The Man With The Swastika Tattoo



Each week when I go to the federal halfway houses where I lead life skills groups I can expect some resident turnover.  Some are released during the seven days between my classes and some new ones are brought in.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that all of them take certain classes while they are serving out the rest of their time, and job readiness, one of my regular groups, is mandatory.

Because so many of these men (in this particular program it is all men) have done some pretty long “bids” in prison, they often don’t know the basics of navigating computers whether it be simple word processing, let alone the Internet.  They’ve never had an e-mail address or conducted an on-line job search. Most have certainly never had a resume.

The men who have sat through my group look forward to seeing me every week despite the fact that they initially resented having to be there.  Most turn out to be extremely humble in admitting their lack of knowledge and are very grateful when they see a resume, the end product of my group, seem to write itself  before their eyes.  I think they are surprised to see the skills that they do in fact have, the things they HAVE accomplished, laid out in such an impressive way.

Last week there were a couple of new guys assigned to my group.  One came right in, sat down, geared up for whatever I had to say.  Another, a rather large and  imposing presence, hung back,  looking a bit apprehensive.  I forget that I look older than I think I do so I assume that a bi-focaled woman carrying binders and paperwork makes me appear like every other teacher or social worker they’ve been forced to sit in front of for years.

“You look terrified,” I said to him.  “Guys, will you tell him he doesn’t need to be terrified?”

Those who knew me smiled and slapped him on the back and told him it wasn’t so bad, like telling a child that a shot will only hurt for a second.

“Come,” I said to the man, patting an empty chair, “Sit next to me.”

I’m still generally awed by the number of tattoos so many of these guys have.  It’s often hard to discern any virgin skin beneath the entire length of their arms,  shoulders and legs.  There are names of girlfriends, portraits of Jesus, Bible verses, gang signs and all manner of symbols and scribbles that mean nothing to me.  When this man sat next to me I did my usual and at this point reflexive  scan of the jumble of colored ink and random drawings on his neck and within that chaos, like a hidden object children have to find in an illustration in a magazine,  there was a swastika, which suddenly, in my eyes, made all the others disappear.

I have written before about having to suspend my judgement of this population in order to do my job.  I’ve laughed with bank robbers, drug dealers and embezzlers.  I had to process when one guy revealed to me, rather casually, that he spent nine years in prison on child pornography charges without denying a thing, and then move on.  Now instead of judging him on that heinous crime, he just gets under my skin because he’s sort of a pain in the ass.

I’ve written endlessly about being the child of a Holocaust survivor and how much that has shaped my identity.  I had to avert my eyes from that particular tattoo which by now had become an image in my head of a neon sign blinking, in red.   It was imperative that I shut down my gut reaction and continue to work with this man who in all actuality was rather gentle and in need of my help.

Obviously, this wasn’t easy.  I couldn’t smack him in the face and call him an ignorant fuck and walk out of the room.  What was even more difficult was not being able to just ask, “Why?  Why?”




  1. Thank you for continuing to work with him. I hope eventually he learns your past. It is theses times when you find out that you are not just talking the talk and you believe in what you do. I’ve been there recently when my daughter asked me to help the person who I got her started on heroin.

    1. This is from a couple of years ago but I am now dealing with it again in my new program. My boss has given me very good advice on how to deal with it so I have to bring it up very soon. What an amazing gesture from your daughter. I’m curious to know more…

  2. Bless you for working with these people. It amazes me that some individuals can do this heavy emotional work. It is people like you who really make a difference in society.

  3. I want to hear the rest of the story!

  4. Sally Cohen-Alameno

    Your writing continues to awe me, Gayle. Everything about this is, well, everything. May I share?

    1. Nothing makes me happier than when people share on Facebook. Thank you so much for the compliments.

  5. Gayle–there’s a difference between robbing a bank and getting a tattoo which symbolized hatred of a segment of the population on your skin. Perhaps it’s a subtle difference, perhaps it’s as big as the Grand Canyon. Who knows? Maybe this kid got this tattoo out of ignorance and regrets it. Maybe he knew full well what he was doing and now regrets it. Maybe he would do it all again tomorrow. Only he knows that. But it takes a dedicated person to take the high road, to overlook, and maybe, just maybe take the opportunity to teach–not only whatever it is you’re teaching in your new situation, but tolerance as well. Good luck.

  6. Lew Komarow

    Just wanted you to know that I think this is one of your best pieces. I can remember seeing swastikas drawn on school desks in junior high, and they would always glare at me, no matter how tiny they were. Recently, I was on vacation and I walked past this ornate iron gate, and I instantly saw dozens of swastikas in the pattern, and all I could think of was whether I looked Jewish at that particular moment, and should I get out of the daylight? It was a visceral reaction to something completely unexpected and unintended. Today I live in a state where people proudly fly Confederate battle flags — but they think it’s okay because they can explain in detail in their Facebook posts about their heritage and history, no matter how many facts they get wrong. Ugh. I have tried, but there is no way to get them to understand that these flags are “flashing neon signs” of hatred to most others.

  7. I had a similar experience at the place I work. A young man fresh out of prison with a swaztica tattoo. My eyes are drawn to it, I have to force myself to look away. As for the question “why?” It became pretty obvious. He’s a child in a man’s body. So ignorant in almost every area of life, the simple ideas of white supremacy must have been very appealing to him.

    He is of course a Trump supporter, and though I think it’s unethical for me to push my political views on a client I did stop him when he started talking about creating a “kill zone” at the Mexican border. I told him if he wanted to continue talking politics he would have to listen to my views for at least as long as I listened to his but that I would rather talk about recovery.

    He ended up going to another counselor. I didn’t drop him, but I think they would have told me if he had requested someone else. I still help him out with referrals from time to time. I try to remember how lucky I am to have been raised in the house I was. That with different parents, a different life, it might be me speaking that hate. My job is to help people in recovery. Not just the ones I like. Sometimes I have to pretend I’m a bigger man than I really am.


    1. So interesting Ken. I am dealing with a similar situation now that I haven’t yet written about and I too asked if he wanted to see a different counselor. He said absolutely not. I will treat him with the respect I give everyone else.

      I plan on reading some of your work. If you happen to be on facebook I have a page there that you can search–My Life In The Middle Ages.

    2. I just checked your blogspot address and there isn’t an actual blog. If you do write, I’d love to see some of your work.

      1. That’s because I mistyped the address

        Here it is

      2. Oh I think I have already liked your FB page.

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