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Beyond Limits

Finding Freedom in Captivity

An interview with John McCarthy
by Pete Bampton


“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”
John Milton

When we imagine individuals going “beyond limits,” what usually comes to mind are the pioneering achievements of creative geniuses and record-breaking athletes or the miraculous feats of great yogis and saints. Their groundbreaking exploits push the envelope for us all, challenging us to question unexamined assumptions about what we consider humanly possible. But there are others who are more reluctant heroes. Their stories come to us from hellish locales of oppression and the killing fields of war. Pushed to the breaking point by the onslaught of extreme circumstances beyond their control, these ordinary men and women find access within themselves to a spiritual strength and compassion that can be as deeply moving as that of the great saints.

John McCarthy is one such reluctant hero. On April 17, 1986, this twenty-nine-year-old British journalist on his first foreign assignment with Worldwide Television News was driving to the Beirut airport to catch a return flight to London. That morning he had been deeply shaken as he filmed his last news report in front of the ruins of the British embassy residence, still smoldering in the wake of a rocket attack by Hezbollah, the fundamentalist Muslim militia. After leaving the outskirts of the war-torn city, his car was ambushed by gunmen and he was kidnapped. Soon after, blindfolded and stripped of his belongings, he was led underground and pushed into a tiny dark cell. The door was locked behind him. It would be over five years before John McCarthy would again stand in the light of the sun.

As weeks turned into months, the unremitting darkness, cramped isolation, and deepening cycles of fear and despair began to take their toll. One night, desperately teetering on the verge of a total breakdown, he was suddenly overwhelmed by a profound spiritual presence. The utterly life-affirming grace of this experience infused him with a deep confidence that he could and would survive his hellish ordeal.

Shortly after this revelation, he was blindfolded and abruptly escorted from his cell at gunpoint. Eventually, another door was locked behind him, and as he slowly lifted his blindfold to survey his new surroundings, his eyes met the eyes of another man, also cautiously peering out from under a blindfold. Brian Keenan had been kidnapped while walking to the Beirut University campus where he was employed as an English teacher. Ironically, McCarthy had filmed a news feature on Keenan's disappearance only a few days before his own capture. These two men—McCarthy, an amiable middle-class Englishman with a raffish sense of humor, and Keenan, a passionate Irish intellectual raised on the strife-torn streets of Belfast—were to be companions in captivity for the next four years.

In the preface to his book An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan writes that at the heart of their shared ordeal there lay an implicit paradox: that “in the most inhuman of circumstances men grow and deepen in humanity.” Both An Evil Cradling and Some Other Rainbow, John McCarthy's own candid account, are deeply moving testaments to the power of the human spirit to prevail in the darkest of dark nights.

Chained alongside each other by their wrists and feet in the confines of a squalid subterranean cell—not knowing why they were being held or if they would ever be released—McCarthy and Keenan endured a grinding monotony and unimaginable degradation. “We both instinctively knew never to share weakness until you understood it,” writes Brian Keenan. “'Share only strength' was an unspoken motto between us.” Together they fought for their dignity in the face of their erratic fundamentalist captors, mostly young men whose behavior could morph without warning from disarming expressions of warmth to gratuitous acts of violence. And they bore together the terrifying trauma of sudden moves to different locations, for which they would either be mummified in masking tape with only their nostrils exposed for air or chained wrists to feet and thrown into a sack. Crammed into the trunk of a car or an airless, coffin-like box beneath a truck, they would then be transported to some new, unknown part of Lebanon. In every cell to which they were eventually delivered after these tortuous journeys, they again had to steel themselves against the merciless assault of stifling heat, ravenous mosquitoes, giant cockroaches, and the ever-gnawing shadow of despair.

With the recent UK release of the film Blind Flight—a powerful dramatization of their shared incarceration—the story of how McCarthy and Keenan re-entered the sunlit world of freedom, not as broken and bitter men but as heroes ennobled by a rare dignity, wisdom, and compassion, has once again been in the public eye. John McCarthy, now an author and documentary filmmaker, spoke with us about his life-changing experience as a hostage in Lebanon.


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