"You can leave your past behind, but you can't run from your own flesh."
These are the words of Bryon Widner, a reformed white supremacist who endured 25 horrendously painful operations over 16 months to remove the race-hate tattoos that covered his head and hands.
Widner joined the white supremacist movement when he was 14 to impress a skinhead family member. Over the years, he became increasingly notorious in the movement, well-known for his quick-to-fight nature, and the tattoos that multiplied over his body and face: HATE on his knuckles, "Blood & Honour" on his neck, "Thug Reich" on his belly, swastikas on his scalp, and a warrior rune on his forehead symbolizing his willingness to die for his race.
The man who had dedicated 16 years to hate fell in love in 2006. He left the movement, got married, had a baby, and renounced the racist ideologies of his past. He wanted to be family man, to support his wife, her children, and his new son. But the hate and violence branded all over his body made it nearly impossible to find a job.
He found some part-time work shoveling snow and a few odd repair jobs, but could hardly earn enough to make ends meet month-to-month, let alone save up the tens of thousands of dollars necessary to remove the tattoos from the visible parts of his body.
He considered burning his skin off with acid.
His wife, Julia, also a former white supremacist, was desperate. She contacted Daryle Lamont Jenkins, the black founder of One People's Project, which monitors alleged racist and far right groups, posting members' names and addresses on his website.
Jenkins put him in touch with The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has successfully shut down white power groups and won large payouts for victims. When Widner called, the SPLC's chief investigator Joseph Roy told The Associated Press that "it was like the Osama Bin Laden of the movement calling in."
Widner joined the Outlaw Hammerskins in 2002, a network of regional skinhead gangs that dominated the American white supremacist movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the Hammerskins' power waned, Widner co-founded the Hoosier State Skinheads and the Vinlander Social Club, groups that resembled a disorganized, ultra-violent criminal subculture rather than a revolutionary political movement, according to David Holthouse, a former investigative reporter for the SPLC.
Widner spent four years in jail on murder charges, but was never convicted.
"No one was more aggressive, more confrontational, more notorious," Roy told the AP.
"I got convinced that the Jews were at fault for all my woes. The black man has been keeping me down, this and that. When all in all it was because I was a screw-up," Widner told the AP. "I didn't hate anybody, I hated myself."
Roy flew out to meet the couple, and was greeted by Widner, with his ink-stained face clashing with a "World's Greatest Dad" sweatshirt. Roy became convinced of the couple's sincerity. Widner shared intelligence about the inside structures and rules of various skinhead gangs. Roy began searching for a donor to sponsor Widner's physical redemption.
In the meantime, white supremacist groups began harassing Widner's family, calling at 3 a.m. with death threats, dumping pig manure on their cars, and forcing the family on some nights to flee in fear to a hotel.
After a warning by the F.B.I., Widner and his family moved from Michigan to Tennessee. With the help of his father-in-law and a pastor, he was able to find some work.
Roy called. He had found a donor -- a woman so moved by his story that she was willing to pay the $35,000 for the removal, as long as Widner agreed to get counseling and go to college.
Dr. Bruce Shack, chairman of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, performed the operations. "This wasn't just a few tattoos," Shack told the Boston Globe, recalling the first time he met Widner. "This was an entire canvas."
The change of heart proved easier than the change in skin. The pain was horrific. The doctor told Widner it would be like the worst sunburn of his life. The skin swelled and blistered. "I told myself it was a penance," Widner told the AP. "I deserved it."
MSNBC filmed the operations and recovery. At a screening of the documentary, "Erasing Hate," in California, a black woman came up to Widner afterward, hugged him, and said "I forgive you."
The couple had to move soon after the film's screening; he was considered a race traitor, after all, to several large and heavily armed gangs. His wife pawned her wedding ring to buy groceries. But then Widner found some decent work in construction, and as a tattoo artist.
He got his GED, and both he and his wife plan to start classes soon at the local community college.
Widner hopes his story will discourage a kid or two from entering the world of white supremacy. As his surgeon put it: "Anyone who is prepared to put himself through this is bound to do something good with his life."
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