Christian Picciolini was 14 years old when he attended the first gathering of what would become the Hammerskin Nation, a violent, white-power skinhead group. Looking back, he describes his introduction to the group as receiving a "lifeline of acceptance."
"I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before — as if I was a part of something greater than myself," he says.
Picciolini embraced the white supremacist message he heard that day and went on to front a white-power punk band, White American Youth, writing and performing songs that inspired others to commit racist acts of violence.
But after eight years as a neo-Nazi, Picciolini began to question the hateful ideology he espoused. He remembers a specific incident in which he was beating a young black man. His eyes locked with his victim, and he felt a surprising empathy.
It was a turning point. He withdrew from the movement and in 2011 co-founded Life After Hate, a nonprofit that counsels members of hate groups and helps them disengage.
"Over the last 14 years I have actually helped over 100 people disengage from the same movement that I was a part of," he says. "[Neo-Nazis] know that I'm a danger to them because I understand what they understand — but I also understand the truth."
Picciolini's new memoir is called White American Youth.