December 03, 2010

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead
The Frank Meeink Story

Frank Meeink with Jody M. Roy, Ph.D. | Hawthorne Books
Review by Britt Aamodt
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 2)

Frank Meeink never set out to become a skinhead. The transformation just happened, the way a war or a ten-car pileup happens. Cause and effect play a part, sure. But by the time someone sits down to record the history, hard lines of causality blur in a haze of conjecture and disjointed fact.

How did Frank Meeink become a skinhead? And how did he reform? Those are the questions Meeink tries to answer with his absorbing memoir Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, written with the assistance of Ripon College professor Jody M. Roy. The answers take the reader on a compelling journey that begins in Meeink’s rundown South Philly neighborhood and the drama unfolding at home: the druggie mother, her sadistic boyfriend, the absent father, the abuse and neglect.

Meeink finds his salvation in a pair of seventeen-year-old boys he meets at his cousin’s house. The boys are skinheads, and they offer the fourteen-year-old a beer and a tutorial on white supremacy. “The drinking and the lecturing had gone on until dawn. I only remembered pieces of what Shawn and his friends had taught me . . . Of course, I didn’t realize then that I’d just survived my first night of indoctrination into the white supremacy movement. I just knew I liked hanging out with those guys and hoped they’d show up again.”

Like members of a religious cult, the skinheads target the young and disenfranchised, the lonely and bullied — kids like Meeink. The teen Meeink quickly rises the ladder to head a small group of skinheads called the Strike Force, whose idea of a good time is to bash gay men, blacks and anyone who has the misfortune of walking down the wrong street. Meeink details an evening of violence, one of many, that ends with him pulling a claw hammer out of a kid’s skull.

Later, he captures one of his escapades on video. “We didn’t kill him; we just tortured him. At one point, our cameraman complained he wasn’t getting enough blood in the shots, so Jake cracked the butt of the shotgun across the kid’s back, and I kicked him in the face so many times I couldn’t believe he still had teeth.” The tape would come back to haunt Meeink.

What saves the memoir from being merely a recitation of increasingly aggressive acts are the moments of humanity that shine through the murk. Meeink tends to his younger sisters, neglected by drugged-out parents. He falls in love. He befriends. He stands apart from violent acts, even as he’s committing them, to see a beloved uncle in the face of a victim. He seeds hope for his future redemption.

But first, Meeink has to pass through the big house (thanks to the testimony of the videotaped beating), where he’s protected by a network of bikers and supremacists, shoring up on his side of the prison’s racial divide. Curiously, it is during this racially defined prison stint that Meeink begins to question his white supremacist beliefs. His poker buddies are Latinos, and his good friend the young African-American inmate Little G.

Autobiography of a Skinhead also deals with Meeink’s drug addiction, a habit picked up in prison. Addiction and alcoholism dog the author as he tries to pull his life together — getting a job, dating girls — even as he’s attempting to separate from the Aryan brotherhood and the mentality of hate. The reading is gripping because the cycle of rehab and relapse play out even as Meeink sits down to write his memoir, leaving the reader uncertain about his future. But the point of the book is to provide the testimony of hope against the shackles of hate. In this, too, it succeeds.