Photograph by Mark Seliger
In 1980, at the age of 14, TJ Leyden became a neo-Nazi skinhead, soon rising through the ranks of Hammerskin Nation, the largest white supremacist transnational organization in America. After 15 years of spreading hate, bigotry and racism, TJ turned his back on the white power movement.
Coming from an Irish Catholic home, I was taught that boys don’t cry, men rule and women are second-class citizens. So when my mother tried to talk me out of getting involved in the white power movement, I wouldn’t listen to her.
Later I joined the US military where I started recruiting. I developed strong bonds with gang members inside the military and when I left I joined the largest neo-Nazi skinhead organisation in the country as a street solider. At first I didn’t really like the violence but after a while it didn’t bother me one bit; it was just something we did. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you how many victims I had.
The gang gave me everything I lacked – identity, purpose, a direction in life. I felt a complete sense of right because I was preserving my identity and my culture. We felt under attack from blacks, from Latinos and from multiculturalism in general. We set the rules and there was no room for dissent: dialogue was a sign of weakness. In the early 90s I married a girl in the white supremacy movement. I figured I was in love, and since we were both so good at hating, why not raise kids to hate like us! My first kid was two days old when I first went to prison and for the next ten years I was in and out of jail.
When the change finally came it was a series of epiphanies. The first epiphany happened when I was watching a Caribbean-style children’s show with my sons, and my younger son – then aged three – suddenly just switched off the TV announcing, ‘Daddy! We don’t watch Niggers!’ At first I felt proud that he was turning into a racist like me, but then I started thinking…. if I wasn’t raised to be a racist and I had turned out the way I was, then how much worse would my children be! And then it hit me – if I didn’t want my sons to grow up to be like me, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the whole premise and purpose of my life.
Slowly I began to think beyond the black and white rhetoric of my group. I began to imagine what might happen if the whole world was white. Would we then be saying, ‘We’re going to get rid of all non-racist pagans,’ or, ‘Everyone with a genetic defect is the next to go.’ Finally, it got to a point where I had to choose which path of life I was going to take.
When I decided to get out of the movement, I went first to my mother’s house to apologise for everything I’d put her through. The next morning she suggested I went to the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in LA, to apologise to them. I thought she was crazy but she was so persuasive. So I rang them and said, ‘My name is TJ. I’ve got all this racist literature and material and I want to hand it over to you.’ They were flabbergasted but invited me along. I learnt later that I was the first neo-Nazi to voluntarily and publicly give up the movement and hand over racist material and evidence.
At that first meeting the rabbi was hesitant, but ten days later he invited me back. I was asked if I’d speak out about my friends in the white power movement and I agreed. What was amazing was that for the first time in my life here was a group of individuals who honestly believed I could do good in the world. For the first time I experienced real compassion. In fact the greatest compassion I’ve ever experienced is when I spoke at a synagogue and a Jewish Holocaust survivor came up to me and said they forgave me.
The easiest thing for me was to give up racism, because it’s an ‘ism’ and people change isms all the time. The harder thing was to give up my sense of power, entitlement and privilege. I used to think people were showing me respect, until eventually I came to realise that the only reason they were showing me respect was because they feared me.
These days I receive death threats all the time, and there are websites on the internet targeting me.
People ask if I hate these people who would like to see me dead, but I say, ‘No, I feel empathy and compassion for them because they’ve not yet seen the light that I’ve seen. I find I’m able to carry their hate.