Stories, of course, are what we’re all about, and in while we were writing American Lockdown we spent a lot of time thinking about, discussing and trying to imagine just what it would be like to be abducted, banged-up in a hellhole, have to fight for your survival and yearn for your freedom. These matters took us back to some well-known true stories from the annals of imprisonment, abduction, torture, despair, fortitude and escape. As we reviewed them and went further into Harry Hawkins’ awful situation in the book, e became preoccupied with a basic question: could we survive the pressures, torments and bizarre situations Winston Churchill, Patty Hearst and Brian Keenan had, in their different ways, to face? Could you?
CHURCHILL’S PRISON BREAK
When Britain went to war with the Boers in southern Africa in 1899 - an eventuality which, like so many things in his long career, he had anticipated - Churchill secured a contract against stiff competition with the London Morning Post to cover the conflict its correspondent. He was 25 years old and still unknown, but hungry for action – as he said two years earlier to his younger brother Jack, “There is no ambition I cherish so keenly as to gain a reputation for personal courage.” His transition from war correspondent to action hero was swift, and laid the groundwork for his ‘arrival’ in British public life as a fearless, exuberant, larger-than-life man to be watched.
His adventure began while the train on which he was travelling into the theatre of war in was derailed by Boer artillery shelling. As the shells and bullets roared and whizzed around him, exploding into and ricocheting off the train, Churchill’s warrior instincts took over, and for over an hour he braved the line of fire and directed the soldiers’ exit from the train. Some got away, some did not. Churchill himself was captured and interned in a POW camp in Pretoria.
Churchill despised his imprisonment. The conditions could have been worse - the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer - but the curtailment of his freedom was unbearable. As he later lamented, “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement.”
After four weeks in lockdown he went over the latrine wall, alongside two other prisoners, and stowed himself away on a freight train. Hiding by day and traveling at night, he stole food and drank from streams while the Boers launched a massive manhunt, complete with posters offering a reward for his capture “dead or alive”- a recognition of his significance as a symbol of courage and resilience for a reading public back home in need of hope and inspiration in a war they were in danger of losing.
Churchill eventually found his way to a coal mine owned by an Englishman, John Howard, and for days hid deep inside it, in pitch darkness and accompanied by unseen, scurrying rats, until Howard was able to smuggle him onto a freight train that carried him to freedom in Portuguese East Africa.
Thereafter he sailed to Durban, where he found that his escape had indeed attracted much publicity in Britain. He did not return home though, and in January 1900 he was appointed a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse regiment, and was involved in relieving the Siege of Ladysmith and the capture of Pretoria. Churchill’s journey towards national-hero was underway.
The great man’s refusal to be dominated, sheer willpower and burning hunger to be back at large, contributing to the bigger effort, saw him through. We think it’s important to try, in our modest way, to present and celebrate these archetypal action-hero qualities in our books, because they never get old. The world will always need people who refuse to lie down and take it when the going gets rough, and get themselves back into a position in which the can serve the needs of something bigger than themselves.
So we hope you’ll continue to be thrilled and moved by this kind of thing in fictional form - in our work and that of others - because…it’s important.
PATTY HEARST – VICTIM, TERRORIST…OR WHAT?
Readers of a certain vintage (i.e. people like us) will need little reminding of the case of Patty Hearst, almost certainly the most famous case of an individual being taken of the 1970s. But whether or not you’re familiar with the case, please bear with us while we lay it out and make a few observations.
First, the facts. Granddaughter of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Patty Hearst hit the headlines in 1974, at the age of 19, when she was abducted by representatives of the Symbionese Liberation Army (a terrorist ‘black liberation’ group with very few - and at times no - black members, but perhaps that’s by the by). She spent a total of nineteen months in their hands, though her apparent willingness so stay with them and participate in their activities – most famously in the armed bank raid at a San Francisco branch of the Hibernia Bank in 1974 – muddies the waters somewhat.
Though she never contested the fact that she was unwillingly taken, her claims that she was raped and terrorized during her captivity complicated the case considerably – though not everybody involved at the time bought them. In any case, we’ll never know now; but her predicament gives rise to some fascinating questions. Did the SLA break her down and make her dependent on them classic Stockholm Syndrome style, by forging an intense emotional connection with her through rape, physical abuse, harassment, intimidation and terror? Or was she just a little rich girl with some bad in her, waiting to be turned by some sexy, ‘radical’ bad guys? Again, we’ll never know now, and it’s bearing in mind the fact that many of the cops involved never accepted - as some still do not - the whole Stockholm-Syndrome deal, regarding it, basically, as a fake ‘disease’, an ideal excuse for getting away with murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Anyway, it seems possible that Hearst family may have exerted some of its considerable influence when it came to her treatment; in 1979 her sentence for bank robbery was commuted in by President Carter, who accepted the highly controversial argument presented in court that she had effectively been brainwashed, to the 22 months that she had served at the time (the sentence handed down to her for the bank job was 35 years). And then there was the matter of timing: it seems likely that Carter, and perhaps the public at large, was influenced by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre/Mass Suicide of over 900 people in Guyana, overseen by Jim Jones, which shocked the world with revelations of mind control, brainwashing and other murderously criminal manipulations. Hearst received official pardon from President Clinton in 2001, on his last day in office…
Whatever the ins-and-outs of the case, whatever her strengths and weaknesses, her willingness or unwillingness may have been, the Patty Hearst saga clearly played an important role in pushing issues like criminal brainwashing, mind control, Sockholm Syndrome and the rest to the centre of the public awareness. And where would thriller writers and readers be without those?
BRIAN KEENAN – AN EVIL CRADLING
Brian Keenan, a Belfast man teaching at the American University in Beirut, hit the headlines in 1986 when he was abducted by gunmen representing Islamic Jihad, an element of the Hezbollah organisation. Over the course of the Lebanon hostage crisis, which lasted a full ten years from 1982 to 1992, over 100 foreigners were taken into captivity to be used as leverage against the USA and its allies. In the UK and Ireland, three of the hostages received most attention: Keenan, who spent four and a half years in lockdown, kept blindfolded for most of that time; John McCarthy, the journalist who after a time was imprisoned alongside Keenan, breaking his period of solitary confinement; and Terry Waite, Special Envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was sent in to negotiate the release of Islamic Jihad hostages but was captured himself, and had to endure his own five years in hell.
All three men later wrote about their experiences in the Lebanon, but it is Brian Keenan’s book which most powerfully evokes the horrors of captivity, torture, and solitary confinement, most of the while being blindfolded and fed on the merest scraps of food. Few books take the reader inside the mind of a person so completely trapped and humiliated, yet able to survive the ordeal through the most extraordinary mental resilience. The story, with all its horrors, is told in the most matter-of-fact way, with Keenan watching his captors - blindfold or not - even more closely than they watch him, analysing them as humans, trying to figure out what makes them tick.
In time a new element comes into the story, when John McCarthy becomes Keenan’s co-prisoner, giving him company and complementing his resilience and fortitude with friendship and solidarity. This is really the turning point. The tough Irishman and the English public schoolboy make fun each other, bonding largely through the use of filthy toilet humour. Keenan is surprised that an upper-class Englishman can be so resourceful and, in the circumstances, gentle; McCarthy appreciates and admires Keenan's great inner strength and no-nonsense certainty. They come to rely on one another, and endure their ordeals together. Perhaps the most horrifying of these - among plenty of competition - is when both are wrapped in brown parcel tape and inserted into a coffin-shaped space beneath a lorry. They are moved to different location no less than 17 times. In the end, both survive and live to tell the tale. Keenan was released first, and wrote An Evil Cradling in not much more than 18 months.
How did he manage to survive get through those four-and-a-half years without being broken -physically, psychologically, emotionally? One answer might be that he is an utterly exceptional man, with resources of character and a will to survive that few of us share. That seems likely, on the basis of a close reading of the book. But then… people survived the concentration camps and other unimaginable horrors, in large numbers. Is the animal, unbudgeable will-to-survive enough? Is the refusal to abandon hope, any hope, the key? Let’s hope none of us never have to find out the hard way…
But two things - perhaps the two main ingredients in Keenan’s survival - are clear: the first is his fierce, unyielding determination to live a dignified human life, no matter how bad things got; the second concerns friendship, loyalty and togetherness. Solitary confinement, after all, is such a feared form of punishment because people need people. And one more thing: Keenan never allowed hate to dominate his response to what was happening to him. Years later, long after they were all released, Terry Waite told the BBC "If you are bitter, it will eat you up and do more damage to you than to the people who have hurt you." This, in the end, is perhaps the main message of Keenan’s book, and his approach to writing it.
Harry Hawkins, as followers of the big man will know, has not always been able to reach this level of philosophical acceptance of evil. He’s always been one for meeting fire with fire, hate with…what he considers to be justice. With this in mind, H fans might like to reflect on the big man’s emotional responses and decision-making at crucial points in American Lockdown - is he, perhaps, becoming a little more Keenan-like in his old age? If he is, what does that bode for the future? For those who haven’t read the book, or those from the Blood and Justice trilogy that preceded it, here are some links.