The Memoir’s Hostage: On Sulome Anderson’s “The Hostage’s Daughter”

By Emmett RensinOctober 22, 2016

The Memoir’s Hostage: On Sulome Anderson’s “The Hostage’s Daughter”

The Hostage’s Daughter by Sulome Anderson

HERE, SULOME ANDERSON WRITES, are the “barest facts”:

In March 1985, my father, Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief for the Middle East at the time, was kidnapped in Beirut by a Shiite Muslim militant group known as the Islamic Jihad Organization. It was one of the militias that came to be associated by most with the Hezbollah movement, which has since become the single most powerful force in Lebanon. My mother was six months pregnant with me when he was taken. Dad was one of 96 foreigners kidnapped in Lebanon during the 1980s, 10 of whom died, in an episode known as the Lebanese hostage crisis. He was released after almost seven years, and I met him for the first time.

Three years following his release, Terry Anderson published his own captivity memoir, a best seller that has since faded, along with the whole of the Lebanese hostage crisis, from the memories of even those Americans old enough to recall it. What remains is only a hazy collective conviction that there is something called Hezbollah, some group of terrorists who are some kind of political party as well, and that they have done some bad things, still do them, are the enemy and always have been.

Now, 31 years after three men pulled Anderson out of his car on the streets of Beirut and threw him into the back of their own with the assurance that this was “political,” his daughter Sulome has published her own memoir, The Hostage’s Daughter, a book that wants to revisit that memory and complicate it. It succeeds, when it escapes the distraction of its own worst impulses.


The conventional wisdom of American letters has it that memoir is a conversation (or, if we are in that kind of room, a dialectic) between the past and present self. Under that definition, a memoir succeeds when it gives a sense of both the author as they were and as they have become, neither obscuring (perhaps in embarrassment) the former self, nor failing to reflect (later, at a desk) on what was going on. The Hostage’s Daughter applies this dictum with rigorous literalism. Nearly each chapter is divided into “Now” and “Then.” Now is a kind of detective story, following Anderson’s investigation into the circumstances of her father’s kidnapping; the story is conveyed largely through interviews, albeit ones that, contrary to their designation, feature extended explanations of the politics of the Reagan-era Middle East. Then is Anderson’s memoir, beginning with the return of her father in 1992 and tracking her until she becomes a Middle East conflict reporter herself. The effect of this division is a kind of literary schizophrenia and one suspects that these two halves are not the product of natural storytelling so much as of the myopic demands of publishing.

This is a shame, because Sulome Anderson is an excellent investigative reporter. Both in her previous reporting and in the “Now” sections of The Hostage’s Daughter she has proven herself one of the most capable contemporary journalists filing from the Middle East. The sheer range of assembled sources — former CIA operatives, State Department officials, other journalists, terrorists, senior members of Hezbollah — is astounding.

More impressive still is her capacity to assemble these sources. Anderson no doubt conducted far more interviews (and generated far more material) than the robust sampling ultimately contained in the book. In the face of such abundance, less capable journalists would either be too indulgent or too neat, overloading the text or curating quotations into a just-so story of whatever thesis they are looking to advance. But Anderson avoids both errors. Her interviews are copious and discursive, but never distracting. They progress naturally, one lead turning into the next, without becoming didactic. There are contradictions, and doubts: when Anderson believes she is on to something, she doubles back to run the theory past her gallery of subjects, and they do not always agree. But from this emerges a subtle and dense portrait of the Lebanese hostage crisis and the politics surrounding it — the interventions of the Americans and Israelis and Syrians and several Iranian factions. Thanks to Sulome’s risky but ultimately successful decision to narrate her investigation as a first-person process story, we are left with a fuller and more intimate understanding of the period, serious doubts about the way history has told its story, and an acute critique of the political self-conception of the West. This half of The Hostage’s Daughter is worth its cover price, and so deftly executed that I do not want to spoil it with summary.


All of this is to say that Sulome Anderson is a journalist, and an excellent one. What she is not — at least within the pages of The Hostage’s Daughter — is an excellent memoirist. Until the final few episodes, where “Then” collides with “Now” and Anderson details her earlier career as a Middle East correspondent (as well as her relationship with Peter Kassig, an NGO worker killed in 2014 by ISIS), the personal half of The Hostage’s Daughter is where Anderson attempts to make good on her title and her hook: How did the kidnapping of her father “shape her”? What did it mean?

The answer is a maddeningly boilerplate redemption story. Sulome is seven years old when her father returns home. Since he is unable to measure up to the superhero Anderson has imagined her whole life, their relationship deteriorates before it is established at all. They fight often. Terry is distant and awkward and severe, and Sulome confesses to praying that “the men” will take him back again.

She is sent to boarding school. She is expelled. She goes to New York University. She graduates, but not without developing a cocaine problem and then a pill problem. Owing to a multimillion-dollar settlement with the Iranian government, she is able to live in New York for a few years without direction. Abusive boyfriends come and go, as do a few stints in rehab. Sulome is ultimately admitted to the Columbia School of Journalism, where she excels despite persistent addiction and what will ultimately be diagnosed as borderline personality disorder. We are reminded, occasionally, that she is still not getting on very well with her father.

It is implied that all these developments are a consequence of her relationship with her father — and no doubt they are, owing, as all adulthoods do, to the traumas of childhood — but one may wonder how much explanatory power can be attributed to the particulars of Anderson’s childhood, when its reported consequences are not meaningfully distinct from that of an NYU undergraduate from Cleveland whose father was only hostage to a white-collar job. Eventually, Anderson finds a therapist she likes. She gets engaged to a good man. Her father, in the end, is proud of her. She accepts that he was a good man who tried as hard as he could.

It does not help matters that this entire story is conveyed in fairly superficial detail. Extraordinarily fraught subjects — abuse, assault, addiction, suicidal ideation — are narrated at a clip, simply mentioned and subjected to perhaps a sentence or two of reflective analysis (something like, “I felt like my life was an endless game of Whac-A-Mole: every time I beat one demon down, another popped up, cackling”), before we press on into the next crisis. We are left with the outline of a memoir, a real and difficult human life reduced to a series of tropes.


It’s hard to know how to interpret these sections. At times, they read as if she had pitched a book of reporting only to be informed that it would be easier to sell such a deep investigation into an obscure historical episode if an airport-bookshop plot were grafted onto it. You can see the agent, the editor, the meeting: This is good! This is great! But maybe a little more human interest, you know? Don’t forget the sex and drugs. It should not escape our notice that Sulome Anderson is a young woman and a first-time author. One struggles to imagine Robert Fisk, the ancient and venerated conflict reporter who provides one of Anderson’s key early interviews, needing to detail a collegiate sexual assault at the hands of a cocaine dealer in order to secure a contract for Pity the Nation.

But at other times it seemed to be the opposite scenario: a young author pitches a book of blended reporting, a look into the Lebanese hostage crisis paired with a deeply felt memoir. The agent and editor are skeptical: Well of course you’ve got to mention he’s your dad — that’s the hook. But aren’t these woe-is-me stories about young women and trauma a little overwrought these days? You’re a serious reporter! It should not escape our notice that for every young woman and first-time author told to amp up the human interest in her story, there is one told that such “confessional” writing is indulgent, that it is not relatable or interesting, and that if it must be included then it must be pared down and dispensed with as quickly as possible, so that the “serious” work can carry on.

It should not escape our notice that the present condition of young women in the memoir genre is a trap. Confession is demanded, then shamed. Robert Fisk is never asked to write about his personal life, but David Carr was never questioned when he did. Sulome Anderson and the hundreds of other women who have generated the great bulk of personal essays and memoirs over the past 20 years have not met with so much respect. Somebody is always waiting to ask for more, then say it’s too much when they get it.

But inescapably, I find myself among those critics. No matter the cause (and perhaps there was no conflict at all, what do I know?) The Hostage’s Daughter splits the difference between indifference and indulgence, producing a memoir that raises the specter of the personal without engaging in it. It provides a liturgy of traumas, recited in motivation, like This is why I’m doing all these interviews. I do not know if it ought to have gone deeper, or if it ought to have avoided the memoir altogether. I do not know if either course would have “worked” better in terms of general critical reception — somebody will always be displeased. But I do know that, as it is, Anderson’s memoir is in uneasy suspension over the worst of both worlds: the memoir that isn’t, quite.


Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa City.


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