I disengaged and began deradicalizing from the violent far-right (VFR) while incarcerated in the late nineties. Just weeks into my new go at freedom in the double aughts, I enrolled in college and was doing therapy upon therapy. Speaking about my life and doing things like community service or outreach were the furthest things from my mind, let alone interviews with media, academics, or practitioners who were curious about those of us reentering society post-incarceration and disengagement or deradicalization. I was raw AF and sincerely trying to figure out how and why my life was where it was as of my late twenties.
I knew enough to do my research before speaking with anyone or giving away all the details and secrets of my life
The very first person who asked me to “speak” was my federal probation officer. It was horrifying, but I felt I had to do it because she was my probation officer. Over the years and hundreds of interviews later, I not only felt the interviewer(s) wanted to put words I didn’t say in my mouth often and didn’t understand what I communicated frequently, but I also worried about my safety. One experience still leaves me boiling. The mainstream media outlet I interviewed for hired a professional photographer; he completed the photo shoot at my home.Before the shoot, I communicated that I was uncomfortable with my chest because I recently had a bilateral mastectomy and was mid-breast reconstruction. During the shoot, he asked me to remove my shirt so he could get better photos of my tattoos. I was horrified and felt degraded. That’s how little he respected me after I just got done telling it truer than true at my own expense.
Fast forward to 2012, when I was contacted by and met Pete Simi. By this time, I didn’t necessarily distrust academics or other potential interviewers; most seemed sincerely interested. Still, it was a shady area, and I never felt like many of them had my best interest at heart, no matter how reputable the media outlet or person was. During that time, even I was unaware of how to protect myself. As much as I wanted to be vulnerable and open-minded working in the space I do, I knew enough to do my research before speaking with anyone or giving away all the details and secrets of my life. And, for me, Pete Simi was a different story.
While writing my graduate thesis about the gendered, online recruiting habits of organized white supremacist groups, Pete Simi was a name I often read, along with a few others. It is more than fair to say that I became a fan of Pete’s research and a handful of other academics who studied the violent far-right because they humanized their subjects and presented the data they collected in non-judgmental or straightforward ways before I ever met them. (Just the facts, please. Thank you!)
There is a lot of pressure on individuals going through the exit process and even on those who identify as formers or beyond. Knowing who we can trust from who is exploiting us is not information that arrives in a neat package on our way out.
In the spring of 2012, I popped open my Facebook app to discover a random message from Pete Simi. He explained the research he was engaged in clearly and succinctly and asked if I was amenable to meeting him for an interview. By this point, I was the epitome of an academic super-fan.
While Pete is not the first academic I was in touch with who I looked up to and respected, he is the first I love as a human being and friend, among many other things. The first that I didn’t feel like a subject with or to.
Pete never judged me. Not once. We met that first time and never stopped talking. He and I’ve sat in restaurants, hotel lobbies or bars, conferences, and panels, laughing and crying through sad times, extraordinary times, and times when we had to take off our friend hats and equip our professional ones. Pete was different in that I never saw disgust or judgment in his eyes, no matter what experience I shared, horrible shame I felt, or disgusting words I reiterated as I dove into my past. The first time he referred to me as a friend, I experienced a fantastic feeling of coming full circle and knew in my heart that I was more than a statistic to him. Over the past decade, I have not met anyone like him. He is the most ethical, non-judgmental human I have met in all my years. If you know me, you know that’s saying a lot.
It’s important to me to share these things for a few reasons. First, it is a euphoric feeling to come full circle from a moment in time when I was feeding myself through a grinder over and over, practicing critical introspection on my time in the violent far-right, making amends in communities I harmed, learning to navigate being a woman in a male-dominated space speaking publicly about the mistakes I made and the ways I broke myself, and hurt others, and society–by myself. Doing it all publicly from early on in my process of exiting was difficult.
There is a lot of pressure on individuals going through the exit process and even on those who identify as formers or beyond. Knowing who we can trust from who is exploiting us is not information that arrives in a neat package on our way out. Pete is one of the most decent individuals available to us before, during, and if there is an “after” process, then too.
Finally, this is not a promotional essay for Pete Simi. Some unsolicited advice for anyone, but especially our community–do your homework when deciding whether to speak to anyone; academic, practitioner, media, whoever. Look for the Pete Simi’s who listen, hear, and respect you and your comfort level. Find the ones who tell it true, share their motivation for asking you to speak, or seem particularly curious. And hit us up if you have questions or are interested in assistance in navigating the whole process. It’s also perfectly acceptable to say NO. Don’t forget the story of Pete Simi or those like him who will show you the human decency and respect you deserve as an individual.