Held Together

Held Together

A filmmaker was producing a documentary series on the Iran hostage crisis. Then her father went missing overseas.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 141

Lucy Sexton is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. She was a producer on Hostages (HBO), Five Rounds to Freedom (Showtime), and Dirty Money (Netflix). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, and other publications.

Joe Sexton spent 25 years as a reporter and senior editor at The New York Times, and eight years as a reporter and senior editor at ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization. In May 2023, he published his first book, The Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten
Illustrator: Matt Rota

Published in July 2023.


I am the daughter of a newspaperman.

Throughout my life, I’ve used a version of this sentence to talk about myself: in college application essays and internship cover letters, on first dates, and now in this story. At 32 years of age, my pride in stating what is a core fact of my existence hasn’t diminished.

My dad, Joe Sexton, began his career as a sportswriter at the City Sun in Brooklyn, New York. One of his earliest stories was about the Rikers Island Olympics. He later covered a young Mike Tyson; he sat ringside, and had the blood on his clothes to prove it. When he made it to the sports desk at The New York Times, he spent years terrorizing the Mets and their ownership for crimes of mediocrity and incompetence.

Then, at 34, Joe was suddenly a single father of two daughters. I was just shy of three at the time. If memory can be trusted, I have a few vivid images—random snapshots captured through my toddler’s eyes—of the good and the bad: my tiny cowboy boots against shimmering asphalt; a stash of candies in a porcelain pitcher; being in a dark, frightening hotel room. When it became clear that my mother had demons she would need to wrestle with alone, Joe gained custody of me and my sister.

Here’s another memory: a late-night bottle of milk Joe gave me while friends, presumably fellow reporters, were visiting our house. Joe was simultaneously holding his family together and building a high-profile media career. Work meant that he was on the clock 24/7, and the Times became a second home for our family, a place where we were surrounded by people rooting for the three of us. When Joe jumped from the sports desk to the metro section, the newsroom served as a backup babysitter. When a story demanded that Joe’s feet hit the pavement, two little girls weren’t the worst accessories in pursuit of a quote.

Joe helped the Times garner a fistful of Pulitzer Prizes and covered everything from 9/11 (he dropped me off at school in Brooklyn that morning, and I didn’t see him for days afterward), to the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, to the ousting of two New York governors. Eight years and more stories and prizes followed at ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization.

Early on, our lives could feel unstable—we moved more times than I can count, and my mom cycled in and out of our orbit—but Joe was always solid, secure. Despite the brutal work hours, he made sure to cover beats that kept him close to home. Weeks after turning 17, I began a decade of doing the opposite: I adventured across the globe, first to Argentina and Ghana, then to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and South Korea, on to France, and back to East Asia. I volunteered, produced documentaries, did investigative research, worked at Vietnam’s national English daily, fell in love, opened a restaurant, got a master’s in international security, and flirted with intelligence work and law school before settling back into documentary filmmaking.

Why the constant need to uproot myself? I’m sure a therapist could find some link to childhood trauma. I was too busy to question it; I was living as freely and fearlessly as possible. Joe, with his daily news grind in New York, was the only anchor I needed.

In May 2021, Joe upended this comforting metaphor when he told me that he’d be going to Libya to report a story. It sounded like a good one. But heading to a country racked by violence and without a U.S. embassy didn’t seem like something the careful and even anxious dad I knew would do. Joe and my stepmom had twin girls who were not yet in middle school. Beginning foreign correspondent work at the age of 61, on a dangerous story no less, was an interesting life choice.

Still, I put my travel and reporting experience to work helping him prepare. Jailbreak his cell phone so a foreign SIM card would work? I could do that. Secure a rapid PCR COVID test for travel? I could do that, too: For the previous six months, I’d been navigating strict protocols while filming an HBO series about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when the U.S. embassy and staff in Tehran were held captive for 444 days.

The one thing I couldn’t help Joe with was taking his health more seriously. Just before his trip, he revealed that doctors had found a macular hole in one of his retinas. Left untreated, it could compromise his vision, which was already so bad he was legally blind without his glasses. He didn’t address the defect before going to Libya, nor did he plan to deal with it upon his return. Joe had always been cavalier about taking care of himself—his diet, sleep, and mental health all suffered. Perhaps this stemmed from his Irish Catholic upbringing, which glorified hard work, sacrifice, and personal neglect. Perhaps it came from his lifelong tendency to see himself as invincible when he was on a mission for work or for his family, which he almost always was.

I had seen Joe that way, too—until now. For the first time in my life, I found myself worrying about a future in which I would have to take care of him.

On a spring day, Joe and I sat on the porch of our house in Brooklyn, ignoring my concerns and discussing our respective reporting projects instead. I googled directions to a shop on Coney Island Avenue that sold burner phones in case my neophyte dad needed them on his journey. A few days later, Joe was on a plane to Libya and I was on my way to Washington, D.C., for the HBO project.

For me, the project was a moment of reckoning. I was nearly 62; there weren’t going to be many more shots at foreign correspondence. Did I have the stones for it?


Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli looked like something out of a Mad Max movie. The runways were pockmarked, the hangars appeared abandoned, and the ghostly shell of a scorched, half-collapsed airliner sat in one corner of the tarmac. I all but expected Lord Humungus to poke his masked head out of one of the plane’s blasted windows. The scene was no surprise: The airport had witnessed successive sieges during the years of civil war that followed the violent toppling of Libya’s longtime strongman, Muammar Qaddafi. The real shock was how exactly I’d found myself landing there on a hellishly hot afternoon in May 2021.

Some backstory might help. I spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at The New York Times, and ten years into that run, I was asked whether I might like to be a foreign correspondent in Africa. At the time, I’d also wound up a single dad of two young girls. Just seeing that the dishes got done, the socks were properly matched, and the hastily made bologna sandwiches made it into their lunch boxes felt like heroic accomplishments. My life’s ambitions, rather jarringly, had shrunk to this: Get the girls to 18 years old unharmed. So the idea of living in an armed compound in Nairobi while responsible for covering nearly a dozen often troubled East African countries seemed an imprudent reach. I demurred.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I had the guts for it anyway. I was not a particularly brave person. Was I also a coward of sorts? This was a chastening worry that would stay with me over the decades after I turned down the chance to go to Nairobi. Then, in 2021, shortly after going freelance, I fell in with Ian Urbina, an old colleague from the Times who’d started the Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit committed to some of the most daring reporting on the planet. Piracy on the high seas; slavery on fishing ships; the secretive, illegal dumping of oil into the ocean—Ian was covering all that and more. He was looking for an extra hand and said that I could start by joining him on a reporting trip to Libya. I agreed to go.

Libya struck me as a place of mystery and menace. Seventh-century Phoenicians had laid claim to the territory, and the Greeks and the Romans followed suit. The Spanish and the Ottomans came after that, and then, in the early 20th century, Italy planted its flag. Following the second World War, Libya won its independence, and for close to 20 years it was a U.S. ally, a country of petroleum riches and strategic geopolitical significance. American oil companies flocked there, and Washington leased a major military base. Then, in 1969, Qaddafi staged a coup. The ardent Arab nationalist installed himself as both chief of the armed forces and leader of Libya’s new governing body, the Revolutionary Command Council. Forty years of calculated cruelty and international misdeeds ensued. Under Qaddafi, Libya was seen by the U.S. government as an agent of terror and an enemy of Israel.

Qaddafi met his end during another revolution, the Arab Spring of 2011, and in the years that followed, Libya became a failed state. We would be going there to report on a darkly astonishing story taking place within the country’s borders: the brutal mistreatment of migrants trying to make their way from poverty and conflict to the safety and promise of Europe. The European Union was increasingly unwilling to accommodate these desperate people and their dreams, but it had effectively outsourced the dirty work of halting the flow. Libya, riven by rival militias and foreign mercenaries, was the EU’s most eager and immoral proxy, ramping up a veritable industry of abuse. Migrants on flimsy rafts were captured on the Mediterranean, transported to grim detention facilities inside Libya, and subjected to what the United Nations has since deemed crimes against humanity, including torture, rape, and murder.

A month before we set out for Libya, a 28-year-old migrant from West Africa was shot dead by guards inside one of the country’s most notorious migrant jails, a cluster of converted warehouses in Tripoli known as Al Mabani (the Buildings). We didn’t have the name of the migrant or know where his body had wound up. Still, we meant to tell his story. It may have been a Libyan gunman who shot the young man, but his blood was arguably on the EU’s hands.

There would be four of us working together, and though we would arrive in Libya with the help and blessing of the Red Crescent, an aid organization, our safety briefings made plain the risks we faced. We were given tracking devices in case we went missing. We were told to make photocopies of our passports and put them in the soles of our shoes. An action plan was created, to be set in motion by people back in the U.S. if we went silent for 24 hours.

For me, the project was a moment of reckoning. I was nearly 62; there weren’t going to be many more shots at foreign correspondence. Did I have the stones for it? My second child, Lucy, had shown herself capable of risky work. She’d even been a whistleblower in Ghana during a semester abroad, reporting fraud at the orphanage where she volunteered.

In the lead-up to the trip, I didn’t have trouble sleeping as I feared I might. I didn’t have panic attacks either, although they’d afflicted me at times throughout my life. If I was fooling myself, it was working. Soon I was on a plane to Amsterdam, then to Istanbul, and on to Tripoli. Out the window upon our descent, Tripoli—in its heyday an outpost of beauty and charm on the Mediterranean—had the look of a washed-up prizefighter: scarred and nicked, teeth knocked out, face sagging from a thousand beatings.

Red Crescent officials met us at the airport. There was an awkward wait as our bags were examined, but we were cleared to enter and soon were in a van with our security: three local men in T-shirts and sunglasses. Arrangements had been made for us to stay at the Corinthia Hotel, said to be Tripoli’s most luxurious accommodations. The place had a violent history. In 2013, the Libyan prime minister was kidnapped from the hotel. Two years later, ten people were shot dead when a militia stormed the place. Just a week before our arrival, the latest set of gunmen had turned up in a show of force, but no one was hurt.

We never made it to the Corinthia. Instead we were taken to the Royal Gardens, a nondescript four-story hotel on a side street near Tripoli’s central square. No explanation for the change was given. The Royal Gardens had the feel of some sort of front, as if the clerks and concierges were playing a role. It was hard not to be a little spooked.

I didn’t wear glasses, but Joe did. I couldn’t remember an occasion when I’d seen him without them, save for an occasional swim in the ocean.


As a story producer for the HBO series, I was responsible for historical and political research, and for developing compelling characters and storylines. The origins of the Iran hostage crisis date back to well before 1979 and are anything but settled. The dynamism and nuance of Iran’s history, culture, and people challenge even rigorous academics. And I, no academic, belong to a generation of Americans who have only known Iran as an isolated, theocratic, dictatorial country—a “pariah state” and sworn enemy of democracy.

It wasn’t always so. Cyrus the Great, who built a mighty Persian empire during his reign in the sixth century B.C., was known for his tolerance of religious and cultural diversity. A prominent statesman, Cyrus is credited with fostering ideas about human rights and centralized governance. Thomas Jefferson was an admirer and drew from Cyrus during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Fast-forward to the modern era, when Iran and the U.S. began to build a strong if complicated friendship. In the late 19th century, American missionaries founded hospitals and schools in Iran. When the Soviet Union refused to leave occupied lands in Iran’s Azerbaijan region after World War II, President Harry Truman brought international pressure to bear to encourage withdrawal. The countries’ relationship tightened again when Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi came to power in Tehran.

In 1953, the CIA helped coordinate a coup that quelled a pro-democracy challenge to the monarchical ambitions of the Shah, who would go on to establish increasingly authoritarian rule while proving an indispensable ally to a series of U.S. presidents. America relied on the Shah for oil, military contracts, and intelligence. In an effusive New Year’s Eve toast, President Jimmy Carter declared Iran an “island of stability” in the Middle East.

Just a year after Carter uttered those words, the Shah fled Iran as supporters of revolution rallied behind the Islamic clerics who’d been his harshest critics. Ten months later, on November 4, 1979, a group of students seized the U.S. embassy, an act meant as a rebuke of America’s friendship with the deposed Shah. According to the students, they intended to take embassy staffers hostage for a short time, but the situation lasted more than a year. In Tehran, the wave of nationalism and anti-American fervor that erupted around the crisis became a veil behind which repressive religious forces stepped into a political vacuum. The theocracy ushered in by cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini continues to this day.

The team behind the HBO documentary hoped we could put the people at the center of this complex story back into the frame. Earning and protecting the trust of subjects is a great privilege of the work of a documentary storyteller, and on this project I came to know a rich and varied cast from around the globe: American hostages and their families; academics and analysts who covered the crisis; Iranians who either supported or opposed the revolution; journalists who met Khomeini during his brief time in France, before his triumphant return home, or who captured events in Tehran at great personal risk.

Learning these people’s stories often meant asking them to relive traumatic events. Parvaneh Limbert, wife of hostage John Limbert, described the horrible moment when she learned that her husband had been seized half a world away. During one of my visits to the Limberts’ home, Parvaneh showed me pictures of her life in limbo as she cared for two kids alone; there were photos of Christmas trees, family dinners, bedtime routines, and trips to Washington, D.C., all without John.

The documentary’s archival team amassed a library of footage, photos, and news clippings that brought me closer still to the agony of uncertainty. I watched the hostages’ families give heartbreaking press conferences. Some recounted nightly rituals of scanning the news for a glimpse of their loved ones in footage released from the embassy. Newscasters described how Michael Metrinko’s family went months without knowing if he was alive.

Former hostages told me about the anxieties and fears that came with being cut off from the world. The only certainty was disorientation. Several people recounted the horror of being blindfolded, led outside, and lined up as if before a firing squad. They heard their captors load guns and count down—in place of “zero” came the mocking click of an empty chamber. Despite the decades that had elapsed, the former hostages’ terror remained fresh in the telling.

A catalog of rarely if ever seen footage from inside the embassy also provided glimpses into the hostages’ experience. One clip in particular stuck with me. In it a hostage explains to a Red Cross doctor that his eyeglasses had been taken from him on the first day of the crisis and were never returned. It was painful to imagine what he experienced—the blurred vision, the headaches, the world circumscribed.

I didn’t wear glasses, but Joe did. I couldn’t remember an occasion when I’d seen him without them, save for an occasional swim in the ocean.


Becoming a single dad ended my sportswriting career; I couldn’t make a West Coast swing during baseball season while responsible for two young girls. So I moved to the Times’ metro desk and became a decent city reporter, doing a mix of hard news and feature stories. Over the years, my girls tagged along on some of my assignments, from the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island to a Hasidic mother in Brooklyn who was one of the most sought-after nitpickers during a plague of lice in local schools. When the Times asked me to help conduct in-house seminars on street reporting, I made a point of telling younger reporters that success is often determined before you get out the door. If you’re fatalistic about getting what you need, failure awaits. If you force yourself to believe that an improbable reporting coup could happen, often as not it does. Corny maybe, but also true, at least in my experience.

I followed my own advice with Libya, trying before I arrived to imagine what reporting there would be like. I foresaw secretive conversations with friends and relatives of jailed migrants in dusty streets outside detention facilities. Maybe there would be a way to talk to prisoners through barred windows. Notes might be exchanged.

I felt naive, then, when two members of our team returned to the Royal Gardens after venturing out to Al Mabani. Their driver had refused to even slow down while passing by the jail, so fearful was he of being stopped at gunpoint.

Needless to say, the landscape of the city was less than ideal for the kind of street reporting I knew. To merely venture out, by foot or by car, was to risk being confronted by the armed men stationed at a convoluted pattern of checkpoints throughout Tripoli. And then there was the matter of our security team. Though they had been assigned to us with the help of the Red Crescent, a little googling showed that the firm they worked for seemed to be run by a former Libyan military official accused of war crimes. Were they actually government minders monitoring our doings? Militia members themselves? Did it matter?

Libya, I was discovering a little late, was an inscrutable place.

In addition to me and Ian Urbina, our team included Dutch documentary filmmaker Mea Dols de Jong and Pierre Kattar, a video journalist who’d spent years at The Washington Post. Against the odds, we soon got some reporting breaks. A variety of aid organizations had done years of work documenting abuses and offering comfort to the tens of thousands of migrants swept up and detained inside Libya. One of those organizations was able to provide us with the names of the young migrant shot dead at Al Mabani and of a witness to the killing. The dead man was Aliou Candé, a farmer and father of three from Guinea-Bissau, captured by the Libyan Coast Guard as he tried to make his way to a new life in Italy. The witness was a man from Ivory Coast named Mohammad David; he had managed to escape Al Mabani in the tumult that followed Candé’s murder. We had a cell phone number for him.

On our first night in Tripoli, three of us made it to Gargaresh, an area that had become a migrant ghetto. Militias liked to make brutalizing sweeps of Gargaresh’s mix of hideouts and encampments. Along the neighborhood’s main drag, a blur of neon lights, furtive figures, internet cafés, and cheap food joints, we met Mohammad David. He spoke French, and Pierre, whose father once served as a translator for the U.S. embassy in Paris, could make out enough of what he said to extract a rough narrative of Candé’s killing.

There had been a fight inside one of Al Mabani’s crowded, fetid cells. Guards fired their automatic rifles indiscriminately. Candé was struck in the neck, and his blood streaked a wall as he dragged against it before falling down dead. Other detainees didn’t allow his body to be removed from the cell until they were granted their freedom, which was how Mohammad David made it to Gargaresh.

The incident was a stark reminder that Al Mabani, like many other jails in Libya, was run by one of the violent militias that had divided Tripoli into wary, sometimes warring fiefs. These forces extort the families of jailed migrants for ransom payments, steal aid money meant to help feed and clothe their captives, and sell men and women into forced servitude. Candé’s killing, for a rare, brief moment, gave some of his fellow prisoners leverage over their captors.

In the days that followed our conversation with David, other unlikely reporting triumphs piled up. We found a man who served as a kind of informal liaison for migrants from Guinea-Bissau eking out a living in Tripoli. He brought us to Candé’s great-uncle, who showed us police documents pertaining to Candé’s death; a “fight” was listed as the cause of his demise. The liaison said that Candé had been buried in a vast walled-off expanse of dirt that served as the graveyard of Tripoli’s unwanted. We hired a local photographer to launch a drone camera over the acres of burial mounds, most of them unmarked. He managed to locate one into which someone had scratched the name “Candé.”

In subsequent days, our team snuck two other men who’d spent time at Al Mabani into our hotel. One of them, a teenager, told us that he’d taken a bullet in his leg the night Candé was killed. We pushed the limits of prudence in pursuit of these reporting coups. Pierre had brought a drone camera with him, which he flew above Al Mabani. The scene he captured looked a lot like a concentration camp: men huddled under threat of violence after being fed in a courtyard, then marched back to their cells single file, beaten in the head for so much as looking up at the sky.

It soon became clear that our security guys were reporting back to their bosses, whoever they were, at least some of what we were up to. At one point, we got a visit from an American expatriate who said she worked for the security outfit. She warned us that what we were doing was dangerous and demanded we apprise her of any further proposed reporting efforts outside the confines of the hotel.

One morning we notified Red Crescent officials that we wanted to visit the morgue where Candé’s body had been taken. Mea and I got in a van and made our way through Tripoli’s streets. The morgue was part of a complex of squat buildings shielded by an imposing set of walls and fences. Inside was a man at a desk. We asked to see Candé’s records, and he rifled through several filing cabinets.

A freshly wrapped body lay on a gurney in the middle of the main room. In a side room, a worker ran water from a hose over another body. Behind a set of curtains was a wall of refrigerated chambers that could hold perhaps two dozen corpses. It was impossibly hot and completely quiet.

Mea recorded what we were seeing from a small camera set discreetly against her stomach, until someone noticed and reported it to the man at the desk. It was time for us to go.


Many of the people we interviewed for the documentary emphasized that we didn’t have to go as far back as 1979 to hear about the experience of being a hostage in Iran. The country still holds U.S. citizens in captivity, using them as pawns in its efforts to have various political and monetary demands met. This fact led me, shortly after Joe’s departure for Libya, to a law office in D.C. near Dupont Circle. I hoped to gain insight into the current situation by talking to Babak Namazi and his family’s attorney, Jared Genser.

The Namazis’ experience is tragic: They have suffered not one but two loved ones being taken hostage in Iran. Babak, the eldest of two sons, was born in Iran not long before the revolution that forced his family and many others into exile. The Namazis became American citizens and built a successful life; they’re especially proud of the decades that Baquer, Babak’s father, spent working at Unicef, fighting for vulnerable children around the world. During a visit to Iran in 2015, Babak’s younger brother, Siamak, was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC, an agency born out of the revolution and tasked with maintaining Iran’s internal security, is known to use surveillance, unlawful detention, and torture against foreigners and Iranian citizens alike. Since 1979, it has used hostage taking to gain political leverage in negotiations with Western countries. Increasingly in the past decade, the IRGC targeted Iranian dual citizens and permanent residents from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and other nations.

In 2016, Baquer traveled to Tehran based on a promise that he would be permitted to visit his son in prison. Instead he was taken hostage by the IRGC as soon as he got off the plane. Both he and his son were held on spurious charges of collaborating with a hostile government. Trials to convict IRGC hostages are little more than cynical nods at justice: Often there are no witnesses, no time allowed to build a defense, no opportunity to dispute the charges before a judge.

Babak and I had spoken at length about his family’s ordeal, and now I would be spending some time with him as he made the rounds in the U.S. Capitol. Families of hostages are left to push congressional leaders to act and to ponder cruel questions: What can lawmakers do to help them? What sort of financial, political, or nuclear deal or prisoner swap will be enough to secure their loved ones’ release?

For me, relief from this emotionally weighty work came from the stream of texts I received from Joe in Libya. We always kept each other up to date on our respective projects, from the minutiae of storylines and quotes we loved to the journalistic joys of acquiring crucial evidence or getting a key source to open up. Joe sent me photos from Tripoli that captured the travails of finding good iced coffee, which his New York blood desperately needed. We texted about the excitement and strain of overseas reporting—the translators, the logistics, the agencies that are “dysfunctional even when they’re on your side,” as Joe put it.

But it wasn’t all levity: There was a video of a dead man in a morgue, and photos Joe and his colleagues obtained of poetry scratched into the walls of cells. There were images of paper scraps with poker scores kept by migrant men trying to kill time, and footage from a drone the team had flown over a notorious prison. Joe mentioned dodging undercover intelligence, perhaps even local militias.

I knew this was dangerous material to be exchanging between our personal phones, but I wasn’t particularly keen to tell him to stop, to cut myself off from him and his journey. We’d worked hard to get where we were—a journalistic duo, a bonded pair.

Our father-daughter relationship was not uncomplicated, as evidenced by the fact that, even as kids, my sister and I called our dad Joe. Therapists refer to it as “adulting” when children are forced to mature rapidly and parent themselves or others. Our household was one of silent, industrious survival. Joe was a stoic workaholic. I shared in his anxiety about empty bank accounts, which resulted in my habit of hoarding money along with the Halloween candy in a dresser drawer.

Once, while Christmas shopping, we ran into a reporter Joe knew. In a well-meant aside, the man told me that I should appreciate the career sacrifices Joe made to stay close to his girls. I felt a deep mix of guilt and anger. Yes, he’d made sacrifices, but if we’re being honest, Joe wasn’t home all that much. On school nights, hours after falling asleep, I’d wake to join him as he caught up on the day’s sports scores and ate a midnight dinner. It was the only time I could reliably be close to him.

His work shaped our relationship in other ways large and small. Help with homework wasn’t common, but when I was in the third grade he edited one of my writing assignments and added the word “divine” to a sentence. In a way only the child of a writer ever could, I argued: This wasn’t “my voice.” Did he even know what a third-grader’s writing looked like? I made it a point that Joe Sexton of The New York Times would not be permitted to edit anything else of mine until it came time for me to apply to college.

As it happened, it wasn’t until that rite of passage occurred nearly a decade later that Joe and I started to build a deeper relationship. Once I was in college, I sent a rather frank email to my mother, with Joe cc’d, making it plain how little anyone had ever told me about what happened with our family. Joe’s reply included a lengthy PDF attachment titled “The History of Us.” I later got those words inked on my shoulder.

In time Joe became dad, then friend, and later, when I got into journalism, collaborator. The gift of our admiring, candid relationship felt precious. It also made me susceptible to tears when it came to stories about fathers. Rewatching The Lion King? I was a mess. Working on the Iran project, I found myself especially sensitive when hearing about hostages with children, be it John Limbert in 1979 or Baquer Namazi in 2016. Babak hadn’t seen his dad in five years; I had just sat next to Joe on the porch a week prior. The idea that my dad might never come home was impossible to fathom.


The takedown was efficiently executed: Several cars moving in tandem. Men with automatic weapons. Commands hollered in Arabic for us to keep our heads down. It was close to 8 p.m. on May 23, a Sunday evening, about a day and a half from our scheduled departure from Tripoli.

Hours earlier, after visiting the morgue, our reporting trip had taken another surprising turn: We were informed that the Libyan Coast Guard might allow us aboard one of its patrol boats. That would mean actually getting out on the Mediterranean, perhaps even witnessing a roundup of migrants trying to reach Europe. In recent years, the Coast Guard had been accused of firing on or capsizing migrant rafts. People pulled aboard Libyan vessels reported being beaten and terrorized.

We were excited that our efforts might end on a fruitful note and proposed to our security team that we go to a restaurant for a celebratory dinner. There was a good Turkish place across town. Ian stayed behind at the Royal Gardens; his teenage son needed help with his homework over Zoom.

On almost every trip through the city, our security team had been wary of men in white cars. The significance of the color was hard to decipher—maybe it indicated undercover police—but their worry was intense and constant. When looking for a spot to launch the drone over Al Mabani, for instance, they’d abandoned several options after white cars were seen nearby.

Now, about halfway to the restaurant, there were suddenly white cars all around us. Our driver wheeled into the thick of Sunday evening traffic to turn around, then floored it, intending to dash back to the hotel. We didn’t get far. In a roundabout below an overpass, there was a crash to the right side of the van. We came to a stop.

“They’ve got guns,” Mea said.

The front doors of the van were thrown open. Our driver was pistol-whipped and yanked from the vehicle. The security guy in the passenger seat was heaved out, too; taking his place was a young man of perhaps 21, his face electric with excitement and an AK-47 in his hands. Our van had been tricked out with goofy interior lights and an array of cup holders—it always struck us as a cut-rate prom-night vehicle. Now it was a scene of shouts and silent prayers. I put my head down as directed and pulled my windbreaker over it.

The van sped off. This had taken perhaps 30 seconds.

Rocketing through Tripoli I was strikingly calm, but I wasn’t feeling courage so much as an altered sense of reality. It seemed as though we were in a movie, not a potentially deadly abduction. If I was deluded, at least that felt better than panic.

We listened for any sense of where we were headed. There was a sharp turn and a sudden stop, then the scraping and clanging of what sounded like a gate rolling open.

Ordered from the van, we were marched along, heads pushed down. I thought of the detainees in the courtyard of Al Mabani unable to look up at the sky. Inside wherever we’d been taken, we were blindfolded. I’d worn glasses since the third grade at Saint Saviour grammar school in Brooklyn, and probably hadn’t been awake without them on for more than five minutes in the five decades since. Now my glasses were gone, and what sight I had was blocked by cloth.

Standing, then forced to sit, it was hard to cope with the expectation of being hit. Instinctively I braced myself, my head turned sideways to soften a blow. Our captors shouted at us in Arabic, turning a gorgeous language hideous. There were bits of broken, angry English, too.

“Libyans are not stupid,” one of the men hollered.

“Who is Mohammad David?”

It became clear that these men had been to our hotel. My guess was they’d found David’s name and number in our phones. The thought occurred: Maybe our captors were members of the militia that ran Al Mabani.

I heard Ian’s voice. He’d been taken, too, hooded and stomped on by men who stormed his hotel room. He’d been on a call with his wife, who heard the men and her husband’s cries as two of his ribs were broken and he was dragged from the room barefoot. Whoever they were, they had all of us, along with all our stuff: notebooks, cameras, drone, recorded interviews, computers and hard drives, passports, money, tracking devices.

“Who killed George Floyd?” somebody screamed derisively. I had to assume that they’d found our concern about Candé’s death inside Al Mabani ironic, given Floyd’s murder by police in America a year earlier.

Our captors soon zeroed in on Pierre. Born in Lebanon, Pierre was invaluable to our reporting, with his gift for languages: English, French, Italian, some Arabic. Now the men who’d taken us hit him in the head, and the words they yelled implied that they regarded him as a traitor.

Libya’s record on the treatment of people in its jails and prisons is miserable. I’d researched it before the trip and copied a passage from a UN report into my notebook:

Torture continues today in Libya. It is most frequent immediately upon arrest and during the first days of interrogation as a means to extract confessions or other information. Detainees are usually held without access to lawyers and occasional access to families, if any…. From late 2011, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya has recorded 27 cases of deaths in custody where there is significant information to suggest that torture was the cause, and is aware of allegations about additional cases which it has not been able to fully investigate.

Were we being held by the government? A militia? Even knowing that there might not be much of a distinction, the latter still felt more frightening. If militias were involved, I feared that people back home learning of our abduction might be a more remote possibility, and that our status as Americans might matter less to our captors.

While I was blindfolded, my sense of the passage of time faded. Every once in a while I’d be moved; from where or to where, it was impossible to say. There were shifts in temperature—one spot felt air-conditioned, the next torrid. There was no talking. Our captors seemed to get a kick out of stepping on my feet every once in a while, grinding my toes. But was this just for their amusement? Perhaps it was a detention technique, or a way to kill time before shooting us.

On my checkered journey toward a college degree, I once went off to work in Wyoming, fixing track and building snow fences for the Union Pacific Railroad. The wages allowed me to save up enough for a year of school abroad, in Dublin, where one subject I was good at was the study of beer. An Irish poet and writer named Seamus Deane taught one of my classes, and he just so happened to be childhood friends with a rather more prominent poet, Seamus Heaney. Heaney came to read for our class one evening, and we had more than a few pints afterward. Thus began my most sustained love affair with a writer’s work, and among Heaney’s poetry I most cherish is a series of gorgeous sonnets he wrote upon the death of his mother. In one verse, he likens his mother’s absence to the loss of a beloved chestnut tree on his family’s farm in Northern Ireland—he calls what’s left behind “a bright nowhere.”

Contemplating being shot, this phrase came back to me. When I opened my eyes underneath the blindfold, the material appeared gauzy, whitish yellow in color. A bright nowhere. Maybe I’d already been shot.

After hours of silence there was a commotion, and once again we were on the move. Yanked to our feet, we heard guns being fiddled with and slung about. We were pushed outside. It was a hard, enraging thing to walk blindfolded. I held a hand out to steady myself against a possible fall and was shoved in the back of the head. It was hardly grave in comparison with what might happen, but it made me furious. Crazy as it sounds, I thought, Go ahead, shoot me, beat me, whatever, but do not fucking push me when I cannot see.

I could smell the Mediterranean, salty and thick. In our reporting, we’d heard multiple accounts of migrants being shot and dumped in the sea. Maybe it was time to take hurried stock of my life.

It had been rich in blessings. I found a second chance at love, a wife full of beauty and forgiveness. I got my two older girls to adulthood safe and healthy, and then, at 51, had two more girls—twins. I shared in a bounty of consequential reporting. Throughout that charmed life, I made a million mistakes at home and on the job, but they all proved survivable, for the people and institutions I sinned against and for myself.

In the Libyan darkness, I contemplated what I’d most like to say to the people I loved and served. “I tried my best” is what I landed on. I was instantly embarrassed at the self-serving ring to it. But it’s what I had.

Once more came the sounds of gates or doors scraping open, of car and motorcycle engines being revved. Then I felt the cold blade of a knife against my groin. I could hear my track pants tearing.

No God, please.

It turned out that the captors were just cutting the elastic string from my waistband. Hanging myself—not an idea I would have had—was evidently not going to be an option.

I was pushed to the ground and wound up on my ass. There was a mash of bellowing and then, once again, silence. I could tell through the blindfold that wherever we were, the lights had just been turned out. To my right I sensed another person. I could hear breathing. I guessed it was Pierre.

“You there?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Pierre said.

My rational brain told me that the only thing to do was get back to work. It’s what Joe would have done.


It was around noon on May 24. I was at the head of a conference table, prepping for the following days’ work on the documentary. I don’t know why I chose that moment to check my personal email. When I’m in the field it can be hard to remember to eat. Perhaps it was a sixth sense that made me look.

Sitting at the top of my inbox was an email from my stepmother to everyone in our family, sent just a few minutes before. Joe and his three colleagues in Libya had been taken the night before and hadn’t been heard from since. It was suspected that Libyan intelligence was responsible. The Outlaw Ocean team was raising alarm bells with whomever they could. My stepmother had asked The New York Times’ director of global security for advice; she is a photo editor at the paper, and both Joe and Ian Urbina are beloved alumni.

I was taken aback. Was this real? I spent some time just trying to grasp the basic facts. What happened, when, and why? Few things were answerable.

My first struggle was practical and professional: how to explain this. I needed to let someone know what I was going through, worrying about my dad’s kidnapping overseas while running around Washington, producing a documentary about hostage taking. The coincidence was darkly poetic. In my head I started rehearsing versions of “I know this might sound crazy, but…”

I sought the best way to summarize my situation to my boss, the right words to use. Was my father captured? A prisoner? A hostage? All of the above? I called the series’ producer, who took the news and its ambiguities in stride, offering help and gracious concern. I then shot off a succinct reply to the family email chain: I was on call to help, I wrote, and felt “confident they will be out in no time.”

For the time being, I told no one else what had happened. In times of emergency, my consciousness switches to a kind of third-person observer, similar to how many of us experience dreams. I can step outside myself to see the larger narrative. Maybe this tendency lets me remain calm rather than deteriorating into tears. In this case, given my work on the series and everything I was learning about hostage taking, it also allowed me to keep perspective, to remind myself of the spectrum of precedent for this sort of incident. 

Then my rational brain told me that the only thing to do was get back to work. It’s what Joe would have done.

Late that night, when I returned to my hotel room, I looked through the last messages I’d exchanged with Joe. There were photos, videos, and details about evading men who appeared to be undercover officers. Our communication now felt careless, incriminating. How naive we’d been in dismissing the risks he was taking. Knowing Joe’s unsophisticated relationship with technology and passwords, Libyan intelligence operatives were probably scrolling through everything I was seeing on my phone. Our exchanges might be used against Joe and the rest of his team.

Sometime after 2 a.m. I spoke to my stepmother. “Who else should I tell about the texts I received from Joe?” I asked. Then, thinking on it further, I realized that there might be something else I could do—someone I could talk to. I was anxious to get to work, both for Joe and for the documentary. Sunrise was just a few hours away.


I assumed it was morning when I heard a door or gate bang open. I could sense light through my blindfold. Then, with no warning or explanation, the wrap was taken off. The men who removed it were gone before I really saw them. Pierre’s blindfold was off too. We were left—me barefoot, him in socks—in our tiny cell.

Without my glasses, it was hard to take in the details of our cramped quarters, but I did my best. We had been sitting on a thin and ratty foam pad. There was a high, narrow window that sunlight streamed through at an angle. Ants were everywhere. A blue metal door held a slat that slid open from the outside. There was a toilet, and two heavy wool blankets were heaped in a corner.

I was glad Pierre was there, but for a while we didn’t speak much, each of us making our own private assessments: Did surviving the night bode well? Mean nothing? Might we be released in an hour, or never? Back at the hotel, thinking ahead to our proposed embed with the Libyan Coast Guard, I’d checked the weather forecast. The temperature in Tripoli was supposed to climb above 100 degrees. Pierre and I could already feel the heat of the day start to cook us in the airless cell.

There is a grisly track record of American journalists abducted and harmed or killed overseas. The executions of Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal in Pakistan and freelancer James Foley in Syria are perhaps the most well known. I’d had friends and colleagues abducted as well. David Rohde was held for seven months by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan before he managed to escape. My wife had friends and colleagues who were taken by a Libyan militia in 2011 while they were on assignment for the paper. They were physically assaulted before being freed days later. “We were each begging for our lives because they were deciding whether to execute us, and they had guns to our heads,” one of the photographers, Lynsey Addario, said in an interview after the ordeal. “And I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ Like, ‘How much do I really care about Libya?’ And then I thought, ‘Will I ever get my cameras back?’ I mean, which is the most ridiculous thought, of course, when you’re about to die.”

That’s how my mind worked as the silent hours slipped by. I imagined having fingers cut off under interrogation, then minutes later wondered whether the captors would bring me my glasses and what they’d feed us for lunch. The idea that we might spend years in custody led me to daydream about the prospect of learning Arabic. Perhaps that would prove a valuable asset for a former sportswriter looking for work in his seventies. Assuming I lived or was ever returned to the U.S.

Pierre and I had met for the first time barely a week earlier, and now we shared our backstories. He lived in Rome and had a 20-year-old son. He worked as a freelance video journalist and filmmaker, traveling the world for major news organizations. I talked about my wife and four girls. Lucy shared his talent for languages and international adventure—Pierre would have gotten a kick out of her.

Shame soon became the dominant sensation, a lacerating inclination to blame myself for what was happening. Had coming to Libya been in any way sensible? Was launching drones above Tripoli or filming inside a morgue anything but provocative and reckless? The shame went beyond my own lack of care and formidable arrogance. Locked up, unable to see very well, startled by the simplest sounds, I assigned legitimacy to our captors: They were right to have taken us. We deserved it. I suspect those practiced in the art of detention know that captives often feel this way and exploit it.

It was hard to get comfortable in the cell. There wasn’t enough room for Pierre and me to stretch out. We could come close to spooning and at least get our legs extended, but this was awkward, and the hard floor ground into our hips and shoulders. Seated upright, we could prop our bent legs against the wall that held the toilet. Traffic was audible through the cell’s high window, but we could only guess where we were or what time it was.

At one point the slat in the door slid open. Two small bottles of water were passed through, then two small bags comically marked “SandOwich.” I had no appetite. I’d taken antidepressants for a decade, mostly to treat anxiety. What little I knew about the medication was that you did not want to come off it cold after long-term use. The side effects could be pronounced: nausea, vivid dreams, dizziness, headaches. I wouldn’t be getting my meds, that was for sure. And the food hadn’t come with coffee, another longtime drug of mine. Oh boy.

Pierre and I were eventually summoned out of the cell, one at a time, for a brief encounter with a man behind a desk. At last we could get some sense of the facility we were in. There appeared to be three cells on either side of a narrow corridor; the place had the feel of a particularly grim drunk tank. Was it a government building of some kind? A holding cell adjacent to a courthouse would be a stroke of luck, rendering the possibility that we’d be shot less likely.

Seated before my inquisitor, I fancied that I might at least get my glasses. I think he only showed me my passport, then sent me back to the cell. Night crept in; the lights went out. Human voices rose up now and again, but it was hard to say if these were people inside the facility or beyond its walls, and whether they were groaning or praying.

Morning brought more water and nothing else. In the weeks before our trip, I’d hired an agent and cooked up a book proposal. An email arrived when we were at the hotel in Tripoli; a publisher wanted to set up a Zoom call to talk about the idea. The meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. the morning after we were taken. I got a perverse laugh out of thinking what that call must have been like: an agent and a prominent publisher left waiting for a prospective first-time author who never showed, and never bothered to reach out and explain why.

Pierre proved to be a charming and fastidious cellmate. He revealed that at one point he’d been a busker on the streets of Paris, playing guitar, singing, and evidently doing well with the ladies. Dylan songs were in his repertoire; “To Ramona” was a favorite. Amid our acute boredom and generalized despair, he sang it for me:

I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin’ and returnin’
Back to the South
You’ve been fooled into thinking
That the finishin’ end is at hand
Yet there’s no one to beat you
No one t’ defeat you
’Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad

It made me smile.

For the family of a missing or detained person, the worst fears come from a lack of information. Knowing nothing definitive, you can only imagine the conditions your loved one is in.


May 25. Joe was still missing. We had gotten no news. The name we had for the U.S. deputy chief of mission for Tripoli was out-of-date. Joe’s friends and colleagues were trying to get the attention of government officials, but we still had no clear point of contact at the State Department.

Compartmentalizing gets a bad rap; it can be a useful tool, especially when your job, and possibly your sanity, is on the line. I spent the day listening to Babak Namazi tell the harrowing story of his brother’s seizure by Iranian intelligence, the family’s lack of knowledge about Siamak’s condition, the Iranian government’s offer of a visit with Siamak that had lured his 80-year-old father, in poor health, back to Tehran. Bearing witness to the emotional strain that accumulates over years of constant anxiety about absent loved ones was tough. I tried to focus on the details of the Namazis’ story and on taking notes, but at times my ability to box things up wavered.

When the intersection of my work and personal life felt particularly cruel, I reminded myself how relatively lucky I was. While my father and I were only on day two of our shared ordeal—or was it day three for Joe, given the time difference?—the Namazis had surpassed day 2,000 of theirs. My father was a foreigner pursuing a sensitive story that, while honorable as a journalistic matter, required traveling to a country he probably wasn’t equipped to be in. Siamak and his father were being held in the country of their birth, speaking their native tongue with their captors. Iran was a place they had every right to be.

As the hours with Babak passed, I discovered that, for the family of a missing or detained person, the worst fears come from a lack of information. Knowing nothing definitive, you can only imagine the conditions your loved one is in, and you worry about their emotional state and the motives of their captors. Not being able to do anything, and having to rely on governments to make the difficult calculus of how to maximize the odds of bringing a person home unharmed, was as maddening as it was terrifying.

Negotiating with hostage takers is fraught with both moral and mortal hazard. Capitulating to extortion encourages abduction, but frequently the only way to free a hostage is by meeting captors’ demands. Trying to muscle or shoot one’s way through an impasse can be extremely unwise. The tragedy of Desert One, during President Carter’s failed mission to free the hostages in Tehran by force, is vivid evidence of that.

The serendipity of spending time with Babak was that I’d learned of one person in Washington who was intimately aware of the unique difficulties of securing the release of hostages. Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, had handled some of the most intractable cases around the world, including the Namazis’. As it happened, Babak and his lawyer were scheduled to meet with Carstens the following day, and I was eager to come along—for the documentary and for Joe.

I got a call from Carstens’s director of communications, Joan Sinclair, to discuss the visit. With journalistic business squared away, I took advantage of the unhappy coincidence.

“So Joan, now I have a personal situation I need to talk about,” I said. “I hope you can help.”


On our second night in captivity, I was taken from the cell down a corridor, outdoors briefly, and then back inside to an office. Two men appeared to be in charge; both would tell me that they had once worked for Qaddafi’s secret intelligence service. One of them enjoyed making fun of my circumstances in the form of long, evidently hilarious riffs in Arabic. The other was a tall, doughy guy in sandals who carried a briefcase everywhere. He spoke English and mentioned that he’d received some training in the U.S., perhaps with the Department of Homeland Security. My goatee and full head of graying hair reminded them of Colonel Sanders. This cracked them up, and they took to calling me “Kentucky.” I laughed with them, both humiliated and grateful for the distraction.

Eventually, I was taken to a courtyard, and a phone was held under my chin. A State Department official was at the other end of the line. My captors told me to say that I had committed crimes but was being treated well. I think I managed to say that we’d been given water. I copped to no crimes. Back in the cell, Pierre told me that he’d been through the same routine.

I recalled that President Biden had recently named a special envoy to Libya. The envoy had his work cut out—he faced competing authorities, shifting alliances, and an overall sense of impunity for those interested in committing violence against migrants, neighbors, rivals, journalists. Still, I told myself that executing Americans was an unlikely outcome, given the international repercussions it might invite. Then again, by this point the only thing I felt confident about was that I didn’t really know anything at all.

The prospect of long-term imprisonment began to sink in. Given the dysfunction in Libya, we could become trophy captives, stuck here for months or even years. Pierre and I discussed what that sort of future might hold. Then we heard a faint tapping on the other side of the wall. We tapped back. We took the crude exchange to be evidence that Ian, Mea, or both were being held close by. Our spirits lifted slightly.

After James Foley’s brutal killing by the Islamic State in 2014, his mother created an advocacy group to track Americans held abroad illegally and to press the case for their release. There were an average of 34 U.S. hostages overseas every year between 2012 and 2022. Terrorist groups aren’t the only bad actors—foreign governments are, too, and in recent years the number of governments holding Americans hostage has grown from a handful to nearly twenty. The taken include businesspeople, aid workers, journalists. U.S. officials work hard to bring Americans home, but success is spotty at best.

I hated that my wife and kids were suffering with this knowledge, and with so much unsaid and undone between us. This was the slice of shame that cut deepest. I’d mythologized myself as a parent. Maybe all parents do this. It had sustained me to think that I raised my older girls well despite tough circumstances, and I entertained the notion that I was a more present dad to the twins. But cracks in this account appeared over the years. For me love was a demonstrative act: I did things for my wife and kids. I went to every soccer game, dance recital, school play. I sent the girls to summer camp, and we traveled to Ireland and Argentina, France and Mexico. Our home was always open to their friends. Holidays were rich with ritual. And I worked—too often, for too long, with obsession and insecurity. I gave too much of myself to the Times especially, but the paper was more than an employer. It provided me with purpose, and it allowed my girls to feel pride and community and safety.

But love as actual communication—an intimate connection of shared wonders and wisdom and worries—I wasn’t so good at. It was a painful pity. My elder girls, Jane and Lucy, weren’t hardships to bear, and they were more than good soldiers in our durable little platoon. They were among my life’s greatest gifts, a source of joy and comfort, women of grit and accomplishment. Parenting them was a labor, but of the best sort, powered by love and full of satisfactions. I wish I had told them that more often.

Again I put myself through the mental exercise of imagining a long detention. Would we be in a prison full of the destitute and ill, left to rot? Or perhaps a sun-bleached quarantine in the desert or on a Mediterranean shore, where the day-to-day depredations wouldn’t be awful, profound isolation and boredom the main punishments? Maybe in a place like that they’d let us read books.

I did the math—what would it mean to be gone a year, three years, ten? I’d had the thrill of officiating at the wedding of my eldest daughter, Jane, but Lucy was still single. The twins were barely in middle school. Maybe I’d make it back for another marriage and two college graduations. I could endure the wait. Or so I told myself.


Every 17 years, dormant cicadas come to life, emerging from underground in a vast brood. As if the convergence of my work life and personal life hadn’t felt symbolic enough already, Washington was covered in a plague of the bugs as I awaited news about Joe. Standing in the grassy park in front of the State Department, I felt cicadas crawl up my legs.

A few minutes before, I was present when Babak met with Roger Carstens. The men had been in correspondence for years, and rather than stiffly shaking hands, they embraced. Then the men left me outside while they went to discuss sensitive matters.

When Carstens’s communications director called my cell phone a short while later, I expected it to be about interviewing her boss for the series. Instead she told me that Carstens would be coming back outside. He wanted to talk to me.

Carstens and I walked together across the grass by the Albert Einstein Memorial. Despite an earlier career as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Special Forces, he’s the kind of guy you immediately feel comfortable calling by his first name. Roger’s affable smile, youthful energy, and casual demeanor can put anyone at ease. These qualities make him well suited to his difficult role.

The job of the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs was created in 2015, around the time the Obama administration was making headway in talks with Iran. Those talks led to a nuclear deal and the release of six Americans. Under the Trump administration the nuclear deal was undone, but the position of hostage envoy remained. Its effectiveness was limited by turnover until 2020, when Roger took the job. Finally, hostages and their families had an advocate with staying power. Roger built meaningful relationships with the people he tried to help; his direct line was available whenever they needed it.

He kindly gave me what assurances he could. A team at the State Department, including people in Tunisia, were on the case, and they were going to do everything possible to bring Joe and his colleagues home. Getting the attention of the country’s most senior hostage negotiator made me feel like I had at least done something to help my father. Now if any news about Joe came across his desk, he would at least have a face—mine—to connect it to.

Soon after speaking with Roger, I got another call. An Associated Press reporter had learned what was going on in Libya and wanted to know if I’d be willing to talk. This was somehow the most disorienting aspect of the week so far. I had always been the one reaching out to people for their stories. Now I’d experience, even if just a little bit, the invasive nature of media attention. The idea that Joe’s abduction might be newsworthy hadn’t even occurred to me. I imagined the headline: “Four Journalists Seized in Libya; Still Missing, Day…” Wait, how long had it been? I did the math. It was now May 26—three days.

For the first time, I felt myself freaking out. But then my rational brain kicked in again. Make a call, send an email, make sure lunch was ordered, do something. Leaving the buzzing white noise of the cicadas outside, I hopped in a van with some colleagues and headed to the Capitol for more meetings.

En route, my phone rang again; Leslie Ordeman, the deputy chief of mission in Tunisia, was calling. He was involved with the case of Joe and his colleagues, and he was able to offer some concrete facts. The U.S. government had determined that they were in the hands of some arm of Libyan intelligence. No one had seen them in person, but they’d spoken briefly on the phone after days of being incommunicado. They seemed at least physically OK.

My stepmother had mentioned at one point that Joe would be without access to his medication. I thought about the hostages from 1979, the fear that formed in the silence of their personal silos, the embassy staffer who lived without his glasses for 444 days. My voice wobbled as I fought back tears.

Ordeman was concerned, knowledgeable, and anxious to move quickly. He said that the president and the attorney general of Libya were working with U.S. authorities. I pushed for information about the political climate in Libya, who the actors were, and what they might want by seizing journalists. I felt compelled to explain why I was unusually well informed about state-sanctioned hostage taking.

The call meant that my personal emergency was no longer a secret to my colleagues. At least now I had some concrete information to share. I asked the team to keep my situation quiet. I didn’t want to be a distraction, much less a retraumatizing presence, for the people we’d be interviewing for the documentary.

All four of us, together for the first time since the abduction, were brought into an office, where a table was set with coffee, ice cream, and pastries. We were told to sit around it and look happy.


The third day of our captivity was a rapid-fire mindfuck of hope and dread. It began with word that we’d be filmed in order to show American officials that we were alive. It was also suggested that this might be a prelude to our release.

The scene was preposterous. All four of us, together for the first time since the abduction, were brought into an office, where a table was set with coffee, ice cream, and pastries. We were told to sit around it and look happy. We spoke in whispers about trying somehow to signal in the proof-of-life video that all was not well. We decided to make a point of thanking the U.S. officials for their efforts and asked them not to stop, but we couldn’t know if this would be edited out before Washington saw it.

We did our best to comfort one another. Ian, who’d been identified as our team leader, worried that he might be kept even if the rest of us were let go. He pleaded with us not to forget him.

Back in our cell, Pierre and I now knew that Ian was housed next to us. He’d been the one tapping on the wall. Mea was in her own cell down the corridor. If we strained to listen, we could just barely hear one another speak. We talked about what to do and whom to contact if one of us was released before the others. If we were compelled to sign confessions, we decided, we’d add a coded message to the documents to later serve as evidence that they had been coerced.

But no one would go free anytime soon. Instead came hours of withering interrogation. Ian went first. He was accused of being a spy; our visa documents, the Libyans said, falsely portrayed us as doctors working with the Red Crescent; the Outlaw Ocean Project was accused of being a CIA front. The penalty for espionage, Ian was told, was death.

Pierre and I were taken to another room. Behind a desk was the same young gunman who’d helped commandeer our van by jumping into the passenger seat. Pierre and I were seated in chairs facing him. For two hours, not a word was spoken. The gunman doodled with pencil and paper. Then, with a sense of ceremony, he prepared to pray. He knelt on a rug; he spoke solemnly and at length. Was it merely a time of day when prayer was required? Or was this some sort of ritual they were doing before harming us?

Then the gunman took Pierre away, leaving me alone with a burly, silent older man. He put his pistol on the desk in front of me, the barrel pointed at my chest. He stared at me; I stared at my feet.

When it was my turn to be interrogated, I was moved to another room. The process began with more screams of George Floyd’s name. Two men were seated at computers. A man to my right took notes. On my left was a man I’d already met, the one who spoke English and boasted of being trained in America. Another man in a suit and tie served as interpreter.

Our captors evidently had researched us, taking advantage of our online presence and the reporting material they found in our possession. They’d also listened in on our conversations between cells. The guy who spoke English paced the room menacingly, asking questions and making accusations, alternately sarcastic and aggressive. What was the Outlaw Ocean Project? Whose money was behind it? Why did we think we could interview migrants and their informal ambassadors in Tripoli? We’d lied about our profession on our visa documents. We’d been caught videotaping inside the morgue. We’d broken laws. Why did we have copies of our passports in our shoes? What was the purpose of our tracking devices?

I am not a practiced liar. I’ve had a pretty close affinity with honesty throughout my life. Fibs, minor deceptions, self-promotional embellishments—I’m guilty of those, for sure. But a strategic deception? Not me. What was the right play here? Answer honestly and risk incriminating us all? Shade the truth and minimize my role? Mislead and risk reinforcing the idea that we were agents of some nefarious conspiracy? I had no time to weigh these options, yet I felt that whatever I said could determine my future.

I decided to answer honestly. I told the men that we were there to report on mistreatment of migrants. I placed the blame for that mistreatment on the EU. Libya, I suggested with emphasis but not sincerity, was a victim of Europe’s immigration policies. I had no idea why our travel documents showed that we were doctors.

At one point, the interpreter told me that the interrogation wasn’t going well. The men didn’t believe me or my colleagues. Our claims had been disproved. This prompted my first moment of sustained panic. For three days, I’d been surprised by my composure. I’d gutted out our gunpoint kidnapping, being blind for days, and coming off the meds that helped hold me together. I’d contemplated a bright nowhere and perhaps made some kind of peace with it. Now everything was crumbling. I thought of a line from an old Billy Bragg song: “A virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”

For the first and only time, I pleaded for my freedom. I have a wife and four daughters, I told the interpreter. Make them understand that. I’m not a spy. I need to go home. But the notetaker didn’t appear to be writing any of it down.

Then, almost as quickly as it had darkened, the mood in the room lightened. The men barraging me with questions were suddenly more interested in debating than in intimidating me. We talked about Middle East politics and life in New York. I’ve always been a wiseass, and it has sometimes served me well in tough situations, so I went for it. I joked, poked fun at myself, shit-talked America. Whether or not the men understood everything I was saying, they seemed amused. I was not above playing the clown to get out of this.

At one point, the English-speaking man put his hand on my forearm. He told me that everything would be all right. He didn’t say how or why. I realized that this could be a sadistic trick. Yet I trusted him.

They moved me to another room, where I sat with the young gunman who’d prayed a few hours before. He held a smartphone and was wearing earbuds. He gestured if I wanted to listen, and then gave me the earbuds. I heard a recording of someone reciting the Koran. For the first time in days, Arabic sounded beautiful again.

I smiled, gave the gunman a thumbs up, and returned the earbuds. He got up and returned with a tiny cup of Turkish coffee. I drank it slowly. I could have kissed him.


After the call from Tunis, things moved rapidly, if unevenly. Within a few hours, I received word that Joe and his colleagues would be moved to a hotel, where they would receive a visit from local representatives on behalf of the U.S. The next update I got seemed to walk that news back—things had been either delayed or aborted. An hour later, the plan was back on track.

Despite the seesaw, the momentum felt positive, and by the end of the night the verdict felt clear to me: Your dad is alive and will be coming home. There would be red tape to negotiate, but now it seemed a matter of days until Joe and his colleagues were safe.

Slowly, the fear that their abduction could turn into months of negotiations—or worse—drained out of me. I shifted from wondering whether I’d get my dad back to worrying about the state he’d arrive in. From numerous interviews with hostages and their families, who were held emotionally hostage at home, I knew that trauma can last decades and manifest in unexpected ways. I wondered about the invisible wounds Joe would have to grapple with once he was back. Despite my relative calm at the moment, I wondered too what I might feel later.    

We tend to romanticize father-daughter relationships, feminine sweetness supposedly capable of softening the steeliest men into expressing protective, effusive love. I’ve never been particularly sweet—brash and sassy are better descriptors. Meanwhile, Joe never worried over bloodied knees. When my sister or I broke an arm as kids, he wound our casts in bubble wrap so we could keep playing soccer. “It builds character,” was his favorite refrain. Later, as adults, Joe and I learned to talk about our feelings—to express hurt, excitement, concern. Maybe this would change once he was back. Maybe all I could do for him was sit by while he watched sports or ate his meals in silence.

My childhood, at least, had prepared me for that.


It was late at night when we were brought out of our cells, gathered together in a room, and, one by one, presented with what amounted to a confession. The documents were in Arabic; we didn’t know what they said. Still, with release tantalizingly close, including a coded message in the documents didn’t feel so urgent. We signed hastily and without complaint.

We were hustled into two cars. I could smell the sea again, this time with less dread. I heard the scraping and clanging as a gate opened—the sounds that had welcomed us to our detention were now sending us off. The cars wound through deserted streets, then turned into a parking lot and stopped next to a loading dock. We were told not to say a word or otherwise call attention to ourselves as we were marched through the back door of a hotel. We were each given a room and barred from communicating.

A shower sounded exquisite, but I didn’t have the energy. I wanted to do as little as possible. I wanted to stay quiet, not push my luck, be prepared if we were moved again. I sat on a padded bench in the hotel room and listened to a blaring public broadcast outside my window—the morning call to prayer.

There were armed guards outside our rooms. The occasional knock was almost as jarring as anything I endured in captivity, each one jolting me into the prospect that we were being played, that the confessions we signed meant that we were headed for a long stint in prison.

One knock, though, brought a little comfort: the chance to tell my wife that I was alive. A phone was held in front of me. It wasn’t meant to be a conversation. I was to answer no questions and make no promises. I delivered my lines, and it was lovely to hear her cautious assent.

There was a television in the room. I had gotten my glasses back, and I briefly turned to a soccer match but wound up entranced instead by a video feed from Mecca, with hajjis walking counterclockwise around the Kaaba. I watched for hours and thought unceasingly of what days before had felt beyond hope—that I’d see my family again. Jane, my beautiful, stoic eldest. My youngest, the twins, masters of memorizing the globe’s nations. Libya, to them, was an answer on a geography pop quiz: What is the North African nation bordered by Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Sudan?

And then there was Lucy. She was ten times smarter than me. If I’d bequeathed anything to her, it was stubbornness, tenacity, an ample supply of self-certainty. We relied on each other. And we argued like hell. I worried that she was frightened for me. I also worried that she’d scold me for my folly upon my return.

Finally, after two more days, in the draining heat of a Friday evening, Ian, Pierre, and I were taken to the airport. (Mea, a Dutch citizen, had been flown out earlier; she would meet representatives from her country in Istanbul.) We were told that we were being deported and would never be allowed in Libya again. That was fine with us. We didn’t ask why we were being let go, because we didn’t care. Laughably, we had to take a COVID test before we could get on our flight. Having our captors run a swab up each of our noses was one of the stranger indignities among the many we withstood.

The young gunman who appeared to warm to me had an AK-47 in his hands as we made our way to the terminal. The airport, it turned out, was under the control of people not affiliated with our captors. There was a brief, tense dispute about us and our fate, but eventually we made it to the tarmac.

Our captors couldn’t have been cheerier. The crisis, if it was that, was over. The mean stunt, if it was instead that, now had its final scene: The armed men extended their hands to shake. We then boarded a plane bound for Tunis. It taxied along the fractured runway, past the carcass of the incinerated airliner, and lifted off. The three of us held hands as Tripoli vanished beneath us.

In Tunis, we met with U.S. embassy officials. I realized that one of them was the woman I’d spoken to on the phone in the courtyard of the detention facility. She probably had the cell numbers of one or more of our captors in her phone. I made a note of it, figuring we might like to track down the fuckers one day.

The embassy arranged for Pierre to fly to Rome, and for Ian and me to fly to Paris, where we spent the night on the floor of the airport. When the time came, we hugged and made our way to our separate gates—he was heading home to Washington, D.C., I to New York. When the announcement came to board my flight, I trembled a bit. I had all my documents in order, including proof of my negative COVID test, but I was stopped by the ticket agent.

There had been a change. My boarding pass was no good. I almost threw up. Then the agent said I’d been upgraded to first class. Ian had done it secretly out of his own pocket. Tears snuck down my face.

There would be more. During the flight, I watched a Ben Affleck movie. He’s a washed-up onetime high school basketball star, divorced and angry and a drunk. He’s hired to coach his old school’s team. The film is banal, cliché. I loved it, and wept uncontrollably.

My return home, I realized, would be a rocky one.


I first got to see Joe a couple of weeks after he got back from Libya. He’d asked for time by himself when he first arrived. Maybe he was processing, or avoiding, or just learning to breathe slowly and steadily again. The few details he shared about his ordeal made it sound worse than I had imagined.

Joe promised he would see a therapist and expressed how thankful he was to be home. Beyond that and sending long Seamus Heaney poems in the occasional text, he was soon back to comporting himself the way he always did. He still refused eye surgery. He didn’t tell his family about the cold sweats and racing heartbeat he woke up to every morning—that revelation would come nearly two years later, when he underwent multiple bypass surgery. (The doctors, stumped by the absence of any health issues or worrying cholesterol numbers, confirmed that stress really can weaken your heart.)

In characteristic fashion, Joe needed little time to get back to work. On November 28, 2021, the reporting he and his colleagues had done before their capture resulted in an article in The New Yorker, a damning account of Libya’s mistreatment of migrants with the support of a willfully blind, even encouraging, European Union. Ian and Pierre worked to get a handful of the migrants who’d spoken to them for the story safely out of Libya. The article and Ian and Pierre’s noble efforts garnered multiple awards, including the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.

Meanwhile, over several months, Joe and I tried together to find some answers about what had happened to his team. We learned a bit more about who was behind their capture: An arm of Libyan intelligence, which it seemed was affiliated with a militia known as the Al Nawasi Brigade, controlled the black site where Joe and his colleagues were held. The Libyan government had recently named a new intelligence chief, and the taking of four foreign journalists might have been the old guard flexing its muscles, announcing that it still held sway in Tripoli. We learned that the proof-of-life video had alarmed Washington. Both the Libyan president and attorney general were enlisted to intervene, but the exact mechanics of the team’s release would remain a mystery to us.

I suspect it’s easier on Joe’s conscience not to know what, if anything, might have been extracted in exchange for his coming home. I hope that when he reads this, he will take what I say to heart, release any feelings of guilt and spend that energy on more worthy pursuits—on joy, on beauty, and, yes, on the work.

A profound lesson I learned from participating in the documentary about Iran is how powerful and cathartic it can be to tell your own story in your own time. The Namazis’ story has at least one happy chapter: In the fall of 2022, Baquer Namazi was given his American passport and allowed to leave Iran. I couldn’t help but cry with relief, joy, and sorrow when I heard the news. Siamak remains imprisoned, but after more than six long years, Babak was able to hug his dad. By then, I knew that specific kind of relief intimately.


When I made it back to New York, I was unsure how to conduct myself. I tried to stay busy, calling my agent to apologize for my no-show at the meeting with the publisher; buying a new phone; seeing how much material I could recover from the old one seized in Libya. But I was also paralyzed in some ways. The prospect of seeing my family felt overwhelming. I feared that I might come apart in a fashion that would unsettle more than reassure them. I needed space to regather my wits.

I called an old friend, one of the most accomplished war correspondents of his generation, and visited him at his home on the Rhode Island shore. We got in his boat at dawn one morning and went to dig for quahogs. It’s slow, laborious work, and we did it in restorative silence. Out on the water, shoulder to shoulder with a man intimately familiar with all forms of trauma, I recalled a quote from John Updike. His protagonists, Updike said, “oscillate in their moods between an enjoyment of the comforts of domesticity and the familial life, and a sense that their essential identity is a solitary one—to be found in flight and loneliness and even adversity. This seems to be my feeling of what being a male human being involves.”

I’d always found this both true and damning.

Soon enough I rejoined my family. There were tears and beers, and I learned how much had been done on my behalf—by them and by people at the State Department enlisted to help find and free me. I connected with a good trauma therapist, started to write my first book, juggled feelings of acute embarrassment and wonder at my good fortune. But of all the emotions—fear, shame, pride, regret—the most powerful by far was gratitude. I promised myself that I’d try to feel it more profoundly and express it more directly and often.

A little over a year after my return, I got an invitation from Lucy to attend a private screening of the Iran hostage series she helped produce while I was in Libya. The event was held in a sparkling new skyscraper on Manhattan’s West Side. There were filmmakers and former hostages, and I watched Lucy move among them—hugging, laughing, thanking. It was clear she’d done valued work, that she was cherished both by the families she’d gotten to know and by the veteran documentarians she’d ably assisted.

It was a moment of pride, and of recognition. She was indeed a newspaperman’s daughter. My daughter.


It was nearly 6 p.m. on September 17, 2022, and I was running late. I was headed to the preview of the HBO series, Hostages, held at one of the enormous towers in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.

I knew Joe was likely already there, still the anxious dad who arrived early to everything. He’d flown in from Vermont, where he now lived, to be my plus-one. I imagined him standing awkwardly alone and felt a sudden bolt of worry. Inviting him to watch the series might be triggering for him—how had that failed to cross my mind until now? I’d been caught up in my own nerves about viewing the project with an audience, including the documentary’s subjects, for the first time. Maybe I was also following his lead.

When I arrived at the crowded theater, it didn’t take long for me to spot Joe. He wasn’t standing awkwardly alone; he was pitching a story to a film director. In the aftermath of Libya, there was and would be much for him to fight for and against, but Joe was still Joe: curious, jovial, alive.

We took our seats and the lights went down. My worries about the audience died away. My dad—my best friend, my work partner, my anchor—was next to me. His was the opinion that had always mattered most. But regardless of his verdict, and in a signal of just how far we’d come since third-grade homework, I knew we could agree that just being here, together, was divine.

Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect how long Lucy Sexton has known her stepmother.

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