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The book "American Mother" by Colum McCann with Diane Foley is a must-read, with its beautiful depiction of grace and resilience.

The book “American Mother” by Colum McCann with Diane Foley is a must-read, with its beautiful depiction of grace and resilience.


In August of 2014, Diane Foley attended church in Rochester, New Hampshire. Her son, Jim, worked as a photojournalist and had been held captive by Islamic State in Syria for almost two years. It was late at night and Diane was exhausted and alone. The US government refused to negotiate with terrorists and provided no assistance to her family. Living in constant fear of a phone call was a nightmare and the uncertainty drove her to the brink of madness. In that moment, she found solace in her rosary beads and prayer, surrendering her son to God’s plan in hopes of finding some semblance of peace.

Even believers in God can be perplexed by His actions. When Diane Foley received the news of her son Jim’s death at the hands of his captors just a week after learning of his capture, she was devastated and her world was turned upside down. However, as a non-believer, I believe she was also mentally prepared for the worst. The intense clarity she felt during a church service that same night stayed with her through the upcoming events – the press conference at her home, the insufficient phone call from President Obama, the unconventional funeral since Jim’s body was not recovered, and the arrest and trial of two members of the IS Beatles who were involved in her son’s murder. Despite all of this, she remains a pillar of grace, a word that truly encompasses her character – a fact that inspired novelist Colum McCann to write about her. Can such a remarkable quality be sufficiently described? Can words truly capture its essence without sounding inadequate? And if they can, how might they affect a reader with an open heart?

When critics discuss bold and unique writing, they likely do not have in mind a book that portrays the Holy Spirit with the same level of conviction and attention as the changing of seasons or a trip to the airport. However, it is certainly daring, is it not? In a society where Christianity is seen as unfashionable, devoted Catholicism, especially for many liberals, is considered unacceptable. Some readers of American Mother, co-written by McCann and Diane Foley, may come across the part where Foley explains that she allowed the very same bishop who had refused to hold mass for her late husband, Jim, while he was held captive, to officiate at his funeral. This event may cause them to view her as a captive herself – a prisoner of a hypocritical church. But I do not share this perspective. I found her faith refreshing because it is uncommon, and it serves as a foundation for important principles that should hold significance for everyone: kindness, forgiveness, and understanding. Unlike many individuals in today’s society, who are often deemed more worldly and educated, Foley is capable of acknowledging and reconciling conflicting thoughts. When she comes face to face with Kotey, who is shackled in a prison visiting room for the second time, she notices that he has gained muscle since their first encounter. She experiences a mix of emotions – resentment that he is alive and well, yet also glad that he is being treated humanely because two wrongs do not make a right. Our society often misuses the word “humbling,” deploying it without genuine meaning or even using it to convey pride in speeches and on social media. However, reading American Mother truly is humbling. It reminds us that we should all strive to be as kind, wise, and generous in spirit as Foley.

James Foley filming in Aleppo, Syria, in 2012View image in fullscreen

In her account, Foley vividly depicts her son’s imprisonment and recounts conversations with fellow hostages from Europe. These European governments eventually paid ransoms, but through intermediaries. Foley recounts details such as playing checkers with fruit pits, staged fights among prisoners, and huddling together for warmth on cold nights. One former hostage praises Jim for his resilience, providing solace to his mother. Despite the horrific nature of James Foley’s beheading by his captors, readers may be even more disturbed by the initial lack of response from US authorities. The FBI’s involvement was minimal and their intelligence was lacking. Three months after Jim’s death, Diane meets with a cold President Obama at the White House, where his statement of Jim being his top priority rings hollow.

It may be difficult to discuss the writing style of American Mother, as questions of literary quality seem almost irrelevant in this scenario. However, I was intrigued by the way the book was written. An anonymous ghost writer has the freedom to speak through different voices without risking their reputation. But in this case, McCann has chosen to be the main author of the book, and at times, it seems like he struggles with this role, his pride as a writer, and his hard-earned instincts. While most of the book is in the first-person perspective, written as if from Diane Foley’s own thoughts, the first and last chapters, which describe her meetings with Kotey in prison, are written in the third person. To me, these sections do not ring true. They are overwritten and convoluted, and I believe they reveal the limitations of nonfiction. If this had been a novel, McCann may have been able to express the emotions and unspoken moments between Foley and her son’s killer more effectively. There is a sense of mundanity in these chapters. Foley’s decision to meet Kotey and allow herself to feel compassion for him, despite his lack of remorse, is profound. But it is also beyond what this book can fully capture. I wanted more, but I must also say that I am glad I read it, especially during these times of bleak news from Gaza. There is consolation in these pages, and it left me feeling a little less scattered.

Rachel Cooke is organizing a lineup of discussions called Provocations or Challenging Discussions at the Freud Museum in London. The upcoming talk will be featuring psychologist Frank Tallis on March 6th.

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    The book “American Mother” by Colum McCann, with Diane Foley, is being released by Bloomsbury for £20. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may be included.

Source: theguardian.com