Friday, July 23, 2010

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead

Frank Meeink and Jody M. Roy tell of Meeink’s story childhood spent raised by alcoholics and drug addicts on the low-end of the working class spectrum in Philadelphia. Despite a loving extended family, no one protects Meeink from savage beatings from his stepfather, the emotional abuse and indifference from both his mother and father, and the constant fear he lives in as he bounces around low-performing, dangerous elementary and middle schools. An all too brief childhood filled with severe violence and neglect makes him an easy target for recruitment when he visits his cousin in rural Pennsylvania. Older neo-Nazi teens are interested in his development and protection, something he hasn’t regularly experienced in his life. They act as mentors, friends, and a de facto family as they indoctrinate him into the movement.

Upon his return to Philadelphia at 14, Frank becomes, for the first time in his life, a leader, a strategist, an entrepreneur, and an absolutely feared person as the head of the local neo-Nazi movement. Meeink takes the reader on a horrifying journey of rage and hate, allowing a look behind the curtain into how a virtually homeless teen boy finds a sense of family in a group created around a twisted ideology of white identify. The book provides fascinating details about The Movement – everything from fashion to regional differences in organizing. Meeink does not censor the rage and alcohol-fueled actions he committed for years as the leader of Strike Force, a gang of neo-Nazi teams he created and led. In fact, he recounts the pride he felt when a neo-Nazi leader, freshly released from prison, joins Meeink and his friends in savagely beating homosexuals outside of a bar. “Shoulder to should with my comrades, back up against the wall, awaiting my first trip to juvie in the glow of Scott Windham’s approving smile, I felt proud, truly proud, for the first time.”

Eventually, Meeink’s actions in Philadelphia finally force him to flee (with the help of a neo-Nazi mentor) to the Midwest, where he descends further into violence and madness. After brutally kidnapping and torturing a member of his new group of recruits, or freshcuts, Meeink lands in prison. As he headed to prison, Meeink was a leader in the young neo-Nazi movement, an alcoholic, and soon-to-be father. He was 17.

His innate street smarts and his role as a neo-Nazi leader outside prison walls ensured he survived and, in many ways, flourished during his time in prison. But the neo-Nazis who protected him inside and revered him outside couldn’t foresee the epiphany he would have behind bars that would ultimately lead to his redemption. During his time in prison Meeink ends up playing football with Vice Lords and becoming close friends with two African American teen prisoners. They commiserate, like teens everywhere, about what their girlfriends are doing when they aren’t around, and helping each other decode secret messages of infidelity in letters and phone calls home. For the first time ever, Meeink lives with the “mud” he had been indoctrinated to hate and the holes in the neo-Nazi ideology he had held so dear become quickly apparent to the middle school dropout.

Of course, it’s not that easy to walk away from the only life Meeink has known. Upon his return to Philly, Meeink reunites with the Strike Force, but he’s not the only one who has changed. Friends and family have died, become strung out on drugs, or left the Movement. Meeink quickly turns to drugs and returns to drinking to numb his confusion and rage. He can’t live as a leader in a movement he doesn’t believe in anymore and his day of reckoning is violent and appalling, giving him another excuse to lose himself in drugs and alcohol.

Meeink’s ideological redemption ran parallel to his descent into drug addiction and alcoholism. As he found meaning in his work with the Anti-Defamation League, telling the truth about his actions as a neo-Nazi, he becomes an even bigger liar as he spends days shooting up and stealing Oxycontin from his mother. Just as it did with the neo-Nazis, Meeink faces a day of reckoning with his drug and alcohol use that is violent and heartbreaking.

Fans of Edward Norton's American History X will find this book even more compelling than that movie. 

Listen to Frank Meeink on NPR and read an excerpt.

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