‘A House in the Sky’: How Captivity Narratives Fuel War and Racism

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times magazine published a harrowing account of a journey in Somalia that went seriously awry. A Canadian 20-something named Amanda Lindhout had gone there to work as a freeance journalist. But soon after she arrived, she and her ex-boyfriend, Nigel Brennan, were kidnapped and held for ransom. Because their families were not wealthy, Lindhout and Brennan were held for almost 400 days. As you can imagine, they were starved and abused physically and, in Lindhout’s case, sexually. In the most harrowing scene, Lindhout one day manages to escape out a bathroom window, and runs to a nearby mosque.

There, she finds the devout indifferent to her plight, with one exception:

I saw Abdullah pushing through the crowd in my direction, his head lowered like a bull’s. I screamed as he dove at me. He caught my feet with his hands and began dragging me in the direction of the side door. I clawed at the ground as he pulled. I don’t remember any of the onlookers trying to stop him.

It was only the woman who tried.

She clamped on to my arms and pulled me back, using her weight for leverage, letting loose a torrent of Somali. For a few minutes, my body was strung between them, with Abdullah yanking my legs while the Somali woman proved herself a stubborn anchor. We were being towed along — the two of us, linked like train cars — inch by inch across the floor of the mosque. My shoulder sockets ached to the point where I thought they would pop.

Finally, she could hang on no longer.

The piece was an excerpt from a book, A House in the Sky, that Lindhout has now written about the experience, with the journalist Sara Corbett. It comes out tomorrow, and the reviews are raves. Everyone agrees that it’s effectively told, as a story; it’s nearly guaranteed to sell, because America loves a captivity narrative. Proof: Emily Bazelon, at Slate, called it as “haunting” and “captivating” as Emma Donoghue’s blockbuster literary success, Room.

But remarks like that worry me, because in fact, this story isn’t like Room‘s at all — 1. because it’s not fictional; and 2. because the predator is not from down the street, but rather from “somewhere else.” While of late we’ve had Jaycee Dugard and Natascha Kampusch offering the face of the captivity narrative, that’s not been the typical case in American literary history. The typical case is that a captivity narrative is a colonial narrative, something like Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Those things used to sell like hotcakes in colonial pamphlet form, and they were always praised for their gripping character. And they had the handy second function of demonstrating the barbarism of the capturing fiends to the masses, which was to the benefit of the generals who wanted to conquer them.

Until the Age of Terror, these captors were usually Native Americans. But it seems we’ve now just displaced the story to Africa. Somalia is already a country that Americans picture as a land of dysfunction and fear. Also: a hotbed for terrorists. Lindhout’s story, no matter the truth of it — and there’s no reason as far as I’m aware to doubt a word of it — is a story that will get wielded in a particular way. For some people, the story will reinforce their already-firm idea that Somalia isn’t a place worth visiting or caring about. For others, it will make Somalia look like an even better target for a crusade, perhaps an occupation, all done in the name of ending — you guessed it — the barbarism that currently prevails there.

Captivity narratives don’t really compel us to further understand evil; they teach us to further abhor it even as we gobble up the lurid detail. Who wants to understand a kidnapper, to believe him to be a whole human being? No one, nor me either. But set against big geopolitical questions, the dynamic is not one that encourages sober debate.

For her part, Lindhout seems to understand this. In her interview with Bazelon, she appears to balk at the impression her story gives off:

Slate: Reading that scene, I struggled with the idea that so many other people in the mosque that day knew you were being held against your will, but did nothing.

Lindhout: The conclusion I’ve come to about that is that people in a country like Somalia understand how little value is placed on human life in a way that you can’t comprehend, and even I can’t. That day, they had to protect own skin and own family. It’s about self-preservation more than a lack of caring. The people there were scared to get involved, and I can understand that. It [sic] what makes what the one woman did all the more remarkable.

An admirable position, and yet, when I read the piece I had the same first reaction as Bazelon. It’s written in such a gripping (that word again) way, you can’t help but feel angry at the people who left Lindhout behind. Their motives are not fleshed out; they are just the people who ignored her suffering. And the ones, the reader is manipulated to think, who need an attitude adjustment.