Amanda Lindhout seems to always find a way to do what she wants or needs to do, even a way to survive 15 months of brutal captivity in Somalia.
She’s cowritten a memoir with journalist Sara Corbett, and was in Seattle this week to talk about the book, “A House in the Sky.” In an interview, she said that she and Corbett wanted the book they worked on together for 3½ years, “to be a bigger story, not just about captivity.”
And Lindhout said, the heroine is not her, but the human spirit. Well, not everyone has the same wealth of that spirit. Her story matters because she has been an extraordinary survivor from a young age, and not just a survivor, but one whose humanity has been deepened while facing down the worst human behavior.
The book starts early in Lindhout’s life to give a sense of how she built up the resolve that would see her through the ordeal that redefined her life.
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“I had to learn to be a survivor from a really young age,” she said, “and that was something that served me well in life, including when I was in captivity.”
Lindhout grew up in small town in Alberta, one of three children in a family of limited means. Her parents divorced early and her mother, a grocery-store cashier, had a series of abusive boyfriends. Lindhout spent part of her time in the more stable home of her father and his partner, Perry.
She got hooked on the idea of travel by retreating into a stack of used National Geographic magazines, when her mother’s apartment got too noisy.
Lindhout moved to Calgary when she was 19, got a job as a cocktail waitress and learned how to get big tips by wearing short skirts, high heels and a pushup bra, and also how to fend off lecherous customers. That and other waitressing jobs made it possible for her to go to the places she’d read about in National Geographic.
She’d work and save until she had enough money for a trip, then head out for months of travel on the cheap until, pockets empty, she had to come back and work some more.
Lindhout came up with a way to see some of the edgier parts of the world. She met a freelance journalist in Addis Ababa in 2006 and decided she would transition from backpacker to journalist, despite having no experience and no training.
She made it happen, at least she was on the fringes, getting herself to hot spots and arranging to sell stories to a few organizations before landing a job with an Iranian company, then a French one.
She visited more than 50 countries as a backpacker and later a freelancer. Lindhout was on her way to a refugee camp in Somalia in August 2008 when she, Australian freelancer Nigel Brennan, their two Somali drivers and an interpreter were kidnapped by an Islamic group intent on getting money from wealthy Westerners.
The demands started at $3 million and there was no way the families could pay that, which meant months of fruitless negotiations. The longer they were held, the harder it was to maintain hope.
The captives were held by a group whose foot soldiers were teenagers who Lindhout and Brennan came to call the boys. The boys and their leaders treated Lindhout worse because she is a woman. After a failed escape attempt the two were separated and beaten more often than before. Lindhout was tortured, deprived of food and raped by more of her captors.
While her body suffered, she tried to take her mind to a different place, imagining she was building a house above the various rooms she was held in, and in that house her life was normal, even pleasant. That was her house in the sky and it was a key to retaining her sanity, and her hope of eventual freedom.
After 15 months, on Nov. 25, 2009, they were freed after their families engaged a private security company that arranged a payment of $600,000 (each family is responsible for half). Lindhout was 28, and a different person.
Lindhout said that like a lot of people in their 20s she was looking for meaning, “but my definition of finding meaning in life is different now than it was in my 20s.” She’s still an adventurer who loves experiencing other cultures, but she also appreciates home.
Because of her ordeal, “I don’t take life for granted in the ways I did before and therefore life itself is more meaningful to me, every aspect of it.” She said that her life now is not so much about “me,” that it is more about being of service to others.
She’s interested in going back to school to study international relations and women’s studies.
She’s spent her four years of freedom on two projects, writing the book and starting the Global Enrichment Foundation, which partners with other organizations to improve conditions in Somalia, particularly for women. “Women everywhere continue to suffer in horrible ways,” she said.
She still travels, but is more cautious. And she said she doesn’t blame all Somalis for the actions of a few individuals. During captivity, she even came to have compassion for her captors when she learned about the horrors some of them had lived through, but it is hard to maintain that. These days she’s also careful about her exposure to bad-news stories.
“It’s work for me to see the good in the world after all I’ve gone through,” she said, “but I want to see the good in the world. In the deepest part of my being I believe in the good, which is how I continue to still be out there.”
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org