Graeme Wood writes a beautiful piece in this month’s Atlantic magazine on the awful wisdom of the hostage. He reflects on the newly published memoir of former hostage, Theo Padnos entitled ‘Blindfold: A memoir of capture, torture and enlightenment’. Theo was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and held for two years by Al Qaeda. It is commonly thought he was released after an intervention by Qatar, although they deny they paid a ransom to free him.
Like me, Graeme doesn’t seem drawn to the dramatic stories of torture and starvation that dominate so many depictions of the hostage experience. Instead, he is drawn to what happens after captivity and how that experience changes Theo.
I worked for a decade and a half with former hostages and am only now beginning to read the books some of those people published while I was supporting them. It was difficult work and I had to draw the line – the less I knew about the hostage experience, the more I could help the former hostage to build a new life.
In my work, I focused on the practicalities – physical health, mental health, learning to sleep again, completing tax returns and battling the tax authorities for leniency for unfiled returns, connecting them with specialists, and a plethora of other such tasks that help to lay the building blocks to normal life again.
What I find so interesting about Graeme’s take on Theo’s book (which I haven’t read yet) is his focus on how captivity reflection – about oneself, life, what matters, who is important to you, regrets – impacts a hostage’s road to recovery. How do you rebuild your life when the the illusions of your old life have been shattered?
As Theo writes and Graeme quotes, “In a prison cell, at the very end of your allotment of days, you are in a little eagle’s nest, a thousand feet above the surface of the earth. You can see everything. Why do the living struggle and sweat, you wonder, when all they really need to do is to live?”
The further I get from my work with former hostages – the struggle to find them services, resources, people, connections – the more I am learning about the holistic challenge of surviving survival. It’s much more than a tax return, a sound night’s sleep, or access to counseling, as vital as all those things are. I’ve certainly seen how their absence makes recovery impossible.
The former hostage has had the very foundation of their beliefs, assumptions and priorities upended. Working out who you are, what matters, and processing the regrets you’ve allowed to surface – that’s a piece of the reintegration puzzle we need to talk about more.