In 2008, a 27-year-old Canadian freelancer named Amanda Lindhout and her Aussie photog ex-boyfriend, Nigel Brennan, crossed into Somalia seeking stories from the frontlines of the world's most war-torn and desolate failed state. En route to visit a camp for displaced people, the two were kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists—a case, it turned out, of mistaken identity, and one that led to a nightmarish 460 days in captivity for the pair as their captors sought to ransom them for millions. The two endured unspeakable atrocities, yet managed to transcend the horrors through immense resilience and compassion. Now, Lindhout and co-author Sara Corbett have brought the story of the abduction to life in an elegant and wrenching memoir, A House in the Sky. Lindhout spoke to The Daily Beast about survival, Somalia, and starting a foundation to give the country’s next generation a better chance.
The Daily Beast: Why did you decide to tell your story now and what compelled you to partner with Sara Corbett to write the book?
Amanda Lindhout: Sara and I actually started working on the book in the spring of 2010, about five months after I’d been released from captivity. We agreed early on that we wanted to take our time with the narrative, to tell the story with as much dignity and emotional truth as possible and also to look more broadly at my life’s story—including my childhood and the years I spent as a backpacker, traveling to 50 different countries around the world. Sara and I worked together on the book very carefully and very closely, and all the while I was still processing the enormity of what had happened to me. She listened, thought aloud with me, shed tears with me, and helped me identify the themes of the book—and also my life. I think it took two of us to process and put words to the story. We’ve become very close friends along the way.
In the chapters on your childhood and early adulthood, was it difficult to go back and write about the person you were, and to tap into her mindset, before the experience in Somalia happened?
After spending 460 days as a hostage, I did emerge a fundamentally changed person. But I think like everyone does as they grow older and probably wiser, I can look back at my earlier life—my history, my mistakes, the joy I felt as a young woman traveling the world—with some objectivity and even some humor.
One of the most powerful parts of the book was the insight you gave us into the inner strength you drew on to get through your experience in Somalia. Could you talk about what sort of memories, thoughts, or motivations you relied upon to mentally, emotionally, and/or spiritually make it through the abduction?
The title of the book is A House in the Sky. During the darkest hours of my captivity, I would build rooms in my mind, with my imagination. This was my escape—a place I could go to where it was safe and warm and where the people I loved took up residence. Once there, I could recall what it felt like to be fed, to laugh, to be loved. Lying on a mat with ankles in shackles with no freedom of movement, when despair was starting to overtake me, I built stairways to those rooms. I built houses from those rooms. I had meals with my family. I felt protected. In my mind, I was always free.
Nigel, your ex-boyfriend who was abducted along with you, had a very different experience during that year because he was a man. Why were you treated so differently by your captors?
Our captors, our immediate guards, were mostly teenage boys who’d grown up in a country that hadn’t known peace for two decades. They’d been raised inside a violent, chaotic, ongoing war. Extremists were running many parts of the country, preaching a form of fundamentalist Islam that was not friendly to women, passing laws that prevent a woman from walking alone on the street or showing her face in public. As an unmarried woman traveling far from home, as a woman pursuing a career, as a woman who spoke up for herself, I was utterly foreign. Sometimes our captors treated me with curiosity and other times with disdain. Nigel was more familiar. He was an older male and therefore seemed to automatically garner more respect. Neither of us was treated well. But with me, they saw no need for respect.
What inspired the book’s cover image? Did you know you wanted this image before you started writing, or was it something that came up during the process of telling your story?
Late in the book, there’s a bird that figures prominently in the story. I always knew that I wanted some representation of birds on the cover, but it was a really talented designer at Scribner named Tal Goretsky who came up with the concept.
A very shocking part of the book is the banality of evil that your kidnappers displayed, and the ways in which they would alternate between cruelty and almost solicitous behavior. Do you think any of them felt guilty or bad about the abduction, either while it was happening or afterward?
My captors were definitely aware that what they were doing was wrong. It came out in small ways—occasionally through a show of guilt or compassion. One of the boys bought me a gift. Another used to sneak me acetaminophen tablets. I think they were all struggling with the effects of the ravaging war in Somalia. War dehumanizes everyone. I was always grateful when I caught those glimpses of their humanity, even as they’d done so much to deprive me of mine.
One of the bravest characters is the woman who intervenes as you and Nigel are trying to escape and throws herself on you in the mosque. What kind of risk was that woman putting herself in to try and help you? Do you have any idea where she is now?
The woman in the mosque risked everything. She was risking her life to try and help me. My last vision of her that day was seeing her surrounded by men with guns, and even then she still had a hand extended in my direction. I don’t know what happened to her. I think about her every single day, though, and hope that she is safe.
Can you tell us anything about whether the Canadian government has made inroads into tracking down the abductors, and if they did find them, would there be any way to bring them to justice under international law?
As far as I know, my case—like many unresolved criminal cases, whether international or domestic—has been kept open. I’m afraid I don’t know much more than that.
You now run a foundation that helps men and women in Somalia and Somali refugees in Kenya. Could you tell us about what inspired you to start the foundation and your hopes for it?
I made a vow to myself while I was a hostage that if I were lucky enough to live and to get out of Somalia, I would do something meaningful with my life—and specifically something that would be meaningful in the country where I’d lost my freedom. After all those months, I had an understanding of how my teenage captors had been shaped by the war and the violence around them and I often wondered how they’d be different if they’d had access to education, and if they’d been raised in households where women were given access to education, too. About six months after returning home to Canada, I started the Global Enrichment Foundation to support positive change in Somalia. Four years later, we work inside of Somalia and also in Kenya, where many Somalis have sought refuge from the war. We support all sort of educational initiatives, particularly for women. More info can be found here.
And finally, how does a person start to move past an incredibly difficult experience like this (if that’s possible) and where do you envision yourself in 10 years?
I don’t think I’ll ever truly move past what happened to me in captivity. I will live with the experience—the trauma of it—forever. But almost four years after my release, I’m feeling healthy. I work closely with a psychologist. I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it. I’m very much focused on my recovery and enjoying each day of freedom I have. I’m excited about my future. I intend to go to school and continue to volunteer my time for the causes I care about.