Hostage US Article, July 2021
By Winnie Lee
Shame is one of the most painful, toxic, and self-destructive emotions a person can have. It involves feelings of guilt, regret, embarrassment, or sadness surrounding the belief that you have done something wrong. Jessica Buchanan, who was held in Somalia for 93 days, says that “shame is probably the number one emotion that hostages will be feeling about themselves, so it doesn’t help to have their faces rubbed in it.” Nonetheless, “hostage shaming” is a common experience for captives returning home. To gain a better understanding of the issue, we spoke with two former hostages and a clinical psychologist because, as Jessica puts it, “Surviving is so worth it. You will get to a space of thriving. There is another side.”
David Rohde, taken in Afghanistan and then held in Pakistan for seven months, says that “captivity will always be a part of me, but it’s a chapter in my life. I don’t let it define me. I don’t forever want to be a crime victim.” David says it’s critical to forgive yourself, even if you feel that you’ve made mistakes. Because that is precisely where the shame resides—around this belief that you could have prevented your capture.
Many former captives remark that, upon returning home, people will ask them, “what were you doing there in the first place?” Dr. Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist who works with former prisoners and survivors of severe trauma, likens this questioning to the type of shaming experienced by sexual assault survivors. The message is simple: it must have been your fault. And why would we send that message to a person who has been the victim of a crime? Dr. Porterfield notes that people are so uncomfortable with the idea of chaos, that we use frameworks, often referred to as “ordering principles,” to help us understand why something so horrific could have happened. “Hostage shaming is the result of an ordering principle where we say, ‘there must be a reason that this happened. If they hadn’t been there or taken that job, bad things wouldn’t have happened.’ And then we feel control again.” The truth, however, is that hostage-taking is an unjust and cruel thing that happened to this person.
“Shame cannot exist in a space of truth,” says Jessica. “Shame needs darkness and shadows. When there is light and truth, there is nowhere for shame to hide.” She says that any former captive knows what they have put their friends and family through—emotionally and financially. Rebuilding one’s life takes time, hard work, and a commitment to recovering. David says that it’s crucial to have open and honest conversations with the people you love. “My method was writing,” he says. David adds, “It was incredibly useful to talk with former captives. There is an instant understanding of all these issues.” Dr. Porterfield agrees that community is essential to healing, and that working with a skilled therapist can help uncover where the pain is located, learn how to identify it, and develop tools for recovery.
Former captives often feel that they have so much to prove—that they were worth saving, that there was meaning and purpose for their survival. Frequently, when they come home, everyone, including themselves, is ready to get on with it. The story is over. Here is your life back—the one you have been dreaming about while in captivity. But regardless of how long one is held, the experience of disempowerment and trauma is profound, and the process of recovery can’t be rushed. Jessica says, “It takes the time that it needs to take. You can’t rush your healing and recovery. The sooner you reconcile that and relax into it, the more complete your recovery can be. We want to get on with it, to push these things down, after we’ve spent so much time wanting to get back to normal life. But that life you had before is gone now. There is a grieving process to let go of that. You are no longer that person. And it’s not your fault. It’s your responsibility now to discover how you want to use—or not use—your new life.”
Indeed, this trauma changes the trajectory of one’s life, and there is no going back—only going forward. When the public recognizes the weight that former captives carry as they walk the path of “surviving survival,” we can offer a space for listening and sharing of experiences. We can facilitate connection and community. It is incredibly unfortunate and irresponsible for the public to place blame and shame on a former captive. And still, it happens.
David describes an encounter with a stranger in a local store who, upon recognizing him from the news, berated him with statements such as, “You’re an idiot. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should pay Americans back every penny that went into saving you.” He laughs it off now, but it is a disturbing memory. David did not ask to be taken, and he wasn’t breaking any laws. Similarly, Jessica remembers being questioned at an event by an astronaut—a person whose career involves extreme danger—wondering why she would have ever put herself in such a risky position. While in captivity, these people experienced complete powerlessness, with no agency over their own bodies or their own lives. Whether subtle or overt, these destructive comments create shame by promoting a false idea that they had any choice or any control when they were taken.
Dr. Porterfield describes shame as feeling yourself being seen, as being under the scrutiny of the public gaze. That gaze can be paralyzing, and the resulting shame prevents self-compassion and healing. Hostage shaming can be so damaging because survivors of man-made trauma—that is, trauma resulting from someone choosing to hurt you or take away your freedom—tend to believe that they deserve what happened to them.
When a personal experience has become a public one, the feelings of shame can be overwhelming, but former captives can develop a toolkit to manage social interactions. The toolkit arms them with answers to various questions that start with, “What will I do when…?” For example, when someone asks an intrusive or inappropriate question, the answer could be “For my own healing, I am not going to talk about that publicly,” or “That question is problematic because it makes people in my situation feel shame.” Dr. Porterfield also suggests having a pacing tool to recognize when you get tired so you can say, “I need a 10-minute break,” or “I can’t do any more interviews until I get some rest.” Symptom-recognizing tools will also help you bring yourself back to center. Ultimately, the toolkit can also help the former captive reclaim their power.
The healing process after captivity requires a feeling of safety, a claiming of one’s own story, and a sense of community. Each of us can help to rebuild connection and trust for survivors of this type of trauma. When you encounter a person who was held captive, acknowledge the experience by saying, “I’m sorry you were hurt.” Refrain from analysis and feedback because searching for answers is more about your needs than theirs. Offer to listen, to lighten their load, and recognize that they are on a journey of healing.
Zachary Baytosh, Hostage US Intern
Jessica Buchanan is a kidnapping survivor, NYT bestselling author, and personal development coach.
David Rohde is the Executive Editor for news at The New Yorker website and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Dr. Katherine Porterfield is a consulting psychologist at the Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture in New York, NY.