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11 November 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 3:30pm

“Afterwards, I asked: ‘Who am I now?’”: How it feels to escape the far right

Lauren Manning on the fear, danger and freedom of leaving the white supremacist movement.  

By Anoosh Chakelian

On the upper side of Lauren Manning’s neck, you can just about make out four slightly red patches of skin. These are the remnants of a tattoo she had done when she was 18, which read “1488”.

A white supremacist symbol, “14” stands, Manning said, for the 14-word phrase “We must secure the existence of our race and a future for white children”, and “88” refers to the eighth letter of the alphabet: “HH” for “Heil Hitler”. It took seven rounds of laser treatment to remove the ink.

Now 30, and living with her mother and younger brother in the Toronto suburb where she grew up, the scaffolder and outreach worker is recovering from five years as a white nationalist gang member.

In early 2020, Manning joined Life After Hate, an organisation that helps people leave extremist groups. She works on a construction site until 3pm each day, and then spends her afternoon counselling those trying to exit neo-Nazi groups as she did.

Wearing a black hoodie, with her fair hair tied back tight, Manning spoke to me over video call from her bedroom, which is decorated with hand-poured paintings she creates as part of her “self-care routine”. Beside them is a large, sepia poster of Noughties US metal band Lamb of God.

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At 17, Manning started listening to a band in the “National Socialist black metal” genre, and was browsing the band’s Facebook page when she was messaged by a recruiter from the Canadian branch of Blood & Honour – a neo-Nazi skinhead group founded in Britain in the late 1980s.

He began drip-feeding her white supremacist ideas. “I had nothing to challenge it with,” she told me. Her hometown and high school were overwhelmingly white, and she was subjected to racist and homophobic rants from her grandfather during regular family visits. “A lot of the stuff seemed all too familiar to me just because I’d heard this before during childhood.”

Like many others she speaks to who join far-right groups, Manning was at a vulnerable point in her adolescence. For nine years, she had watched her father suffer from blood cancer before he died when she was 16. He was a local police officer and her “whole world, and only sense of stability”. She “took to binge-drinking like crazy”, self-harmed, and was struggling with her bisexuality.

“At 13 or 14, when I began high school, I dressed differently,” she said. “I wore baggy guys’ clothes. I started noticing both guys and girls, and I remember this kid in class yelling, ‘Hey, lesbian!’ OK, I can say in retrospect he was half right! But I thought, ‘It’s either be bullied or be the bully.’”

In 2008, Manning began meeting Blood & Honour members in person, skipping school and “sneaking into the city” where they would attend meetings and listen to speeches by Holocaust deniers. She soon received her first piece of neo-Nazi uniform: dark red, white-laced German Panzer boots with Swastikas in the treads.

The sense of belonging proved intoxicating. “There was something euphoric about that at the time, like a badge that you earned,” she reflected. “It was like a sense of validation.” At this point, her brainwashing felt like “epiphany after epiphany, or so it seemed. And all these people were respecting me for saying it.”

When she turned 18, her mother gave her an ultimatum: home or the “white power” movement. She chose the latter, and left for Toronto city, bunking in a basement with fellow skinheads and moving between homeless hostels. She soon left Blood & Honour for a white supremacist group called the Hammerskins.

Manning worked odd jobs, but also volunteered for “Suit Nazis” – figures high up in society with respectable jobs who had her distribute carefully worded leaflets promoting “free speech”. Yet chaos trumped ideology. “It was more about projecting your anger outwards and that could’ve been targeting anybody,” she said.

In a book she is writing with her mother about the experience, Keep the Door Open: One Family’s Journey into White Supremacy, Manning describes a blur of drinking, vandalism, infighting, abusive relationships and the threat of sexual assault. When she once tried to break from Blood & Honour, leaving her partner from the gang and checking into a shelter, she was beaten so badly that it took months of memory training and physiotherapy to heal the concussion. At 22, she developed liver cirrhosis and had to stop drinking. Disillusion crept in.

The murder of a close friend – a Blood & Honour member who shared her misgivings about the movement – was a turning point. She started seeing her family again. In 2012, she made “the conscious intellectual decision to leave”, but only fully broke ties with the movement in 2015.

“Afterwards, it was loneliness and definitely an identity struggle, like, ‘Who am I now?’” she said. “It took me a long time to realise that my identity can encompass many things. It doesn’t have to be just one label. I’m not fond of categorising people any more. I’d describe myself as an individualist.”

Yet in today’s polarised political landscape, she believes the spread of white supremacy is “going to get worse” and is “reaching a peak”. Around 300 extremist groups are operating in Canada, where the far right is on the rise, drawing focus in September this year when a man charged with killing a 58-year-old Guyanese immigrant, Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, outside a Toronto mosque was linked to a neo-Nazi group. Manning’s story first came to a UK audience when she joined a video call with more than 100 members of the British Jewish-Muslim women’s network Nisa-Nashim in mid-October, the same week hate crimes reported in England and Wales reached a record high.

Manning recently celebrated eight years of sobriety with a bungee jump. She has been ticking off a “bucket list” of adventures with her new partner (“I’ve got a nice one now!”). Her white nationalist tattoos have been lasered off or covered up; a Celtic cross is now disguised by an hourglass to represent the healing of time.

“Freedom’s been my word ever since I got out,” she said. “There’s nothing freeing about being trapped in that web.”

Lauren Manning and her mother’s co-written book about this experience, Keep the Door Open: One Family’s Journey into White Supremacy, is still in progress, and due out next April.

Her 13 October interview with Nisa-Nashim is available on YouTube.

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump