It’s an irony of the human condition that the escapism that momentarily frees us from our dreary, troublesome lives often becomes its own trap.
Amanda Lindhout didn’t use alcohol or drugs to deal with domestic turbulences while growing up in Sylvan Lake. Instead, the child of divorced parents immersed herself in the pile of National Geographic magazines at her bedside to drown out the fights she would regularly overhear between her mother and her series of ill-suited boyfriends.
More than once these conflicts would escalate to the point that Lindhout’s mother would rush to the women’s shelter in Red Deer with Lindhout and her two brothers in tow.
Whenever disturbances rocked her hardscrabble childhood, Lindhout recounted in gripping new memoir, A House in the Sky, she would escape reality by daydreaming about the exotic places she saw in the magazines. The world will come to my rescue, thought the future journalist, who imagined living among the nomadic people of China who churned yak yogurt, Hungarian cowboys, or Balkan mountain gypsies who danced with bears.
But Lindhout was to discover through her exhaustive travels that the world is not a benign place. It can turn on you.
In August 2008, Lindhout was abducted at gunpoint by Islamist bandits, along with her companion, Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, while the two were in Somalia, one of the globe’s most dangerous and intolerant wartorn countries.
During their 15-month captivity, they suffered growing deprivations as their captors repeatedly held out for their $1.3-million ransom demand. But Lindhout, then 27, and her ex-boyfriend, Brennan, did not suffer equally.
As an attractive, intelligent and strong-minded young woman, it was Lindhout who suffered the most physical and mental torment while detained in a male-centric, violently feudal place.
Her conditions especially worsened after she and Brennan were caught trying to escape to a nearby mosque.
At the time, so many people around the globe worried about what Lindhout might be enduring during her long abduction. Her memoir confirms that she suffered almost the worst that can be imagined, including repeated rapes, beatings, an appalling incident of torture, and months of solitary confinement on dirty mattresses in dark, windowless rooms.
A House in the Sky, co-written by Lindhout and The New York Times Magazine contributing writer Sara Corbett, provides a riveting, occasionally harrowing account of the circumstances that propelled Lindhout towards Somalia. It covers her gruelling imprisonment and her later attempts at forgiveness. She now works for The Global Enrichment Foundation, a non-profit charity she started to help educate Somali women.
This ultimately uplifting, well-written memoir flows like fiction but packs more emotional punch because it is, after all, an account of what Lindhout really lived through. This makes the last quarter of the 360-pages difficult reading, but at the same time, this absorbing book can’t be put down.
It’s probably telling that, while Brennan was able to turn out a memoir about his captivity shortly after his release in November 2009, it took Lindhout four years to write about her traumatic experiences.
Her 37-year-old Australian companion does not come off well in Lindhout’s account — and not just because he initially lied to her about the fact he was married. Brennan doesn’t provide any support at the beginning of their abduction. He’s described as confounding his male abductors by weeping into his mattress while Lindhout does most of the talking.
Brennan later appears to redeem himself, stashing secret encouraging notes for Lindhout in their shared bathroom after they are separated into different rooms.
But ultimately he betrays Lindhout by allowing her to be blamed for their failed escape, which, according to the book, was actually his idea. His betrayal, along with what the desperate Lindhout reveals to a compassionate Somali woman in the mosque, causes her confinement to descend into a dark hell of beatings and repeated violations while Brennan continues to enjoy sunlight and books.
Most readers will be unable to stop themselves from wondering, as I did, whether they would have the inner fortitude to withstand the near daily torments Lindhout endured. But one strength of A House in the Sky is that nobody is painted all black or white, not Brennan, not the Somali jailers and not even Lindhout.
As she globe trots through her early 20s on her cocktail waitress earnings, she makes self-serving, reckless decisions. She goes to places that worry her family and is an admitted travel junkie, a “country counter” who survives several close calls through sheer luck and nerve.
Before covering the Iraq War in Baghdad for the Iranian Press TV station, Lindhout had a rifle shoved into her ribs by a robber in Afghanistan, and as a single woman, was followed by male throngs, repeatedly refused hotel lodging, and nearly abducted by a rickshaw driver while travelling in Bangladesh.
It was her bleak work situation in Baghdad that led to her ill-fated decision to fly into Somalia. The inexperienced and largely unschooled Lindhout, who was drawn to journalism as means of sustaining adventuresome travel, did not fit with the seasoned Columbia University-educated correspondents covering the Iraq war. She later became “hated,” because of an on-air statement she had previously made, which later came to light on YouTube.
When asked by an Iranian anchorman early in her Press TV stint why mainstream Western journalists supported U.S. President George W. Bush’s line on the war, she responded it was because most reporters stayed in the heavily guarded Green Zone and were not, as she was, in the dangerous Red Zone, where the action was happening.
She made this, much regretted, comment long before having any real contact with foreign correspondents — many who did work in the Red Zone.
Having inadvertently burned her colleagues, Lindhout looked to Somalia, where few Western journalists had dared go, as a place where she could make her reputation. It was obviously a huge miscalculation. But Lindhout and Brennan, whom she recruited to accompany her, were not the only Western journalists willing to take the risk.
A reporter and photographer working for National Geographic had driven up the same road shortly before Lindhout and Brennan were pulled over by the gunmen.
One of the kidnappers later admitted they had been expecting to abduct two men, leaving readers to wonder whether the National Geographic team had been the real targets.
They certainly would have made more lucrative ones. (Lindhout, a freelancer who had sold some columns to the Red Deer Advocate, lacked a high-profile employer with a big insurance policy. Her mother held a minimum wage job while her father was on a disability pension with chronic health problems. The two families eventually scraped together the $600,000 that was finally accepted by the abductors, although the total rescue costs, including paying investigators and facilitators, were $1.2 million.)
The male National Geographic team would also have been more relatable for the Somali kidnappers, who had a deep mistrust, verging on contempt, for Western women.
Lindhout was constantly referred to as a “problem” by her captors, who blamed all of Somalia’s problems on Western interference.
As a non-submissive female, she was a thorn in their sides, considered a “bad Muslim” even though she went through the motions of converting to their religion and tried to learn their language.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this memoir concerns the young jailers, who are products of personal trauma in Somalia’s ongoing violence. What does it say about the human capacity for cruelty that these young men, whom Lindhout initially tried to befriend and joke with, were later willing to take turns humiliating her and trying to break her spirit?
While dreams of exotic places were her escapism when she was young, Lindhout fortified herself mentally during her captivity with detailed thoughts of home and family.
Instead of succumbing to suffering, Lindhout appears to have come through her life-altering ordeal with a greater sense of grace, empathy and understanding — even for those who hurt her.
A House in the Sky, published by Simon and Schuster Canada, is slated for a Sept. 3 release. It will cost $29.99.