Published April 2011
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Peace of mind
Hostage survivor James Loney seeks closure with Captivity, a personal account of his kidnapping in Iraq
Blocked writers will talk of feeling “chained to their desks” or “held hostage” by manuscripts, but in the case of James Loney, the analogy contains a grain of truth. The Toronto peace activist made international headlines five years ago when he was kidnapped in Iraq with three other men and held hostage for nearly four months. Loney, 46, recently wrote a full-length account of his ordeal – Captivity, published in April by Knopf Canada – and says the writing process did entail some of the same existential boredom and anxiety of imprisonment.
“It was excruciating to write,” says Loney, laughing at the memory. “It bored me to tears. If I had to figure out one more way to describe being locked up that wasn’t repetitive, I would’ve slit my wrists.” Every morning, Loney would sit down and force himself to put in an eight-hour day at the computer. He quickly learned to escape via napping. “Sometimes I would have eight to 10 little mini-naps each day. It was like I was overcome with fatigue.”
Loney persisted, however, and readers will likely be grateful he did. Captivity is a thoughtful, well-written first-person narrative. It also functions as a notably un-preachy exploration of Loney’s long-held belief in non-violence. He left for his third trip to Baghdad in November of 2005 as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international organization that asks members to step into volatile situations and defuse them through peaceful intervention. One of his first tasks was to meet with the hardline Muslim Scholars Association as part of a fact-finding and outreach effort. At the meeting, Loney knew something was up almost immediately due to the oddly hostile behaviour of his hosts.
Sure enough, on the ride home, his van was hijacked by men with machine guns, and he and his three companions – a fellow Canadian, a Brit, and an American – were taken to the unassuming urban residence that would become their prison for the next 118 days. While Loney and two of his fellow prisoners were eventually rescued when British Special Forces stormed the house on March 23, the American, Tom Fox, was removed from the home on day 79 and murdered, his bullet-riddled body found in another part of the city several weeks later.
According to Loney, who spoke to Q&Q by phone from a monastery retreat in California, one of the few things that kept him sane during captivity was the small notebook he was given on day 68. Writing has always been a significant part of Loney’s life – for several years he contributed a regular column to the Catholic New Times – so being given pen and paper, he says, allowed him to “move out of my brain ... into something else. It’s hard to describe how amazingly important that was.”
After his release, Loney had a hard time resuming ordinary life, and took a leave of absence from the CPT. He wrote a short essay about Fox (published in the CPT anthology 118 Days, about the hostage-taking), then spent several months trying to turn his notebook’s contents into a play.
Throughout his captivity, Loney says he envisioned himself, his companions, and his captors as characters on a stage. A play struck him as the best medium to communicate what had happened. “In [theatre] you can convey all the physical realities of being handcuffed together, how you’d pass a cup, etc. But I realized later that writing a play was kind of a coping mechanism, a distancing mechanism. I wanted to be an observer writing [from the outside].”
After abandoning the script as too impersonal, Loney embarked on a more traditional memoir, which took nearly two years to write and ended up running more than 700 pages. At an earlier point in his life, Loney, who is gay, may well have taken the book to a Christian publisher, but after two of them turned down the CPT anthology because of an essay by his then-partner, Dan Hunt, he decided never again to have anything to do with religious publishing.
Instead, on the advice of a friend and former Knopf Canada editor Rosemary Shipton, Loney submitted the manuscript to Random House of Canada editors Anne Collins and Diane Martin, who immediately agreed to take it on. Editor Michael Schellenberg whittled the manuscript down to 400 pages and convinced Loney to add more personal interpretations.
Clearly his own toughest critic, Loney says he’s still not sure what he thinks of the project. “I’ll look at it again [when I get a finished copy], and only then will I know if it’s something I’m embarrassed about or proud of,” he says. In the lead-up to its release, the fiercely private Loney was steeling himself for the publicity circuit – Knopf has scheduled events in Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver – and admits he’s not sure how he’ll respond to the renewed attention.
“I want people to read the book,” says Loney, “but I’ve also gotten very tired of being in – I don’t know what to call it – the hostage limelight. It’s a very strange role.”