By its release date, the book had at least 100,000 pre-sales. Follow-ups to non-fiction hits rarely perform as well as the original, but even if it sells 2.5 million copies, half as many as 12 Rules, the book will mean a fortune for both Penguin Random House Canada and the Peterson family business.

Back home with Mikhaila in late 2020

Yet for all his ever-accumulating wealth, he doesn’t seem motivated by profit. Peterson still leads the archetypal professor’s life, living in a modest semi in Seaton Village. His essay-writing app is freely available online, as are hours of his lectures on YouTube. He chose to forgo hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in 2019, when he deactivated his Patreon account to protest their deplatforming of the anti-feminist YouTuber Carl Benjamin.

Peterson’s motivations seem to be more existential than financial. He sees himself as a defender against the “postmodern cultural relativists” and “neo-Marxist indoctrination cults” infiltrating higher education, corrupting government and ushering in a reign of terror. As he watches the world get more woke, his mission only intensifies. He cannot rest when order hangs in the balance. He is spurred on by every book sale and podcast download, all of which are surely forms of validation, proof to him that his worldview is correct and reassurance that he is delivering the masses from evil. The physical and emotional tortures that come along with this quest, and the fresh wave of fame the new book will bring, appear to be simply the cost of doing business.

This time around, however, Peterson is trying to avoid slipping into a downward spiral. He is now living a more private life, apart from tweeting and appearing in videos and podcasts, sometimes with Mikhaila, leaving much of the family business’s day-to-day operations to her. Owing to the pandemic, Peterson can’t fill lecture halls or book blockbuster debates. He’s not likely to make headlines battling journalists either—following the Times feature, he cancelled scheduled media interviews. Peterson refused via his representatives to be interviewed for this story unless we granted them what they called “final cut” of the published copy and full rights to the interview audio, conditions we declined.

In his absence, the Peterson empire forges on. In February, Tammy became the latest member of the family to step into the spotlight, speaking on a podcast and a panel about resilience, religion and, of course, her husband. Mikhaila, who also declined to be interviewed for this story, has announced plans to step away from managing her father’s brand. For now, she continues to deliver a never-ending feed of tweets, podcasts, Instagram photos, YouTube videos and books—not just her father’s, but her own. She is working on a memoir and a cookbook dedicated entirely to beef.


This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.