Last year, Ashley Herzog published an essay online about her husband, Kyle Bristow, an attorney in Michigan who has been involved in the racist radical right since he was a college student. It was a call for help, a frantic plea from someone married into the movement.
Herzog was going through a contentious divorce, and both she and Bristow had begun tossing barbs at one another as they fought for custody of their then 3-year-old daughter.
But the essay was also a plea, a heartfelt confessional as she spoke of her addiction to prescription drugs and her fears that the “soft-spoken” and “polite” young man she married years before was hardly the man she thought. “So, are you a white supremacist?” she recalled asking Bristow just hours into their first date. His answer was a direct, “No.”
“That was the very beginning of my three-year trip through his weird world of white supremacy, one that finally ended in the living hell where I currently reside,” she wrote at the time.
The essay’s life online was short. A judge involved in the couple’s divorce ordered she take it down so as not to interfere with the custody proceedings, and Herzog complied. She didn’t want to risk losing her only daughter to the “circus” of racist white supremacists. “Indeed. If my precious daughter grows up with Kyle Bristow, she’ll have plenty of fear, and plenty of hate,” Bristow wrote.
That certainly seemed true. Bristow’s fame has always been tied to his racist beliefs. As a student at Michigan State University in 2006, Bristow led the chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, spearheading anti-immigrant and anti-gay campaigns on campus. His efforts prompted the SPLC to take the unusual step of listing the club as a hate group.
Then, four years later, while Bristow was attending law school, he published White Apocalypse, a novel seething with lethal white supremacist revenge fantasies against Jewish professors, Latino and American Indian activists and staffers of a group clearly modeled after the SPLC. Since then, Bristow has continued to air his extremist views in white nationalist, anti-gay media while carrying on something of a double life and making a name for himself by seeking justice for victims of “revenge porn,” the unwanted distribution of sexual photos or videos of a person without their consent.
Hatewatch recently talked with Herzog to explain her time with Bristow, who declined several requests from Hatewatch to be interviewed. As she explained, what we see is only half the man. There is much, much more.
Did Kyle Bristow ever try to hide his racist views from you?
When we were first dating, the entire time he portrayed himself as someone who really didn’t have white nationalist beliefs and that the Southern Poverty Law Center had just written about him because it was vindictive and out to get anyone who doesn’t agree. “They’re going to censor me.” That’s what he would tell me. The first time I met him, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not a white supremacist.” Obviously, he is. He just waited for the true colors to come out.
And how did those colors first come out?
He got lazier about trying to hide it. I was looking at his Facebook one day and saw that he was having an extended conversation with April Gaede. She is the mother of those twins who were in Prussian Blue (Editors’ Note: Prussian Blue was a racist pop preteen duo comprised of Lynx and Lamb Gaede.) He was talking to her online, and it disgusted me. I said, “Get her off your friends list.” We had just gotten married. He was pretty angry about that.
What was he angry about?
He said that Gaede was raising her daughters the right way because, as he said to me, “Do you want our daughter to grow up and date Negroids?” – or whatever he calls them. I think that’s the first time I realized that he was not just being unfairly portrayed. He kept saying the Gaede twins were being kept on the straight and narrow, and he acted like they were upstanding citizens. He said of course that’s how we’re going to raise our daughters.
So he wasn’t trying to hide his racist views.
He played this game where he was very charming, and he was very doting with me and gave me flowers, and he portrayed himself as this really nice guy. Then he bought our daughter that outfit.
One of the first things he did as a father was buy our daughter a onesie in a newborn size that said S-L-W-S, which stands for Smash Left-Wing Scum. (Editors’ Note: “Smash Left Wing Scum” is a popular phrase that emerged from racist music and street-level skinhead activism.) He put her in that as a newborn.
By the time you married, he had already written White Apocalypse. Had you read his novel? Weren’t those ideas already obvious in his writings?
I don’t even consider it a novel. It was just his personal manifesto. The main character was supposed to be him. All the locations have some kind of personal meaning for him. The main character was supposed to be him, and everyone who was murdered in the book or became a villain was someone that he had some personal agenda against. I found it really creepy.
The book cheerfully describes the assassination of character obviously based on the SPLC’s Mark Potok and also bases a character on the SPLC’s Heidi Beirich –– something he denied. Did he ever talk about writing the book, or what he meant?
At first he didn’t really say much about that. He just said, “Oh, the SPLC. You can’t really trust anything they say.” Later on he started laughing about how it was totally supposed to portray Heidi and Mark. He admitted it, and he would laugh about it. He said, “Well, if they complain then they’re just admitting to being oily-haired trolls.”
But all of that wasn’t alarming enough to leave, I presume.
I thought maybe I could fix him, or that maybe he didn’t really believe these things. He was just doing this because he had some issues. I know that he was bullied in school as a kid by black athletes, and I thought maybe there’s something in his past he could get over and change. But the longer it went on, the more I realized he doesn’t want to change. He thinks he’s perfect and that there’s something wrong with everyone else around him.
Did he have close ties to others in the movement, or was he racist in a vacuum?
Matt Heimbach and he were becoming really good friends. (Editors’ Note: Heimbach is the head of the white nationalist Traditionalist Youth Network.) They were talking all the time. This is probably back in 2013 when those two were very close and they were on the phone every night. Heimbach came out to Toledo. He shows up in these combat boots and a white power T-shirt. I said, “Kyle. We’re not going to go out to dinner with him like that. Does he have any other clothes? This is embarrassing for me.” But Heimbach didn’t change, and at dinner, they were making jokes about lynching and hanging their enemies from trees, which I assume means black people. I was ready to get up and leave.
So your relationship started to dissolve around his racist beliefs?
I was feeling isolated at the time. I was trying to make friends. Kyle kept getting more and more into this white power thing. He started dropping our old friends. Then he became friends with people like Dan Poole, an activist for the American Freedom Party. (Editors’ Note: The American Freedom Party is a political party that promotes white nationalism.) Poole was always talking about how the problem with the right wing was that they didn’t want to discuss the “JP,” which is the Jewish Problem. I was like, “God, what world are we living in?” I almost felt like they must be kidding and I would sit there and try to laugh like, “These guys have to be joking.” Looking back, I don’t think that they were.
Did he take you along to any of his racist meetings?
Once he took me to a Charles Martel Society conference in Baltimore. (Editors’ Note: The Charles Martel Society publishes The Occidental Quarterly, a racist journal devoted to the idea that as whites become a minority “the civilization and free governments that whites have created” will be jeopardized.”) He said he was going to take me along because his parents paid for the plane tickets. He was very secretive, and he said that there was a confidentiality contract, so I couldn’t tell anyone anything. They were registering the conference as a software conference at an Embassy Suites near the airport in Baltimore. The hotel was dead quiet that weekend, so I was just wandering around the hotel by myself. That was when we went to this after party, and that’s where they were singing something in German. I know that they were singing, “Sieg Heil.”
What was that like?
It was like a cult. I think I hit a low point with the drugs and the alcohol then.
Your abuse of prescription drugs has become a point of contention that Bristow has used to argue for full custody of your children. Do you care to comment?
I wasn’t doing illegal drugs, but I was definitely getting into pill popping. I was becoming very miserable with him. It’s a cult. That’s the only way I can describe it. The stuff that comes out of their mouths doesn’t even make sense. I didn’t see much hope of getting anywhere with him about a lot of things, but I did confront him about saying this kind of stuff in front our daughter.
Were either of you worried his increased involvement in the white nationalist movement would have any effect on your careers?
Oh, yes. It was always a fear of his, that he would not get a law license or he wouldn’t pass a character and fitness exam. (Editors’ Note: A character and fitness exam is part of the licensing requirement for most state bar associations.) That was a real concern. He was legitimately worried that he would not be licensed. He had a whole strategy for how he was going to go in there and distract them with questions so that they couldn’t bring up any questions. He even went under a different name. He worked as James Bristow. For a year his boss thought that was his name.
It’s a violent movement that Kyle is involved in. You wrote in your essay about him stockpiling weapons like an AR-15. Did Kyle ever talk about this?
I was legitimately worried that my husband was going to be affiliated with people that might blow up a building or something. There was extremely violent rhetoric between him and his friends. They were constantly talking about race wars and revolution, and what they were going to do when the war happens and how they’re hoping to instigate this race war so that we can all become this separate white state. He had an AR-15 under the bed. He had a few other guns. He had so much ammunition that he couldn’t store it in our room. He started putting it in our daughter’s closet. It’s like, “Oh, great. My 2-year-old year old pulled an assault rifle out from under the bed. Oh, great Kyle. I’m so glad that our toddler is finding your weapons under the bed.”
You have taken down your blog post in which you describe things that few people have ever heard about Bristow. Is there a reason you’re giving this interview now?
Kyle gets away with portraying himself as someone that he’s not. And, frankly, he’s done this for far too long. He’s not a victim. He’s playing the victim just like he did with the SPLC, claiming they’re attacking him and he’s not really like that. He’s totally like that and I want everyone to know it, as his former wife. They are dangerous. Not just a bunch of buffoons. I used to think the KKK doesn’t even exist. It was like, “Who cares? It’s a bunch of Southern rednecks who can’t do anything. Just ignore them.” No. I’ve seen my husband and his friends. They masquerade as these normal people, and they’re just not.
Interview conducted by Ryan Lenz.