Friday, September 13, 2013

Palpable suffering: A crushing tale, beautifully told

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s rare that we can put a human face on American foreign policy. And even rarer that the visage belongs to a person who steps willingly into the limelight — though admittedly for other reasons. A House in the Sky, a new memoir by Amanda Lindhout and co-written by Portlander Sara Corbett (a writer for the New York Times Magazine, among other publications), splits the difference beautifully, and devastatingly.
In 2008, Lindhout, a Canadian reporter cutting her teeth in the harshest places on the planet (Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars), went to Somalia to write about the unrest there. Warlords, tribal leaders, and government officials with varying degrees of popular legitimacy were engaged in a massive tug-of-war; the US, through the “war on terror,” backed several opposing players, sometimes simultaneously.
Lindhout stays away from the geopolitics; her story is very much her own, though it is important to read it not just as a human tale of suffering, resourcefulness, and survival, but also as an object lesson about the real cost of US intervention overseas.
Four days into her trip to Somalia, Lindhout was captured by a band of militants who held her for 459 days. That’s not a spoiler: The only spoiler that could possibly exist is Lindhout’s name on the cover — which is at times the only reassurance a reader has that she actually survived the ordeal. (Also, you can meet her on Friday at the Portland Public Library.)
No matter what you imagine might become of a white Western woman kidnapped by Islamic  militants (who are mostly in their late teens) in the middle of an anarchic gangland, the reality is far worse. Seriously: This is a soul-breaking book about the daily, hourly, secondly ordeal of surviving a mental and emotional crucible that would, at many times, have been easier to exit feet-first.
With Corbett’s expert help and reporting, Lindhout’s story is told directly, vividly, without artifice, hyperbole, or euphemism. A scene in which she hears her mother being beaten, and her mom fighting back against her boyfriend, is told quietly, understatedly. She expertly seals the deal: “In the bunk below me, Nathaniel started to cry. ‘Are you scared?’ I whispered, staring at the dark ceiling. It was an unfair question. He was six years old.” Lindhout was just nine. Her stark self-awareness forms the foundation of a uniquely probing reader-author connection.
The account of her captivity, which forms the second two-thirds of the book, is an unrelenting read, detailing the range of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual weapons employed against her in an attempt to extract a ransom, but always including elements of Lindhout’s impressive depth of spirit. She explains — often approaching detached wonder at her own resilience — what, exactly, happened to her, and how she found within herself the will, the means, the power to carry on.
During one particularly brutal assault, she describes an out-of-body experience: “From above, I could see two men and a woman on the ground. The woman was tied up like an animal, and the men were hurting her, landing blows on her body. I knew all of them, but I also didn’t. I recognized myself down there, but I felt no more connected to the woman than to the men in the room. I’d slipped across some threshold I would never understand. The feeling was both deeply peaceful and deeply sad. What I saw was three people suffering, the tortured and the torturers alike.”
It is left to us, as it is to Lindhout herself, to make sense of, or peace with, this horrific tale — and we in the US must pay special attention to the detailed personal accounting she offers of the ripple effects of American power.
Perhaps we can even start to take our lead from Lindhout, who has chosen to transcend her suffering by bringing to her tormentors not condemnation, but compassion — in the form of a foundation providing educational support to young people in Somalia, kids very like her captors.
AMANDA LINDHOUT + SARA CORBETT | at the Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland | September 13 @ 6:30 pm | | Free
A HOUSE IN THE SKY | by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett | 384 pages | Scribner | $27