Frank Meeink is the most famous ex-skinhead in America, his life the basis for the character of Derek Vinyard, the neo-Nazi portrayed by Edward Norton in American History X. But Frank is not quite Derek; as he states in Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, “American History X isn’t my story. It’s every skinhead’s story to some extent… it was every other kid who ever got sucked up into the white supremacy movement.”
Frank’s tale, as told to Jody M. Roy, Ph.D., is a harrowing look at the white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and skinhead movements in the US, a graphic depiction of a broken home, drug abuse, addiction, and self-destruction. In South Philly, where “talking shit to somebody’s grandma can get you killed,” Frank is raised in and out of dysfunctional homes and streets infested by ethnic gangs. His only love and release is hockey, and he feels an atavistic pull toward violence, alcohol, and the notoriety offered by white supremacist gangs. Soon he starts beating the hell out of gays and blacks and homeless people. But the objects of his most intense hatred are Jews: “I felt alive when they bled. I craved the power I felt surging through my veins every time I slammed my boot into some dude’s face.”
Frank’s tattoo repertoire includes a swastika on his neck, a ten-inch portrait of Joseph Goebbels on his chest, S-K-I-N-H-E-A-D across his knuckles. When he gets busted after assaulting a gay man one of Frank’s comrades taunts the arresting officer, “I’m Charles Manson, and I’ve got the swastikas to prove it… on my dick. Come on, copper, suck my swastika!”
The narrative borders on sensationalism: Meeink is beaten regularly by his stepfather, his mother lives on pills and alcohol, Frank roams the streets and whomps everyone’s ass, until he himself is raped at gunpoint. The author and editors of Autobiography were clearly concerned about the factual accuracy of these stories; they ran background checks and consulted Meeink’s friends, family, counselors, jailers, and social workers, until they were satisfied with the accuracy of Meeink’s memories.
Amazingly brutal and difficult to digest, Autobiography follows Frank from childhood through his involvement with the white supremacist movement, a felony conviction, and incarceration, introducing readers to the Aryan Nations, the National Alliance, the KKK, and other groups. They celebrate Hitler’s birthday, swap theories about the Zionist Occupational Government, debate the Turner Diaries (a book that influenced Timothy McVeigh), and revere the thugs in A Clockwork Orange. Frank claims to believe in God but accepts the white supremacist version of Christianity. He gushes when introduced to a neo-Nazi hero, describing him as an “Aryan warrior” and “the most hardcore white supremacist I’d met… The red laces in his Doc Martens dripped blood” before the two of them assault a homosexual outside a gay bar. “I felt proud, truly proud, for the first time,” Meeink recalls.
When he’s caught on film committing assault, Frank is arrested and pleads guilty, receiving a sentence of three to five years in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant, he’s an alcoholic, he’s suicidal. “You’re not a ‘race warrior,’” his girlfriend tells him. “You’re a thug.” In Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center, he becomes a “skinhead celebrity.” But prison opens his eyes. Black inmates offer more support and solidarity than the other skinheads. He plays football on an all-black team. His best friends in prison are black and rather than descend to a deeper white supremacy he sees everyone as of one race.
The transformation continues after his release. He forms a friendship with a Jewish employer and starts speaking out against racism, though without breaking bonds of friendship with his skinhead brothers who eventually brand him a traitor to the race and subject him to the “Axis Stomp.” Addictions with alcohol, cocaine, pills, and heroin while fathering three children with three women add to his drama. However, he starts speaking publicly about the follies of white supremacy, achieves celebrity, and commands lecture fees of $2,000 or more. A life of relative stability begins as he founds Harmony through Hockey, marries, and reconnects with his family.
For all the focus on Meeink’s addictions and travails, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead doesn’t provide much introspection by its subject. As if to compensate, the book ends with an interview of both Meeink and Roy, in which he discusses religion, spirituality, and his newfound tolerance. “No matter the race or any other differences, we learn to walk at the same time, at about one year, we start to learn to talk at the same time… we’re all human, we all care about the growth of our children.” It would seem to be a tale of redemption, relevant to any reader who wants to understand hatred and take part in the process of forgiveness. But the book’s lasting impression is of the brutality of Meeink’s earlier incarnation, and one wonders if those drawn to white supremacy and hatred could take any lessons from it before their beliefs come to harm others.