In the metrics of evil, holding an innocent person captive surely ranks just below murder. And when an imprisonment is protracted and brutal, being killed may seem preferable. The comfortably free are often enthralled by accounts of captivity—at least those that end in escape. For the prisoners who undergo such an ordeal, it’s a different story; their selves can become so obliterated, they actually begin to identify with their captors.
Feeling trapped? Threatened? Manipulated by forces outside your control? Must be the zeitgeist. Consider the lineup of some top films of 2013, a banner year for movies about captivity. There was Captain Phillips, featuring Tom Hanks in the title role, about the hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates who take captain and crew hostage. There was Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, the Hugh Jackman–Jake Gyllenhaal thriller about abducted children and an aggrieved father who does some retributive kidnapping of his own. There was Mikael Håfström’s Escape Plan—a vehicle for superannuated action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—about an engineer who wakes up inside an ingenious prison he designed. There was Spike Lee’s remake of the twisty 2003 Korean thriller Oldboy, about a man’s quest for vengeance against the men responsible for his 20-year captivity. And there was 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York state who in 1841 is hoodwinked by slave traders and sold into servitude; for the next dozen years he labors on plantations in the Louisiana bayou, often mistreated and forbidden from mentioning his freeborn status.
Some captivity narratives appeal to readers for their combination of heart-hammering thrills and soul-improving moral lessons. A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson may have been the first American best-seller, with four printings following its 1682 publication. It recounts Rowlandson’s experiences during the 11 weeks she was held hostage by Native American warriors who seized her and three of her children in a 1675 raid on an English settlement in Massachusetts. Rowlandson was ultimately ransomed, but her redemption was spiritual as well as monetary; her book preaches the efficacy of faith in helping a captive survive. A religious-redemption theme is likewise common to early works in another captivity literature genre: Slave narratives like those by Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Olaudah Equiano, published in Britain during the 18th century, trace their African authors’ journeys to Christian salvation, made possible, in effect, by their enslavement to Europeans. By the mid-19th century, slave narratives had dispensed with the theological gloss. Works like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave—the 1853 memoir on which Steve McQueen’s film is based—focus squarely on the horrors of bondage. Northup’s and dozens of other slave narratives provided powerful propaganda for the abolitionist movement.
One early American captivity-narrative tradition consists of accounts written by white women, such as Mary Rowlandson, whom Native Americans had abducted. Another such victim was Rachel Plummer, seized by Comanche warriors in an 1836 attack on a Texas fort, who also lived to write a book about her ordeal, Rachael Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians (1838). Rooted in this tradition, John Ford’s film The Searchers focuses not on the captive—a Texas girl, Debbie Edwards, likewise taken by Comanche—but on those who go looking for her: Debbie’s ornery cuss of an uncle, Ethan (John Wayne), and her adopted brother, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). By the time they catch up with her, years into her captivity, Debbie is an adolescent (Natalie Wood) and one of her abductor’s several wives. Her marriage and her declaration that the Comanche are now “my people” don’t sit well with Ethan, who tries to shoot her. As in most captivity tales, a redemption is in the offing—specifically Ethan’s. Given a second chance to murder his niece, Ethan rescues her and all ends happily. Though not for the Comanche.
Some captives are dragged from place to place by nomadic abductors. During the time her Native American captors held Mary Rowlandson, they were constantly on the move, avoiding confrontation with the colonial militia pursuing them. So too with Debbie Edwards, the fictional captive in The Searchers: Her titular rescuers spend years looking for her because the Comanche band she’s with is constantly relocating. But tales of captives who remain in one place and are closely controlled may be even more unsettling, for they add claustrophobia to the terror of being held prisoner. The central characters in Emma Donoghue’s novel Room endure this situation. As the story opens, five-year-old Jack and his Ma are confined within an 11-by-11-foot room that is the only world Jack, who was born there, knows. What he doesn’t—cannot—understand is that he and Ma are prisoners of Old Nick, who kidnapped Ma seven years before and is, in fact, Jack’s father. Donoghue’s book is also startling because it’s believably written from the child’s viewpoint. Jack is happy in the space he shares with his protective, resourceful and doting mother; when they’re liberated, it’s the end of what has been, for him, an idyll.
The first captivity narratives written in English were 16th- and 17th-century reports by British seafarers kidnapped by pirates from North Africa’s Barbary Coast. Long on the wane, piracy rebounded in the early 21st century, in the waters off a different African coast—that of the “failed state” of Somalia. In scores of incidents, Somali pirates have hijacked huge commercial vessels and, in a few cases, private yachts, often obtaining exorbitant ransoms for the release of people and cargo. The return of high-seas piracy has generated a burst of new kidnapped-by-pirates fiction and nonfiction, the latter including Captain Richard Phillips’s Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea (2010), a methodical account of the 2009 capture of his ship, the Maersk Alabama, and his subsequent rescue. The book’s film adaptation, Captain Phillips, tracks the story closely. Like virtually all Somalis, the pirates are Muslims, and their attacks have helped to exacerbate Western anxieties about the Muslim world. But unlike Islamist jihadists exemplified by fictional al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir, captor of U.S. Marine sergeant Nicholas Brody in the Showtime drama Homeland, Somali pirates are generally motivated by economic hardship (many are impoverished fishermen) rather than anti-Western religious fervor.
For evidence of how weird human psychology can be, consider Stockholm syndrome. First used to describe the mentality of hostages taken in a 1973 Stockholm, Sweden, bank robbery, the term designates a counterintuitive condition. Prisoners exhibiting Stockholm syndrome, instead of resisting those who take them captive, eventually come to identify with their captors, sometimes even embracing their cause. Psychologists say it is a survival mechanism. A case of Stockholm syndrome drives the plot of Homeland. Early in the Iraq war, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is captured, imprisoned and tortured by militants but then handed over to jihadist mastermind Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), who treats Brody humanely, allowing him to live in his home and to teach his young son English. When the boy, for whom Brody develops a fatherly affection, is killed in a U.S. drone attack, Brody is “turned”—converting to Islam and agreeing to become an al-Qaeda operative in the United States, where he returns following a “rescue” by American forces. He soon runs for Congress, backed by a right-wing politician eager to exploit Brody’s hero status. Only CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), herself harboring a dangerous secret, perceives the terrorist beneath the patriot’s mask.
Stockholm syndrome is always bizarre, but no other real-life case—if Stockholm syndrome indeed explains what happened—has equaled Patty Hearst’s in strangeness. Hearst was a rich, straitlaced 19-year-old (granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst) when she was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California, apartment in February 1974 by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a criminal gang of self-styled “revolutionaries.” Hearst’s plight garnered international sympathy. Then, following her parents’ failed attempt to ransom her, the captive turned culprit: In April 1974 Hearst participated in an SLA heist at a San Francisco bank. The SLA released a photo of a beret-wearing Hearst cradling a carbine and standing before the group’s seven-headed-cobra emblem; she became an iconic image of that turbulent era. Nearly two years later, with the SLA destroyed and its members dead or jailed, Hearst was in federal court on trial for bank robbery. The defense argued Hearst had been abused and brainwashed by her SLA captors; the prosecution said she’d been a “rebel looking for a cause” who had willingly adopted her new persona—even taking a nom de guerre, Tania. Convicted, Hearst spent two years in federal prison before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence.
Captors have typically been portrayed as stonyhearted monsters so lacking in fellow feeling that they hardly qualify as human. Donald DeFreeze, leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patty Hearst in 1974, certainly fit that bill. DeFreeze may have rechristened himself Field Marshal Cinque—taking the name from Joseph Cinqué, leader of the 1839 revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad—but Hearst’s reports assert that he was a merciless enslaver, subjecting the SLA hostage to isolation, rape and all manner of physical and verbal abuse. Although captivity stories that humanize abductors are rare, they are not unknown (see O. Henry’s comical 1910 tale of hapless kidnappers, “The Ransom of Red Chief”). Captain Phillips achieves this with seriousness and subtlety. Without apologizing for the Somalis’ misdeeds, the film portrays the pirates—especially their leader, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi)—as themselves victims of geopolitical circumstance and worthy of at least a sliver of sympathy. “This humanization,” wrote New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, “hits you like a jolt.”