Americans unfortunately are accustomed to reading about the kidnapping of westerners in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of that endlessly warlike piece of the globe.
Kidnappings are a weapon of war for enemies of NATO forces there. Some kidnappings end in the seemingly casual execution of defenseless hostages. Others have more felicitous endings.
“A Rope and a Prayer” is about one of the latter. Its villains are the faceless kidnappers. Its heroes are the authors.
David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for The New York Times, was lured into a trap by the Afghanistan Taliban late in 2008 and held until the following June. Kristen Mulvihill, who at the time was a photo editor for Cosmopolitan magazine, is Rohde’s wife. They had been married two months when he was abducted.
Rohde endured the physical and psychological brutalities imposed by his captors, then effected a daring escape along with one of the two Afghan men who had been kidnapped with him. Back in America, his wife withstood the draining emotional burden of her husband’s kidnapping and uncertain fate. She dealt firmly and bravely with his kidnappers in maddening ransom negotiations. And she was unwavering in her commitment to David and her faith in his ability to survive against the odds.
Mulvihill writes that she never thought the “worse” part of “for better or worse” would test her so soon after marriage.
She said she was sustained in part by her strong Catholic faith. David’s ordeal did not undo his longtime skepticism of organized religion, but he admitted to praying — and being comforted by it — while a captive.
The couple’s book is an outgrowth of the award-winning New York Times series, “Held by the Taliban.” Rohde and Mulvihill tell their story in alternating chapters of the book. Rohde recalls confinement in ever-changing Afghanistan and Pakistan locations. Mulvihill recounts her private life — and efforts to continue her professional life — in New York.
Her chapters are somewhat more compelling than her husband’s in the narrative sense. News coverage of such kidnappings has tended to focus more on the hostage than on his or her family and friends and the people working to secure the victim’s release. We already know Rohde’s captors are murderous and brutally capricious. Thus we are not surprised when they behave accordingly in this tale, and that steals some of the punch from Rohde’s chapters. We also know in advance that he will escape and survive.
This does not diminish Rohde’s other contributions. He is candid and informative on the psychological and emotional stages that he and presumably other, long-term hostages go through in circumstances that can lead to death at any moment. Though passages about the escape (via the rope in the book’s title) are short, the author makes them plenty suspenseful. And his sobering insights into the Byzantine and explosive regional politics — especially those involving Pakistan, Afghanistan and India — are perhaps Rohde’s most important contributions to “A Rope and a Prayer.”
Back home in the States, Mulvihill was in little, if any, danger. Her stresses were of a different kind, but onerous and potentially crushing in their own way. She was angry at David for the risks he took, especially right after the kidnapping. Though never without the support and assistance of family, government, kidnap negotiation experts and Rohde’s colleagues at the Times, it was the new bride who ultimately had to make life-and-death decisions when dealing with her husband’s unpredictable captors. She bore it all, learned some things about herself from the experience and was there to embrace her newly freed husband when he landed in Dubai.
“A Rope and a Prayer” is a deserving addition to the growing stack of books about the people, politics and seemingly endless strife of Afghanistan and its neighbors. But it is the very human story of Kristen Mulvihill that separates this one from the rest.