CBC national reporter Mellissa Fung should be in a joyous mood. Her first book, Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity (HarperCollins Publishers) has rocketed onto bestsellers lists. Her boyfriend, CTV Washington correspondent Paul Workman, is with her on a visit to her hometown of Vancouver. And her beloved Canucks have made the Stanley Cup finals.
But when she arrives at the Georgia Straight building on her book tour, Fung is in a pensive frame of mind. She admits that she’s tired of talking about being held captive for 28 days in Afghanistan in 2008 by a small criminal gang whose members self-identified as Taliban. She’s sick of retelling the tale of being stabbed in the shoulder and hand as she was abducted while reporting a story on a refugee camp near Kabul. She’s not that interested in describing for the umpteenth time what it was like being tossed into a dust-filled hole, where she lived for all but one night of her ordeal, mostly on a diet of cookies and juice. And she most definitely doesn’t want to discuss relieving herself in a bucket in a two-metre-by-one-metre enclosure in the presence of young male guards.
As for the success of her book, Fung confesses: “I’m still not reading any of the reviews of the coverage.”
She didn’t even watch her feature-length interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, or any other videotaped interviews. “I don’t like seeing myself on TV.”
It’s an astonishing revelation from someone who makes her living as a television reporter and who covered the B.C. legislature. But in Fung’s mind, she’s not the story, and she feels guilty about all the attention being showered on her. “I think it’s wrong that I’m getting all this airtime when we should be in Afghanistan and focusing on the people who really need the airtime,” she insists.
Fung, who was raised in East Vancouver by Hong Kong immigrants, is donating all the royalties from her book to a foundation run by Afghan women. She notes that they’ve already built a school and there are plans to install a computer lab, which will be available to women who want to learn such skills.
“Until you’re in that refugee camp with that open sewer, just teeming with people with nowhere else to go, you don’t actually appreciate how much we have here—and how little they have there,” she says.
Fung has an irrepressibly mischievous side, and she tends to be outspoken. Two-and-a-half years after her kidnapping, she doesn’t hide her desire to do more journalism abroad. However, she notes that with the exception of one trip to India, her employer has kept her working in North America since her release. “The worst part is CBC has really grounded me a bit,” she says with a sigh. “I don’t blame them. It was traumatic for them as well when I was kidnapped, but I really need to get back to doing that kind of reporting.”
Fung’s desire to move forward with her life isn’t unusual, according to Peter Suedfeld, a UBC professor emeritus of psychology. He has devoted his career to examining how human beings cope with stress, danger, challenges, and being thrown into novel situations. This has included studying hundreds of Holocaust survivors, as well as people living in the high Arctic and Antarctic. He says data indicate that people are far more resilient than generally believed.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you realize how strong you really are, which most people are not necessarily aware of,” Suedfeld mentions in a phone interview from his home in Vancouver. “If you’ve never had a serious challenge, you don’t know how you would cope with it. Many people find, sometimes to their surprise, that they can cope quite well.”
At a dinner in Toronto today (June 2), Suedfeld will be given a gold medal by the Canadian Psychological Association for his distinguished contributions to the field. But he has more than a scholarly interest in what’s known as positive psychology. As a Jewish boy in Hungary during the Holocaust, he was hidden in an International Red Cross orphanage with the help of false identity papers. His parents were sent to concentration camps. His mother never returned from Auschwitz.
He says that when he started conducting academic research on Holocaust survivors, the consensus was that they all suffered posttraumatic stress disorder, had concentration problems, and couldn’t have decent family lives because of their inability to express emotions. He adds that they were also labelled as neurotic, depressed, and anhedonic, which means that they were unable to experience any pleasure.
“Guess what we found?” he reveals. “Most of them were quite satisfied with their lives. They had successful careers. The ones who were children when the Holocaust happened ended up with educational levels that were above that of the general population. Very few of them had PTSD.”
Many still showed symptoms of stress. He says the most common was sleep disturbances. “Yes, they had periods of anxiety attacks,” he acknowledges. “They had periods of depression. There were times when they thought about their murdered family members and that sort of thing. But on the whole, they had happy lives.”
Suedfeld says that survivors of traumatic events sometimes get frustrated when they’re treated like psychological cripples afterward. As an example, he cites a former U.S. hostage in the embassy in Tehran, who complained about this in his memoir.
“He readjusted to his life and went back to work,” Suedfeld notes. “People kept treating him with kid gloves. It made him really angry.”
Fung appears to be among those who have readjusted remarkably well following a harrowing ordeal. She says that after being released by her kidnappers in a prisoner swap in November 2008, she saw a therapist who had previously worked with firefighters in New York City. According to Fung, the therapist is “amazed” by how well she’s doing. Fung processed her experiences during her period of captivity by writing letters in a notebook to her boyfriend, sister, and friends. Some of this correspondence appears in Under an Afghan Sky.
In captivity, Fung also spent countless hours with her guards, and she used this time to pepper them with questions. As a result, she learned a great deal about their relationships, upbringing, and motivations, which are all included in the book. The ringleader of the gang, Khalid, was in his late teens and felt comfortable discussing his love for his girlfriend with Fung. Although Khalid was brutal on rare occasions—for instance, chaining her feet and one wrist together when he went away to deal with his mother’s death—he also demonstrated concern about her welfare numerous times. This was particularly true when she was ill. Khalid also called Fung his “sister” and promised not to kill her.
At one point, she promised the teenager who stabbed her, Shafirgullah, that she would read the Koran when she returned to Canada. Shafirgullah repeatedly urged her to become a Muslim, but as a former Catholic schoolgirl, Fung didn’t know enough about Islam to become a convert. She couldn’t get through the Koran. However, she read other books after her release, including Globe and Mail columnist Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam Today and Afghan peace activist Malalai Joya’s A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice.
“I think mostly what I tried to do was just get a better understanding of the mentality of my captors when I came back,” she comments. “They’re not evil.”
Fung admits that she sometimes has nightmares, but otherwise she feels like she’s made tremendous progress. She also says that she hasn’t seen her counsellor in a long time. “She thinks I came out with fewer scars than she would have expected because I kind of had my wits about me,” Fung notes.
To help her through the period of captivity, she leaned heavily on her Catholic faith, even though she’s a lapsed member of that religion. She also benefited from having a strong network of family and friends, which gave her motivation to survive. She feels lucky that her kidnappers were more interested in collecting ransom than in killing her, though they never succeeded in pocketing any cash.
Suedfeld hasn’t interviewed Fung but suggests that in some respects, she’s a “perfect demonstration” of his research into the resiliency of human beings. He says that Holocaust survivors, like the CBC reporter, often cite luck as a factor in their survival. “But one of the other things was faith in something, or a commitment to something,” Suedfeld emphasizes. “It could be your profession. It could be some philosophical question”¦.It could be wanting to see your family again. It could be a political commitment.”
According to Suedfeld, some Holocaust survivors were fanatically committed to remaining alive because they didn’t want Adolf Hitler to succeed in wiping out the Jews. Those who had a stable home and warm family life before their trauma also fared better. “But the people who didn’t have any particular belief system or system of loyalties to anything or anybody tended not to do so well,” he states. “If all you were committed to was your next meal, your chances went down.”
These days, the media often publish stories about posttraumatic stress. But researchers at the University of North Carolina Charlotte have turned that concept on its head by studying the concept of posttraumatic growth. This does not mean that people don’t experience distress from traumatic events. However, some end up with closer relationships, a greater sense of connection, and an increased sense of their own strength after surviving major challenges.
“People who’ve gone through trauma experience positive effects—not everybody, of course,” Suedfeld says. “But [those who do] have more self-insight when they get through it, more self-confidence, better social relations with their family and friends, and a changed set of values. Their values seem to be more directed at other people than just about themselves.”
Posttraumatic growth also provides a nifty explanation for why Fung is donating proceeds of her book to a charity to help women halfway around the world, rather than trying to cash in on what was probably the most gruelling experience of her life.