Article by Peter Maass

Taken Hostage

The Washington Post  |  February 21, 1999
In the Cellar. By Jan Philipp Reemtsma

By Jan Philipp Reemtsma
Knopf. 240 pp. $24

Reviewed by Peter Maass

What can be said about a book in which the author vows to avoid a vivid narrative style and vivid metaphors? In which, writing of a traumatic experience he endured, he retreats into the third person, presenting his thoughts and fears as those of another man, “him”? And what can be said about a book written in the stilted manner of a German intellectual, which Jan Philipp Reemtsma, author of In the Cellar, happens to be?

The prospects for such a book are not good, but In the Cellar is saved by two unusual features. First, the trauma under examination is the sensational 1996 kidnapping of Reemtsma, the wealthy director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. Second, the book offers a stark look into the psyche of a man who begins to sympathize with his captors, falling into the psychological trap known as the Stockholm Syndrome.

This syndrome is a mystifying feature of the human mind, like the phantom pain an amputee feels in a limb that is no longer there. Those who have not experienced it cannot understand it, yet many of those who have experienced it cannot explain it, at least not in ways that make sense to the rest of us. In this short book Reemtsma seeks to exorcise his kidnapping by explaining the psychological twists and turns of the 33 days of captivity that changed his soul. This is an uneasy and arresting book to read, told in a brittle way by a man who is still trying to find a sense of equilibrium.

Reemtsma exposes the intimate and excruciating liaison that can develop between kidnapper and kidnappee. Both want the abduction to succeed: The kidnapper gains a ransom while the kidnappee gains freedom. Of course a kidnappee can gain freedom by escape or a police raid, but escape is virtually impossible for Reemtsma, who is chained to a radiator in a guarded cellar and for whom a police raid is a dangerous prospect. The safest route from captivity is for the ransom demands to be met—in Reemtsma’s case, 30 million German marks, payable in small bills with non-consecutive serial numbers. He becomes angry at the police, his lawyer and even his wife when payoffs are botched, though eventually the handoff succeeds and he is released.

Reemtsma’s kidnappers were not sadists beyond the basic fact that they abducted him from the doorstep of his Hamburg home one night, breaking his nose, handcuffing him, wrapping his head in adhesive tape and marching him off at gunpoint to a waiting van, which sped away to the cellar. Reemtsma recalls that in the solitary isolation of the cellar he felt a craving for human contact so severe that he desired on his shoulder the comforting hand of his principal kidnapper, whom he calls “the Englishman” because he spoke English during his occasional visits. Reemtsma recalls breaking into sobs of gratitude when the Englishman, responding to a request for reading material, provides a trove of books by Bruce Chatwin, Karl Jaspers, Simone de Beauvoir, Tom Wolfe and Doris Lessing, among others.

“This feeling [of gratitude] contradicted his hate, and frequently his self-respect,” Reemtsma writes, unable to place the pronoun “my” alongside emotions too painful to be acknowledged as his own. “It was something to be kept at a distance and analyzed. It was important to recognize what caused it, to know that it was not insane, that it simply corresponded to the insanity of a situation in which one person was omnipotent and the other helpless ... This perfectly comprehensible and objectively reasonable feeling of sympathy with the criminals is not the least of what they have done to me. It is like a rape, and the loss of the capacity to be able to hate on one’s own behalf amounts to a deformation of the psyche.”

Reemtsma is blunt about the deformation of his psyche, although his ordeal was brief and soft by most measures. He did not spend years in captivity at the hands of men who brutalized him (think of the American hostages in Lebanon); he did not lack for food, and newspapers were regularly provided. Yet he was terrorized as fully as any kidnapping victim. Powerless over his fate, he was separated from the outside world, most painfully from his wife and young son, and he believed he might be killed at any moment or left to die of thirst. He lost his balance.

For example, he composed an odd letter to his kidnappers, asking that if they planned to cut off a finger, would they please make sure to do so at the beginning of the week, so that the digit, sent to his wife by mail, would arrive as quickly as possible? He feared gangrene and did not want to remain in the cellar with such a wound for a day longer than necessary. And would they please make sure to provide him with bandages and painkillers? He stuffed the letter up his sleeve, in the event that he might need it, and wrote on both sides, “If you want to cut my finger off—read this first!!”

This is darkly humorous, but the letter, and the book, are the work of a man terrorized to the end of his wits.

Peter Maass, author of ‘Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War,’ is a freelance writer based in New York City.