Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

American Captivity

The captivity narrative as creation myth.

Ed Simon

Patricia Hearst in front of SLA flag, 1974; CSU Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

Of all the grim chapters in the annals of the Aquarian Age—Charles Manson overseeing the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders, an audience member being stabbed to death by the Hells Angels at the Altamont Free Concert, or the forced mass suicide of the Peoples Temple religious community in Guyana—the strange affair of heiress Patty Hearst’s kidnapping can be easily overlooked. A student at the University of California, Berkeley, the nineteen-year-old granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was abducted by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in February 1974, and for nineteen months the country was transfixed by the drama of the kidnapped socialite. Indoctrinated into embracing radical politics and renamed “Tania,” she participated in the manufacture of incendiary bombs and a bank robbery. The infamous Polaroid photograph of Hearst in combat fatigues and Che Guevara–style beret, brandishing a sawed-off M1 rifle and posing blank eyed in front of the black-and-red SLA flag with its herald of a many-headed hydra, provided a “special kind of sentimental education,” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “Girl of the Golden West.” According to Didion, Hearst’s story of captivity had the glint of allegory about it: a “public coming-of-age with an insistently literary cast to it…a parable for the period.”11xJoan Didion, “Girl of the Golden West,” Vintage Didion (New York, NY: Vintage, 2010). First published 1982.

Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey would argue that Hearst had succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, having been effectively brainwashed into forming an emotional dependence on her captors, but the jury was unmoved and found her guilty of robbery and felonious use of a firearm. Protesting her own innocence in the 1981 memoir Every Secret Thing, published after President Jimmy Carter commuted her seven-year sentence to time already served (twenty-two months), Hearst claimed to be the victim of “the classic Maoist formula for thought reform,” a horrific program of indoctrination, beating, starvation, and rape that transformed her into an unwilling puppet in a criminal scheme.22xPaula Span, “Patty Hearst, Choosing the Glare,” Washington Post, September 26, 1988, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1988/09/26/patty-hearst-choosing-the-glare/6c271095-81ab-4c38-bcd9-4b82a8fb48cc/. Her version of the events has been met with skepticism (since it seemed to many that she was an enthusiastic participant), but awareness of the psyche-fracturing trauma of captivity usually tempers evaluations of her culpability. In an April 1974 statement released by the SLA, Hearst said, “We could be anyone’s daughter, son, husband, lover, neighbor, friend,” and even if that wasn’t the group’s intended message, her words implied that sufficient pressure could turn anyone into a believer or follower. Conversion, Hearst reminded Americans, is not always willed.

The Captivity Narrative

Almost three centuries before Hearst, a not dissimilar abduction took place. “There was twenty-four of us taken alive and carried captive,” wrote the author of the Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682 (and now available at the Project Gutenberg website, among other online locations).33xMrs. Mary Rowlandson, Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Project Gutenberg.com, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/851/851-h/851-h.htm. Accessed November 30, 2021. Rowlandson was a collateral victim of King Philip’s War, a seventeenth-century conflict in which a Native American confederation led by Metacom (a Wampanoag sachem called King Philip by the English) fought to retake its land from the colonials. She was captured during the Lancaster Raid of 1675 when a party of Nipmucs, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags laid waste to the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement of Lancaster Village. Much like twentieth-century readers who thrilled to true-crime titillation of Every Secret Thing, New England colonials were fascinated. Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration would become one of the first bona fide American literary hits, going through four editions during the author’s lifetime. It is easy to see why. In lurid detail, Rowlandson evokes the scene after the attack, noting that it was a “solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out.”

Rowlandson’s account wasn’t the first, nor would Hearst’s be the last, but both are examples of a genre that scholars call captivity narratives, accounts of abduction by racial, religious, or political others, usually concluding with the authors’ eventual rescue and their reflections on the ways the experiences transformed them. Such narratives have always found a readership, but they resonated with particular power among colonial readers. As cultural critic Richard A. Slotkin writes in Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860, of the “four narrative works which attained the status of best seller between 1680 and 1720, three were captivity narratives; the fourth was Pilgrim’s Progress.”44xRichard A. Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 96. Other popular accounts included that of Hannah Dustan, as recorded by Cotton Mather in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), Jemima Howe’s narrative as told by Bunker Gray in An Account of the Captivity, Sufferings & Deliverance, of Mrs. Jemima Howe (1792), and Mary Kinnan’s abduction story as recounted by Shepard Kollock in A True Narrative of the Sufferings of Mary Kinnan (1795).

The reasons for the popularity of these narratives are many. In The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, Harvard University historian Jill Lepore explains that “Rowlandson employed all the strategies of description available to contemporary chroniclers…numbers, stark images, and biblical references. And she invoked all the most powerful signs of chaos—spilled blood, diabolical Indians, naked Englishmen.”55xJill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York, NY: Vintage, 1998), 129. The narrative is autobiographical and consciously literary, Rowlandson promising the reader a harrowing journey into bondage and a safe return, with a newfound appreciation for order and authority. If the lesson is strongly flavored with sensationalism, that only increases the impact. As both sermon and propaganda, the captivity narrative successfully deployed elements found in both literary and artistic expressions of the gothic genre, which would soon become wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Consider a work produced more than century after Rowlandson’s: John Vanderlyn’s macabre 1804 painting The Death of Jane McCrea, held by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Depicting a woman killed during the American Revolution by Indian allies of the British, Vanderlyn portrays the beautiful New Jersey farm girl Jane McCrea on her knees in a tight, blue silken dress, bosom partially exposed. One of her abductors restrains her by pulling back her hair, and she fixes her terrified gaze on a tomahawk wielded by another just before it strikes her neck. The infernal scene would not have been out of place in Rowlandson’s narrative, with her description of the “roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell.” A certain literary license might be granted a woman abducted in the night along with her three children, one of whom, her six-year-old daughter, would die a week later from wounds received in the attack. A hermeneutics of suspicion need not blunt our empathy for the narrator, but how the narrative functioned in later literary culture is another matter. Before examining the mythos of the genre, though, we need to consider its origins.

Suspicious Survival

For Native Americans, abductions served a strategic purpose, enabling them to demand ransoms for their prisoners or to offer them in exchange for those of their own people seized by the colonials. Probing further, Lepore explains that the “Indians’ main purpose of taking captives was to adopt new members into their communities.”66xIbid. King Philip’s War was foremost a struggle for the existential survival of the Wampanoags and their allies. Already decimated by war and smallpox, many Native American tribes viewed abductions as an eminently practical way of restoring their populations. In Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, the scholar of early American literature Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola notes that conservative estimates of the number of captives “run into the tens of thousands, and a more realistic figure well may be higher.”77xKathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, introduction to Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola (New York, NY: Penguin, 1998), xv. Indeed, Rowlandson’s narrative is remarkable precisely because she came back. As Lepore elaborates, a surprisingly high number of captives (many of whom were abducted when children) “later resisted rescue and refused to return to live with their English families.”88xLepore, The Name of War, 129. The troubling yet compelling undercurrent of such narratives is driven not only by the obvious violence but also by the disturbing possibility that those taken (or even more worryingly, those who willingly left) might not want to come back.

It was not a remote possibility, either. According to Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, the percentage of captives who embraced their abduction was far larger than that of unwilling captives, and from the earliest days of colonization, some settlers even chose to live among the Indians. In 1609, an anonymous colonial complained that because of rampant starvation, Jamestown, Virginia, was losing Englishmen to the Powhatans, a local indigenous confederacy. He lamented that “many of our men this starving time did run away unto the savages, whom we never heard of after.”99xGeorge Percy, A Trewe Relacyon of the Proceedings and Occurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia (1621), transcribed in James Horn, ed., Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America (New York, NY: Library of America, 2007), 1099–1103; original: “Many of our men this starveinge Tyme did Runn away unto the Salvages whome we never heard of after,” Encyclopedia Virginia.com, https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/this-starveing-tyme-an-excerpt-from-a-trewe-relacyon-of-the-procedeings-and-ocurrentes-of-momente-which-have-hapned-in-virginia-by-george-percy/. Fully one out of seven Jamestown colonists is believed to have gone over to the local natives. The fate of the much-mythologized “lost” colony of Roanoke, established in 1587 in present-day North Carolina, might have resulted from the wholesale defection of its members. Recurrent famine during the first decade of the Virginia colony drove some settlers to cannibalism—one reason many found it preferable to live among the Powhatans. Linebaugh and Rediker explain how “a steady stream of English settlers opted to become ‘White Indians,’ ‘red Englishmen,’ or—since racial categories were as yet unformed—Anglo-Powhatans.”1010xPeter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000), 34. Such willingness to be adopted by the Indians was so common among the English colonials that Rowlandson and other captivity narrative authors stressed the violence of their abduction to shield themselves from the accusation that they had gone along with their captors.

For the nine weeks that Rowlandson was captive, transferred throughout the backwoods of Massachusetts until she was ransomed to her husband, she “lived among the Indians; she ate Indian food, slept in Indian wigwams, learned Indian ways,” as Lepore notes.1111xLepore, The Name of War, 125. The fact of Rowlandson’s nine-week immersion in Indian culture—no matter how unwilling—made her the object of at least polite suspicion in New England society. Like all Puritans, Rowlandson had been raised on the works of the sixteenth-century Protestant hagiographer John Foxe, whose Actes and Monuments chronicled the bloody accounts of religious nonconformists immolated during the reign of “Bloody” Queen Mary. Rowlandson had long promised that should she face similar tribulations, she would gladly surrender her life as a martyr. Yet, as she writes in something close to a confession “when it came to the trial my mind changed; their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous beasts, than that moment to end my days.”

Lepore argues that such rhetoric amounted to a brief for the defense against those who might view her survival itself as suspicious, and perhaps a means of easing a guilty conscience. Supporters certainly provided justifications of her actions; the anonymous author of the narrative’s preface—long thought to be the Puritan divine Increase Mather—sympathetically observed that “none can imagine what it is to be captivated, and enslaved to such atheisticall proud, wild, cruel, barbarous, brutish (in one word) diabolical creatures as these, the worst of the heathen.” Mather’s argument was similar to F. Lee Bailey’s in his closing argument on behalf of Patty Hearst before a San Francisco jury: “How far can you go to survive? We all know that it is a human impulse, a generic, irresistible human impulse to survive…she wanted to survive.”1212xF. Lee Bailey, closing defense argument, United States v. Patricia Campbell Hearst, quoted in New York Magazine, May 3, 1976, 40.

Among Rowlandson’s readers, some would have interpreted her survival as evidence of religious backsliding, a suspicion that both Rowland and Mather felt the need to address and dispel. But the suspicion went beyond the imputation of cowardice in the face of death to include the possibility that she might have “turned.” Slotkin writes that “even the most pious returned captives acquired altered outlooks on the nature of the wilderness and the Indians,” and that the genre was marked by the Puritan fear of a “‘marriage’ of the English and the ‘American’ cultures and a symbolic cannibalization of Indians by whites.”1313xSlotkin, Regeneration through Violence, 100. The captivity narrative, even if ostensibly a testament to the fortitude of the abducted, inspired the fear in colonial-era readers that their mortal adversaries might offer a desirable, even preferable, way of life. That fear explains why Rowlandson had to defend herself so forcefully against the potential judgments of her New England brethren.

Consistent with the stern Protestantism that marked her society, Rowlandson’s account served a didactic purpose. Her moralizing demonstrated the depth of her faith and trust in the God who had sustained her through her bondage. Even the horror of her ordeal was such that the “Lord hereby would make us the more acknowledge His hand, and to see that our help is always in Him.”

Beyond the bloody reality of what happened and the reception of her narrative, we need to understand the purpose to which Rowlandson’s autobiography, and others like it, would be put in justifying the colonial enterprise. “The first captivity narratives were genuine, first-person accounts of actual ordeals,” writes Slotkin. “However, Puritan ministers and men of letters were quick to realize the polemical and theological potential in the tales and began to exercise direct control over the composition of the narratives, shaping them for their own ends.”1414xIbid., 85. There is a warning in Rowlandson’s account that reminds us, eerily, of “Tania” Hearst’s minatory words: “We had Husband and Father, and Children, and Sisters, and Friends, and Relations, and House, and Home, and many comforts of this Life, but now as we may say, as Job, Naked came I out of my Mothers Womb, and naked I shall return.” It is a warning that anyone is potentially a captive, that we are all sinners waiting to be tested and possibly punished.

Captivity Narrative as Creation Myth

Such a warning became even more urgent as cases of willing adoption raised the disturbing possibility that there might be something attractive about organizing a society on a basis so antithetical to that of Anglo-Protestantism. Love and fear had long dominated the cultural vertigo felt by English settlers and other white Americans when they attempted to understand and imagine the indigenous people whose land they occupied. The fear comes through in all of the gothic depictions of Indians as inchoate manifestations of nature: formless, undifferentiated mobs howling at the edge of the wilderness. Such dehumanizing characterizations are accompanied by the (not necessarily contradictory) enthusiasm for a constructed fantasy of native life. The United States is, after all, the country that implemented a policy of ethnic cleansing against Native Americans while simultaneously appropriating the idea of Indianness. Consider the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, the Apache helicopter, and the Tomahawk missile, the Jeep Cherokee and the Dodge Dakota. Thomas Jefferson could write in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian Savages,” while the Sons of Liberty who helped spark the American Revolution unabashedly dressed up as Mohawks. In America, there is a shameful tradition of loving the symbolic Indian while hating the actual Indian.

The captivity narrative is the most American of genres, not just in fostering fear, paranoia, and violence but in contributing to the creation myth of a new variety of person: the American. Indeed, Kathryn Derounian-Stodola finds that the “Indian captivity narrative functions as the archetype of American culture, or its foundation text, in which the initial contact between Europeans and Native Americans inevitably evolved into conflict and finally colonial conquest.”1515xDerounian-Stodola, Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, xi. For his part, Slotkin argues that the genre created a “paradigm of personal and collective history that can be discerned as an informing structure throughout…later American narrative literature.”1616xSlotkin, Regeneration through Violence, 102. Traces of the form can be seen in the true-crime memoirs of someone like Hearst, but the trope is even more intrinsic to American self-understanding. Our literature brims with archetypal accounts of characters descending into the dark core of barbarism and emerging with a primal knowledge that transforms them into new persons. This totemistic myth of Americanness is as common as it is psychically violent. Derounian-Stodola traces the genealogy of the form, from the authentic accounts of authors such as Rowlandson in the seventeenth century through the increasingly propagandistic works of the eighteenth century, then into works of fiction such as Ann Eliza Bleeker’s 1793 epistolary novel The History of Maria Kittle. A host of recent cinematic entertainments that have extended the life of the form include the 1990 film Dances with Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, and the 2003 Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai.

In its broad contours, the captivity narrative is an ecumenical genre. Derounian-Stodola even goes so far as to propose that the “taxonomy accommodates such distinct, but sometimes overlapping, forms as the slave narrative, the spiritual autobiography, the providence tale, the UFO abduction story, the convent captivity narrative, and the sentimental novel of seduction, as well as the Indian captivity narrative.”1717xDerounian-Stodola, Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, xi. Any theory that expands the boundaries of the genre to include both Olaudah Equiano’s harrowing 1789 work The Interesting Narrative, with its visceral descriptions of the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade, and Whitley Strieber’s Communion, a bizarre 1987 account of the author’s supposed abduction by extraterrestrials, is arguably pushing the very concept to the breaking point.

Myth and Experience

Captivity narratives are quite clearly artifacts of the settler-colonial project that displaced and decimated the original inhabitants of America, but they are also, in many cases, stunningly brave treatments of the ways individuals grapple with traumatic experiences. Because women were more often taken prisoner than killed outright, the narratives largely concern women’s experiences. To male authors such as Mather, Gray, and Kollock, violence against female subjects highlighted the threat Indians supposedly presented to womanly “purity.” Rowlandson, however, made it forcefully clear that the narrative was her story, and whatever formal features it would share with works by (or doctored by) Mather or Gray, Rowlandson’s lasting authorial imprint helped make captivity narratives specifically a form of women’s literature. There is something redemptive in individual works such as Rowlandson’s, despite the noxious purposes to which her account was put, as long as we interpret it as an individual’s experience and not as a comprehensive symbol of all experience.

Whatever else it is, Derounian-Stodala declares, the genre “is arguably the first American literary form dominated by women’s experiences as captives, story-tellers, writers, and readers.”1818xIbid. By writing her narrative, Rowlandson acquired a voice in a society in which she would have been expected to be mute. Perhaps the only way we can really hear Rowlandson today is to scrub her narrative of the obscuring polish of allegory or myth and take her experiences on their own terms. Read her description of what is clearly posttraumatic stress disorder: “I can remember a time, which I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me…. I remember in the night season, how the other day I was in the midst of thousands of enemies, and nothing but death before me.” You are forced to acknowledge that Rowlandson is not the product of myth—she is a real person.

At present, American society is undergoing a deep and often contentious reevaluation of its national narratives, deciding whether the stories we tell ourselves—the myths—are really commensurate with who we are or who, ideally, we want to be. In what way does thinking through the implications of captivity bear on this question? Although the notion of giving a voice to the voiceless may seem a cliché, it has particular relevance to the genre because most people who were held captive were unable to express themselves. Furthermore, the vast majority of those taken captive were Native Americans themselves. We should be troubled by the huge library of works never written by native people forcefully taken from their families and their homes. To be sure, some reverse captivity narratives by indigenous writers do exist, including Samson Occom’s A Short Narrative of My Life (1768). Although written as a story of conversion to Christianity, it can be read against the grain as an account of forced assimilation. More radical in its politics, perhaps, was the early Native American activist William Apess’s autobiography, A Son of the Forest, published in 1829. Mostly, though, there is only silence.

No words remain of Tisquantum, the Pequod whom posterity remembers as Squanto, who suffered brutal bondage in England before making his way back to his Massachusetts home, only to find its population decimated by smallpox. Similarly, we have no personal recollections of Matoaka, better known as Pocahontas, forced into marriage with an Englishman and dying in far-off London. The kidnapping of native people, the human trafficking of their children, the captivity, abduction, and bondage of women and men like Tisquantum and Matoaka, were all far more common than the converse.

Nor is that silencing of indigenous voices reserved for those of the seventeenth century, as the 2021 report of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission made clear. Detailing the unmarked mass graves of children across a network of twentieth-century government- and church-run Indian residential schools, it revealed that more than 1,500 bodies were found at seven different schools. Close to 500 Indian residential schools operated across Canada and the United States, and stories of widespread and routine abuse of their students, sexual and otherwise, are only now surfacing. Yet we have no narratives of those who suffered, no accounts by those who endured despite the depredations—and that silence only adds to the loss and shame of those other captivities.