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American Mother: The many questions behind James Foley’s killing

Colum McCann and Diane Foley tell the story of her son’s kidnapping by Islamic State

American Mother
American Mother
Author: Colum McCann with Diane Foley
ISBN-13: 978 1 5266 6348 1
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £20

The American writer Cynthia Zarin once said that “it is one of life’s mysteries that what makes tragedy both bearable and unbearable is the same thing – that life goes on”. Diane Foley has lived this axiom. In November 2012 her son James Foley – a conflict journalist working for US news site GlobalPost – was kidnapped while reporting from Syria and held by Islamic State, before being beheaded and having photographs of his decapitated body distributed by his killers in August 2014.

That sentence adumbrates almost two years of captivity and torture. Foley was held alongside others, sometimes with 18 people to a room. He was regularly beaten, in particular by a group of British terrorists fighting for Islamic State (also known as Isis) in Syria who came to be known as “the Beatles”. One of those terrorists was killed in a US drone strike, and two others imprisoned for life for their crimes.

American Mother is the story of Diane Foley’s psychological captivity and torture, her own life sentence. It is written with Colum McCann, who approached her after seeing a photograph of her son in happier times reading McCann’s 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin. Unfortunately, we’re given no information on how the two worked together on this book, but I take written “with” McCann to mean written by him, using conversations with Diane Foley as his source.

Certainly the book opens with a novelist’s panache, in medias res. One of Foley’s killers, Alexanda Kotey, pleaded guilty to the charges against him, and as part of his plea bargain, he agreed to meet James’ mother. Once Diane Foley enters the room where Kotey sits – “It strikes her that he is a dark doorway: somewhere there, in front of her, her son awaits” – the reader surrenders: there is no prospect of turning away.


The meeting, which took place in 2021, provides more questions than answers. Is Kotey sorry for what he did to her son? Can she believe what he says? And what good will meeting him do? (The reader might be assailed by similar questions. Can we be sure that our motives for reading such a horrifying story go beyond prurience?) She worries, reasonably, that she is being naive, giving him attention he doesn’t deserve. But “naivety is necessary ... to remain open to the world”. And she hopes that any answers she does get will help the world to understand the motives of men like Kotey, and aid future hostages.

After this the book flashes back vividly to Diane Foley’s discovery of her son’s kidnapping in Syria. Remarkably, it wasn’t his first time: a year earlier he had been captured in Libya by forces loyal to Colonel Gadafy, before being released. He returned to the Middle East: “I know I did not do enough to stop him,” says Diane Foley in a sentence that is, to say the least, heavy with restraint. “But I also knew I wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”

As a narrative, American Mother has an inbuilt tension, even though we know the key developments: Foley’s capture, and the year or more his family spent waiting, ending in the worst way – a flurry of phone calls, voices sobbing on the other end, the photograph. “There was my son – or someone who looked like my son – with his bloodied head upon his back.” Then the trial, the meeting with Kotey, the beginning of the lifelong attempt to bear what has happened. The only sections that fall flatter are those describing Foley’s youth and early career, which are generic and inevitably rose-tinted.

The voice of Diane Foley is plausible, only rarely slipping into a style that sounds more distinctively like McCann’s. (“Scientists say the world is held together with atoms and, of course, it is,” she/he says at the end of one chapter. “But it is also held together with stories.”) She is prone, as we all are, to cliches, those phrases that the brain supplies to make new things seem familiar – and she has faced more new things than any of us would wish for.

She has a distinctive character on the page, too, and what comes across most strongly is how angry Diane Foley is. Not at the “stone age brutality” of Kotey and the other Islamic State killers but at the US government, which did nothing – nothing – to help free Foley or the other hostages. Islamic State had issued a ransom demand but Washington made clear it would not negotiate and even threatened prosecution if the Foleys attempted to raise ransom funds themselves. The FBI also told the family that it would not carry out a rescue mission. “We became more and more aware that we were largely on our own.”

And yet other governments did negotiate – indirectly – and European countries had their hostages released. Later, when US president Barack Obama meets Diane Foley and blithely, ridiculously, assures her, as other officials had, that “Jim was my highest priority”, she wastes no time in telling him exactly what she thinks. She questions the merits of US involvement in other countries, where “a single drone costs so much more than the release of a hostage” and where – in another sentence heavy with restraint – “poorly conceived US policies play a prominent role that is not to our advantage as a nation”.

But Diane Foley has channelled her anger into productive work, founding the James W Foley Legacy Foundation to improve the prospects of hostages in similar situations – and indeed her work has engendered a sea change in US policy. More hostages are freed now.

This is a book of agony, where the greatest of all may be Diane Foley’s ignorance of what really happened to her son when he was held hostage. It is a brutal irony that the only person who can tell her the truth is his captor, Alexanda Kotey, whom she cannot believe. The book is filled with such ironies. One of the other captors, who pleaded not guilty, had his “sentencing set, ironically, for 19 August, the anniversary of Jim’s murder”. But irony only gets you so far. As the poet Zbigniew Herbert pointed out, irony is like salt: “you crunch it between your teeth and enjoy a momentary savour; when the savour is gone, the brute facts are still there.”

James Foley is still dead. His mother is still suffering. The world seems even more febrile now than it did when he was killed. But we have this remarkable, stirring book. Is that enough?

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times