Held hostage by an army of therapists

The resilience of the couple held by pirates is cause for celebration – except in the mad world of the trauma expert.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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‘We are happy to be alive, happy to be free and desperate to see our family.’

Rachel Chandler’s relief-tinged elation is more than understandable. For over a year, 56-year-old Rachel and her 61-year-old husband Paul had been held hostage by a gang of pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. During their captivity they had repeatedly been told that release was imminent. And each time their hopes, ever diminishing, were dashed. But not this time; on Sunday, they were finally released. Yet if the retinue of psychological experts lining up to talk down the Chandlers’ future prospects have their way, their suffering is far from over.

In 2006, the Chandlers, keen to take advantage of early retirement, set sail from Turkey on their 38-foot yacht Lynn Rival. There’s no doubting they were an adventurous couple. Over the course of the next three years, they journeyed down the Suez Canal, traversed the Red Sea and even took in the Gulf of Aden, an area rife with Somali pirates. It was after spending the summer of 2009 in the Seychelles that the Chandlers set off towards Tanzania on 22 October. Although well aware of what they described on their blog at the time as the ‘Somali pirate problem’, they decided to take the risk anyway.

It was to prove a misjudgement. In the early hours of 24 October, pirates on three skiffs boarded their yacht. It was to mark the beginning of 388 days of captivity. It’s impossible to downplay how difficult, how trying that 13-month experience must have been. Fed a meagre amount of food, shifted around Somalia by the gun-wielding gang, they were also deprived of any sense as to when or if they’d be released. Ransom demands were issued, with one reportedly paid to the wrong gang, but hope was in short supply. To compound the suffering, they were once also beaten and, for a period, separated from each other. Asked if they feared for their lives, Paul Chandler was equivocal: ‘That’s something we’ll talk about later, but we were not really directly endangered by the gang, after the initial seizure.’ Still, there can be no doubt that it must have been a painful, brutal experience.

You’d think, then, that the Chandlers’ release would be good news. You’d think that the couple’s happiness upon being released would simply be accepted. Yet everywhere there are dark forebodings about the Chandlers’ future. The Daily Mail enthusiastically quotes the warnings of a Somali doctor to the effect that ‘once home they will need more specialised attention’. Elsewhere, the Guardian offered up a glimmer of gloom amidst the hope under the headline ‘Too much celebration could leave them overloaded’. Trauma psychologist Lesley Perman-Kerr does not seem keen on letting knowledge intrude upon miserable imaginings: ‘We don’t know what their treatment has been but they are going to feel very unsafe in the world. That is going to take some time to adjust to.’

The Chandlers may be free, they may be excited about seeing their family, but, so the argument runs, they will be too mentally weak to cope with what is to come: the attention, the social contact, the semi-survivor’s guilt. As forensic psychologist Ian Stephen warns: ‘There may be a feeling that they got themselves into this mess and should have kept out of that area.’

None of the analysis is without a solution, however. In fact, the solution is flagged up in virtually every look at ‘what next for the Chandlers’: third-party professional expertise. Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford argued on CNN that ‘Instinctively the hostage knows they have to become very compliant and very passive. Once hostages are freed they can often find it very hard to keep emotions in and therapy can be very helpful to help you manage your own emotional responses.’ There is little suggestion that the Chandlers might just be able to summon up enough strength to manage their own emotions.

And what of those to whom one would normally look for support and help? What of friends? What of family? Indeed, what of people whom the Chandlers have themselves admitted they are desperate to see? The suggestion is that the informal support networks of family and friends may actually prove more hindrance than help. ‘With all good intentions’, warns Stephen, ‘[the Chandlers’] family and friends will want to welcome them home but the best thing is a period of decompression.’

The speculative character of the experts’ analyses and solutions is readily admitted. Their statements are rich in ‘I think’ and ‘probably’. However, that actual knowledge of the Chandlers’ situation is absent doesn’t seem to invalidate the assertions about the couple’s state of mind. In fact, it almost seems to justify their assertions. For these are not meant to be particular analyses dependent upon knowing about the Chandlers’ specific situation; these are general assertions about what happens to us when confronted by difficulties and obstacles. In other words, the Chandlers won’t be able to cope because people in general can’t cope. People are fragile, the Chandlers are people, and therefore the Chandlers are fragile. A downbeat syllogism about us in general underwrites the analysis of the Chandlers in particular.

Like the recent story of the Chilean miners’ entombment, it is simply assumed that people are automatically undone by dire situations. Hence we were told that the miners would be depressed, that they wouldn’t be able to cope with too much information from the world above, or too many letters from their loved ones. Like lab rats, the miners’ emotions had to be managed by those experts who know best (see Chilean miners: solidarity wins out over psychobabble, by Brendan O’Neill). That these miners, who had survived with no certainty of rescue for several weeks with little water and less food, might have resilience enough to cope with their situation simply didn’t fit into the psychological experts’ worldview. Likewise, the Chandlers’ resilience, proved not just by their go-it-alone, seafaring ambitions, but also by their ability to cope with being hostages for over a year, seems to have been ignored.

We need to remember that there is nothing automatically debilitating or necessarily traumatising about a dire experience. In the past, the narrative deployed when talking about those released from captivity – and here one thinks of those captured by Iranian militants in Lebanon in the 1980s, people like Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waite – tended to focus on the necessity of getting on with life, of overcoming one’s difficulties. Now, though, it is as if we are not deemed strong enough to overcome a horrific experience without the helping hand of therapy and counselling. Trauma must automatically define a survivors’ future.

Former hostage and envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite, responded to the news of the Chandlers’ release with more faith in humanity than the countless trauma experts wheeled out to dish the dirt on our fallibility. ‘People have the most amazing resilience’, he said. ‘People say to me, well, how did you manage in those years? How did you cope? I always reply by saying, well, most people have within them a capacity that you never know you have until you’re tested. Those dear people have been tested but I’m pretty sure they have that resilience and they’ll come through it fine.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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