Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
When Frank Meeink first watched the film A Clockwork Orange, he wondered, "Do people really do that kind of psycho shit?" It wouldn't take him long to find out. By the time he was 14 years old, Meeink, the product of a broken South Philadelphia upbringing, was the alpha dog of a growing neo-Nazi skinhead brigade called the Terror Squad. By the age of 17, he was doing hard time on kidnapping and assault charges.
In Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, Meeink recounts his life in horrendously lucid detail, and it reads like a recipe for disaster. Take a child raised in near-squalor, mix in parental apathy, low self-esteem, a culture where violence is the only solution, top it off with a dogma that rationalizes every negative impulse imaginable, and you get an ideological thug, bent on destruction in the name of racial purity.
While I've never been victim to such violence, I've witnessed some of it firsthand. Like Frank Meeink, I lived in Philadelphia most of life, and I'm only a few years older than the author. While I can say I grew up there, I really grew up in Northeast Philly, which is about as close to South Philly culturally and ethnically as Beverly Hills is to Compton. However, I spent a lot of time on South Street, near where Meeink held court at Skinhead Alley. Every once in a while, popping out of the Philadelphia Record Exchange or Jim's Steaks, my friends and I would see small, roving packs of skinheads who simply radiated hatred. Generally, if you steered clear of them (and you were white), you didn't have any problems. I'm sure it helped that there was always a large police presence in that neighborhood.
Often, I would go to see shows at a club called Trenton City Gardens, where skinhead violence was a regular occurrence. Once, while there, I watched as skinheads not only beat up a longhair (whose only crime was having the gall to wear a shirt bearing the logo of white-power band Screwdriver), but eventually assaulted the headlining band, after they made the mistake of ridiculing the skinheads when they started throwing up Sieg Heil salutes. Eventually the club instituted a dress code barring Doc Marten boots and suspenders, which toned down the violence, but never really eliminated it.
The violence that Meeink describes in this book is beyond anything I've ever witnessed, and is related in sickening detail that is not for the squeamish. Bare fists, Orangina bottles, and tackhammers are the weapons that Meeink and his cohorts use to wage a race war. Even more troubling is when the author describes just how easy it is to lure new followers to the cause.
All I did was befriend kids who were pissed off about being picked on day in and day out. I trusted them to pay me back with loyalty. I trusted that I could turn their humiliation into hate. All I had to do was redirect their rage until it came thundering back as racism.
As Meeink grows up (literally and figuratively), he begins to peel away from his racist compatriots. At one point he realizes that despite all of his hatred towards them, he's never actually met a Jew, until he later gets a job working for one. While he's incarcerated, the groups most accepting of him aren't fellow bigots, but rather the African Americans and the Puerto Ricans.
Filling the void left by the absence of racist dogma is a torrent of drugs and alcohol. This phase of Meeink's life, while not as compelling as his younger years as a skinhead, deftly illustrates how addiction gets a hold of somebody and gives the perverse illusion of wholeness. Whether it's addiction to chemicals or the adrenalin that comes from hate and violence, I don't think it's an accident that the author refers to himself as a recovering skinhead in the title. Just as a substance abuser can never be cured of their addiction, it's as probable that a person can never truly be cured of racism.
This book is not an insider's look at the American Neo-Nazi movement, nor is it an apology of somebody who failed to find God until his life was screwed up beyond hope. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is a harrowing and gripping tale of personal discovery, albeit one that came at the suffering of others. It behooves us as responsible citizens to gaze into Meeink's heart of darkness, and to do what we can to prevent future generations of little Hitlers. The life we save may be our own.
Books mentioned in this post