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C-SPAN; Fatherly

Ethan Lindenberger on Being a Normal (Vaccinated) Teen and Internet Icon

The pro-vaccine, pro-science internet hero is also a normal kid who works at Chipotle and gets nervous about prom.

There was no vaccine to keep Ethan Lindenberger from going viral. Since Lindenberger first asked Reddit how to get his shots against his anti-vaccine mother’s wishes, the 18-year-old son of anti-vaxxers has appeared on CNN, testified in front of Congress, and become an internet celebrity. His determination to look after his own health and his willingness to trust doctors — as well as his considerable poise — made him an instant hero to many. Naturally, this has been strange for Linenberger, who just wanted preventative medical care. 

“A lot of people treat me differently and I’m the same nerdy kid as a few months ago,” says Lindenberger. “I’m just a normal kid who plays Dungeons and Dragons reads books, and watches Netflix.”

But now that he’s been vaccinated, Lindenberger’s biggest challenge is maintaining that normalcy. He’s back in high school in Ohio — catching up on homework, working part-time at Chipotle, and preparing to ask a girl to prom — and also all over the press. It’s a weird moment for him and he’s articulate about that; he understands that his peculiar experience is indicative of broader issues with public health and discourse. He understands that it’s not about him even though it definitely is also about him. Lindenberger spoke to Fatherly about the needle and the good he’s done.

When you made that first Reddit post about wanting to get vaccinated, did you expect anything like this to happen?

Oh, never. I had been on Reddit for about a month when I posted about getting vaccinated, and most of my posts before that were about Dungeons and Dragons. It was around late November and I had done my research and just wanted to know where to go from there. I was at a church retreat that weekend. I was volunteering and helping tear down the stage. I remember looking at my phone and seeing like 500 answers. Nothing like that had ever happened before.

Other than vaccines, do you ever butt heads with your parents about “normal” teenage things?

My parents have never been very authoritative. It’s always been like, ‘Just do what you’re supposed to and tell us when you’ll be home.’ It’s usually not a big deal. So independence has never been a big deal for me because I’ve been pretty independent most of my life. And then getting vaccinated, that was the first time I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this and you’re not going to like that.’

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I think a lot of teenagers struggle with knowing when to do that.

Tell me how that went. Was it scary to finally go for it?

I called my mom because I didn’t want to tell her after the fact. She freaked out… I’ve compared it to when a pastor’s son tells him he’s gay or an atheist. We had argued about it and I think my mom just thought I was being a rebellious kid and would give up. Most kids want to be diplomatic with their parents, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t sit down and explain my point. I knew how she’d respond because I know she thinks I’m risking my life getting vaccinated. Understanding it wasn’t logical made it easier to go against her than if it was something else.

I just had to accept this is not a fair situation to be in and make my own decision. There were more consequences for not getting my vaccines than her getting mad at me. That made it easier.

So you’re not really interested in going against your parents just for the sake of rebelling?

Not at all.

You mention you’re into D&D. What other things do you like to do with your time when you’re not taking on the anti-vax movement?

I play D&D, video games, read books. I’ve read Harry Potter like four times. I was that kid. I also play drums. I started learning after seeing the movie Whiplash with JK Simmons and Miles Teller; it’s my favorite movie. I don’t have time to play in a band, it’s just a fun outlet. I’ve volunteered at my church for about seven years. I help with the youth ministry and teach with a pastor there. I’ve been an intern for two years. I have led my school’s debate club for three years. We meet every week.

And… I have a part-time job at Chipotle. I have zero free time.

Since you’re a Harry Potter fan, I have to ask, what house are you?

I’ve thought about this and everyone wants to say Gryffindor but the real answer I always say Hufflepuff. I’ve always been the book guy, I’ve never had a ‘go out and change the world’ mentality. Just educate yourself, learn the facts, and be smart, and that will hopefully get you far in life. That’s totally Hufflepuff. 

So other than the obvious anti-vax hate, what has the response been like from the Internet?

It’s been a little overwhelming. I’m getting tagged in viral posts I can’t keep up with, but I try to have fun with it when I can. Like there was a post on Reddit that was like “rising out of the ashes of fraudulent studies burned into forgotten history,” and I just commented, “You called?” I had to turn off all my notifications which is this huge thing because now my family can’t get ahold of me.

Any weirdo fans or groupies sliding into your DMs?

I was hanging out with my friend Neal and I showed him something on my phone, and he just started laughing. He goes, ‘Don’t let your ego get too big.’ He saw a paragraph-long message being like, ‘You’re so cute, you’re so handsome.’ We were crying laughing. I think people who send those messages are really just craving attention from anyone. I’m not the first person they’ve said something like that to.

What have your peers’ responses been like? Are some of them confused by the attention because vaccines have been a normal part of their lives?

For a lot of teenagers, this isn’t a big deal. They just get vaccinated and that’s the end of the story. So a lot of kids don’t get it and don’t think it should be news. It’s not an actual story, I’m not that important, and there’s a jealousy aspect to it, but also they don’t understand that vaccines are even an issue.

In your Reddit AMA you mentioned that you were nervous about asking a girl to prom. How did that come up and any updates on that?

After the Senate hearing was over, a reporter at CNN asked me what my next big plans were, and I jokingly said, ‘Asking a girl to prom.” I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Spring break is coming up so I’m planning on asking Friday, but I’m really nervous about that. I’ve never been good with girls and asking them out and knowing when is the right time or if it’s the right person, I always struggle with that.

Has all this attention made it easier or harder to approach girls?

It’s harder because I don’t want to use it to get a date. It feels wrong to use that and I don’t want that to be the foundation for any friendships going forward. I don’t want to go with someone who’s going to treat me any differently.

Do you know who you’re going to ask and how you’re going to do it?  

I think I’m going to take a Redditor’s advice and use this line: ‘The last shot I need is a shot with you to prom.’ I think the corny poster boards are fun to ask with — that’s part of the appeal with prom. But I’m probably going ask this girl platonically. I’ve kind of had a crush on her, but we’re both really busy and I don’t want to become her boyfriend right before she goes off to college. So I’m going to talk to her and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to ask you to prom and I will ask officially if that’s OK.’ And if she’s receptive to that, then I’ll be taking that poster board and using that pun.