“I really just needed some sort of community – somewhere to belong that would take me in that I felt could be a sense of family that I didn’t feel at home.”


From the outside, my childhood looked like the American dream. I grew up in a neighborhood of starter homes with other upwardly mobile young families in our area. I had one sibling, a brother, who is two and a half years older than me. My parents were in love and are still married to this day. There were always lots of kids to play with in the neighborhood if you were willing to ride your bike far enough. It basically looked like “Stranger Things”…without the monsters.

But on the inside, my family was super dysfunctional. There was a lot of codependency in my house. Whenever the adults felt out of control or disempowered in some way, they would immediately try to gain some sense of control back. For me, it was really hard to understand and negotiate the ever-changing set of boundaries set by my parents.

I think that I also just came wired differently than the rest of my family. I was born asking, “Why?”. And in a nice and polite middle-class family, who wanted nothing more than to conform and get along, I stood out like a sore thumb. I always felt like the black sheep in my family. I didn’t fit in. And that sense of being unmoored started me on what would become a very long search to find a place where I felt like I did belong.


I grew up just outside of Philadelphia, in a suburb of New Jersey. In my family, there was no alcohol or drug abuse, but there was an overwhelming amount of codependency. I felt like I lived in a meritocracy. If I did what I was supposed to do and met the standards of my parents, I would be loved. If I didn’t, that love would be withdrawn.

I often felt confused and found it difficult to negotiate the boundaries set by my family because something that might have been fine in the morning was suddenly not okay later in the evening. You never knew where you stood with them. Some of the most painful memories I have of my childhood are of getting hurt or sick and seeing my parents react with anger, not comfort. In the second grade, I got chicken pox, and the first thing I remember happening is that I was yelled at because my mom would have to take off of work, and I was going to miss school.

Anytime I got hurt or sick, or really anytime that my parents felt vulnerable or disempowered, their first response was always to lash out–to yell, shame, and blame. As a kid, that made me feel like I couldn’t trust them. I wanted to go to them to feel safe. Instead, I felt quite the opposite.


We ended up moving to rural southern Michigan when I was 11. It was devastating for me. Now it was not just inside my family that I felt unsafe and like I didn’t belong–it was everywhere.

When I was two weeks shy of turning 15, I lied to my parents and went to a party with a friend. We ended up drinking way too much. There were two older guys there, probably around 24 years old, who we talked to all night. Everything seemed fine. I felt safe with my friend.


But somehow, over the course of a few hours, I ended up alone with one of these guys. My next memory is waking up in the backseat of a car with this man on top of me. Then his friend was suddenly there, and he was raping me too. Afterward, they dropped me back off at the party where they had found me.

I was in deep denial that I had suffered this major trauma. The protective mechanism within me crafted the story that I would tell myself over and over, that I had simply lost my virginity to two men at a party. I knew that I couldn’t go to my parents because the entire history of my childhood said that if you are hurt or sick, you will be blamed for what’s happened to you. So I justified it to myself and moved on. In the six months after the rape, I became so consumed with rage and self-hatred. I felt worthless, like a piece of trash.


It was around this time that I discovered the local punk scene. For the first time, I was able to connect with people and felt like I could finally be the real me. And the real me was angry. I was so filled with rage at the time and needed a place where it was okay to be angry.

I started to gravitate toward the skinheads that were always at the punk shows that I went to. The rage that was inside of me resonated with the rage that I saw in them. I was almost relieved that, through this group, I could project this massive amount of hate that was inside of me and get it out.

Over time, what started as releasing some of my rage with the skinheads at punk shows turned into me participating in episodes of serious hate toward people we had targeted in the community. Then, eventually, I found myself learning about firearms and how to use them.

It was terrifying. I was being brainwashed, and I knew it. But I couldn’t stop it. I just dug deeper and deeper into the ideology. I think I so badly needed it to work because I didn’t feel like I had anywhere else to go. It was almost like my brain was being hijacked. I spent a lot of my time reading things that would keep me inside the physical and intellectual echo-chamber that I lived in–a sort of closed system so that there wouldn’t be any doubts of what I was participating in.


What makes me the saddest about that time is that I really just wanted someone to love and protect me. Most of the relationships that I was involved in were very abusive physically, emotionally, and verbally. My parents, after me leaving home again and again, finally told me that I couldn’t live with them anymore, that I was no longer their legal responsibility.

Then my boyfriend’s mom said that I could come and live with her and her three youngest sons. She extended to me what felt like extraordinarily undeserved empathy and compassion. She took a chance on me. The street thug life that I had been living didn’t allow me to think about the future. She helped me dream about my potential, and then she went about connecting me to the resources that I needed to help make that happen.

It allowed me the space to expand and begin questioning the life I was leading. I didn’t know how I had gotten to a place so filled with hate and violence. I began to walk away. This experience of what felt like undeserved empathy and compassion from this woman made me feel strong enough to leave the movement.

Now I am a mother and advocate on behalf of those looking to belong. My life is filled with so many things that I could never have imagined when I was going through my adolescence and early adulthood. After I had been out of the movement for three years, I had my oldest son. The joy that my children bring me is something that I never knew a human being could experience. It’s because of them that I wake up every day committed to love with everything I’ve got and heal my own brokenness.

I love watching people as they leave behind hate and start to heal, slowly piecing their lives back together.

I reach out to people all that time who are hurting or struggling, and I try to be a non-judgmental space for them to come rest and experience a bit of unconditional love.

I know it’s so hard when things are so difficult, and you feel crushed by your world. But I promise you, hang in there because there is so much goodness that’s going to come your way. There is so much joy, so much big, full, rich amazing life that’s going to come your way if you can just hang on, breathe through the pain, and don’t let go.