Memoir Therapy: 977 Days with Somali Pirates

German/American journalist and writer Michael Scott Moore had authored a novel and a history of surfing, Sweetness and Blood, when he received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to carry out research for a book on Somali piracy in late 2011.

Somali Pirates use bizarrely wrecked boats

This is the kind of thing even a truly daft anthropologist wouldn’t try, but he seems to have had an even greater degree of belief in his own invulnerability.

Since Somali pirates are famous for capturing Westerners and holding them for ransom it is hardly surprising that it happened to him. He got there around November and was abducted in January 2012. The pirates posted video clips which you can still find on Youtube. He was kept in isolation, virtually blind without his contact-lenses, half-starved and increasingly desperate.

The pirates said if the ransom wasn’t paid he would be sold to Al-Shabab. Nobody could come up with the $20 million they wanted, not even his mother,  his only real advocate and supporter. They settled in the end for $1.6 million and to his own amazement he was released.

Not surprisingly he wrote a memoir about his experience. The English version, The Desert and the Sea, published in July 2018, became a Nielsen best-seller.

It has just been published in German as  Wir Werden Dich Toten: 977 Tage in der Hand von Piraten (“We Will Kill You: 977 Days Held by Pirates”). Scott Moore lives in Berlin and holds dual US/German citizenship. I caught his interview on Deutsche Welle  in February 2019 where he appears incredibly normal and unaffected – cool, calm, handsome, unlined, slightly grey, smiling.

Scott Moore interview

In the first months he believed that the ransom would be paid. As time passed he realized this was not going to happen. He was deeply scarred by the ordeal, which dragged on and on, as he was held sometimes on land and sometimes at sea on a beaten-up tuna boat along with other unfortunate captives mostly impoverished fishermen.

I liked his views on hope. We are always being told to stay hopeful, that hope is a positive and beneficial state of mind. Scott Moore concluded otherwise.  As things unfolded his early optimism was destructive, making everything later more terrible.

Writing his book made him feel much much better. He was able to stand back and understand himself as an object. One might say he was able to observe himself as a participant.  He didn’t experience Stockholm Syndrome, where captives come to identify with their captors. Nevertheless he had to forgive them which is another thing we are always being told to do to have a happier life. He finished up running a yoga class for selected pirates and yes, he’s originally from California.

Captivity memoirs can have a strange effect. We are invited to identify with the captive, to share an unbearable experience where everything a person has known and been suddenly is taken away and turned upside down, where their comfortable former existence is overthrown. But you have to ask why the writer or journalist or researcher deliberately goes into such danger. Is it his/her own deluded sense of self? It’s not quite the same as someone kidnapped and imprisoned for political reasons, say, or as part of some psychopath’s personal fantasy.

But in another way, everybody’s life can at times feel like sudden (or slowly developing) captivity.  How much memoir-writing is really therapy? All of it? The more I have been reading, thinking about and writing memoirs, the more the link between writing and trauma has come into focus. Maybe if writing is an attempt at trauma recovery it explains why it’s so damned difficult.

Mostly older people write memoirs. Apart from politicians and a few captains of industry there aren’t that many of them, and I am beginning to see why. If life itself is a traumatic experience, beginning full of hope and happy expectation but declining into failure and disappointment as the end looms, writing about it may only make you feel even more sorry for yourself.  No wonder young people prefer fantasy and adventure.

On the other hand, I recall reading Bert Facey’s recollection, A Fortunate Life, published in 1981 when he was 86. It has been a best-seller in Australian writing, with almost a million copies sold. His early life was traumatic beyond any contemporary imagining, but he came out of it with nothing but gratitude and peace and wrote a wonderful book. A great role model, almost completely forgotten today. That’s a memoir to remember!

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