And they knew what to do and say to snag the interest of a fourteen-year-old half-Irish, half-Italian kid from Philly whose real dad was an addict, whose stepdad was an asshole, whose mom was indifferent, whose school was a war zone, and whose only real desire was never to feel like a fucking victim again: they gave a shit about me. [pg 52]
Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead:
The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D.
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2010
Nonfiction; 350 pgs
In June of 2001, I had the opportunity to join my mother and a contingent from her school on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California. Although I am not an educator, my mom thought I might be interested in going along (not to mention spending a little time with her since we live over 400 miles apart). The experience made a huge impression on me. The museum was so much more than I expected, covering a wide range of topics. It was an eye opener to say the least. Along with the usual museum displays and recorded presentations, there were also live presentations, one a Holocaust survivor whose story was heartbreaking and another was a former neo-Nazi, whose story was not only sad but very frightening. Especially frightening because of their growing numbers and with just how organized groups like the neo-Nazis had become. They are breeding grounds for home grown terrorists. A different variety than the fundamental islamists we hear about on the news today, but similar in their violent, passionate anger and self-righteousness.
This past year I read about a small protest in my own city, a gathering of neo-Nazis protesting illegal immigration. The anti-protesters far outnumbered the skinheads. There were many jokes made at the expense of the skinheads. I read a few of the comments on the newspaper's website and decided to do a little research. I visited a random white supremacist website. I confess I was embarrassed to be doing so. It felt wrong as it goes against just about everything I believe. I watched a recruitment video, which I found more humorous than factual--in an angry making sort of way. I read the tenets of the organization, and while most made me cringe, I also could see the draw. They spoke to a person's sense of self-worth, to the parent who is struggling to raise a child, to a person's need to feel secure and safe, and to building a cohesive community. There was also something about drug use, how it hurts a person and community more than it helps. That one really surprised me, I have to say, as I tend to associate drug abuse with groups like that. I can see why someone might be attracted to an organization like that even as I sat there feeling a little sick to my stomach. In fact, I think that's part of what made me feel sick--how easy it would be to sway someone to that way of thinking, depending on a person's state of mind and situation in life. Groups, gangs and organizations like this prey on people who feel disenfranchised and are not happy with society or their lives. Maybe that person is feeling all alone in the world, battered and bullied. Groups like this, at least on some level, offer young people a family of sorts and a sense of security. That's exactly what the neo-Nazi skinheads offered Frank Meeink and he his own recruits.
In the introduction, Elizabeth Wrutzel writes:
This is the truth: I read Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead with my mouth either actually or metaphorically agape, because I just could not believe anyone could be this much of an idiot and live to tell the story so clearly and cleanly. I don't know what the worst of it is: the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, the alcoholism, the addiction, the depression, the abuse, the violence, the homicide, the suicide - or just the way all these maladies co-exist. Frank Meeink's story is upsetting and crazy, but it is above all a strangely absurdist drama that forces us to ask a troubling question about American life: Why, in a land with so much opportunity, is a critical mass of young people choosing hatred over possibility?It was with that very question in mind that I decided to read this book, why I visited that website, and why that presentation years ago interested me so much. I do not think I will ever be able to truly understand the whys in answer to questions like this, but perhaps I can gain a little insight. I'm a true believer that armed with knowledge, we can work toward change--of course, it takes more than that, but it's a start.
This is not a pretty book to read. It is raw and straight forward. I could definitely hear Frank's voice, however, in the words I read on the page. Frank is very matter of fact about his experiences, and with good reason. His story is what it is. He did not sugarcoat anything or try to make himself look better. And that's what makes this such a difficult read. Yet, I couldn't stop reading once I started. I knew going in that this book would make me angry--and it did. It also provided me with a perspective into why a person would turn to the neo-Nazi skinhead movement. There were moments when I could not help but to feel for Frank and admire his strength and ability to overcome his anger and hate and turn his life around.
Frank is not so different from any one of us. My heart broke for that little boy who was severely beaten by his stepfather and repeatedly rejected by his mother. He was the son of drug addicts. He was lost and alone, searching anywhere and everywhere for approval and guidance. He got it where he could. Frank was fourteen when he was introduced to his first neo-Nazi skinheads, his cousin and his cousin's friends. They took him under their wing and made him feel a part of something. Frank would go on to start his own crew of skinheads back in South Philly, where he was from, and he earned a reputation for being one of the most brutal and violent skinheads out there. He was cruel and vicious in a fight, but on the inside, he was still that little boy craving approval and attention.
Frank, at age 17, landed in an adult prison after kidnapping and nearly murdering a young man. It was a wake up call for him and one that sparked the beginning of a change in his way of thinking. During his teen years, he turned much of his anger and frustration towards other races, gays, homeless people, and Jewish people. As an adult, however, as his hatred for these groups diminished, he became more involved with drugs and his alcoholism worsened. Frank made several attempts to clean up his life and remain sober, but it proved to be too daunting of a task. Time and time again, he failed. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that he had so much going for him, and yet he had yet to deal with the underlying causes that lead him addiction and, initially, the skinhead movement. Until he dealt with those issues, he wouldn't be able to get a better handle on his addiction, much less move on with his life.
Frank was fortunate to have family and friends who stood by him through all of his transgressions. Even when he was at his worst, they were in the background, helpless to help, but willing to catch him when he fell nonetheless. Strangers, those he once would have sooner kicked with his Doc Martens than turned to for help, reached out to offer him support. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Frank is invited to join a Bible study session in jail. He is the only white person there. Despite his reputation and swastika tattoo, the black inmates still made room for him.
This is not a book about white supremacy. Ultimately, Frank's story is a coming of age story, one about child abuse, gangs and drug dependency. It is a story of tragedy as well as one of hope. Frank's violence and hatred against others is in no way acceptable nor is this book meant to excuse anything he has done--it is simply a look into one man's life and how he ended up on the path that he did. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is an important book that is as relevant today as it would have been when Frank Meeink was growing up.
Rating: (Very Good)
Source: Review book provided by the publisher, Hawthorne Books.
© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
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