Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D.

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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19 comments:

  1. Hi Wendy, this is another book that captures my interest. After going through your review, the question posted by Elizabeth Wrutzel is also the very question that gets me interested in wanting to read the book. Just like you, I hope to gain a little insight. You articulated that so well. I also like the fact that it's raw and straight forward. So I'm going to hunt for this book and get it into my personal library. Thanks for the review!

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  2. What a wonderful post Wendy! I'm like you...I crave to understand where the other guy is coming from. Not that I will agree with it, but how can we bridge the gap if we don't try to figure out what is going through their minds? I can completely understand how a troubled 14 year old would turn to a group that accepted him and protected him. The main thing is that he eventually came back around and understood as an adult the difference between right and wrong. This book would be right up my alley. Thank you!

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  3. Wow, this book sounds so interesting. I've long been intrigued by the Neo-Nazis. Have you ever seen American History X? If not, watch it.

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  4. Very powerful post! The book sounds like an important one. Groups like that do prey on the weak, the poor and the uneducated. It's really scary!

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  5. I'm going to have to add this to my TBR list, as hard as it sounds to read. I have never been able to comprehend neo-Nazism in the slightest.

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  6. I can honestly say that I would never have given this book a second look if it were not for your book review. Now I feel like I should read it to gain a different perspective.

    Awesome review!

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  7. Amazing review of a difficult topic. I really like how you tied it to a real life experience - I work in a Curriculum Materials Library and we have many materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center Teaching Tolerance program. I need to get a copy of this book.

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  8. wow, this sounds like an eye-opening book. I can totally understand how people would be drawn into these groups...they are preying on people in their weakest moments.

    Excellent review.

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  9. It's scary how much hatred is in the world. I think it's important to see both sides of the story, even if you don't agree or completely understand. Sounds like a fascinating book.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  10. This is a very insightful post and one that is very important to consider these days. The draw as you call it, and gangs and groups like these are sweeping up lots of children that have fallen through the cracks.
    It was very brave of you to visit the sites. It's tough reading I'm sure. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject.

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  11. Great post, Wendy! I have been thinking about this sort of thing for some time, too. Have you heard of the book Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford? It is about the soccer fans in England and how skinhead-like they are. It was a frightening read, too.

    I think with the internet and so much cable TV and magazines and newspapers... it's now so easy for people to get access to only the information they want, only hear the things that they agree with, and thus never have to hear the other side at all. It is very polarizing and makes it so easy to be easily led down a really frightening path because you feel like everyone around you also thinks exactly the same way, since you aren't exposing yourself to anyone who feels otherwise.

    I don't know how hatred can be so honed, and it frightens me that it can now be used as a real political force.

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  12. Wonderful review of an important book. Once people understand how easy it is to sway a young person with that type of background to their way of thinking then it should make us stop and think about ways we can help them out of that life style! That is why gangs exist...sense of belonging.

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  13. I'm not sure I could bring myself to read this, but I appreciate that you did, Wendy. Have you read Francine Prose's A Changed Man? It's fiction, and I'm sure it's less intense than this book was, but the title character is a former skinhead. It could be an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise.

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  14. This is a wonderful post, Wendy. I too would like to know where someone like Frank is coming from. I'd never accept or excuse racist acts, but I know that there acts are perpetrated by humans, not monsters, and I'd like to learn why.

    Also, the Museum of Tolerance sounds like a place I'd love to visit.

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  15. Excellent and thought-provoking post, Wendy! I think this book sounds absolutely frightening, but also riveting. I know that there is a lot about this type of lifestyle that would turn me off, but I think reading this book would make a huge impression on me and give me a lot to think about. I am going to be trying to get my hands on a copy of this book soon.

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  16. Wow.
    i can hardly think of what to say.
    I agree what you have written is very powerful review.
    Everyone wants to belong somewhere.
    Sounds hard to read but i would like to give it a try.

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  17. As tough as these kinds of books are to read, I am drawn to them. I can't help but wonder how people become these kinds of monsters. It sounds like he was unflinching in his honesty about who he was and I am glad to know that he "recovered" from his crazy way of thinking and his crazy lifestyle. Great review!

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  18. I completely forgot to mention how much research the author (Dr. Roy) put into verifying her facts. I was quite impressed with the lengths she went to. With the number of memoirs out there that turn out to be untrue these days, verification almost seems like a must.

    Frank Meeink founded a sports program called Hockey for Harmony which has proven to be a big success in bringing kids from different backgrounds together. I love that one of the stipulations of joining the program is that the kids cannot know how to ice skate ahead of time. That way, they all start on equal footing.

    Thank you for your comments! This was a difficult book to read on some levels--and frightening given how easily young people can be led to such a lifestyle. It seems a fitting book to read after having just read 31 Hours, where one of the characters became a suicide bomber.

    Amanda - I have seen American History X. It's a powerful movie. Frank mentions seeing the movie in this book, in fact, and says it is true to life. It could have been his story.

    Library Cat - I do hope you are able to add this book to the library. I think it would make a great resource.

    Aarti - No, I haven't heard of Thugs, but I'll definitely look for it now.

    Florinda - I haven't read Prose's book but I do have a copy in my TBR pile. I've been wanting to read that one for some time now. I'll have to pull it out and read it while this book is fresh in my mind.

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  19. Wow, Wendy, I missed this post before and just read it this morning. Wow, again! You did such a great job of explaining everything. I definitely want to read this! I normally stick to fiction but I'll make an exception for this one.

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