The Awful Wisdom of the Hostage
The Atlantic|May 2021
What a new memoir reveals about endurance—and extreme remorse
Graeme Wood

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.”

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