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'Drawn into the Undertow'

Greg Withrow, a former leader of the White Aryan Resistance, became a media darling when he publicly denounced racism and claimed to have overcome his own violent tendencies. Elizabeth Thompson, MA ’94, suspected there was more to the story than the simplistic before-and-after tale that had studio audiences weeping on Donahue. “We all love a good recovery story, whether it’s from racism, alcoholism or drugs,” Thompson says. “But the demons really rise to the surface once you stop what you were doing before.” She set out to explore the complexities of Withrow’s personality as well as his racist roots. Could a person change in the blink of an eye?

The big challenge of the film, called Blink, was convincing the often-paranoid Withrow to let her into his world and his mind. “He was used to ABC or CNN flying in for the day, getting this evil-racist-turned-model-citizen story and leaving. I told him my film was going to contain more nuance, that it would be told at the intersection between his story and my perception of it,” Thompson says. Gaining his trust took repeated visits to his “hideout” in Northern California; maintaining that trust was a constant struggle over the next 4 1/2 years. “Every so often he’d drop out of the film,” Thompson says. “He would fall into a deep depression and withdraw, or else get very wired and cut off contact.” Even when Withrow was cooperating, he would frequently become agitated by a question and demand that she turn off the camera. He might take out his aggression on a tree, hitting it with a sword or nunchucks. Or he and Thompson might take a long walk, eventually reaching an understanding.

Withrow, she learned, lived in a dark and haunted world. Not only had he publicly called for the “total extermination of all non-Aryan peoples . . . men, women and children, without exception,” but he had privately used violence as a way to get respect, physically attacking his wife and beating up anyone who accidentally bumped into him. “He had rebuilt his identity around this pedestal the press had put him on; for the first time, people were calling him a good guy. But he still had the same alienated rage that got him into the white-supremacy movement in the first place,” Thompson says. Slowly, she discovered that his childhood had been full of abuse, that being labeled “white trash” during a brief stint in college had challenged his personal mythology that a white male should be a ruler. “He perceived himself as a wounded warrior, his greatness attacked by groups such as blacks and immigrants,” Thompson says.

The filming was emotionally exhausting. “I started to feel that I was being drawn into the undertow. Contemplating evil took me to really uncomfortable territory, and I had to balance my desire to find the truth with my own self-preservation,” she recalls. For eight months, Thompson was bedridden with a series of illnesses, including mononucleosis and severe chicken pox. She remembers gazing out the window and wondering, “Why am I making this film?”

Eventually, she rededicated herself to the project, determined to capture the emotions and contradictions behind the media hype. “I think we dismiss anyone’s humanity at our own peril,” she says. But Withrow became more and more hostile, finally erupting over the phone in a fit of threats and obscenities. Thompson was so shaken that she cut off all future contact—and, in doing so, cut short the filming.

Working with the existing footage, she nonetheless managed to create a richly paradoxical portrait. The hourlong Blink aired in July 2000 on PBS’s P.O.V. It won an Emmy that year, beating out Ted Koppel’s Nightline and others. “I’m proud of the film because it asks difficult questions and doesn’t provide pat answers,” Thompson says. “I’m glad I endured.”

Withrow recently declared that his renunciation of hate crimes had been a ruse to infiltrate liberal enemies. “Greg is making provocative pronouncements to win the attention he craves,” Thompson muses. “His case is very sad.”

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