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Skinhead Profiles Journey from Hate to Hope in New Book

A former racist skinhead recruiter describes his violent life in the movement, and how he came to leave it all behind

Skinhead Confessions: From Hate
to Hope

By T.J. Leyden with M. Bridget Cook
Springville, Utah: Sweetwater
Books, 2008
$16.99 (softcover)

When he was still in his teens in the early 1980s, T.J. Leyden was a Southern California high school dropout working at a fast food restaurant, cruising in his muscle car every day, wearing Doc Marten boots, suspenders and bomber jackets, kicking ass whenever somebody rubbed him the wrong way, and drinking — always drinking. He was concerned about his two younger brothers because "my lifestyle probably seemed a little glamorous to them."

Although getting trashed, brawling and working a low-wage job is hardly the stuff of dreams for most of us, for troubled youths looking for acceptance and a surrogate family, racist skinhead gangs like those that Leyden joined can look mighty attractive.

In Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope, Leyden writes about that attraction and his own prowess at exploiting kids' vulnerabilities while recruiting them into the movement. That's half of the story. The other half is how he rejected the hate and violence he so ardently embraced, making it his life's mission to warn off students as well as teach cops, military personnel and educators how to spot hard-core racists in their midst.

The second half is the more compelling reading. That's partly because what little Leyden reveals of the violence he saw and participated in is oddly vague and bloodless. He earned two SS lightning bolt tattoos on his neck for stabbing "a kid who was at the wrong place at the wrong time." He "enforced whatever leadership asked of me" and, if anybody needed to be taught a lesson, "I was the guy to do it." He doesn't elaborate, and the effect is to diminish how violent he apparently was, while at the same time telling the reader he was a real badass. If he is concerned that he could still be charged with crimes by telling too much, he should say so.

Still, Leyden provides genuinely interesting glimpses into the skinhead lifestyle he lived for 15 years that show how banal and sometimes unintentionally funny it can be. An example of the latter: At an Aryan Nations gathering in Idaho, Leyden writes that most of those attending "looked like trash" and that one group of skins beat up a guy over a pack of cigarettes. But some of the thugs attending still found time to meet for discussions of such dense subjects as the threat of the United Nations and the World Bank.

He describes his own Aryan wedding, complete with Confederate and Nazi flags on the wall. When their first son was born, Leyden and his then-wife hung a swastika over his crib. Theirs was a world of white-power baby showers, cakes adorned with swastikas, and paranoia about the coming race war and Jewish conspiracies.

More serious was Leyden's joining the Marines before he was married. There, he continued recruiting others into the skinhead movement, as he had done on the streets. He kept swastikas and racist hate literature in the barracks. He added new tattoos, including those SS bolts on his neck and S-K-I-N and H-E-A-D down the back of his arms. "I was a walking advertisement for hate in the U.S. military," Leyden writes. And the military, he says, was indifferent.

A combination of events led Leyden to finally quit the movement. It bothered him that skinheads were increasingly selling and using drugs. And after he became the father of a second boy, he began having doubts about raising his two sons to be racists. A turning point came at a children's party attended by skinheads and their children. There was a piñata for the kids to whack, but it was an effigy of a black man with a noose around its neck.

After he left the movement, Leyden spent nearly seven years as a speaker for the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group. (Nowadays he has his own company booking his speaking engagements.) Some of the most compelling writing in Skinhead Confessions comes when Leyden describes movingly and convincingly how he came to admire the Jews — the very people he once reviled and blamed for many of the world's ills — that he met at the Wiesenthal Center, from rabbis to a Holocaust survivor. "Miracles are possible," he concludes.

— Larry Keller