Terry Anderson's tale lost in lions' den



Title: "Den of Lions"

Author: Terry Anderson

Publisher: Crown

-! Length, price: 356 pages, $25 Terry Anderson earned his 15 minutes of fame the very hard way -- by being held hostage in Lebanon for almost seven years. It would be nice to say he has written a wonderful, provoking or powerful book about his experience, so we could all buy it and assuage our collective sense of guilt over what happened to him and compensate him with money.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case. "Den of Lions" can't be faulted for not adding major bits of information to our knowledge of the hostage crisis, for there may be little to add now. But Mr. Anderson's story is unfulfilling and the format detracts from, rather than adds to, the tale.

Seized off a Beirut street March 25, 1985, Mr. Anderson became the most famous of the American hostages -- both because his sister, Peggy Say, made a determined effort to keep his name before the public and because he was a reporter and his agency, the Associated Press, mentioned him in every story it could.

While it is well known that the other famous Terry hostage, Britain's Terry Waite, openly risked capture by going to Beirut after his personal safety was in doubt, Mr. Anderson also had a warning that he didn't pay attention to: The day before he was grabbed while nonchalantly returning from a game of tennis, he barely escaped another kidnapping attempt. He had plenty of time to reflect on this remarkable lack of caution.

Mr. Anderson seems a strange case for kidnapping. When he arrived in the Mideast a few years earlier, he took an instant dislike to Israelis and a liking to Arabs. Why was he kidnapped? One has to read a footnote to find out someone saw him with a U.S. Embassy official and decided he was a spy.

While the book is titled "Den of Lions," Mr. Anderson does not think of his captors as lions. When an animal analogy is wanted, he calls them hamsters. But there is a cuteness to hamsters that his guards lacked. They were combinations of cruel, uncaring and arbitrary, and all unable to think of the hostages as humans.

While Mr. Anderson did not suffer beatings, he lived in fear of them and knew that other captives were beaten and that William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, died because of his treatment. The fear tempered his actions, but did not always stop him from speaking out.

Mr. Anderson spent his 2,545 days in a variety of places, usually chained to the floor. Sometimes he was moved to a different part of the same building, sometimes he was moved to a new city, sometimes back again. If there was a pattern or a reason, he couldn't figure it out. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes with a variety of the other hostages, both American and European, in usually tiny, sometimes filthy, rooms. Sometimes they had a radio or a television, newspapers or books. When guards were around, the hostages were required to wear blindfolds.

In addition to writing about his physical condition, Mr. Anderson deals quite a bit with the psychological. Not widely publicized at the time was that he and his wife were in the process of divorcing and he was living with a Lebanese woman when he was kidnapped.

Given the time he had for reflection, he decided that he was very much to blame for the breakup of his marriage, but he has little to say about his wife. He focuses on their daughter, and the effect the twin misfortunes must be having on her, and on his new love, Madeleine, and the child she was carrying.

He becomes unsparing and unflattering in his analysis of his pre-kidnap self, a workaholic, a womanizer, fat, a drunk, arrogant. But his self-revelations always seem linked to the past and he doesn't realize, until some of the other hostages tell him, that he is the reason he was having problems with one of the others during their imprisonment together. This brings on more introspection, but a few months later he again realizes, "There's no denying I have not paid enough attention to the others here, have not been considerate enough."

Just before he was kidnapped, he was finding himself drawn back into his childhood religion, and one of the books he sometimes had in captivity was a Bible. It brought him much comfort, and biblical discussions were a frequent activity of the hostages, a group that included several clergymen for a while.

Mr. Anderson's imprisonment is loaded with cruel ironies. A main one was that his captors wanted to use their Western hostages to force the release of 17 fundamentalists being held in Kuwait. The 17 were let out of their jail by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, but the last prisoner, Mr. Anderson, was not released until December 1991, or 16 months later. Why the delay? Who knows.

There are no major revelations in the book, but there are interesting details. The hostages were glad there was not a rescue attempt, for instance, because they felt certain some of them would have been killed. The role of global television and radio not only let them follow what was going on, but culminated in Mr. Anderson's sitting in his cell on the day of his release listening to reports of how he already had been freed. Many of the most interesting items are relegated to the few footnotes.

Still, Mr. Anderson's book has some serious flaws.

One unfortunate but unavoidable problem is that it is not a true diary. He did try keeping a diary, but destroyed it out of fear of it being found. "Den of Lions" therefore is a reconstruction of what he might have been thinking, and the sequence of events and conversations as best he remembers them. Memory is more selective than a diary, and sometimes the lack of mention is just as profound as a mention.

For one thing, he keeps talking about his love for his second daughter, born a few months after he was captured. But he never mentions thinking about her impending birth, wondering if it had taken place and how everyone was. Is it that he didn't spend much time thinking about it, or was this just something lost in the reconstruction? Details like this color our opinion of him.

The book also suffers from organizational problems. There are chapters, and then there are other unnamed divisions greater than chapters, the purpose of which is difficult to fathom.

And there is a voice problem. The story is told in three voices. The main one is Mr. Anderson's, relating his experience and thoughts as he sits in his various jails. The second is his now-wife, Madeleine, her thoughts told in italics with her name above them.

But then there is a third voice, which talks of related events in the third person. There is nothing typographically to alert the reader that this isn't Mr. Anderson talking and some of this material is duplicated by the other voices.

In his later days of captivity, Mr. Anderson discovered he liked to write poetry, and about 30 poems are interwoven in the story.

"Den of Lions" has its share of vignettes, of small but interesting details, but it is lacking in the larger purposes he wanted to write about -- either as a compelling account of an awful experience or a story of one person's coming to grips with himself. In the end, too, the characters we have come to care about just walk out of prison and disappear.

Mr. Anderson's ordeal in Lebanon came to an end Dec. 4, 1991, when he was released. "One of [the kidnappers] hands me a small bouquet. Half a dozen carnations. 'Give this to your wife, and tell her we're sorry.' "

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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