Ghosts behind a reformed skinhead's past

Forgiveness, redemption and transformation stories tend to fascinate us. Often those themes don't appear out of thin air, though. Sometimes there's a life-changing moment, perhaps a conversion or decision. The Associated Press has a fascinating piece on a reformed skinhead who endured years of agony to remove tattoos, a story that touches on race, belief, family, recovery and more.

The tattoos that covered a man's face show the hate that was once in his heart. Bryon Widner was one of America's most violent and well known white supremacists, and his heavily-tattooed face displayed it proudly. But after shunning his racist beliefs, he was still unable to get work because of his facial scarring, and went through a long and complicated journey to have the tattoos removed, in the hope of starting his life anew. After 25 surgeries over 16 months, Mr Widner's past has now disappeared from view, leaving him a happy father and employed member of society.

The story is pretty incredible, looking at the physical and emotional pain he faced. Unfortunately, we're also puzzled by the piece, because while there are hints that religion is in the backdrop, it's unclear whether faith played a role in his transformation. In the AP's slideshow, we can see the family praying at the dinner table and what looks like a picture of Jesus in the house, but there's just one little sentence in the story that hints that there might be some faith angle.

In the spring of 2008 they packed their belongings and moved to Tennessee, near Julie's father. They rented a three-bedroom house in the country and joined a church. Helped by his father-in-law and his pastor, Mr Widner found some work. The threats subsided.

It's unclear whether church was a motivating factor or just a side piece, but it's worth explaining why the family joined a church and how members of the congregation felt about having a reformed skinhead in their midst. A friend sent along this comment to me:

Yeah, this story is about tattoo removal and hate groups, but SOMETHING had to have turned this family from hate to join a church. I want to hear about it. People don't go from being fanatical hate group leaders covered in hateful tattoos to suddenly wanting to be rid of it all and willing to douse one's own face in acid to do it.

Redemption and forgiveness themes are strong, with few explanations of where they come from--what we would consider a religion ghost.

Mr Widner has constant nightmares about what injuries he might have inflicted — injuries he can only imagine because so often he was in a drunken stupor when he beat someone up. Did he blind someone? Did he paralyse someone? He doesn't know. But there are moments of grace. After a recent screening of the documentary in California, a black woman embraced Mr Widner in tears. 'I forgive you,' she cried.

Is there anything that motivates this woman's forgiveness? Perhaps there isn't a faith angle here, but people tend not to freely offer forgiveness without another reason.

A few days ago, we looked at the interview Terry Gross did with David Carr on NPR where she skillfully asked Carr about what happened between his addiction to drugs and alcohol. She acknowledged that the question was personal, asking, “For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they’re encouraged to find a higher power … where it’s a religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?” Ira Rifkin commented:

The best personality profile interviews (the on-air version of which is Terry Gross’s format) result when the interviewer is willing to stray from their comfort zone to allow the interviewee to reveal their inner-most process in unscripted ways.

Gross may not be the most informed when it comes to religious innards, but such is the fate of the generalist interviewer; who among us knows enough about everything to sound the specialist when we are not?

Still, she’s far better than most, and has the humility to admit (as I’ve heard her do) when she’s shy of expertise.

Kudos to Carr as well for being willing to (again) publicly delve into his inner process without having pat answers. I find him to be a fascinating reporter-writer and a compellingly honest person.

You don't need to be a specialized religion reporter to pull out the motivations behind people's transformation. Sometimes all it takes is asking a few more questions about faith and belief.

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