Figuring Out Amanda Lindhout

24 Sep

blue_sky_199297Amanda Lindhout has been in the news again lately and I am having a hard time knowing what to make of this young woman.

The details of her past few years are stark and dramatic. As a cocktail waitress from small-town Alberta, she saved her money and used it to travel to places where she could write the kind of exotic war correspondent articles that would make her a serious journalist. She went to Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Iraq, but never really managed to enact this transformation, the only publication anyone in North America would have seen her work being the Red Deer Advocate.

Then, 2008, she went to Somalia — where she and a friend were promptly kidnapped. Their parents managed to scrape together ransom money, the pair were freed, and upon returning to Canada, Ms. Lindhout did two things: establish a charity and write a book.

Now the latter, I can understand. Memoirs of appalling experiences and how they have been survived are popular, the best written of them garnering both acclaim and media attention.

But the former, the setting up a personal charity devoted to “empowering Somali women,” leaves me a bit uneasy.

Ms. Lindhout’s book, A House in the Sky, was co-written with a New York Times writer, an excerpt featured in its pages a couple of weeks ago. It has received positive reviews, and brought Ms. Lindhout, already a prolific public speaker, spreads in magazines like Elle and this month’s Vogue.

But she has also come in for a share of criticism. Opinionated columnists like Margaret Wente  and Andrew Cohen have called her everything from naive and reckless to narcissistic and self-indulgent. The not–so-latent subtext of their comments — that, in some way, Ms. Lindhout deserved what happened to her — are seriously disturbing.

To a certain extent I can identify because I have been a freelancer almost all my life. I financed may of my early forays with money from waitressing, and while I wonder at why Ms. Lindhout could pay for such expensive travel, including the guide and two body guards she hired in Mogadishu, with no one buying her articles, I totally get that impatient impulse to cut corners and just be there. To investigate and write about what others seem to be missing, seek out those voices that are not being heard and experience the thrill of seeing the results in print.

I also, however, remember being vigorously told off by the late Paul Ellman, the Observer correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s, when I said I was planning to go to the town of La Palma and make contact with FMLN guerillas. Paul was a big partier and a bit of a reprobate, but he was so deadly serious about the potential consequences — the sheer folly — of putting myself in such danger that I allowed myself to be dissuaded. Was it the right thing to do? Or was I just being chicken?

Just a few months later, I learned that Nick Blake, an affable young American freelancer I’d met briefly in San Salvador, had paid for his bold journalistic ambitions with his life. Nick had also gone off to meet guerillas, the Guerilla Army of the Poor, in Guatemala, and was captured and shot by the Guatemalan military. Back then, if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were not kidnapped. You were killed.

Freelancers flocking to areas of danger and controversy is nothing new. But apparently, they are being increasingly relied on for material by news outlets that can no longer afford to send staff writers to such places. All of the costs associated with these assignments — safety training, insurance, fixers, security personnel — can be saved by agreeing to take ‘on spec’ something some enterprising young person manages to send in instead.

And it is also understandable, I realize, that Ms. Lindhout’s emotional solution to the devastation of 15 months of beating, rape, starvation and terror would be this turn towards good works. As she herself said in a television interview shortly after setting up the Global Enrichment Foundation, “Establishing this foundation is the first step towards making sense of what happened to me and using it to do something good in the world.” The psychological impulse, the need to counter something horrible by concentrating on altruistic acts, is probably quite normal.

But, does it also not raise some troubling issues? Should the motivation for offering to offset the horrors of poverty lie in the need for psychological salvation? Or because it is inherently wrong that such poverty exists? Are people donating to the Global Enrichment Foundation because of what happened to Ms. Lindhout, or because of what happens every day to people in war-torn and conflicted nations? Is there a danger that this charitable endeavour, however good its programs and intentions, is all about its founder rather than the situation of the destitute it wants to help?

Maybe I would not be writing about this if her humanitarian projects were anonymous, rather than being branded by her own personal tragedy. Maybe she is forging a vital and morally principled connection between her tragedy and those of others. Or maybe it’s an attempt to seek admiration and positive attention. In the end, these are questions probably only Amanda Lindhout herself can answer.




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