Some thoughts about Frank Meeink’s beer-guzzling, head-shaving, dope-doing, mosh-pit-brawling memoir, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.
So, first things first. I read this as a review copy from Hawthorne Books, and I have to first give props to the publisher. They’re here in Portland, they’re hard-working, awesome people, they support the local literary community, they rock. They took on an ambitious book here, and a potentially important one.
I’ll admit I’m not really up on the state of post-skinhead literature in the USA, but race-hatred and extremism in general are serious problems here and everywhere, and somehow, no matter how many violent meltdowns we suffer through, they never seem to go away. Someone’s always bashing someone else over the head, hating on their clothes or their food or their skin or their language as a way of making them less human.
So this is an interesting book and a good one for many people to read, if for no other reason than this–it’s not really about racism. It’s about a kid with no options who wants desperately to fit in and be loved. It’s just Meeink’s crap luck that instead of finding what he needed in an after-school club or a decent guidance counselor or a teacher, he found it in the white supremacy movement. I don’t know about all skinheads, but in Meeink’s case it really does seem that simple.
This is both a strength of the book and a weakness. It’s a strength in that it gives a very clear answer to the perennial question we ask of bigots: How did you get this way? How do you decide to drag a person to death behind your car, or tie them to a fence and leave them to die of exposure, or do any of the hundreds of grotesque evils we all find to do to each other? In this book, the answer is simple: Meeink got that way so he could have a family. His own family is a ruin of abuse and neglect. When he falls in with skinheads, they’re a mess too–but at least they seem to like him. When he ramps up the violence and starts thrashing guys twice his size (Meeink is fourteen when he joins the movement), they love him.
Meeink’s need for affirmation is so dire that it drags him past white supremacy and into the most squalid dens of alcoholism and drug addiction. He starts drinking heavily with his skinhead friends, starts doing mild drugs in prison, then graduates to heavy stuff when he gets out. Along the way he drops racism like a sweater he doesn’t need anymore–he’s known too many decent black or brown guys in prison to keep it up. (Although, sort of tragically and hilariously, he goes on hating Jews for a while.) The second half of the book isn’t about a racist at all–it’s about a recovering addict who talks to youth groups and gets kids of all colors playing ice hockey together.
The simplicity of Meeink’s conversions–to racism, away from racism–weakens the book too. It’s a strange criticism to level, but Meeink’s racist convictions never feel deeply held. He tells some really awful stories about beating people up, thrashing people in mosh pits, tattooing Nazi insignia on every available portion of his anatomy, and inciting other, more impressionable kids to do nasty things. But apart from a couple of pages glossing over his introduction to “Identity Theology” and some cursory explanation of weird, Dyanetics-type terms like “ZOG,” there’s almost no mention of white supremacist creed at all. Nazis get mentioned a few times, and the KKK is mocked (to my surprise–I didn’t realize these guys had culture wars.) But that’s it. The rest of the time we’re just following Meeink through his horrific teenage years, watching him do incredibly stupid, violent stuff to himself and other people. The question I was left with, at the end of the day, was Why?
The answer, as near as I can make it from this book, is still the same: Meeink and his fellow skinheads are hurt, mad, scared people. Identity Theology, in the snippets we get, seems to be mostly about how blacks and Jews (and everyone else) are taking things away from…well, skinheads. Basically, it’s a theology of pain and deprivation. The skinheads in Meeink’s book hate because they’re poor, disenfranchised, and angry at the system. He doesn’t say it in quite those words, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see what’s going on.
The book is a memoir, not a treatise, as Meeink’s co-author Jody M. Roy takes care to point out in the afterword. The theory is that a life like Meeink’s–from the bowels of South Philly to the depths of the white supremacist movement and back to civilized society–is worth hearing on its own terms. I think it is, and I think the story is told in good faith.
Still, I’m a little uneasy with the book’s tone. Over and over, Meeink’s retrospective voice seems to lose traction and fall in with his teenaged self, who thought that kicking people’s teeth in was rad and that the senior members of the white supremacist movement were great men. He describes a junior skinhead troupe in Indianapolis as “young, fun, and fearless.”* When his gang helps him escape from a psychiatric hospital, he comments, “[t]hose poor guys had spent their careers babysitting neurotic housewives and high school bulimics–lucky for me, nobody’d ever trained them on the finer points of locking down a neo-Nazi skinehead.”** Over and over, Meeink reminds us that he was Kind of a Big Deal in the movement–and at the same time, he hits us up for sympathy because he’s so messed up, so self-destructive, so victimized.
Overall, the book feels like it could have used a while longer in the oven. Roy and Meeink seem well-intentioned but the tone shifts are hard to understand–if Meeink is truly writing a book against racism, why does he spend so much time glorying in the old days of terror squads and straight-arm salutes? The pace of the book is partly at fault–we’re rushed from abusive stepfather to drunken punchfest to wedding brawl to heroin binge, on and on, with never a moment to reflect. By the end, it feels to me like even Meeink doesn’t really understand his own past, or maybe he’s just not ready to tell it.
* p. 144