The Awful Wisdom of the Hostage

What a new memoir reveals about endurance—and extreme remorse

illustration of prone figure raising a white veil
Gérard DuBois

This article was published online on April 5, 2021.

In October 2012, in the second year of the Syrian civil war, a 44-year-old freelance journalist named Theo Padnos crossed from Turkey into Syria with two young men he thought were his friends. Padnos made friends easily and indiscriminately: In 2006, he was in Yemen researching a book about foreign converts on the path of jihad, and he showed me around when I arrived in the country. Six years later, he remained gregarious and trusting. He made his way through the barbed wire into the war zone with these men he barely knew and a small backpack containing a notebook; a copy of Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux; and a can of Efes, the Budweiser of Turkey. He drank the beer alone and looked forward to the freedom of the open road in rebel territory. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he thought to himself, channeling Wordsworth.

The next day, his guides announced that they were members of the local chapter of al-Qaeda and beat him senseless. Soon Padnos was soaked in blood and undergoing a regimen of physical and psychological torture that lasted nearly two years. (David G. Bradley, then The Atlantic’s sole owner and now the owner of a minority interest in the magazine, devoted considerable personal resources to the search for Padnos and several other Americans held hostage in Syria.)

Few who survive a long hostage ordeal can resist writing a book about it. Being gagged for years makes one voluble, and readers want to know what it’s like to live under the sword of Damocles. In books by hostages taken in the 1980s by Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, certain themes emerge: the solace of religion, for Terry Waite and Terry Anderson, held from 1987 to 1991 and 1985 to 1991, respectively; the sanity-preserving humor and comradeship of fellow hostages, for Brian Keenan (1986 to 1990); and regret about choices the hostages had made in their lives before, as husbands and fathers, and sometimes just as humans on whom freedom was wasted while they had it. Most of us feel regret—but not like this. No one would endure this intensity of introspection voluntarily. To read their books is to explore our failings and trot a few miles of their ultramarathon of remorse alongside them.

Padnos’s memoir, Blindfold: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment, is particularly grueling because its author courted risk so nonchalantly. In two previous books—the one about Yemen, and a memoir about teaching in a Vermont jail—he wrote about his acquaintance with wayward violent youth. (In each case he gets close but not too close, like a kid at the zoo in front of the tiger cage.) His happy-go-lucky curiosity led him to Syria. Raw material for that most self-indulgent modern cultural product, a personal essay about the experience of misery in a foreign land, was “the butterfly I had chased over the precipice,” he writes.

His abuse over the following two years is also a process of disabuse—a conversion from a bumbling, sunny aesthete into a nearly destroyed man who peered into an existential abyss and was shoved in headfirst. Real understanding of Syria, he had imagined, would come from living among Syrians, partaking in their poverty and privations. He’d fantasized about meeting journalistic “phonies”—the kind who covered the country without ever really knowing it—perhaps “in a sandwich shop … or a collective taxi.” There he would deride them with his superior vernacular knowledge of the “chaotic but beautiful upending of the social order sweeping through the country.”

What ensues is gory and disturbing, conveyed in prose that is simple, thoughtful, and unpretentious. His captors beat him and listed the sins for which they were repaying him. One of them screamed at him about “Guantánamo,” “Iraq,” “drones in Yemen,” and, less predictably but no less rationally, the genocide of the “Plains Indians.” First Padnos felt pain, then dissociation, then, ironically, more of the same curiosity that led him to Syria in the first place. Why? And why me? (Primo Levi wrote something similar about his first experience of being beaten by Nazi soldiers, en route to Auschwitz: Instead of pain, he felt bafflement and “profound amazement” at the sadism.) “How quickly one’s fate presents itself,” Padnos thought to himself.

The group shifted him from prison to prison. His captors tortured him, took his bank-card PIN, and plotted ransom schemes. A typical torture session was a Syrian riff on an old technique called bastinado: Put the victim’s knees through the middle of an old tire. Lock them in place with a stick, then flip him prone, with the soles of the feet pointing up—then thwack at them with steel cables until he confesses. Padnos’s nominal crime was working for the CIA. Eventually he lied and confessed. The beating continued, and each confession proved only that another more damning confession was just a few lashes away. Padnos spent hours chasing and squashing the bloodsucking insects that infested his clothes. He fondled a blindfold, perhaps a woman’s veil, that his captors gave him. It was the only object he associated with tenderness or humanity. “It was long enough,” he writes, “when rolled into a rope, to work as a noose.”

What was the point? Torture is work, and hostages require care and feeding. He concluded that they wanted him to bear witness to this land haunted by terror, “to reckon with the spirit of the times.” Unlike most Western hostages, Padnos speaks Arabic and could understand the conversations of his captors. He learned that they loved both death and poverty, because both strip life to the raw. “The worse things are, the better. Hardship is meant to draw the nation closer to the Koran.” Al-Qaeda, he surmised, wanted a human archive, someone who could not deny or forget its handiwork if he tried. “Could I not see how powerful they had become?” he wondered. His captors’ thoughts were invading his own. “Why would they have gone to such trouble if they weren’t trying to make me see?”

I detect in his miserable confusion a version of theodicy—an attempt to justify the ways of these thugs who exerted quasi-divine authority over him. They tortured him as capriciously as God tortured Job. The indignities and cruelties were heaped upon him, and with them came even crueler ironies. Foreign correspondents are enjoined to speak the local languages and study the cultures they cover. Padnos’s languages made him look like a spy and doomed him. “He will lie to you in five different languages,” one captor said. Padnos believes that one of his interrogators, a spitting madman who dug the edge of a knife into his throat, was none other than Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesperson and chief terrorist of the Islamic State. He asked why Padnos knew so much about Islam. “I wanted my captors to see my respect for their religion,” Padnos writes. “I rambled about medieval philosophy, the origins of Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, my struggles with Arabic grammar, and my interest in learning to recite the Koran.” Sometimes knowledge can get you killed. “In the midst of my speech, it occurred to me that I was establishing myself as a CIA specialist in extremist thought.”

The indignities were not always intentional—just wicked tricks of chance. Three months in, his captors threw into his cell a Long Island miscreant named Matthew Schrier, who had done time in the United States and come to Syria as a photojournalist. (Al-Qaeda believed that he was a photojournalist, not a spy, because unlike Padnos, Schrier had a business card identifying himself as a member of the press. Note to self: Order more business cards.) Padnos, bloody and lice-ridden, must have longed for companionship. Readers of the memoirs written after captivity in Lebanon will understand why. The Northern Irishman Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling (probably the one most worth revisiting today) details movingly his situational friendship with fellow hostage John McCarthy, a British national.

Schrier and Padnos achieved no such rapport. Instead their relationship was existential torture. They rapidly found out just how different two men can be. Padnos, a cultured polyglot, had packed his middle-aged head with poetry. Schrier, by contrast, had memorized more than a dozen of his own violent, unproduced screenplays, and acted them out, one by one, for Padnos. “They were full of people being beaten and shot,” Padnos writes. “I couldn’t bear to listen. As he recited, I stuffed my fingers in my ears.” (Schrier has written a hostage memoir too—the only one I have read that is almost wholly lacking introspection. It is filled with hate for Padnos, and gleefully vulgar. He describes meeting Padnos: “Are you a fag?” Schrier asks, as an attempt to “break the ice.”)

No punishment delivered to Padnos matched those inflicted on the Syrian soldiers jailed communally with him. Periodically the al-Qaeda jailers escorted the soldiers out, probably to be murdered. During the period when he was kept in the basement of an eye hospital in Aleppo, Padnos heard “inhuman screaming, as if from beasts in a slaughterhouse … Could this be the sound a human makes when his insides were being ripped apart?” The Washington Post correspondent Liz Sly visited the hospital (she didn’t know Padnos was there) and wrote about al-Qaeda’s attempt to run the city. Padnos is incredulous. It was no makeshift city hall, he says. “In fact, the authorities here meant to put heretics to the rack.” Most journalists consider bombing hospitals a war crime. Last year Padnos tweeted, “During my six months as a prisoner in the Aleppo Eye Hospital, I came to feel that if I truly hoped for the best for the civilian population of this city, I could not also hope that the hospital in which I was living would not be bombed away.”

The sadness of this book is indescribable, even at the end, when his conditions improved and al-Qaeda groomed him for release. Qatar, an alleged sponsor of jihadist groups, mediated his release, and some speculate that Qatar paid millions in ransom, which Qatar denies. (After nine months, Schrier escaped through a window in their shared cell and made it to Turkey. He says he couldn’t have pulled Padnos up after him. Padnos says Schrier left him behind to be tortured and possibly killed when the jailers discovered the escape. In any case, Padnos experienced his departure as a relief.) It has taken six years to produce this memoir—longer than the gestation of any of the other hostage memoirs—and the care shows. It is the best of the genre, profound, poetic, and sorrowful.

Nearly all hostage memoirs lack a convincing finale. Coming home is a process that never ends. If you have a partner or children, you cannot just hop back into your marital bed or kiss those little strangers and expect them to kiss you back. Lessons are learned—chiefly the lesson that life before the hostage experience was a farce. But what does one replace that life with? Padnos answers enigmatically: “In a prison cell, at the very end of your allotment of days, you are in a little eagles’ nest, a thousand feet above the surface of the earth.” The view is a panorama of folly and regret. All the things worth doing went neglected; all that is pointless was lavished with care. “You can see everything. Why do the living struggle and sweat, you wonder, when all they really need to do is to live?” One gets the sense that he has traveled to a faraway planet, acquired at great personal cost the extraterrestrial knowledge found there, and then returned transfigured or transmogrified, in ways the rest of us are lucky we will never fully understand.

His memoir reminds me less of the other hostage memoirs than of the most sublime of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, a parable titled “The Bet” (1889). In it a foolish young man bets a rich banker that he can endure 15 years’ solitary confinement in the banker’s garden lodge. The young man can request books and food in “any quantity,” and if he stays the full 15 years, he will win a fortune from the banker. Chekhov narrates the story from the perspective of the banker, who for 15 years knows nothing of his prisoner except what he can deduce from the man’s reading requests and the sound of occasional weeping. After 15 years, the no-longer-young man emerges in the middle of the night and runs off, forsaking his fortune. He declares in a letter:

I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.

One is not entirely sure one wants to possess mad wisdom like this. Padnos was force-fed it, and we should be grateful to taste a bitter morsel—and no more.

This article appears in the May 2021 print edition with the headline “The Awful Wisdom of the Hostage.”