In 2008, while reporting in Somalia, Amanda Lindhout was kidnapped for ransom by a group of insurgents and held prisoner for 460 days. A House in the Sky (Scribner, Sept.), written with Sara Corbett, is Lindhout’s story of her life leading up to those terrifying days and her captivity; it’s also a testament to resilience and character in the face of unimaginable trauma.
Young and strikingly beautiful, Lindhout is also ambitious and hopeful, with infectious enthusiasm. When she recounts the cruelty she suffered at the hands of her captors, it’s difficult to understand not only how she has survived but how she’s flourished. At 18, Lindhout moved from central Alberta, Canada, to Calgary, escaping a troubled childhood. She was raised primarily by her mother, who was on social assistance. As a child growing up in an often violent household, she would page through National Geographic magazines and fantasize about traveling to faraway places. She worked as a cocktail waitress, saved her money, and made her dream a reality.
“Definitely, my early years set me up for the many adventures I experienced around the world—I needed to get away from the chaotic world I grew up in,” she says. “My confidence came from the way I grew up, and I’m grateful for it.” She backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India, then to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. After each trip, feeling recharged and capable, she continued to push the envelope, moving more and more off the beaten path, off the grid. She writes: “For a while, the world for me was like a set of monkey bars. I swung from one place to the next, sometimes backward, sometimes forward, capitalizing on my own momentum, knowing that at some point my arms... would give out, and I’d fall to the ground.”
Although she had no formal schooling in journalism, Lindhout began writing columns for her hometown paper, and did freelance work in Afghanistan and Iraq. After almost seven months in Baghdad working as a television journalist for Press TV, a station funded by Iran, Lindhout became increasingly uncomfortable, realizing that she was “part of the propaganda machine,” with her footage edited to show the Americans in the “worst possible light.” She also felt “awkward and out of place” among the sophisticated American journalists she refers to as “the Fancy-pants.” Lindhout thought about Somalia as a place to make her bones, wanting to “report from the edges of disaster” and establish herself as a serious journalist. In August 2008, Lindhout traveled to Mogadishu, planning to spend four weeks in Africa (“In and out,” she says), but on her fourth day she and her traveling companion, Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan, were kidnapped by a group of masked men, who turned out to be teenage insurgents. Lindhout and her translator and guards were on their way to visit a refugee camp when they were abducted. The ransom demanded was $1.5 million for Lindhout and Brennan, an impossibility for their families. After 15 months, a ransom of $600,000 was paid through a security firm, and Lindhout and Brennan were released. In the interim, she was subjected to unimaginable abuse—chained, starved, isolated, beaten.
Writing her memoir, Lindhout says, was therapeutic, but extremely difficult. Her collaboration with writer Sara Corbett worked well: “We wrote together as partners. We worked, line by line, together, and had a lot of face to face time. Every word on the page was thoughtfully put there.” The two women met in beautiful, sunny places like the Bahamas and Mexico. “The content in the latter part of the book is quite dark, and we thought we could counter that by sitting on the beach working,” Lindhout says. The approach worked; A House in the Sky (the title comes from Lindhout’s imagining she was in a “house in the sky” to separate herself from what was happening to her) is beautifully written, haunting, brave, inspiring, and empowering.
Lindhout’s motivation for writing the book was multilayered, she says. She’s always been a reader, and not surprisingly, many publishing houses approached her after her experience in Somalia, but the angle they were interested in, the details of her ordeal, didn’t interest her. “I wanted the book to be a journey and transformation, encompassing more than just my time in captivity, also the adventures of my life before that. It’s the story of a woman in search of a meaningful life. It’s really the trajectory of my whole life leading to the personal transformation that happens during the captivity.”
Lindhout says people were constantly telling her that what she was doing, traveling alone to dangerous parts of the world, wasn’t safe. However, “the truth,” she says, is that “you believe about the world what the world shows you, and what the world had shown me was that it was wide open—not confusing being open with safe.” Lindhout speaks frankly about her imprisonment, calmly and slowly, despite it being hard for her to talk about, and she still suffers the effects, both mentally and physically. Her clarity is impressive. She admits that there was a period in Somalia when she fell into anger and despair for many, many months. “I was there for so long, and it was so desperate and dark and violent, I had to find a way to rise above it all. It was self-preservation; it was letting go of the anger that twists your insides. I had to find a way to let that go, and for me, that way was forgiveness.”
She says she gained an understanding of the universal truth that whenever people cause suffering, it’s because they themselves suffer. Her time in captivity led her to the conclusion that a happy, healthy person does not have the desire or even the capacity to hurt another person. Her kidnappers were 14, 15, 16 years old, products of a generation shaped by chaos. There was no confusion in her mind about that, and it allowed her to feel sorry for her kidnappers—for the atrocity of an environment that could create such youth. They were, in Lindhout’s mind, products of their surroundings, of their experience of the world. She does not believe that the teenagers were innocent, but “by understanding that they weren’t monsters, that they were young boys shaped by the war around them, it wasn’t difficult to allow moments of understanding which felt to me like peace, forgiveness.”
Asked about Nigel Brennan, with whom Lindhout had had a romantic relationship before their kidnapping, and who behaved in a way that made things harder for her after they were kidnapped, she says, “Everybody has their own toolbox that they can pull things from to cope with extreme situations in life, and Nigel and I had very different toolboxes.” Lindhout talks about how difficult it is to judge someone who is fearing for his or her life. She hasn’t spoken to Nigel in a very long time. “Nigel and I emerged from that experience very different people, and I think our view of the world was so profoundly different that there wasn’t really ground for a conversation of our experience, but I sincerely wish him well, and am very grateful to his family.”
What she missed the most while being held in Somalia, Lindhout says, was simply the ability to move her body. “Just the freedom to stand up when I wanted to,” she says, “was joyous.” And the sky: “I didn’t see the sky for almost 10 months, and when I first came home it was the middle of winter in Canada, and I remember sitting at any window I could be near and spending hours in meditation, and I felt this profound appreciation for life.”
The most amazing thing about Lindhout is what she chose to do after her ordeal was over. While still a prisoner, she began thinking about what she could do to promote change in Somalia. “Suddenly I felt I had all this awareness of the country of Somalia, the way it was shaping the youth, the terrible oppression that women face there, and with this new awareness I felt a responsibility that felt good to me.” She would think about a project when she was in the dark house, which was a way for her to endure her situation. After she was released, she established the Global Enrichment Foundation, which has reached over 200,000 Somalians. The foundation offers scholarships to women, funds schools, builds wells. “I feel education will be the catalyst for change in the country,” Lindhout notes. She continues to work with the foundation, and says that now she wants to “enjoy the day, and the moment. I have a general sense of excitement about the future, and I don’t know what that looks like yet. But it will be whatever I make it.”