An Evil Cradling

A tuly incredible book that just drips with a sense of honest humanity. 

Brian Keenan, a Belfast man teaching at the American University in Beirut, hit the headlines in 1986 when he was abducted by gunmen representing Islamic Jihad, an element of the Hezbollah organisation. Over the course of the Lebanon hostage crisis, which lasted a full ten years from 1982 to 1992, over 100 foreigners were taken into captivity to be used as leverage against the USA and its allies.

In the UK and Ireland, three of the hostages received most attention: Keenan, who spent four and a half years in lockdown, kept blindfolded for most of that time; John McCarthy, the journalist who after a time was imprisoned alongside Keenan, breaking his period of solitary confinement; and Terry Waite, Special Envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was sent in to negotiate the release of Islamic Jihad hostages but was captured himself, and had to endure his own five years in hell.

All three men later wrote about their experiences in the Lebanon, but it is Brian Keenan’s book which most powerfully evokes the horrors of captivity, torture, and solitary confinement, most of the while being blindfolded and fed on the merest scraps of food. Few books take the reader inside the mind of a person so completely trapped and humiliated, yet able to survive the ordeal through the most extraordinary mental resilience.

The story, with all its horrors, is told in the most matter-of-fact way, with Keenan watching his captors - blindfold or not - even more closely than they watch him, analysing them as humans, trying to figure out what makes them tick.

In time a new element comes into the story, when John McCarthy becomes Keenan’s co-prisoner, giving him company and complementing his resilience and fortitude with friendship and solidarity. This is really the turning point. The tough Belfast man and the English public schoolboy make fun of each other, bonding largely through the use of filthy toilet humour. Keenan is surprised that an upper-class Englishman can be so resourceful and, in the circumstances, gentle; McCarthy appreciates and admires Keenan's great inner strength and no-nonsense certainty. They come to rely on one another and endure their ordeals together. Perhaps the most horrifying of these - among plenty of competition - is when both are wrapped in brown parcel tape and inserted into a coffin-shaped space beneath a lorry. They are moved to different locations no less than 17 times. In the end, both survive and live to tell the tale. Keenan was released first and wrote An Evil Cradling in not much more than 18 months.

How did he manage to survive, to get through those four-and-a-half years without being broken -physically, psychologically, emotionally? One answer might be that he is an utterly exceptional man, with resources of character and a will to survive that few of us share. That seems likely, on the basis of a close reading of the book. But then… people survived the concentration camps and other unimaginable horrors, in large numbers. Is the animal, unbudgeable will-to-survive enough? Is the refusal to abandon hope, any hope, the key? Let’s hope none of us never have to find out the hard way.

But two things - perhaps the two main ingredients in Keenan’s survival - are clear: the first is his fierce, unyielding determination to live a dignified human life, no matter how bad things got; the second concerns friendship, loyalty and togetherness. Solitary confinement, after all, is such a feared form of punishment because people need people. And one more thing: Keenan never allowed hate to dominate his response to what was happening to him.

Years later, long after they were all released, Terry Waite told the BBC "If you are bitter, it will eat you up and do more damage to you than to the people who have hurt you." This, in the end, is perhaps the main message of Keenan’s book, and his approach to writing it.

Harry Hawkins, as followers of the big man will know, has not always been able to reach this level of philosophical acceptance of evil. He’s always been one for meeting fire with fire, and hate with what he considers to be justice. With this in mind, H fans might like to reflect on the big man’s emotional responses and decision-making at crucial points in American Lockdown - is he, perhaps, becoming a little more Waite-like in his old age.

Extract from 'Making London Large' by Garry and Roy Robson

Brian Keenan – An Evil Cradling