The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka with Robin Gaby Fisher.
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018.
Adult nonfiction, 222 pages.
NOTE: This book, and therefore the discussion of it in this review, contain numerous triggers. Please be aware and skip this review if needed.
2nd NOTE: Also this review is longer than usual because my own mental and emotional health made it difficult to edit.
The story of a former white supremacist whose words inspired the Sikh temple shooter and a man whose father was murdered in that shooting spree.
The book begins with acknowledgements and a prologue, followed by a chapter detailing the co-authors’ first meeting. The second chapter onward follow a more linear progression, starting with their childhoods, their high school and early adult life. At one point these two men lived only a short drive from each other, yet it took national headline level violence for their lives to converge.
Michaelis is very clear that his life was not especially full of hardships, that he was a normal, if somewhat wild, suburban boy. The stories about his recruitment to white supremacy through the punk rock scene (after an unfortunate incident turning him off of his earlier love of breakdancing) are almost as upsetting as his descriptions of acts of violence.
Then he attends a white supremacy “leadership camp” and is literally indoctrinated into the beliefs and recruitment system. He sees himself as doing good in the world even when literally beating someone. It’s stomach turning – this is not a book that can be read during lunch breaks or before bed.
Even learning he may be part Native American doesn’t stop the hatred. By then he is so deeply committed to the “cause” that he’s willing to murder himself for the purification of the race. Every one of his sections is deeply disturbing and most are difficult to read.
Kaleka’s portions are more readable yet filled with foreboding. Even as he’s teaching us about Sikh beliefs and customs or enjoying his daily life, we the readers know what is coming, and it’s occasionally referred to – like so many others, his world will be forever altered by a white man with a gun.
As an Indian-American immigrant, Kaleka has a much different perspective even when he and Michaelis are sharing similar experiences. Kaleka’s upbringing was more strict – while Michaelis dropped out of high school and became a white supremacist rocker, Kaleka “rebelled” by profanity-laced rap music and secretly dating a white girl. He played basketball at the park with everyone, including open gang members, and as the only Indian at his school, found acceptance through sports. Reading about the haircuts his family had (maintaining long hair is a tenet of the Sikh religion) and the persecutions they faced leaves us no doubt as to why Kaleka tried so hard to fit in with white peers, eventually drifting away from his religion.
Michaelis, meanwhile, is busy hating on Black, Jewish, and LGBTQ peoples. All other non-white groups don’t even have the dignity of being classified but are simply “mud races.” Some versions of white supremacy work hand in hand with Christianity, but Michaelis espoused a variation that also hates Christians, seeing them as “soft” and pandering to “inferior” groups.
This was all in days before internet too. How much worse is it now that a young person with the slightest inclination towards extremist views can be recruited online and fed a steady diet of only the most bias-confirming information?
Ironically, both Kaleka and Michaelis face family pressures. For Kaleka, his parents learning that he was dating a girl who was neither Indian nor Sikh was a turning point in his life, eventually leading him to both return to the faith and pursue the career he desired. Michaelis is also pressured to do his part by whiteness and have a child with a girl in the movement. Fueled by alcohol and hatred, their relationship crumbles, but he clings to his daughter.
As a brief aside, it’s a testimony to institutionalized racism that young Autumn was able to stay with her father. Based on the accounts he describes in chapter four, a non-white child would have been placed into foster or kinship care.
Kaleka is struggling with his own life changes – meeting an Indian Sikh woman, but as a love match, not an arranged marriage. He struggles with racism to find a job as a police officer, then struggles with the warlike mentality of inner-city policing culture after breaking barriers to become a Sikh policeman. As a new father, he quits the force and returns to the gas station while figuring out a different career.
9/11 impacts both men. While Kaleka counts himself lucky to be able to mostly ride out the wave of anti-Sikh violence, Michaelis unexpectedly finds himself an international speaker for peace and executive director of a nonprofit organization. (The US has very poor public religious education, and it is common for Indian Sikhs to be mistaken for Arab Muslims.)
[I wrote a paragraph about the last major shooting and while this was in editing it became outdated because another one occurred and I just don’t have the ability to keep rewriting.]
Writing a list of content warnings is challenging because the entire book is practically a bundle of dynamite waiting to pull a trigger. Very extreme racism, homophobia, graphic violence, microaggressions, slurs, sexual violence, threats, mass shooting, and I’m sure more.
Michaelis swears frequently and at times seemingly randomly, which I don’t enjoy in a book but can adjust to reading. But the frequent instances of n****r, both in his speech and in quotations, caught me off guard. They don’t start until about the third chapter, and aren’t used in a present day context, but it’s still painful to come across unexpectedly and repeatedly.
He also relays in great detail several incidents of extreme violence, including the glee he felt about them. I think there is a need for this kind of writing, but I’m not convinced this particular book was the place for it. Ultimately, I’m not sure I can recommend this. It was both an easy, gripping, and also soul-wrenching, terrifying read – usually at the same time. I wished for more intersectionality, or at least consideration that this book might be read by people who were neither of the groups in the subtitle. But it also did give me a lot to reflect on about the culture and events around the Sikh temple shooting.
Part of that may have been my expectations. While I’m always here for personal stories, I’d been hoping for both deeper insight into the shooting and a way to move forward after such violence and hatred. Yet considering the continued gun violence in America, what is mentioned feels meaningless. White men are going to keep shooting people – hearing how easy it is for them to do so was more demoralizing than energizing. This book does not work for the current moment.