“Curiosity killed the cat.” Journalist and novelist Michael Scott Moore were captured and held hostage for 977 days by Somali pirates during a research trip to Somalia in his effort to write a book about Somali Pirates.
We think about the nine characteristics of elite talent in terms of performance in a moment or throughout a period of time in our lives or careers. As elite performers, we exhibit portions of these traits at different times, but never all at once. For 977 days of his life, Michael Scott Moore embodied all of them every single day. It wasn’t about performance. It was about survival…life or death.
As told in incredible detail in his bestselling book, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast, Michael recounts his memories of the initial shock of being captured, the harsh conditions, forging bonds and connections with the other hostages, the failed escape attempts, how captivity provided the time and space for much needed personal introspection, and how his perspective on life and its challenges has changed.
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About Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness, and Blood, which was named the best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction; Yaddo and MacDowell Colony fellowships for his fiction.
He grew up in California but worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online International in Berlin. Mr. Moore was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.
He’s been a European Affairs columnist for Miller-McCune Magazine (later Pacific Standard) and a theater critic for SF Weekly in San Francisco. He’s covered the European migration crisis for Businessweek, and politics, travel, and literature for The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, the Paris Review, The New York Times, LitHub, GQ, Newlines Magazine, The New Republic, The L.A. Times, The Daily Beast, The L.A. Review of Books, and many others.
He maintains a website at www.radiofreemike.net.
Perspective comes with experience. Michael Scott Moore spent two years and eight months as a hostage of pirates in Somalia where he gained not only a new perspective on life but also came to grips with his past and the decisions that led to his kidnapping. People exhibit the characteristics of elite talent to achieve success in their lives, careers, or business. Mike had to exhibit these every day just to survive. In this episode, and for the first time, Mike reflects on his captivity through the lens of the nine characteristics of elite performance as defined by US Special Operations. He recounts how curiosity got him captured. How drive, resiliency, adaptability, integrity, team ability, and emotional strength kept him alive. How humility helped him through his darkest days and how this day, he uses effective intelligence to improve the performance of leaders at all levels.
Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist. He authored a comic novel about Los Angeles Too Much of Nothing as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness, and Blood, which was named the best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center Grants for his nonfiction as well as Yaddo and MacDowell Colony fellowships for his fiction. Mike grew up in California but worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online International in Berlin. He was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 977 days. In 2018, Mike wrote The Desert and the Sea to tell that story.
He’s been a European Affairs columnist for Miller-McCune Magazine and a theater critic for SF Weekly in San Francisco. Mike’s cover the European migration crisis for Business Week and politics, travel and literature for The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, The Paris Review, The New York Times, GQ, The New Republic, The LA Times, The Daily Beast and many others. Mike is an avid surfer. In addition to continuing his work as a journalist, he’s a board member of Hostage US, a nonprofit that supports American hostages and their families.
Mike thanks for joining me on the show.
I want to tell the story of how we met. We met in 2018 at a Hostage US event in LA. I sat there and I listened to your story. I had goosebumps for two reasons. One, because of what you went through and your story was so impactful. Two, because I was looking at a ghost. What does that mean? You and I have spoken about this before. I did not put two things together before I went to Sony Pictures and listened to you speak.
I spent from 2012 to 2015 working on Special Operations activities in Africa. In 2013, I lived in Djibouti at Camp Lemonnier. I worked on the East Africa Counterterrorism Mission Set. A lot of my job was the development of the combat search and rescue network for the NATO Special Operations Forces that were working in the counterpiracy mission off the coast of Somalia. I heard your name a thousand times in every briefing. Every day, multiple times a day, we would have these briefings from our intelligence officers.
I wasn’t part of any of the planned raids to go after you but I saw them from next door because all of these operations that went into Somalia, whether it was the British, the UK, the French, the Americans, all launched from my compound. We had these conversations and we had these communications with these teams, but we were monitoring everything that was going on. I knew everything that I could about your situation. I’m sitting here in this conference room and I’m hearing you tell the story and it hits me 2 or 3 minutes in. I’m saying, “That’s him. That is the guy.”
I appreciated how a large part of your story and your story of resiliency was this hope that US Special Operations Forces would get you out. You heard the drones in the sky. You heard the surveillance aircraft daily. As soon as you were done talking, I don’t know if you remember but I charged you before anybody else could get there. I introduced myself. I felt this need to almost apologize because what you went through for so long was so incredible and impactful. I felt like we did so much to try to get you out, but we didn’t and we couldn’t. There were a lot of reasons why we couldn’t and we can speculate all day long, and those decisions were well above us, but I had to go tell you this.
That was amazing to hear because I feel like I should apologize to you guys for putting you in that situation in the first place. It was great to hear that so many people were working on it quietly and wanted to get me out and come and get me as possible. That was important to hear. I’m aware that Special Operators here and there were working on my case, and a few of them have stepped out of the shadows a little bit. I’ve heard these stories again but yours was the first one. It was important to hear. This had nothing to do with the movies. This is a fundraiser for Hostage US where I’m on the board. I gave a talk. I happen to be at the Sony thing in LA but I was impressed by that. I was glad you said something
I appreciate it. I thank you again for joining me here. We’ve spoken a bunch of times since and we’ve built a relationship since we first met. When I put together this show, I couldn’t think of a better person to come on and talk about the characteristics of elite performance because we define them in every episode. We talk about them all the time in the Talent War Group. Those characteristics are drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, team ability, effective intelligence, emotional strength, and curiosity. For most people, these characteristics of elite performance are about performing in a moment and performing over time. We say that you never exude all of them at the same time, it’s almost impossible.
You always have to assume portions of them. Generally, what we call the whole man concept or this concept, the totality of all of these nine characteristics, creates this whole person of elite performance. For you, these nine characteristics, you exude them every single day. It wasn’t about performance. It was literally about life or death. You had no choice. It was your survival. I want to tell your story and want to talk about these different events that you went through. I want to frame it around these characteristics and what these characteristics mean for you and what leaders of all levels can take away.
I hadn’t heard these before what you mentioned. It’s amazing to hear about it. You’re right. It was a question of getting through the ordeal. I knew what I was getting into when I went to Somalia.
That’s where I want to start. I want to start with Africa because like you, I’ve spent a good amount of time in Africa. I worked on it for 2.5 years. I spent a lot of time on the continent. Africa is a wild place. It’s different in every region, every country and every culture. The history is deep. It’s political, economic, religious, tribal and colonial. It has everything. There’s extreme wealth. There’s extreme poverty. There are monarchies and military states. There are democracies. There is lawlessness, warlords, pirates and terrorists. It’s crazy when you start to look at all of these countries and people say, “How many countries are in Africa?” I don’t know now. Maybe there’s 54. Maybe there’s 57. That changes.
I’m a traveler and an adventurer, but you say all the time that you didn’t search for danger. Some would argue I did search for danger by nature of my job. It’s the only place in the world where you can wake up in the morning and I did this. You can go to a meeting with an Ambassador in a city. By the afternoon, you can be in the middle of the jungle in a place that a Westerner had not been for decades in time. You open the book with the foreshadowing, highlighting the characteristic of curiosity, one of those characteristics of elite performance. You say, “My father who wasn’t originally used to say, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ Of course, I first went to the Horn of Africa out of curiosity.” I truly believe Africa is one of the most interesting places in the world. I think you do too. We define curiosity as exploring the unknown, questioning the status quo in pursuit of better, and this continuous growth attitude. You’ve been to the continent before in the research of your first book. Now, you have to go back. Why?
I have been a couple of times. I’ve been to Morocco a few times and other parts of West Africa for that book. Before I went on this research trip, I had gone in 2009 to Djibouti. I went to Camp Lemonnier too to do some fact gathering about pirates. I rode aboard a NATO warship for four days. They were letting journalists on for these ride along in the Gulf not far from Djibouti. The pirate story was gripping to me but I knew it was dangerous. I went and I did a safe reconnaissance trip to see what was there and what I might be able to do about it. The answer was I don’t think I want to go to Somalia. A couple of years later there was a major trial of ten Somali pirates in Germany that was unprecedented, not just in Europe but also in German history. It was the first trial of pirates on German soil in centuries. That drew me in and then during that trial, I started to think seriously about going to Somalia because it began to seem more feasible and more practical.
What is it about the pirates though? I feel like there are certain things we have an affinity to and it’s almost like this clash of civilizations when we think about pirates.
It was a clash of new and archaic. These guys were a modern manifestation of chaos or something. They were also committing an ancient crime. Most of the coverage was superficial because it was dangerous to go there. One thing that was lacking was historical context. Once I got into the story of this one case before the court in Hamburg, I decided that a book not just about that story but also about piracy in a historical context might be interesting. That got my gears going and got me interested in the idea of going to Somalia.
In 2009, I met another journalist in Djibouti who was also based in Germany and was born in India, Ashwin Raman. He’s the guy that I went eventually to Somalia with. He had experience not only in Somalia but also in other war zones. He goes with his handheld camera to some of the most dangerous parts of the world and comes away with incredible TV documentaries. He doesn’t go with a team or anything like that. He was willing to travel with me at some point after the trial started once we started talking about it seriously. All these things came together. I knew it was a risk but I also thought of it as this enormous opportunity because these things don’t always come together in the same way. That’s how a writer makes a decision. Sometimes you can see a project but you can’t quite see your way in and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t see my way in.
You arranged this trip through a Somali tribal elder but he’s an expatriate in Germany.
He lived in Berlin and through some connections at the trial, I got in touch with him. He was from the town where we wanted to go. That town was not just a jumping-off place for other journalists who had gone to Somalia to report on pirates. There was a route through Central Somalia from the central town which is called Galkayo out to the coast to Hobyo which is a known pirate town. Once I got into it, I had even tipped off a New York Times correspondent with the name of another guy who could do that tour. It was a known thing.
People knew that you were going.
People knew. I didn’t go on that trip and that turned out to be a group trip and nobody got kidnapped. The guy from the Times got a good scoop. Once I understood how things worked with journalists, I understood that what this guy from Berlin was offering was pretty standard. He had taken another German broadcast journalist through the same area which was his clan area. He could in some sense host people safely. He had a track record as a journalist fixer and that was the deal. He said, “I know the people. I’m a clan elder with the dominant clan in Galkayo and that part of Central Somalia. You will be our guest.” He said to both of us, “The Sa’ad clan is going to host you.” That was important to hear among others. We got more detailed logistically but those were important steps.
How does that first initial research go?
It went well. We were cautious so we took it step-by-step. At first, I talked to him. I spoke fluent German. I was married to a German woman and had kids in Germany. Ashwin and I met him. We talked about the actual details of the trip and the price for security and everything.
You go to Somalia. You meet with a variety of different folks, tribes and clans. You visit both Galkayo and Hobyo. You meet a pirate out in Hobyo who comes back later again into the story that you figure out after, and then your research is seemingly complete. You feel good about this story. Now it’s January 21, 2012. It’s time to think about heading home.
Ashwin and I were going to fly in and out together from Nairobi. He changed his mind. He decided to fly to Mogadishu which meant a different separate trip to the airport. The airport run was a little bit dangerous and it also meant flying out on different days because the flights were not that regular and to go in and out of Galkayo. Nairobi flights were different from Mogadishu flights. We decided to stick together because that was the deal. We only had one team of guards. That morning we all got everything together to go to the airport and the team of guards disappeared, to the point where our fixer, the guy from Berlin, started to seem worried.
He called the regional president whom we had met and got a car and an armed guard from him. We were in the president’s car. We took that to the airport without incident. We said goodbye to Ashwin. He got on the plane. He flew away. It was on the way back from the airport, in the car with only one gunman. There was a battlewagon, a technical waiting on the side of the road. It was waiting for us. Someone had tipped off this group of pirates that at least one if not two journalists were at the airport. They were waiting for us by the side of the road. When our driver saw this technical which is a Toyota truck with a massive cannon mounted in the bed, he slowed down and the technical aimed the cannon right through our windshield. That automatically overpowered our gunman. That’s when it began. That’s when those guys came in, ripped me out of the car and kidnapped me.
I think about a moment like that and all the emotion and feeling of almost surrealness that must come over you in a moment like that. Can you talk a little bit about that point of capture physically, emotionally and mentally? What is that range that you’re going through and all of those different aspects?
It was the hardest thing to talk about for a while because that’s when it all went to shit. At first, I didn’t even believe what was happening. I saw these gunmen come off the bed of the technical and towards our car. The first thing I thought was, “It’s a checkpoint. I have passports, ID and whatever on me. We’ll get through the checkpoint.” It was not a checkpoint. Something bad was happening. My mind went backward like that for a minute.
Were you trying to rationalize it?
It can’t possibly be as bad as it looks. They fired their guns in the air. First of all, I thought I was dead. Second, I thought, “That’s not a checkpoint.” They opened the door and I held the door closed and they started to pound on my wrist with their gun barrels. They broke my wrist, not in half but they broke some bone off. They ripped me out of the car. They took my backpack which I had on my lap. They knocked the glasses off my face and beat me with their weapons on my head. I had a bloody scalp, some ripped clothing, and some essential things taken from me. They then bundled me into another SUV and we drove off bouncing into the bush for a long time. It happened so fast that you can think how bad it is. You can feel bad and you want the time to go backward but you don’t have time to process it except to think, “This is going to be horrible for my family.” That went through my mind. I know how bad it is at least because I’m there. I know that I’m not dead but my mom, my friends and my family don’t necessarily know that.
You’re now captive. There’s this acceptance and this realization that you can’t rationalize this. What are those first few days like and their initial demands?
There were no initial demands. I mean it took them a long time. It took them a week to put me on the phone with my family. For the first week, it was like floating in limbo. It was strange. The first place we drove to was bush camp. They put me on a mattress. There was a new mattress waiting for me. That part was well planned. I was out in the middle of the dusty bush with other gunmen who were like the people who were driving me, young Somalis with AKs who were guarding two other hostages who I couldn’t see. We spent the night out there.
In the morning, we all bundled into a car, including the other two hostages and we went to a house. We spent a few days in the house. Nothing was happening. We had to live almost like herded goats in this weird purgatory with no news about what was happening. The other two hostages turned out to be fishermen from Seychelles. They were Africans but they had been captured 700 miles off the coast of Somalia. They had been captive for maybe three months. They knew how to be hostages and I didn’t yet. Within 3 or 4 days in that first house that we stayed in which was a complete dump, we had to bug out quickly because it turned out there had been a rescue in another part of Central Somalia of another American hostage and a bunch of Somalis died. That turned out to be the fairly unprecedented rescue of Jessica Buchanan and another European hostage by a SEAL Team. I don’t know if you were on the Horn of Africa at that point but you should know about that one.
That had an impact on your situation. That affected your captors.
It definitely did. All I heard about during that first week, especially the first morning when we bugged out of the house was, “Helicopter, Marines.” I’m like, “That doesn’t sound too good for somebody.” I couldn’t tell what was going on. It took maybe another month or two for me to get the whole story. It was not until I had a phone call with a pirate boss who told me the whole story in fairly coherent English. He played an Al Jazeera news clip off his phone. Until then, I’ve been hearing this and that about hostages, a rescue and dead Somalis. It sounded like the hostages had been killed too. That’s what this pirate boss tried to tell me, “The hostages are dead too. You don’t have to worry. If they tried that again with you, you’re also going to be dead.” He plays this news piece for me off his phone. It says clearly in English that the hostages were rescued and taken back to Djibouti, which told me something about his English by the way. His English was okay but he didn’t understand the recording on his own phone well enough to realize that he was tipping his hand. That was my introduction to the boss.
They then come back to you and they tell you $20 million.
After the first week, they put me on the phone from someplace in the bush after we left that first prison house. They put me on the phone with my mother and the demand was $20 million.
Which you would say is ridiculous.
I must have smirked and they said that it’s not funny. I’m like, “I know it’s not funny but $20 million is ridiculous.” It stunned my mother. We called my mom. That was not the phone number I meant to call if I got kidnapped. I’d had a whole row of other phone numbers in the backpack and they stole that. We called the number that I had in my mind. By then, my mom was informed and coached a little bit about what to say on the phone but still, $20 million stunned everybody.
That ties almost to their disconnection with reality because that’s a huge sum of money for humans. Piracy is a business. You’ve spoken before about the difference between the value of a human versus the value of a cargo ship. Also, the entire precondition that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists in any form or fashion. That’s a nonstarter.
It was a complete nonstarter but they stuck to that demand for a long time. When I first heard $20 million, it’s when it first occurred to me that I might be in Somalia for a long time. I knew that cases with Westerners could last from 1 to 1.5 years, I didn’t want that. In those first weeks, I thought maybe Ashwin will call somebody. Maybe the military will be on the ball with surveillance or maybe I can get rescued. Somebody else got rescued and that’s good. I’m glad that her case ended that way because no ransom got paid. The guys who are holding her got it. They have to know their lives are at risk when they do something like that. That was an enormously bold move by the SEALs and enormously successful.
Curiosity can open new doors and can solve a lot of complex challenge. We know that, but as you learned, curiosity can also get you in a lot of trouble if you don’t temper the need for more and continuously pushing for the next part. In the book, you introduced the concept of entropy. It lives throughout the book. Entropy by definition means a lack of order or predictability, a gradual decline into disorder. This time 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15, this is the time of ISIS in the Middle East and their influence in Africa was growing. Boko Haram is in West Africa. Al-Shabaab and pirates are in East Africa. You have the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony in Central Africa. Journalists like Daniel Pearl were captured and beheaded violently. Here you are, an American journalist from Seaside, California. You come from a structured living in Berlin Germany and you are now the captive of Somali pirates. It’s the other end of the spectrum of what you’re used to.
You say in the book and it’s quoted as, “It was hard to see a shimmering vision of justice and peace in the distance to replace these old ideas. Instead, the world was rolling back to factionalism, to violent opportunism, to old swamps of chaos and crime.” Can you talk a bit more about entropy? Why it was in your mind? Why that was something that was at the forefront of your thoughts about captivity? What do leaders need to do in these times of chaos and confusion that are happening at a macro scale but are now affecting them every day?
That’s one thing that got me interested in Somalia in the first place. The fact that there were pirates at all after so many centuries of relatively pirate-free oceans in the world, and the fact that things were rolling back made me curious about why. Entropy was one thing on my mind before I even got kidnapped. Once I did get kidnapped, it was even worse.
It’s like, “This thing is real. I proved my hypothesis.”
More than that, I was learning about it from the inside. I was learning something about why things went to hell in certain parts of the world from a slightly too intimate distance. When I wrote that passage that you mentioned from the book and when I thought about it, I was already two years or so into my captivity. You’re right, ISIS had risen. I was listening to news reports. I had a radio again at that point and I was listening to things go even further to hell. If anything, the entropy in the world had only increased. When I listened to people talk on the radio and give opinions about this and that, I was not hearing ideas that would lead to more order necessarily. It was almost like when V. S. Naipaul wrote his novel Guerrillas in the 1970s. Everyone had their cause. Everyone was a guerrilla for this one little small factional cause. Even among people whose job it might be to somehow impose order, there were no ideas that we’re bringing things back together. That was discouraging so late in my captivity.
You had experience researching and understanding Somalia first. Did it help to be worldly? You’re a journalist, you reported on travel, you reported on Europe, on the slave trade in Africa across the African tribal trade routes that dated back to centuries, and the slave markets of the Europeans and the Easterners. One of the biggest threats that were constantly made to you by the pirates was to transfer you to Al-Shabaab. You knew Al-Shabaab didn’t operate like the pirates.
Piracy by and large is a business. It’s not quite as violent as the shock and awe campaigns of the extreme brutality of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Piracy is more about how much money can they get out of everything that they capture. You talked about that in Somalia, when everyone wants to fight, there’s nothing to fight for. You highlight the fact that greed was the reason that you were still in Somalia, not poverty and it had nothing to do with Somali fishing rights. Do you think the knowledge helped? We always talk about, “You need to learn more. You need to be worldly. You need to understand,” but sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Knowledge definitely helped in that case. I can’t do enough research before you go into a foreign country and try to write about it because whatever is going to happen, once you get there and do all the research you need to do, you’re still going to be surprised. The only drawback to doing too much research beforehand is that it sets up concepts in your mind of certain prejudices and then you think you know what you’re seeing. You always have to keep that on hold. That’s one thing that a writer has to keep in mind. You don’t go anywhere as an expert no matter how much reading you’ve done beforehand.
It was good for me to know when the pirates were lying to me. It was interesting to hear how many times a pirate who probably had never even seen the ocean before tried to tell me he was a fisherman. On the ship, it was different. Those guys were on the water. Even on the ship when I was held for about six months on a hijacked tuna vessel, the pirates came down to try and fish with handlines. They didn’t know what they were doing. I knew at some point that although piracy off Somalia had started with the illegal fishing problem was real, most pirates by the time I got there were no longer defending the coastline. The proof of that is that they captured me on land. Hearing propaganda lines from pirates who didn’t necessarily know that I knew better added to the comedy.
You brought up the ship. I want to get into that a little bit because it brings up this concept of adaptability. Adaptability being another characteristic of elite performance. We define adaptability as the ability to adjust one’s behavior to the situation. You were captured on land. You were initially held on land then you were moved to the ship offshore for about five months and you came back to land. In the macro sense, 2 years and 8 months, 977 days. This is a long time.
We’ve been going through Coronavirus for more than thirteen months and people were two months in and were like, “I’m done with Coronavirus. It actually doesn’t exist.” You’re like, “I don’t even think we started yet.” There’s not a whole lot of people who could survive that length of time and it does require an incredible amount of adaptability and different coping mechanisms. You speak about some of the different ways that you approached your day, different things you did to cope mentally, physically and emotionally. You talk about yoga at one point where you said, “My heart beats through a deep sludge of emotion during these desolate afternoons. The only antidote to so much visceral anguish seemed to be yoga.” Can you talk about how you dealt with each day, the routines that you put together, and the coping mechanisms that you use to keep your mind and your body astute?
That was important because I noticed that it was easy, especially after I was on the ship. Once I got on the ship, all of a sudden there was a crew. There were a total of 30 hostages on board including me and one of the Seychellois. The rest were 28 guys from Southeast Asia and that was the company. Those guys, whether I could talk to them or not, they became friends. After that, I was alone. After the ship, I was again held alone on land. That’s when I was in real danger of becoming so desperate emotionally that I could have picked up a gun. To manage that, I had a routine in the morning.
First of all, I had to sleep between 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM. They timed everything according to the calls to prayer. The sun goes down pretty regularly near the equator around 6:00 PM every day of the year and rises again by 6:00 AM. Between 6:00 AM and maybe 5:00 if the muezzin was a little bit ambitious. You would hear the call to prayer at dawn and I could get up, get out of my mosquito net and go take a piss. That’s how the day would start. It would be hours before I would get breakfast. I had to do something with my mind.
In the morning I had this routine of going through memories not idly through memories but memorizing passages of writing and trying to adjust things in my head. I had writing projects I’d left behind in Berlin and I was trying to edit my books in my mind. I composed whole paragraphs in my head and then I had to remember them. Every morning I would remember the new paragraph or I would try to remember a conversation from yesterday. Sometimes I couldn’t take notes physically. I would remember this or that. I compose these chunks of writing in my head and go through them every morning. There would be breakfast. I would try to do yoga before lunch because lunch was typically pretty heavy. When I was settled and alone, I can ask for a mat because the floor was dirty. Doing an hour of yoga really helped to even out my emotions because otherwise, I could get desperate. Without being able to do that, I would have been in a lot worse shape emotionally.
That’s one of the things that we talk about a lot. We referenced a lot the selection and assessment as a Green Beret or the SEALs who are involved with the Talent War Group. We talked about their training and it’s always about one evolution, one training event, one iteration, one run, one night at a time. If you approach it like that, then mentally, you’re completing a lot of small tasks. If you start to look at it as, “I have 61 days. I have 30 days. I have 2.5 years,” you didn’t know what your timeline was going to be. That was endless. If you approach it like that, then you will fall mentally into this trap. Creating these small goals helps you to structure your thought process.
I was imposing a little bit of structure on each day because there was no structure except for mealtimes which were also fluid. I had to do something during the day. Most of the time it was something with my mind. The yoga helped partly because it was physical and partly because it made me think at least that I was keeping in shape. I was not by the way, but I at least broke a sweat. I was limber if nothing else, not strong. There was a meditative component about it too that I had not thought about. I just did yoga to keep in shape for surfing while I lived in Berlin. That meditative component turned out to be important too, breathing and making sure that your mind goes into a slightly different state at least once a day is very important.
I think about hostage-taking and being a prisoner. My lens is through that of being a Special Forces officer and the training that we go through and what we call SERE, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. That lens is clouded because I think about a big, strong, fit man with bad attitudes. A super type-A personality and they’re trained in survival and resistance. The reality is ordinary people are the ones who are captured the most like journalists, aid workers, teachers, fishermen. It’s easy to forget that they haven’t gone through this formal training. The government spent millions of dollars on me preparing my mind and body for such an event like this. You had no formal training but you displayed significant resistance efforts. In fact, it’s a big piece of your story, this resistance and this continuous drive to escape.
You had escape attempts, you had dreams of a mutiny when you were on the boat, you communicated and you passed messages to the military, to the drones, to your mother, to the FBI and it got you at times in better treatment and better conditions. It increased your personal morale and encouraged you to feel that you were getting somewhere. To me, I see that as drive, another characteristic of elite performance. We define drive as a need for achievement or a growth mindset to be better than you were yesterday or continuous self-improvement. Can you talk about this drive to never quit? You always had to figure out how to change your situation to make it a little bit better.
I hadn’t thought about that as a drive but it was something that I felt like I had to do while I was sitting there doing nothing. My mind had to work on something. While I wasn’t memorizing things or composing in my head or thinking about the past, I spent hours trying to work something out. If I was in a prison house, even though my eyesight was good, I tried to make sure that I knew how to get out if I could. In almost no case did I have the ability to get out because the gate to the compound would be locked from outside. There will be ten guys in the house with guns. Still, I would sit there and think, “If I can, what would I do?” “If a team comes in to rescue me, where do I hide from the gunfire? What are they doing now?” I could hear surveillance planes overhead pretty early. I was aware that there was surveillance. I was thinking, “If people are looking at me or looking for me, they’re doing that from above.”
In one compound for example there was an open-roofed corner bathroom with a gate. You went into what was basically a hole in the ground, but it was private and there was no roof. Every now and then, I bummed a cigarette from the pirates. Once I got a lighter that had an LED on the end. I thought well I can at least flash the sky. I know how to do SOS in Morse code so I can do that. I’m possibly the only person in Somalia who knows Morse code in English. Maybe if the Navy’s overhead and they happen to see someone randomly flashing Morse code with a little LED from this compound, it will occur to somebody and I decided to do that on a regular basis. Every morning at 6:00 AM, I get up and go to the bathroom. I figured if I’m regular about it then they can check their facts and come back and see if that happened again. Eventually, it occurred to me to do that through toilet paper too because I think I was lighting up the whole little bathroom area. The pirates were onto me at some point.
At one point, you did try to escape.
Yes. Later off the ship. Once I was on the ship, I thought, “The ocean is my element. I’m a surfer. These guys don’t even know I can swim. There’s got to be a way off here somehow.” I spent the whole summer in 2012 thinking about that and not talking to other people about it. The first thing I wanted to do was get the whole ship rescued or whatever. At the end of the summer, the ship started to break down. At some point at the end of August or something, the anchor chain broke. There was a lot of confusion on board. It was not clear what was going to happen to us. In fact, the basic idea was we were probably going to get brought to land again which is a nightmare. Being held on land was a lot worse than being held on the ship in part because of the company, but also because of the food and the ocean air and everything like that.
I thought, “There’s no way. I’m not going to get hauled back to land like a goat or something like that.” We’re on this ship. It’s got no anchor. We’re moving. I didn’t know where we were moving to but we still weren’t that far from shore. One thing I knew since there had been so many surveillance planes. There had been a lot of visits until that point on the ship. I know that the military can look at me from 7 miles away. This was close enough for everyone to know that I was being looked at by a foreign power. Once the ship was underway, I’m like, “There’s got to be a drone watching.”
This ship doesn’t even have an anchor. It’s not moving well. They’re not going to turn it around if I jump. I found an excuse to get down on the deck after dark. I jumped, thinking the ship is going to have to travel on ahead and the pirates are going to have to send out little skips or something to find me in the dark and screw them. Maybe a drone can alert a rescue team and I can get scooped out of the water. That was the best opportunity I found all summer to escape. It was not ideal and it didn’t work but it was the best chance. It turns out there were probably plans to get me off the ship, but as far as I understand probably not the whole group of hostages.
I had spent something like six months on the ship. Before I let the pirates haul me back onto land and into that life again, I was going to try and escape and that’s what I did. That’s exactly what they did. Instead of turning around, the ship made a U-turn but it started to come sideways on a swell. I had looked at the swell to make sure I knew how to get away from the ship fast enough. The same swell that I use to swim away from the ship, the ship used that to come back and get me. I knew that the ship eventually was going to roll right over me if I didn’t do something. I had to get back on board. That was a problematic part of captivity.
It was amazing to read and hear you speak the number of times that I’d have to talk about these attempts. It ingenious sometimes and then how you seized these opportunities. You saw the opportunity and you said “I’ve got to go. I got to try.” You got to try because otherwise if you’re not trying, what are you doing? You just keep existing. That’s a big thing that we talked about and advocate all the time. You have to keep pushing, trying and try to take it to the next level. I was reading and laughing at some points when I was reading the book about hunger strikes. Before your first hunger strike, you even said to yourself, “I don’t even know how to conduct a hunger strike. When do I start? What do I do?”
Maybe I should give classes or something. Among all the things to prepare for when you’re captive, that’s the one thing that I could have used lessons in. The other things you can learn if you’re going into a dangerous situation anyway. When I started a hunger strike, I wasn’t prepared for the psychological aspect. Once your body starts to go hungry especially if it’s hungry already which it always was in Somalia, your mind starts to play tricks and you get desperately depressed. You don’t know when it’s going to end. You don’t know when you’re going to get the next meal. Your mind abandons you and you have to be ready for that. After the first hunger strike, I was ready for it. I knew by tomorrow morning I’m going to be depressed. I’m going to want to eat something. Either I’ll find a chance or something will break or whatever.
This brings up other characteristics of elite performance which are resiliency and emotional strength. These days were long. The food was poor. Your health was deteriorating. Your mind, body and emotions are in this downward spiral. It’s almost like this slow death that you know is happening but it’s like, “How do I stop it?” You talked about depression. You talk about the anxiety that set in. These thoughts of suicide permeated your mind every single day. You phrase them as fantasies of suicide.
You quote author Gerald Hanley in his book Warriors where he talks about Somalia during and after World War II. He discusses the geographical economic, political and climate dysfunction of Somalia and the effect that it had on the British soldiers who later, many of them committed suicide. You quote them and say, “We do not know the size and strength of our manias until they fall upon us and drag us down or the barrenness of our inner deserts until real loneliness, fear, bewilderment and sun-madness have cast us into them.” This is perseverance in the face of challenges. This is the definition of resiliency. Can you talk a bit more about that?
I wasn’t thinking in these terms while I was there. I didn’t think I was performing. I thought I was performing pretty badly, but I was open to all this desolation while I was there. Your mind goes to some pretty dark places and you have to think, “Maybe it’ll be better if I kill myself or if I tried to shoot one of the guards,” which would also have been a suicidal move. You have to either get swamped with those emotions or stand aside and judge them or maybe judge them is the wrong word. Either you’re in charge of the whole boat or you’re not. Sometimes you just aren’t. I’ve discovered this in the meantime too. Maybe I have more of a language for it now.
If you can step aside from those emotions and not live in them, even though you feel them, then you at least have room to judge or think. Even though you might feel like this day is the day that I shoot myself, you can stand aside from that and say, “Is it really? Can you go another day?” Maybe it’s a question of personality too but you can feel without living in those emotions. It’s important to do both. It’s important to know that they’re there and to feel them. Especially in a circumstance like that where desolation might seem like all there is in a desert that you’re not used to, in an atmosphere that you’re not used to. It’s important to be able to set the feelings aside and say, “Those are the emotions but that’s not all there is.”
There’s an acceptance and understanding that I’m feeling this right now. I accepted it.
You can’t fight that but you have to say, “I’m feeling it but it’s not everything.”
I want to note this too because I laughed out loud when I read this. Even the pirates commented that they were impressed with your level of resilience.
Where is that in the book?
It’s where you hit a bit over the two-year mark where somebody said to you like, “I can’t believe you lasted this long.”
It’s one of the guards. He said, “Michael, two years.” I’m like, “Tell me about it. I’ve been here the whole time. You could let me go now.”
The captors tried to control and influence the information that they gave to you. You talked to me earlier about how they fed you false information about US-NATO operations in the area. Your hopes are always in this ebb and flow. You’re riding this tide. You’re super excited at some times that, “It’s going to end. I’m going to be rescued. I’m going to be out of here.” At other times, you’re in this depression of, “I’m here forever.” You didn’t know a lot about the status of negotiations. At one point it was fifteen months where you hadn’t had a conversation.
No phone calls.
Knowledge is power in so many things that we do. We spoke about how the knowledge and understanding, and how the environment helped you to be prepared to endure this. It’s the same in business. I believe that some leaders will use knowledge as a leadership tactic wrongfully. They will withhold information from their teams or their subordinates because they think it makes them feel more powerful or it makes them feel more in charge. People then have to go to them to say, “Boss, what do I do?” When if you allow knowledge to flow through an organization, you empower folks to be better at what they do. You make everybody’s life easier and the organization stronger. This requires a tremendous amount of emotional strength, which we define as emotional control in stressful situations and bringing calm to chaos.
You had a visceral hatred of these guys. How could you not? One of the ways you frame it is you say, “I never seen such a powerful human force of chaos at such a close range. My kidnappers were not even good kidnappers.” There’s this frustration and these things that are happening all the time where you’re looking at these guys and you’re saying, “You guys are total idiots. You’re total idiots. Here I am a journalist, an educated guy. I understand the world. I am completely at your mercy and there’s nothing I can do.”
We talk about uncertainty as the worst condition for a hostage. How do you control that uncertainty in your mind and maintain that self-control? The natural reaction is, “I’m going to fight your violence with violence. I’m going to become belligerent. I’m going to treat you like you treat me. We’re going to keep escalating this thing.” This is a bad situation. The type-A personality in me says, “Let’s go head-to-head,” but you can’t.
There was a lot going on. The answer is complicated or not complicated but involved. First of all, I was there to learn something about those guys. Although I completely resented being at their mercy and I was angry about it for more than two years. I was angry, bitter and wanting revenge in my heart. If I had thought I could get away with it, I would have killed them which is not a healthy way to live. At the same time, I went there to learn something about these guys. As well as I could on a day-to-day basis, I tried to.
First of all, you can’t be angry 24 hours a day without a fuse burning out. I tempered it with that. Also, what you said about not knowing when it might end was the most important aspect. That was the most difficult thing. When you talk about your Special Forces training, when you break down 60 days into one day at a time of whatever suffering or whatever mission you’re talking about, at least you know it’s 60 days. In this case, even if something good happened like a rescue attempt, I knew that I might die. Any direction that I looked forward in, there was still a chance that I wasn’t going to make it out to see my family. I gave my own odds at something like 50/50 and add to it that you didn’t know how long it was going to last.
That idea of looking forward to a point in the future and hoping for that or living for that was completely off the table. Hope was a dangerous emotion. I could not sit there and think, “Won’t it be nice someday in the future when I see my family and friends again.” Once you start to think that way, you start to wonder how long it’s going to be. You start to listen to the pirates who say, “It’s only going to be two weeks or one month.” Two weeks or a month come by and you feel worse than you did before. That hope and despair become a cycle that’s dangerous to go around.
The only way that I found to deal with it was a form of detachment. It was a way to detach yourself from that braking wheel altogether and say, “I might not live. I might not get out of here alive but I’m going to live today. I’ll survive for today. I’m sitting here and I’m not dead. I’m not diseased.” I was at some other point, but it could be worse. I got some beans to eat and even though the moment is terrible, you live in that moment. You don’t live for the future or the past. I did think about the past quite a bit but you find that way to navigate what’s in front of you, the day or the hour. You learn not to live for some sort of a prize in the future.
That is probably an important thing for a person like me to learn because I went to Somalia with a big plan. I had the logistics mostly in order before I went. That’s how I work. Maybe in particular for a writer, you have to learn to watch those plans go to dust too because you’re not in total control of any writing project. For the last couple of years, I’ve been sitting at my desk basically. You can have a plan for your book but you’re not in total control of that plan. You have to learn to temper that. Learning to live for that moment, however horrible it was, was one way to detach myself from these future plans and these future goals. That was an important lesson. There has to be that balance, otherwise, you can get into trouble.
You mentioned the past in this amount of time that you had to think about the past. This was a time where you had to reflect on the decisions that you made. You had to accept the right and the wrong of those decisions, if you could even say this was right or this was wrong. This brings up an aspect of humility. Humility is the ability to maintain accurate self-awareness. Recognize that you don’t have all the answers, that you may have to reach out and understand that you weren’t right in a certain situation.
One of your captors, one of the bosses early on in your detainment said to you, “You made a mistake. Mistakes are human.” You had to internalize that and there weren’t a lot of contexts around that comment. For the remainder of your captivity, this sits in your head. You say later on, “Like any human, I prefer to be proud of myself and not ashamed. Like any writer, I want it to be right, now I was wrong, worse than wrong. I’d taken a spectacular risk in coming to this dangerous place in the evil that continued to flow from my mistake was impossible to square or defend. This level of introspection and acceptance of our mistakes forces us to become better leaders. It’s how we operate at an elite level when we exhibit this humility.” Can you talk more about this?
That was a translator early on who had pretty good English but I had to sort of process that because like I say in the book, from his point of view, I didn’t make a mistake. I couldn’t tell what he was accusing me of. I gave them an opportunity. If anything, he was going to profit from my mistake. What crime was he accusing me of exactly? That was never clear. Whatever they were pretending to think I had done wrong against them was never clear. I was accused of being a spy here and there and that thing. They were not clear about it but they just wanted money from me.
It was obvious after he said that to me that I had made a mistake in coming to Somalia. If only for the sake of my family and friends, getting captured was the wrong way to go. I had 2.5 years to think about that. Was it worth it and all that thing? Of course, the answer is no. Nothing is worth that kind of suffering. You have to find a different basis for your own character but also survival, just like you’re not living for a goal or some future moment when everything gets redeemed or whatever. You learn to focus on the actual facts of the moment which for one thing, I’m still alive. Reason to yourself in that sense.
Have you been able to reconcile that?
Yes. First of all, you make sure that you’re okay with your family and friends when you get out. Also, you learn that living in that sort of momentary way is a good way to find equilibrium even in ordinary life.
Relationships were a big part of your captivity. You had relationships with all sorts of various factions if you want to call them that. You had other captives when you were on the ship. You talked a lot about Rolly who was your best friend, the Seychellois fisherman and his counterpart, Mark. You also had these Chinese and Filipino captives. You also had relationships with the pirates and you had pirate bosses that required one level of relationship. You had your day-to-day guards which you had a different relationship. You had a loss of relationships. You had your mother, you had your home, Germany, the US, your friends, your grandmother that you, unfortunately, lost during this time.
Each one of these relationships required you to think about how you approach them differently because you couldn’t approach each one of these in the same mindset. You also had a lot of time to reflect on the relationship that you had with your father from when you were a child. I have to imagine that how you approach these relationships helped probably in a lot of ways as you dealt with this captivity because it is a critical part of leadership, this ability to understand the nature of relationships with yourself, your team, your organizations. I’m wondering if maybe you could speak about how you thought about your relationship with these different groups.
Maybe I learned to think about them. That’s important too because it’s so easy to take them for granted. That’s an intelligence too and it’s probably an intelligence that my mom has. Learning to think about a relationship and work it out is a skill on its own. Maybe dealing with different kinds of pirates I did that somehow automatically and instinctively. You realize when you spend so much time away from your family that you have taken those relationships for granted. I’ve tried to be a little more focused on that thing when I got out, not always successfully, by the way. A relationship is also a thing to focus on. It is also a thing to be intelligent about and in the end, one of the most important things.
I’m interested in the relationship that you built with the other captives and the ones specifically who were on the ship. Often when you experienced traumatic experiences in groups, you see it in veterans all the time. You see it in people who go through emotional events. It creates this bond and there’s this sense of teamability which we talked about as a characteristic of elite performance as well. There’s this prioritization of the organization ahead of oneself and is working as a cohesive unit. You also have this language barrier. You alluded to and you said you couldn’t build a deep relationship or have philosophical conversations with these folks because you had some who spoke English. There are Chinese and Filipino and you have the Somalis. You created this almost new language that you called pidgin. This is interesting to me because you’re in captivity and you’re part of this team. This is a team that nobody wanted to be a part of.
You mean on the ship, on the Naham 3, which was the tuna vessel. Rolly and I were taken from land and placed aboard this ship which was anchored off a Hobyo. All of a sudden, we were part of a crew. I mean there’s a crew of fairly young fishermen from around Southeast Asia and only 5 or 6 of them spoke English well, maybe a few more but it was broken English. What everyone spoke together was pidgin which was a mixture of English and Chinese in their case. You form these intense relationships but you don’t necessarily know the person. The most frustrating part for me since I’m a writer is that I knew I was living there for six months with this storehouse of incredible stories. I had no translator to talk to the guys beyond the English speakers in detail. I wanted to know what sort of philosophical or religious background they were falling back on to survive. It turned out that they would spend more time in Somali than I would. They had a rougher time on land after this season on the ship. Thank God they’re all out but they didn’t get out until 2016 about two years later.
You helped free them.
I helped, I don’t know how much but I contributed some money. I followed the case. When they got out, I went down to Nairobi. I quickly got on the plane when I learned they were getting out. I was keeping in touch with the negotiators. Those guys are still important to me. They became a team in a way that they never expected to from fairly poor villages all around East Asia. They should have been, according to their contracts, probably on the ship together as a group for about 1.5 years with some overlaps. People going in and out on the fringes. They spent over five years together.
We realized in Nairobi when I went down to see them and they were living in a hotel for a few days right after getting out. That was the last time they were going to see each other as a group. That was very moving because once they started to leave, they would leave and the Filipinos left in a group. Once they start to leave, they realized they weren’t going to see each other together again. That was moving because there’s no way you can get twenty. By the end it was 26 guys, two men died. There’s no way you can get 26 guys scattered across Asia back together for a group. Logistically, it’s hard enough.
That’s all they knew for five years.
It was much more intense than being a fishing crew which is an intense life on its own. They had to form these deep bonds that even I don’t know about. I want to see some of them again. In fact, I hope that will be a topic of a future book but I would like to go and talk to a few of them with the proper translator first of all and also see how they’re doing. It’s a moving story and I don’t think I even know the whole thing. I try to get details about their life on land after the ship but there wasn’t that much time in Nairobi. There’s still more there that I don’t even know about.
You addressed Stockholm syndrome in the book. Stockholm syndrome is the theory that over time, captives form this bond and become sympathetic to their captors or their captors’ causes. In the book, you said, “It wasn’t like that for me. Most of my comfortable and civilized life had been stripped away but the core of it, my will had sharpened. Stockholm syndrome and forgiveness were not equivalent. I learned to forgive, but I hadn’t forgotten the nature of the game.” To me, this shows a strong sense of integrity and an understanding of what’s legal and what’s right. You align your actions, words and thoughts to that. Can you talk about this never-ending drive to hold them accountable, not let them off the hook for what they were doing and did to you?
Yes, that’s important. Stockholm syndrome probably comes up more often than any other topic when I talk about being hostage and that’s because that’s all anyone knows. It’s shorthand for what your mind must go through as a captive. Nobody knows anything else. It’s not an old idea. Stockholm syndrome has only been named since 1973 when there was a bank robbery in Stockholm. Those bank employees were only held hostage for six days. I don’t want to be a snob. Two things that are important to say about Stockholm syndrome is whether it exists or not, it is still under dispute. One of the faces of Stockholm syndrome from that case of the bank robbery was never interviewed in a clinical setting by the people who now are experts on Stockholm syndrome.
The general public noticed that she was showing an unusual amount of sympathy for one of the gunmen in the bank robbery. No one sat down to talk to her and find out what exactly was going on. There are theories about what was going on and I understand the theories. The other thing that’s important to know about Stockholm syndrome is that even the FBI seems to think only 5% of people suffer from it in a situation like that. What I was getting out with that passage about forgiveness is important. It’s only occurred to me in the meantime, you put these ideas together. I wasn’t thinking this at the time in the same sense.
This has to be true about every captive situation, every hostage situation. You’re in a world where the captives need to tell you that good and bad are reversed. They need to tell you that you deserve to be captive, just like that translator told me at the beginning, “You’ve made a mistake. You deserve to be our captive.” That creates daily tension. All of a sudden, you’re in this world where good and bad are flipped. Either you maintain your sense of right and wrong or you flip with them. Your mind has to do something with that tension. You can remain angry for two years as I did.
Forgiveness was a way to ease that tension but also maintain my sense of integrity and my notions of good and bad. I made a deliberate decision to say, “You guys that are feeding me beans every morning, I don’t need to kill you. I don’t need to work out my revenge on you guys. I can find somewhere in my mind to forgive you.” That turns out to be one of the only freedoms you have in some situations is that decision to do something better or worse. That turns out to be the basis of human freedom in some ways.
It’s forgiving, not forgetting.
I wrote the book. I didn’t want to forget. It may be a trial of a couple of guys too. It doesn’t mean that I need to see them go free. That day, when I decided to forgive my guards in Somalia, I released myself from that need for vengeance. That was the burning need that I lived with for a long time, “You are trying to tell me that this is the right order of things and screw off. For that, I’m angry and I want to hurt you.” No, not necessarily. You can cut things a little bit finer than that if you sit and think about it and if you work it out in your mind. That turns out to be a freedom that anyone has.
Forgetting is not the idea. In some traditions, maybe it is. It’s not necessary for me. I can forgive and detach myself from emotional investment in the memories. That’s how I keep going in the same direction. That’s a different idea. In that sense, there’s a big gap between forgiving and forgetting. That’s how I resolved that Stockholm syndrome tension. Although I’m a bit of a Stockholm syndrome skeptic, I don’t think it happens that often. You still do hear about hostages who converted to Islam when they were in a similar situation. Hostages of ISIS or the Taliban. I completely understand that.
That’s a direct result of a certain tension that’s probably true in every hostage case. It’s only one response. In some cases, it might be the right response for survival or whatever reason. It’s not the only response that a human has available. Think of the range of responses to any human against any authority whether it’s rational or not. There’s a whole range and people can manage one way or another. When you’re a hostage, the whole world seems completely irrational. You have to find a way to face it emotionally.
On September 22, 2014, pirates come into your room as they had done numerous times and tell you, “Pack your things. Mike, you go free.”
First of all, it was the 23rd. It was probably the 22nd back in America. There was a time difference. The first thing they did in the morning was they handed me a phone. I didn’t spend enough time on the phone with the negotiators to tell me what was going on. They said, “You’re going free.” I’ll believe that when I see it. I’ve heard that too many times. In the middle of the day, a car arrived. They said, “Michael, your car’s here.” I don’t know what that means. Cars normally arrived at the deepest part of the night and woke us up and we had to move locations in secret or something. This car was here in the afternoon. These guys were saying I was supposed to leave in the car. This is weird but I’m not going to make any assumptions.
The guard started to shake my hand, “Bye.” “Bye? What are we doing?” I assumed I was not going to go free but they had sold me to another group. At that time, ISIS was a topic on the radio. Jim Foley has been beheaded. I thought these guys sold me to Al-Shabaab or maybe ISIS. I’d probably spend another year in Somalia. We got into the SUV and they drove me out to another point in the bush. There was another car there with only one person and he had no weapon. The pirates handed me off to him. All of a sudden, I was in a car with no guards and no weapons in sight. That was the first time that had been true since before I was kidnapped.
The guy driving the car said, “Your mother is in North Galkayo waiting for you.” I was like, “Will somebody tell me what’s going on?” He put me on the phone with my mother and a negotiator. I said, “You’re not in Africa, are you?” They said, “No, but you’re going free. You’re going to have a driver take you to the airport. There will be a pilot waiting for you. His name’s Derek.” When I finally got to the airport and saw Derek, it was a complete relief because that was the first time I’d seen a person who was confident and knew what he was doing in more than two years.
What was that flight like?
I get motion sick. I was glad that he had Dramamine on him. He gave me a backpack with some things, including Dramamine. He said that he had been getting nervous because it was going to be a few hours to Mogadishu. We had a flight in Mogadishu first. He said, “At some point in the afternoon, the wind gets too high. If we don’t leave now we might have to spend the night. I’m glad your here.” I took the Dramamine and I spent a few hours on the plane getting used to the idea that I was going free. I was still defensive about the idea of going free or giving myself any hope at all that I had to unclench. It took weeks. It took a long time to finally relax into the idea that I was free.
At least by the time I got to the plane, I knew it was real and it was going to happen. We landed in Mogadishu. I couldn’t believe I spent 2.5 or 3 hours on the plane. I was still wasn’t out of Somalia but I landed in Mogadishu. Pretty quickly after that, an Air Force plane landed, a C-130. That plane took me to Nairobi. I was with a bunch of other people. First of all, the guys on the plane were suited to jump out of the plane, let’s put it that way. Some FBI agents who have been following my case and some people and a doctor. Some people knew what was going on and who I could talk to. It was a huge relief.
The reintegration is what we call it essentially when you come out of captivity. You go into this reintegration phase. You talked about your brain hurting, your mind and your head would seize up and they wouldn’t work. Your physical condition was weak. You had a variety of different illnesses. You can’t run.
I didn’t have the muscles to run.
You call it a fugue state. I had to look this up because I didn’t know. I never heard that term. Fugue state is defined as a dreamlike state of altered consciousness or a dissociative state of unexpected travel away from one’s home with the inability to recall some or all of one’s past. The onset is sudden as you would expect in captivity or what you went through. Can you elaborate on the fugue state?
Fugue used to be a little more specific than it is now. I’m relying on the fact that it’s a slightly old-fashioned word. When I got out, I realized that I had been used to not doing anything and not having to make decisions. On a normal day, we make a whole lot of small decisions that are at least important for getting through the day. I was in this situation as a hostage that I had simply gotten used to. All of a sudden, I was weak. I was not mentally sharp and I was expected to make all kinds of decisions including on one of the flights back to Berlin, do I want an extra set of silverware for my meal?
First of all, “Really?” Second, how am I supposed to make that decision? “I’ll keep my knife and fork, thank you.” It was little things like that overwhelmed me. Also, dealing with individual people. We talked about relationships. When I first got back, a bunch of my friends wanted to see me. There was supposed to be a party or something. I can’t have a party right now. I went to a bar with six people who had taken care of my laundry, taking care of a moth problem in my apartment, just my best friends and wonderful people. That was about the best I could do socially.
Six people were a little bit overwhelming. Each person takes a certain amount of mental work. You adjust what you say according to whoever this person is and what they might need to hear. That was a lot of mental work that I had not been doing for two and a half years. At least, not since the ship. I was easily overwhelmed. It came back within weeks. I did have a party within 2 or 3 weeks. It’s not what I wanted all at once at first. I saw my mom. My mom and my uncle came to Berlin. I saw a bunch of people in succession. I was easily overwhelmed not just with people in a room but also with some paperwork that might have to be done here and there. I realized, mentally, I had to exercise to get back into a state where I could get through the day.
Many veterans talk about PTSD. To some extent, it’s been stigmatized so much, the definition of what PTSD is and what it means versus what the concept of PTSD is and what people think it is. They think that if you have PTSD, you’re crazy, you see dead people, you jump at every loud noise. That’s a small percentage of those traumatic experiences that people exist. PTSD becomes more of a mindset. It becomes how you react and how your body reacts to certain stressful situations. There are some people who have 100% disability ratings of PTSD who are perfectly functioning people. Every single day, they operate at a high level. Early on, you got some advice from an FBI psychologist who told you not to pathologize things because you can look for answers in these situations. You can say, “Is there something wrong with me? What might be wrong with me?” For someone who has to endure what you endured or goes through a difficult situation and has to look back on it to not self-diagnose themselves, can you talk a little bit about what that meant to you?
It’s important that it’s worth writing about like Stockholm syndrome and everything else. I’d probably come back to these topics at some point in writing. That psychologist came from the Army Special Forces. His name is Dr. Dickens and most American hostages see him. He knows a lot about combat stress and PTSD. When he spent some time with you, he decides how you should be treated. He had to argue with the Germans about putting me into a clinic. I’m also a German citizen. He argued, “No, let’s not pathologize him. Let’s not treat him like a patient. Let’s make sure that he has the circumstances he needs to recover and he’ll recover.”
That’s when I realized fairly quickly is that I have a lot to recover from. There’s a lot that needs to come back for me to function in Berlin. It was something that ultimately the body and the mind know how to do. Dr. Dickens didn’t diagnose me with PTSD. I turned around and faced him at some point. Before we even flew back to Berlin, we were still in Nairobi for a couple of days. I said, “Are you here because I might have PTSD?” It didn’t even occur to me until that point. He said, “We don’t like to put a label on anything.” At some point in the airport, flying back to Berlin, I’m panicking. I turned to him and I said, “Am I hyper-vigilant?” He said, “Maybe.” His whole demeanor was comforting because it was like, “You might be but it might not be permanent.”
PTSD is real but if you have it, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Like most mental conditions, there’s a huge cognitive aspect. There’s the mental and physical situation that you’re trying to recover from. There’s the idea of having PTSD. There’s the cognitive aspect of, “I’m sick.” In this aspect, you can do away with it. At best, leave it aside. Who cares what you call it. The label you put on it and the social baggage that’s associated with it, that as much as possible, should be left aside. There are real things that your body and mind need to recover from. With any mental condition, there’s the idea of it that can complicate recovery. If I had been put in a situation where I was treated like I was crazy or half crazy, it would have been more difficult than it already was. It took me a year to recover physically. Mentally, I don’t take anything for granted.
Perspective is a big part of the recovery or after the recovery for the rest of your life, how you approach things moving forward. Perspective is how we regard something as a point of view. People ask me all the time, “What did you learn in the military?” It’s like, “That’s such a broad question. How do I give you an answer?” My answer is always perspective. I went to all these crazy places in the world. I had these crazy experiences. I saw pure evil in its most vile form. I saw some of the good, some of the heartfelt impressions of humanity. You gain a perspective from doing that. You take that into everything else that you do in life. That becomes this affective intelligence, this way that you look at the rest of the world based on your experiences.
For you, it’s different from me because I’ve seen this evil and I’ve seen these things in this region of the world. For me, from this perspective of a victor where I didn’t live it, I was always tangential to it. I was a third party looking at it and saying, “That’s bad but we’re winning. That happened to those guys.” You had to live this. This was your life. If you didn’t approach it right, there were real consequences that could have involved your death. I’m wondering how this experience changed your perspective. Do you think about yourself as a better or worse version of yourself now after your captivity than before? Can you even be the same?
I don’t know. That’s a difficult question to answer. What I said before about learning to live in the moment as opposed to living for results six months down the road was an important recentering. I’ve carried that with me. You can’t get stuff done without planning for the future and taking yourself out of the moment and everything like that. You can’t control everything either. You have to find a balance between those things. I’ve carried that with me but that doesn’t mean I’ve done everything. I’ve maintained that balance the whole time because I was kidnapped in Somalia.
The perspective is important. I find people, especially in the West, get upset about the most ridiculous things all the time. There are lots of things that are based on identity and our notions of ourselves that people get upset about on a daily basis. It complicates ordinary life. From that point of view, the perspective I gained from being a hostage has been another centering. It gives me a deeper sense of the center of gravity. No question. Was I better before? Maybe. In some ways, I was more single-minded. Maybe what I said means that I’ve learned not to be quite single-minded and that’s a benefit. It’s hard to say.
It’s different though.
It’s different for sure. Talking about it in these terms is new for me. You’re probably right that there were some elements of what you call high achievement in recovering. That is something I should pay more attention to. I was possibly a more single-minded person before I went to Somalia. That was both good and bad.
You said that people get upset about the craziest things every day. I thought about you because I’ve been preparing for this conversation. I was in the car and I had to drive for about three hours. It’s 5:30 in the morning. Fifteen minutes down the road, I stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts to get a coffee. I got an extra-large hot coffee, the biggest one that they have in there. I pull out of the drive-thru and immediately upon entering the main road, the top of the coffee popped off. I went to grab the top with one hand and then dropped the coffee with the other. This is like out of a movie.
It’s like a scene from a sitcom.
This is from pot to the hand of the Dunkin’ Donuts employee to my hand and to my lap is this steaming hot coffee. It took me a second to rationalize like, “There’s a burning hot coffee that’s about to come right through my pants.” I have on these cotton shorts soaked. I’m driving and screaming, “No.” I’m like, “My car’s ruined. I’m burning.” I have to pull off. The first thing I see is a gas station. I pulled up and I jumped out. I’m ringing my shorts out. There are burn blisters on my leg but there’s no coffee. Not only there’s no coffee for me to drink but there’s no coffee on the floor. There’s no coffee under the seat. There’s no coffee in the center console.
I’m thinking that the car is trashed. I realized that all of the coffee is in my pants. There’s a slight wind here. I’m driving. An hour and a half into this drive, I was like, “This is a drive I didn’t want to do because I was going to get my second COVID vaccine.” I got the first one at the VA up in New York and then now down in Florida for a couple of weeks. They didn’t have Pfizer so the only place that had Pfizer was 3.5 hours away. Now, I’m thinking like, “This is bullshit. I’ve burned my leg.”
I was in quite a lot of pain for 3.5 hours. Nothing can touch my leg. My pants are soaked. I’m sitting in hot coffee, the car stinks and everything stinks like Splenda. I’m like, “Now I got to drive 3.5 hours. I’m in the car for eight hours today to go get a 30-second shot. My life sucks. Everything’s working against me.” Two seconds later, I was like, “What am I doing the rest of the week? I’m interviewing, Michael Scott Moore.” I’m like, “It’s not that bad.”
That’s good. If any good came out of what happened to me, it’s the perspective that other people put their lives into when they hear the story. That’s fantastic. That’s great to hear.
It forces you to think, “It could be much worse.”
It sounds like you took the hit for your car. You absorbed all the coffee. That’s not a bad thing.
I feel better about it now.
Once you are over the initial shock and pain, you can handle it.
My leg is almost healed. It’s almost all gone.
Do you still have blisters?
They’re no longer blisters. They’re now red marks that are scabbing and going away. We end every episode on the show where I speak about the Jedburgh’s three core competencies, three core things that they had to do every day to be successful. If they did these three things, it didn’t matter what challenges came their way because they were the foundation of their mission, their day or how they achieved success in their world. They had to be able to shoot, they had to be able to move, and they had to be able to communicate. From there, they could solve any problems. My question to you is, what are the three things that you do every day that make you successful in your world?
I don’t know.
It’s probably different than it used to be or at least it was for a couple of years.
Not necessarily. We talked about coffee. Coffee is a constant. That ritual of making coffee in the morning is important. When you sit down to work as a writer, unless you get absorbed into the work a little bit every day, you don’t feel like you’ve done work. Even if you have done lots of things here and there. Unless you have a few focused hours of work, you feel like you haven’t moved whatever the project is forward. That’s important. I don’t know if I have ways to get into that. I know that that’s one mark of a successful day. The third thing, I don’t know. There’s always a list of things I need to do during the day. If I get to all of them, then that’s a good thing. Not just the concentrated writing part of the day, but also the logistical part of the day. It’s getting stuff done plus coffee. Making sure the coffee doesn’t land in my lap.
Thank you. I do want to highlight that you do work as a board member with an organization called Hostage US. It’s an organization that I’ve come to know over the last couple of years. My first introduction to them was when we first met. I’ve been involved with them since then and have watched some of the programs that they’ve built. I do want to give a shout-out to Hostage US and draw attention to their cause. They’re doing some great work with Americans who’ve gone through a similar situation to you.
They’re terrific. What they do is they support families who have been left behind and who might be completely confused by whatever happened to their loved one who disappeared. That’s one thing I learned when I got kidnapped. The families don’t necessarily know what’s going on in the slightest. A little bit of support like that is what Hostage US has to offer. It’s fantastic. I’m on the board and I’m proud to serve them. I’m glad you mentioned it. Also, now that COVID is ending, I can speak again. The talk that I gave at that fundraiser is a talk that I can now give out to the world again.
It was incredibly impactful. We’ve spoken a lot about your experience here. I’ve been listening to that as I opened up this episode with you. I had goosebumps. Listening to the way that you tell it firsthand is truly inspirational.
That’s amazing. I’m glad that we saw each other there and that you had no idea what you were getting into when you went to the fundraiser.
I’m glad I did. We got to close out, unfortunately. I do want to highlight your definition of leadership. Journalism is important to you and me. It’s important to share how you defined leadership and journalism. You’ve called it, “To have a clear human voice expressing a philosophical point of view that’s consistent and distinct but open to the world.” As you sent me that definition, I couldn’t help but think about the characteristics of elite performances as we’ve defined them when we talked about them here. Normally, when I close the show, I assign one to my guest but I can’t because you don’t get one, Mike. You get all nine because you are here with us for that reason. You display those nine. I know you did before you went to Somalia. I know for sure you did every day of 977 days in Somalia. I know you do now. I appreciate your time and your friendship and partnership with me. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Thank you and thanks for this talk. I have to close by saying that for those 977 days, it sure didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like high-performance at all.
Thank you, Mike.