Book Review - White American Youth: My Descent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—And How I Got Out

ICSA Today, 10, (1), 2019, 28-29

Book Review - White American Youth: My Descent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement—And How I Got Out

By Christian Picciolini

Reviewed by Doug Duncan

Hatchette Book Group, 2017. ISBN-10: 9780316522908; ISBN-13: 978-0316522908 (paperback). $12.68 (; Kindle, $11.99). 304 pages.

In his plenary speech at the recent annual ICSA conference in Philadelphia, Rod Dubrow-Marshall spoke of how somebody who is in a cult is subjected to a process of coercive control in a way that is similar to people in other situations such as, for example, people who are victims of domestic violence. Others have made similar points, drawing the connection between cults and terrorist groups, and people who are in gangs and fringe political movements. White American Youth..., by Christian Picciolini (pronounced peach-o-lee-nee), is a good example of somebody who was recruited into and participated in a group that will feel very familiar to those of us who study cults. 

Picciolini starts off with a good description of why he was vulnerable to recruitment into a gang. As a lonely teenager with first-generation immigrant parents who were extremely busy working to try to gain an economic foothold in their new country, Christian was subject to the appeal of a determined persuader. A young man who was just a few years older than Christian took an interest in him and began the process of bringing him into a movement—the neo-Nazi skinheads—that would serve as his surrogate family for the next several years. The description of how he was drawn into something he had not even heard of before he encountered his recruiter is quite well done. Indeed, it is a good generic example of the recruitment process that is applicable to both cults and other controlling groups, and so should be of interest to many in our field.

Once he is in the movement, Picciolini becomes absorbed and totally committed. After his recruiter and mentor, Clark Martell, is sent away to prison, Christian is quick to fill the leadership vacuum, even while he is still in high school. Unsurprisingly, as the movement takes more and more of his time, he becomes increasingly estranged from his family of origin. His propensity for violence escalates, and he drops out of high school and finds himself in mounting legal troubles.

Interestingly, though Christian engages in many behaviors that are shocking and abhorrent, he does not completely lose contact with his own humanity, and in that are the seeds of what eventually causes him to leave. It is horrifying to read his descriptions of the terrible things he does, but it appears that the sociopathic behavior he engages in does not comprise his true self. This is not to excuse his criminality, but it is a fascinating study in how being in a gang or in a cult can result in a person dissociating from the more human aspects of himself.

There is one particularly moving passage where the author describes an incident in which he and some of his cohorts get into a street fight with a group of young African-American men. As the fight proceeds, Picciolini and his fellow gangsters have one of their opponents on the ground and are brutally kicking and stomping him. At one point while this happening, the young man who is being beaten makes direct eye contact with Christian; and for a second, he cannot help but recognize that this is a fellow human being. Unfortunately, this event is far from the end of his reign of terror; but it seems to have impacted him strongly, and he still remembers this moment many years later after he is completely out of the movement.

One of the drivers of Picciolini’s involvement with the neo-Nazi skinheads was the heavy-metal, punk-rock style of music that permeated the movement. He even starts his own band, White American Youth. His involvement with music eventually is part of what helps him get away from the gang: He opens his own record store and begins to trade with people who are outside of the movement.

A lot happens along the way, of course. He gets a young woman pregnant and marries her; and though the marriage does not ultimately last, his wife is something of a moderating influence on him. A friend of his gets killed in a skirmish with some rival gangsters, and that is very disheartening to him. At some point, he goes back to school. And in spite of his lackluster performance in high school, it turns out that he is intelligent and is able to establish a positive identity as a student.

Overall, I found the book to be very affecting. Christian struggles tremendously after leaving the movement because all of his former friends shun him—an experience that is familiar to most of the people who leave cults and other high-demand groups. He struggles with disillusionment, realizing that everything he fought for and gave his time, his energy, and his entire youth for was a lie. He faces guilt and shame for the things he did while in the movement, but he now finds purpose and meaning in helping others escape the clutches of the neo-Nazi/skinhead movement.

Sadly, there are more people out there recruiting people into the movement than there are people like Christian Picciolini trying to help them get out. Personally, I was surprised to find how widespread this movement is, with adherents in places such as law enforcement and the military where one would hope not to find them. Fortunately, with the publication of this book, Picciolini is able to reach more people; and the book deserves to be disseminated and read widely.

About the Reviewer

Doug Duncan, MS, LPC, was a member of an aberrant religious group for more than twenty years. After defying the cult leader and marrying Wendy, they eventually left the cult and Doug began the task of rebuilding his life. He enrolled in a master’s program in counseling and earned a degree and license to practice therapy. After working on their cult recovery issues by reading all the available cult literature, attending conferences, and becoming involved with ICSA, Doug and Wendy started a ministry to increase others’ awareness and understanding of cults. They are frequent presenters at churches, civic groups, and conferences, and also facilitators of a support group for former members of cults and high-demand groups. Additionally, Doug offers individual counseling to former members.