The persistent myth about ex-neo-Nazi Frank Meeink's memoir, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, is that the tale Meeink tells of his violent, racist past was the basis for the 1998 movie American History X.
Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe has promoted the book, in part, with this supposed connection. The store's Web site claims that Meeink's life story "partly inspired Edward Norton's performance in the Academy Award-nominated film."
Some officials at the Anti-Defamation League, which is co-sponsoring Meeink's book tour along with his publisher, Hawthorne Books, apparently believe this to be the case.
Barry Morrison, the ADL's regional director in Philadelphia and the man who is largely responsible for helping Meeink become the anti-Nazi advocate he is today, asserted the myth to me.
When I countered that Meeink himself never went that far, Morrison said, "That's not important to me."
In Meeink's memoir, he plays with the possibility that Norton's depiction of a Southern California skinhead may have been inspired by his own account of his involvement with skinhead gangs in South Philadelphia and Springfield, Illinois, as well as by his ultimate renunciation of that lifestyle.
See, even though Meeink's book was just released, he has been speaking for the ADL to large groups about his experiences since sometime in 1995, after TV coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing and his own conscience moved him to talk first to the FBI and, then, to the ADL.
For the record, Meeink says he never informed on anyone or had anything to do with Timothy McVeigh or the others involved in that act of domestic terrorism.
But he has done other bad stuff that he describes, sometimes in gruesome detail, in his memoir: beatings and vicious attacks on gays, college students, people of color, and members of SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), the deadly enemies of neo-Nazis.
"I can't say with certainty how many people we attacked," writes Meeink of a Philadelphia crew of neo-Nazi skinheads dubbed the Strike Force. "I rarely went more than a week without beating on somebody, whether SHARPs or minorities."
Meeink admits that the violence made him feel high and that he "craved the power I felt surging through my veins every time I slammed my boot into some dude's face."
While an active recruiter for the skinhead movement with a cable-access show called The Reich in the early 1990s in Springfield, Meeink kidnapped a kid he refers to as a "closet SHARP," pummeled and kicked him all night with the help of an accomplice and threatened him with death at the point of a shotgun.
In the ultimate dumb-criminal move, Meeink videotaped the incident, and the tape fell into the hands of the cops. Meeink was arrested and ended up doing a just around a year of hard time in the Illinois state pen.
There he befriended and played football with two black guys, even though he was still a neo-Nazi with a swastika tattooed on his neck and an image of Nazi German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels inked on his chest.
He credits playing football with black inmates and his post-release experience working for a Jewish antiques dealer for turning him around on the racist ideology he'd embraced since he was a teenager.
Because Meeink had spoken about all this during his lectures for the ADL, the hypothesis is that the makers of American History X somehow may have known about it and used Meeink's story as a partial basis for the film.
But there are significant differences between the film and Meeink's biography. The film is set in the Los Angeles area and deals with the main character's transformation and attempt to save his brother from the skinhead lifestyle.
The drama in Meeink's life does not include such a relationship, and the details of Norton's role, a fictional one, are a world apart. Norton's character, Derek Vinyard, eschews drug abuse, for instance. Meeink, however, embraced alcohol and narcotics with abandon, until several stints at rehab finally take hold.
In his book, co-written with academic Jody M. Roy, Meeink states that he was interviewed by an unidentified producer in L.A. after giving a speech there in the 1990s.
Later, when theaters began screening American History X, he was contacted by TV reporters looking for an angle on the film. Meeink went to see the film on opening night in Philadelphia.
"The movie producer who interviewed me isn't listed anywhere in the credits of that movie," he states in the memoir. "I don't think she stole my story. In fact . . . around the same time, the movie producer called again, kind of pissed-off. She asked me why I'd sold my story to somebody else. I don't think she believed me when I said I hadn't."
Meeink concludes, "American History X isn't my story. It's every skinhead's story."