A House In The Sky

I can’t imagine how author Amanda Lindhout survived her ordeal in Somalia. Her memoir, “A House in the Sky,” co-written by Sara Corbett, tells how she and a friend Nigel were taken hostage and held for over a year while their captors waited for a big pay-off. The other thing I can’t imagine is how she comes home and creates an educational foundation.

Amanda seems so rootless and restless when we first meet her; she’s hanging out with a boyfriend, but knows she wants to travel because that’s been her dream since buying National Geographic magazines. She’s driven by her wanderlust, and works at all kinds of jobs to save money to travel. You have to give her a lot of credit for having that kind of ambition.

Finally she decides to get some job training as a photographer and journalist. She hopes this new talent can fund her journeys. She takes a few different jobs as a free-lancer, and gets a gig with a news station with an agenda. She doesn’t realize it at first, but then a more experienced journalist gives her the bad news.

Amanda remains optimistic throughout it all. She’s naive and knows it. Her travels take her all over the globe. She has a good reason to be so upbeat; nothing bad has happened except for being mugged one day. The robber takes all her money and rocks her confidence in the world. Still, Amanda wants to travel. She decides on Somalia, because that’s where all the action and danger is. The media will likely buy anything she can bring back.

Nigel and Amanda were once lovers, but they broke up when their jobs took them to opposite ends of the world. They remain friendly, and before Amanda goes to Somalia, she invites Nigel to join her. He was the one who started her interest in photography. Although Nigel has a new girlfriend, he decides to join Amanda on her latest trek.

All is going well. They have bodyguards, they have a “fixer” — someone who arranges their news-gathering trips — and they have a driver. When they arrive, their fixer is actually working for another journalist, while the second string is assigned to Amanda and Nigel. Somewhere along the way, someone sold them out. Someone took a bribe, and Amanda and Nigel are grabbed by armed terrorists.

They’re moved around the country of Somalia, usually staying around Mogadishu. Constantly under guard, their captors keep them just barely alive, feeding them a couple of times a day, and holding out for a $3 million ransom. Amanda’s family certainly doesn’t have that, but Nigel’s family could probably come up with $1 million.

Amanda and Nigel’s story is told from her point of view. She learns what’s going on at home after the fact. Her picture is on the book, so we know she survives, but what does she go through? Yes, she goes through it all — rape, torture, sensory deprivation — but not at first.

At first, the Muslim captors treat her with a certain amount of disdain — she is just a woman, and they were expecting two men journalists. They think that two men would bring a better ransom, either from the governments or the men’s families.

Amanda knows something about being a hostage, and she uses it to her advantage. She makes sure she calls the men by their names, and talks about her family and hopes and dreams. She wants to become more human to the men, rather than a product to be sold to the highest bidder. Her strategy works to some degree.

She expresses interest in their religion and actually converts to Islam. The only book she’s given to read is the Koran. She’s taught by her captors, who turn out to be mostly teenage boys. They call her Sister and give her a new name. Amanda and Nigel are constantly warned that if their ransom isn’t paid, they will be sold to another terrorist group.

In the beginning, Nigel and Amanda are held together. They’re no longer intimate, and their friendship is tested by adversity. Then they’re split up and held in different rooms. Somewhere during their captivity, the rules of the game are changed. One of the leaders rapes Amanda, and keeps raping her until he’s replaced by another captor.

Then Nigel and Amanda try to escape. Amanda makes it into a mosque where she screams and cries and implores the men there to help her. They remain impassive, and then a woman comes to Amanda’s side, and tries to keep her captors from taking her back. She is unsuccessful, and Amanda later wonders what became of that woman. She never finds out.

After that, the captors turn a corner and pull out the heavy stuff. All the boys rape Amanda on a regular basis and she is kept in a dark room where she is not allowed to stand. They don’t want her walking laps to regain any strength. She nearly escaped because of her ability to run.

Here is where the book title comes in. While Amanda is being tortured, she travels in her mind to a house in the sky. She builds rooms where she retreats from the world. She retains her sanity by detaching from her surrroundings. Smart woman.

A person never really knows how they would cope under such circumstances. Amanda and Nigel are ultimately released; their families paid a go-between to negotiate the deal. Amanda undergoes both mental and physical therapies. Her foundation’s goal is to help educate women, and in turn, prevent poverty. Good goals.

I don’t know that I could be so high-minded. This memoir will stick with me; I highly recommend it.