Tony grew up in Vancouver, Canada- a place swarming with diversity and money. In a middle class family where his father was psychiatrist, Tony describes himself as "curious, emotional, and sensitive”. After witnessing his father having an affair, he emotionally shut down and started to have increased negative behavior in school. Tony’s parents decided to send him to an all-boys Catholic school where they consented to “beating the grades into me”. Tony explained that this caused him to shut down even more. Similar to most kids and teenagers, Tony was heavily influenced by the music he listened. He went from listening to the catchy tunes of Queen to hate-filled lyrics of punk rock. “The anger of music really did vibe with me at the time. My level of defiance was off the charts, so my parents gave up."
Unable to continue dealing with the ever-changing emotions of their son, Tony’s parents sent him to boarding school in England. This school would soon be the first place he experienced the "skinhead scene" at a concert. He was befriended by a few guys already involved with the group "White Aryan Resistance", a Neo-Nazi white-supremacist organization. “Befriend a bully, become a bully" was a lesson learned for him.
Tony says he was not someone who grew up with violence but had to engage in violence in order to gain respect ofhis friends; being apart of the movement was intoxicating. “The more violent you are, the more powerful you feel. I did a lot of what I did to feel safe and loved. Growing up I felt weak, powerless, and unlovable; being apart of the skinhead movement, people would get out of your way”. What’s better than the illusion of being accepted and loved when you’re in your 20s? Tony traded his humanity for acceptance and approval. He considers himself a smart and intellection person, but as a Neo-Nazi he couldn’t see his own dehumanization.
“The level at which a person dehumanizes another is a reflection of how they see themselves."
Our beliefs and identity are intertwined, making it pretty much impossible to separate the two. Who we surround ourselves with, give our time and attention to, is who molds us. Our perception of ourselves is influenced by the words and actions of our families, friends, and community. We will either be motivated to love or driven to hate. Tony’s life was enmeshedin violence and hateful actions that caused people severe pain and trauma. Love was the farthest emotion he felt about himself, let alone another person, except the other extremists he surrounded himself with. For him, their love and acceptance was fuel to his hateful fire.
Tony's path took a 180 degree turn when his daughter was born followed by his son 15 months later.
Tony told me the female energy that was introduced into his life through his daughter affected him in a way he didn’t expect. "Children provide unlimited compassion. They don’t see the flaws we believe about ourselves. It’s also safe to love a child. They live without judgment."
The compassion and safety in loving his children started to change him and he soon made the decision to walk away from the movement. In his relationship with his children, Tony realized he never stopped being the core essence of who he was as a child. His innocence and intellect were ever-present, his sensitivity was alive and well…. Next, he began the journey of changing his life from the inside out, one drop of compassion at a time.
Tony walked away from the White Aryan Resistance, and he would soon experience one of the strongest emotions ever felt in human existence- loneliness. Next, Tony mentioned something I must admit I may have never realized before… He noticed there were no programs available to people wanting to leave violent extremist groups. He had lost contact with all primary relationships before finding comfort in the W.A.R. and was at a loss with what to do to rebuild himself, his relationships and his community.
“You can’t have one foot in and cut yourself out. Your primary circle goes away, and old relationships are not necessarily waiting with open arms. There is a lot of mistrust and you have to spend time rebuilding. They become your family and main circle of influence.” Tony realized that even though he had left the movement, the beliefs, way-of-life…. the mentality of extremism hadn’t left him. He knew he needed a complete overhaul if he was going to survive outside of the group.
During the mid-2000s, Tony attended a workshop and met the person that would become his mentor. (At this point he had been out of the group for seven or eight years and it was just what he needed to change his life.) Four years later, Tony began writing about his experiences as a Neo-Nazi extremist and his business, Life After Hate, was born. He spared no details. His desire was to be a change-maker and life saver to people seeking refuge from hate, shame, trauma, and harm. The once online journal, now established non-profit organization operates on compassion. Tony attended the Summit Against Violent Extremists Conference in Dublin Ireland in 2011 that inspired him to continue forward with the mission of Life After Hate which includes healing shame and helping people see just how worthy of love they are receiving and giving.
Tony found that there is a significant correlation between childhood trauma, neglect, abandonment, etc. and individuals who join violent extremist groups. There are different ways it shows up and creates toxic shame, wreaking havoc in all aspects of their lives. We live our lives in that belief system until the unresolved anger eats away at our confidence, esteem, and perception. “People reach out to us. We sometimes run campaigns to provoke interest; we also hear from parents who are concerned that their child might be interested in violent extremist. No matter the introduction, we meet them where they are."
The work done through Life After Hate is a screaming symbol of courage. It confronts the worst, roughest, most hardest heart and speaks love to it until it can love itself. It changes people at the core of their being. Tony and his staff help others see their own humanity through the lens of compassion which helps them see the humanity of others.
"Compassion is the key to it. If you want to change the world, you have to change who you are in the world. It’s the little things that add up that make the difference. It’s the same for any kind of social change.” Life After Hate has a private Facebook group where people can safely share their stories and experiences of being apart of violent extremist groups and receive wonderful support and encouragement as they transition to a life of healing, compassion, and love.
Tony’s story is one of tremendous courage, vulnerability, and hope. I am thrilled he has allowed me to share it with you and be the first Story of Courage here on the Courageous Conversations blog!
If you or someone you know is looking for a mentor, friend, or simply someone to talk to about their personal situation regarding violent extremism, you can reach Tony atwww.lifeafterhate.org.