From an exposed bluff in Mill Point, West Virginia, Kelvin Pierce surveyed the remote place where his father chose to live and die. In a sense, he knew why. Kelvin is an avid outdoorsman, and even on a stark February day, with snow blanketing the earth and bitter wind whistling through the trees, he was moved by Appalachia’s subtle splendor. He understood why a man might settle there.
“I love West Virginia,” Kelvin had said earlier, on the four-and-a-half-hour drive from his home just outside Washington. “It’s absolutely my favorite place on the planet.”
It’s also full of sorrow.
When Pierce’s father bought 346 acres in Mill Point, and relocated there permanently in 1985, he left his family behind. He started building a compound where a new kind of family – men and women of like mind – could live off the land and be free of outside influences. He moved into a rambling trailer home, where he lived with a series of wives who weren’t Pierce’s mother. He had divorced her, declaring the split “necessary in order for me to have the peace of mind I need to do most effectively what I must do with my life”.
Nothing was more important to Kelvin’s father than white supremacy. The abandonment and the hate – the abandonment for hate – is what Kelvin has spent the better part of his life struggling to understand.
To family and friends, his dad was Bill. To everyone else, he was William Luther Pierce III, one of America’s most prominent white nationalists.
A physics professor turned neo-Nazi, William Pierce led a hate group called the National Alliance and a business empire that, at the time of his death from cancer in 2002, raked in $1m a year. He published books and magazines, hosted a radio program, and owned a music label, all of which promoted white supremacy. His work galvanized violent gangs, such as the Order and the Aryan Republican Army. Most infamously, it inspired the architect of the Oklahoma City bombing – Timothy McVeigh designed the attack based in part on Pierce’s 1978 novel The Turner Diaries.
Reportedly called “the bible of the racist right” by the FBI, The Turner Diaries is a fantasy about white militants overthrowing the US government as part of a bloody race war. A 2016 report found that the book had been tied to at least 200 murders, committed in 40 terrorist attacks and hate crimes. This year, during the 6 January coup attempt, there were echoes of the novel’s core ideas in insurrectionists’ calls to kill members of Congress, and in a gallows erected near the Capitol.
William Pierce raised Kelvin to hate Jews, Black people, immigrants – anyone who wasn’t white. Now 60, Kelvin has long rejected his father’s ideology, but only recently has he reached the point where he’s ready to talk about his upbringing, and how his story illuminates the toxic currents roiling America. “If I can help one other person that felt the way I used to feel, to feel better and to make different choices, then that’s what I want to do,” Kelvin said. “And I think I can help more than one person.”
When he was little, Kelvin would sneak into his dad’s home office in northern Virginia to look at the bust of Adolf Hitler and the glass paperweight in the shape of a swastika that sat on the desk. Kelvin didn’t know what the items meant, and William Pierce wasn’t interested in explaining. He rarely spent time with Kelvin and his twin brother, Erik, preferring to fraternize with George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi party, or to lock himself away writing articles decrying Jewish power and interracial marriage.
Kelvin’s strongest memories of his dad involve abuse. Any disobedience or perception of bad behavior led to beatings with whatever was at hand: a belt, a wire hanger, a two-by-four. The violence left Kelvin with bruises and a deep well of self-loathing.
His mom, Patty, didn’t approve of the cruelty, but she didn’t do much to intervene. She took a similar approach to her husband’s extremism, which he’d nurtured since at least the early 1960s. A math professor and the family breadwinner, because her husband had given up his own academic career to become an ideologue of hate, Patty did all of William Pierce’s accounting and typing. Kelvin said his mom was “absolutely terrified” when her husband started a firearms business – not because he advertised his stock as “Negro control equipment” necessary for “the coming race war”, but because it prompted newspapers to publish articles about him. Patty worried that someone might come to the house and hurt her family.
When her sons told her that neighborhood kids made fun of them by calling them Nazis, she lamented that “it’s a terrible world” and “people are awful”. She didn’t answer when Kelvin asked her what a Nazi was, and she didn’t tell her boys that their father was to blame for what was happening to them.
As a teenager, Kelvin was a bigot because he didn’t know any other way to be. He also hoped it would impress his dad. In high school, he gave a presentation on Hitler’s virtues and used the N-word to talk about Black classmates. By the time he went to college, he was “a mobile advertisement” for his father’s beliefs.
“It made me feel superior to be part of the white race,” Kelvin later wrote. “Yet deep, deep down, something didn’t quite feel right about it either.”
He began to change when he transferred from a small Christian college to Virginia Tech. He roomed with a young man from South America who was “thoughtful, caring, and very intelligent” – all things that Kelvin’s father insisted people who weren’t white couldn’t be. He took classes with students who saw the world very differently than he did. When Ronald Reagan was elected president and many of his liberal peers were visibly upset – including his roommate, who drew a dagger and drops of blood on a photo of Reagan – he wanted to understand why. He started paying attention to politics and watching the evening news, which his dad had always said was worthless because Jews controlled the media. Kelvin wondered if everything he’d been taught was wrong.
He met a fellow student named Susan when they were both engineering interns with the navy one summer. Kelvin thought she was beautiful, but while his racism was rapidly dissipating, his shame – the feeling that his dad had abused him for a reason, that he deserved it – was not. He couldn’t imagine making the first move, but Susan could. “You know, if you were to ask me out, I would say yes,” she announced one day.
They were married in 1986. William Pierce came to the wedding. His gift to the bride and groom was a box of 9mm ammunition. “To keep the wolves away from your door!” his note read. Kelvin didn’t even own a gun.
By then, William Pierce had divorced Patty, decamped to Mill Point, and curtailed contact with his sons. Kelvin only confronted his dad once, asking why he’d chosen white supremacy over everything else in his life. “It was the only responsible thing I could do,” his father replied.
For her part, Susan didn’t think that William Pierce’s worldview mattered. “Thank goodness that’s a dying thought process,” she recalled thinking – an assumption she now sees as optimistic, or perhaps naive. It was also hard for her to fathom the extent of the abuse Kelvin suffered.
“You know, he hit me every day,” he told her once.
“Every day?” she replied, incredulous.
Susan had grown up in a home where, as she put it, “We were always hugging each other, and we always said, ‘I love you.’”
She and Kelvin had kids only because they agreed to adopt them. “I was just terrified of furthering my genes,” Kelvin said. “I was so messed up and so damaged as a human being that I couldn’t fathom the idea of trying to make another human being.” Their daughters, Mariame and Marieka, are from the country of Georgia. Kelvin vowed to love them like he’d never been loved. He coached their softball teams and took them on camping trips.
William Pierce never met his granddaughters. For seven years prior to his death, he didn’t reply to the letters and photos documenting their childhood that Kelvin sent him. Despite everything, Kelvin kept reaching out. His anger at how he’d been raised collided with yearning for paternal approval. When he first heard of the connection between The Turner Diaries and the Oklahoma City bombing, his knee-jerk reaction was a perverse kind of pride that his dad was in the news. He was ashamed his mind went there, but at a loss for how to stop it.
Kelvin was battling his demons without armor or weapons. He was also doing it alone. “You’re a mystery to me,” Susan would tell him sometimes. “I don’t understand why you won’t tell me how you’re really feeling.”
In July 2002, his uncle called to tell him that his father was dead. Kelvin hadn’t even known he was sick. He surprised himself by crying, then realized what he was really mourning: he had to let go of the futile hope that his father might one day love him. He went to West Virginia for the memorial service, where neo-Nazis offered their condolences and said Kelvin must have admired his father very much.
How little they know, he thought.
He looked like his dad – tall and lanky, with mournful eyes, a long, square jaw, and prominent ears. He shared William Pierce’s introspection and his dislike of being told what to do. But the similarities ended there.
After the service, he began to feel something new: he was sad for his father and the life he’d led. It could have been different. But again and again, William Pierce had made the wrong choices, leaving heartache and hate in his wake.
Kelvin wanted to start making better choices of his own.
To Mariame Pierce, her dad’s bookshelf told the story. When she was little, it held volumes about Kelvin’s hobbies – mountain climbing, for instance. Over time, new titles appeared, ones about self-discovery and philosophy, written by Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. While she was growing up, her dad was changing too. “He became more present and thoughtful, more conscious and intentional,” said Mariame, now 25.
Kelvin had embarked on a “healing” journey, as he describes it. He read, reflected, and prayed. He worked with a counselor to process his childhood trauma, including his father’s belief system. He and Susan, who already ran a successful construction business together, started a charitable foundation to support orphanages in Georgia. When he posted pictures from visits to his daughters’ native country, friends remarked that he looked uncharacteristically happy. “To make a child feel like at least somebody in the world loves them, it’s the most amazing thing in the world,” Kelvin said.
He told his life story publicly for the first time at his local Rotary Club. He described how, in his youth, he’d fantasized about traveling to Washington with a gun and opening fire on Black people. His teenage dreams now repulsed him. Afterward, audience members came up to thank him. Some of them were crying.
The more he talked about his experiences, the more people told Kelvin he should write a book. It took a seismic national event for him to decide they were right.
On 12 August 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly. Watching the events unfold, “I was immediately transported back to my childhood,” Kelvin said. “The hatefulness of their energy and what they were saying, the way they were saying it, especially ‘You will not replace us’ – it was just like being an eight- or nine-year-old kid, when my dad took me to an American Nazi party picnic.”
He started writing what would become Sins of My Father, which he self-published in February 2020. In addition to telling Kelvin’s personal story the book, written with Carole Donoghue, draws on private letters and other archival documents that reveal how perceived grievances, personal disappointment, and twisted self-regard led William Pierce to dedicate his life to white supremacy.
Though it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when his father’s beliefs began to curdle – stories of radicalization are never so precise – Kelvin finds seeds of discontent in the years when William Pierce was a new husband, a new father, and newly endowed with his physics doctorate. “I think Dad was becoming angry and resentful and was suddenly frightened of the future and the heaviness of it all,” Kelvin writes. “He hated the idea of working for someone else. He never wanted to have to answer to anyone else, even his wife.”
This period in William Pierce’s life coincided with the rise of progressive identity politics – the acceleration of the civil rights movement, for instance, and the dawn of second-wave feminism. He wanted to be a man who mattered, a man people listened to. White nationalism allowed him to be that. His life became one long ideological devolution, nourished by the power and attention he accrued evangelizing about hate.
If the story sounds familiar, it is. America is still plagued by the forces of rightwing radicalization. Sins of My Father draws parallels between William Pierce and Donald Trump, who “emboldened white supremacists and mass-shooters by his words and deeds,” as Kelvin writes. “In many ways, Trump has succeeded where Dad failed. He has taken hate and discrimination mainstream.”
Other evidence of his father’s enduring impact hit closer to home. After Marieka Pierce enrolled in a police academy in Virginia, one day in class, her instructors showed the room a picture of her grandfather, describing him as an example of a homegrown extremist. “My hand went up,” Marieka later told her mom.
The instructors were stunned to hear about the family connection. William Pierce was a staple in their curriculum about hate crimes; they’d been teaching recruits about him for as long as they could remember. They asked to meet Kelvin to get a fuller picture of the man who, in obituaries, was remembered as “a cold and calculating racist” and “the godfather of hate in this country.”
Donny MacMullen has his own take on William Pierce: he thinks Kelvin’s father was a great man.
MacMullen, who is in his 30s, with reddish brown hair, a full beard, and striking blue eyes, moved to Mill Point from Massachusetts a few years ago to help preserve Pierce’s legacy. Today, he’s the caretaker of the National Alliance compound, which amounts to a few scattered buildings and the rocky sprawls of land between them.
The place is in a state of disrepair, and people rarely visit, but there are reminders of the community Kelvin’s dad was trying to build before he died: an AV facility stocked with equipment that was first-rate in the early aughts; a library that once housed several thousand volumes; stacks of slickly produced magazines promoting racism; a meeting house where William Pierce presided over annual National Alliance conferences. Today, even as Pierce’s ideas continue to find adherents, the organization he started is a shade of its former self.
MacMullen was happy to welcome Kelvin to the compound in February. Indeed, members of the National Alliance had long made clear that William Pierce’s son could visit anytime. For more than 15 years after his father’s death, however, Kelvin stayed away. He wasn’t ready to make peace with it, because he wasn’t at peace with himself.
It was a steep drive up switchbacks to the heart of the compound, where MacMullen was waiting, wearing a knit cap with a swastika stitched to the front. When Kelvin asked him about the symbol, MacMullen laughed. It just represents love for the white race, he insisted. Kelvin pointed out that it was associated with hate and genocide, and MacMullen shifted gears. If you love something deeply, he said, then you have to hate anything that threatens it.
This was another way of expressing the sentiment of a meme MacMullen once posted on his Facebook page: “I’m white but that doesn’t mean I’m racist … I will put my boot in your ass, my knife to your throat, and your body in the dirt if you f**k with me and mine.”
Kelvin and MacMullen walked for a while on the property, just the two of them. If it was painful to talk with a man who revered his father – who saw virtue in a racist who beat him every day of his childhood – Kelvin didn’t let it show. They talked about their divergent beliefs, and neither man was interested in budging.
“We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” MacMullen said at one point.
When Kelvin recounted the conversation to his best friend, Gil Jullien, who’d come on the trip as moral support, Jullien was furious. “Oh, that’s bullshit!” he said. “I don’t agree to disagree!”
Jullien was speaking from experience. He was troubled that a close childhood friend had become a vociferous Trump supporter, the sort who regularly posts racist and sexist content on Facebook. Once, when the two men were at a high school reunion talking politics, Jullien’s friend had told him they’d have to agree to disagree. Jullien wasn’t having it. “In my opinion, he’s ruining our country, and I’m not,” he later explained.
Kelvin shares Jullien’s moral compass. “Aggression and hate and violence are the epitome of cowardice,” he said. But he doesn’t want to feel antagonism or resentment toward anyone, not even white nationalists.
He prefers to listen and question, not to confront; to offer the possibility of connection rather than writing people off. His approach might not be for everyone, but for Kelvin it’s vital. If he could be redeemed, why not someone like MacMullen?
“I’m putting myself out there for people that want help and want change,” Kelvin said.
Before Kelvin left the compound, MacMullen gave him a copy of a book – a tome, really, at more than 1,000 pages. Written in 1978 by William Gayley Simpson, a white nationalist who ran in the same circles as William Pierce, Which Way Western Man? bemoans the supposed decline of white civilization, the rise of feminism and multiculturalism, and the alleged chokehold liberal orthodoxy has on modern society – it’s a collection of white supremacy’s greatest hits.
MacMullen said the text meant a lot to him. Back home in Virginia, in the spirit of listening and questioning, Kelvin cracked the book and read the first 50 or so pages. “It kind of boils down to, do you live your life stuck in the rat race, within society’s norms, or do you break out from that and try to live a more authentic life, doing what you want to do, what you feel is right versus what society says is right?” he said.
The language struck a chord. He heard echoes of his own transformation, of setting a new course for himself. Whereas Kelvin chose a path defined by hope and inclusivity, people who admire his father have let bigotry be their guide. Still, in their journeys’ common origin, Kelvin saw promise – the possibility of trying again, and getting it right this time.
“It’s not as insurmountable a task to start a recovery process as some people think. It does take discipline, but it actually works,” he said. “I’m living proof of that, right?”
The last time Kelvin saw his father, he jumped off a mountain.
Kelvin had started hang-gliding in his 20s, and during his first visit to the compound in West Virginia – the only one he took while William Pierce was alive – his dad had suggested he glide off one of the property’s peaks. No way, Kelvin told him. There weren’t open areas below where he could land. At best he’d come away injured; at worst he could die.
A few years later, in 1995, Kelvin traveled to Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia, for a series of flights over the Labor Day weekend. He invited his dad to come watch him. He didn’t expect him to show, but as Kelvin was untying his glider from its rack on his truck, he heard a familiar voice.
“You need a hand with that?” his father asked.
“You actually came,” Kelvin replied.
With his father’s help, Kelvin made quick work of maneuvering his 80lb glider to the launch site. Before them was a pleated vista, gentle peaks and valleys thick with late-summer green. Kelvin suited up and pointed to the landing field where his father could meet him. “Clear!” he yelled, before taking a few running steps and leaving the earth.
The flight was perfect. A swell of wind – a lift, as hang-gliders say – allowed Kelvin to pilot much higher than he’d planned, rendering his dad a dot on the ground. He stayed in the sky for an hour. The view was majestic: forests and farms and fields stretching beneath him.
He touched down with ease in a wide field. As he was packing up his gear, he heard the familiar voice again: “Wow, Kelvin, that was absolutely amazing.”
It was the first time in his life that Kelvin knew for certain he’d impressed his father.
They stood in the landing field talking for a bit longer. Then father and son said their goodbyes and went their separate ways: William Pierce to what Kelvin called “his life of hate at the compound”; he to new chapters of his existence. Some, such as parenthood, would be joyous. Wrestling with his past would be torment. But just like he navigated the wind high above the mountains, Kelvin would steer himself to a place where he could land, safe and whole, and invite others to join him, if only they too have the courage to leap.
Seyward Darby is the editor-in-chief of the Atavist Magazine and the author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. Johnathon Kelso is an editorial photographer working on long-form projects related to history and race in the American south
• This article was amended on 2 April 2021 to add that Sins of My Father was written with Carole Donoghue.