The first character we meet in Sisters in Hate is Corinna Olsen — a mortician who was, in a former life, a bodybuilder and an adult film actress. She's also a former neo-Nazi who eventually turned on her fellow white nationalists, became an FBI informant and left the movement. Since then, she has converted to Islam. These days, she tweets about her faith — not to mention her funeral business and her support for Black Lives Matter.
It's a hell of a story, and one that effectively sucks you into journalist Seyward Darby's exploration of women in white nationalism.
And Darby doesn't lack for subjects who fascinate — albeit in a grotesque way. Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism profiles two more women, both of them still in the movement. There's Ayla Stewart, who went from being a feminist, pagan and Dennis Kucinich supporter to being a Mormon and a "tradwife" (which is exactly what it sounds like) who spouts racist platitudes on her blog. And there's Lana Lokteff, one of the most prominent women in the white nationalist movement, with a prominent website and podcast on which to spread her hate.
Such unique characters are a boon to Sisters, given that the book is often a rough read. To be clear, that's not a criticism — Darby sketches her subjects finely, with a level of detail that never feels forced. However, it's simply true that reading about white nationalism with this kind of detail means regularly reading things that are stomach-turningly abhorrent.
Sisters is a long time in coming — Darby began reporting on women in the alt-right nearly three years ago, with a Harper's cover story. But its release now makes it a sort of dark counterpart to the books white Americans are buying by the truckload in order to learn how to talk about race, abandon their fragility and become anti-racists.
The white people buying those books are conscious of their whiteness, and hoping to grow more so. The books are part of an understanding that it requires hard, consistent work to undo a lifetime of racist programming.
The women in Sisters are themselves hyperconscious of their whiteness — sinisterly so. Unlike the process of becoming less racist, though, Darby presents becoming a white nationalist as the opposite of hard work. These women chose to go down this repulsive path, yes, but the path is well-paved.
For example, Corinna's path to radicalization started relatively innocently — she was a young woman looking for somewhere to fit in, and grieving the untimely death of her brother. She knew he hung out with people who called themselves "skinheads," but she naively didn't know what that meant. And so she did an Internet search: "what are skinheads."
Soon she was on Stormfront, one of the most popular hate sites. Before long, she had an account and was posting racist comments. Within months, she was the leader of a white nationalist group in Portland, Ore., and then a well-known voice on far-right talk radio.
These women's absorbing stories propel the book forward. But that also means that Darby's subjects work against her, because they can encourage the reader to gawk instead of engage. Many who pick up this book, after all, have never been bodybuilders-turned-embalmers like Corinna, nor converted tradwives like Ayla. Moreover, these three women either are or were unusually loud voices in a subculture that many more-mainstream Americans regard as fringe.
These women are so out there, a reader might think. That could never be me. But one of Darby's points is that many white Americans, with their more politely racist views, are closer to these white nationalist women than they'd like to acknowledge.
Occasionally, though, we do see more mundane tendrils of white nationalism: "One racist activist described her standard invitation to outsiders: 'Come over. We'll get together, we'll talk, we'll have some fun' " — indoctrination cloaked in a casual ladies' wine night invite. It lacks the drama of a talk-radio rant, and perhaps for that reason, it's all the more chilling.
Analysis of gender is where Sisters gets muddled. There are plenty of discrete facts here on how women fit into this subculture. We learn that being a mother gives a white nationalist woman revered status — having white babies, after all, means perpetuating the white race. We learn that many women in the hate movement, like Ayla, have become disillusioned with feminism. There's talk of the men's rights activists and red-pilling. There are histories of other women who have risen to prominence in the hate movement or on the far right.
It's all there, but it's at times disorganized, without a clear throughline. Corinna and Ayla and Lana's stories weave in and out of history and data and current events, but the point isn't always clear. Occasionally, Sisters leaves the reader with an overwhelmed feeling of having dumped a bin of Legos all over the floor — what does it all add up to?
At least one throughline does stick after reading Sisters: the ugly deal these women have made with a movement that is ultimately ambivalent toward them. While white nationalists are often openly misogynistic, Darby is also clear that these women are not victims — they have knowingly chosen hate. And with it, these women get loud megaphones, not to mention the approval of other powerful white nationalists. They get to feel like they're giving legitimacy to this movement — like they're important.
That kind of bargain, loathsome though it may be, can arise out of the most human of desires, Darby writes: "Hate can be understood as a social bond, a complex phenomenon that occurs among people as a means of mattering and belonging."
Which leaves a reader with yet another, supremely unsettling idea: how that kind of everyday desire for sisterhood can curdle into something so ugly.