Apologies take many different forms.
For some people, they come through words.
In Facing the Truth, Bill Moyer’s documentary film about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, poet Don Mattera asserts that sorry is a deed, not a word.
For Arno Michaels, repentance comes in a book.
A former racist skinhead from Milwaukee, Michaels tells his tale in Life After Hate, a self-published work that bears the same name of the organization he co-founded with Angie Aker.
Michaels, who shared excerpts of the project with me before its publication, relates his experience several ways. Most of the book consists of a series of chapters that describe, at points in gruesome detail, the violence he and others inflicted on victims during his more than seven years in the world of racial hatred.
These sections can be hard to read, and, one feels while reading them, to admit to having done since he now feels and acts so differently.
Michaels also writes about the forces that pulled him out of hatred and into love.
Ironically, music played a key role in both parts of his journey.
In a lengthy interview that is another aspect of his storytelling, Michaels explains that the music of hate had an almost seductive effect on him. He eventually belonged to a number of successful bands that spewed hate through their lyrics. On the other end, in the chapters, he writes about attending a house party in Chicago and having a revelation that people of many races could take the same pleasure in sound that he did.
His daughter was another force.
At just 23 years old, Michaels became a single father when the mother of his daughter left and gave him sole custody of the girl.
The responsibility of caring for and raising his daughter started to nudge Michaels away from the circles in which he traveled and toward a more progressive vision.
Again, the experience of seeing someone from a different race take the same pleasure in greeting his child after school contributed to that movement.
By the late 90s, Michaels was finished with hate groups. He left, and has stayed out of, that world, even though he was informed recently that he is still a member “in good standing” due to his musical past.
He also writes about going back to school and writing about his life for a class taught by a gentleman named Charlie, who becomes a mentor figure. The acceptance that he receives from people of different backgrounds in the class helps Michaels stay on the path he had chosen.
For Michaels, the period in his life after hate has been marked by, among other things, working on behalf of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign and starting the publication that this month celebrated its first anniversary.
For now, and, quite likely for the rest of his life, he is grappling with the actions he took while a skinhead, why he did them, and how he got to the point where hating and hurting people based on their skin color or religion not only made sense, but actually was a cause and a patriotic duty.
Life After Hate has a fragmented feel, and, in part, the different formats and non-linear narrative make a statement about the nature of the material with which Michaels is dealing.
Michaels may not yet have forgiven himself, and it is certainly not my place to do so.
I can say that I welcome his courageous work that should be read by those who hate, those who believe that change in life is possible and those who were his erstwhile enemies, but now are some of the people with whom he seeks to make a better world.