Padnos’s memoir, Blindfold: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment, is particularly grueling because its author courted risk so nonchalantly ... What ensues is gory and disturbing, conveyed in prose that is simple, thoughtful, and unpretentious ... The sadness of this book is indescribable, even at the end, when [Padnos'] conditions improved and al-Qaeda groomed him for release ... It has taken six years to produce this memoir—longer than the gestation of any of the other hostage memoirs—and the care shows. It is the best of the genre, profound, poetic, and sorrowful.
Padnos’s searching account of the almost two years he spent in the clutches of Jabhat al-Nusra, the main Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The Syrian guides turn out to be jihadi kidnappers. They abduct Padnos, who is promptly sucked into a subterranean archipelago of pain — a series of filthy jails where he is whipped and electrocuted as bombs rain down outside. He is plagued by lice and the screams of fellow prisoners. Hunger is a constant companion ... Like many hostage memoirs, “Blindfold” lays bare the human condition at its extremes. There is depravity and resilience, rage and revelation, and, ultimately, a triumph of the human spirit. Padnos, however, takes the journey a step further, using his fluent Arabic to engage with his captors, probing their motives and prejudices, not to mention the psychology of a wartime community that appears to be in thrall to a fundamentalist ideology ... but once he has plunged into the abyss, those same factors — his language skills and familiarity with Islam, but also his reflexive curiosity — make Padnos a thoughtful witness of a nightmarish world, and distinguish his memoir as an acutely observed account that is deeply moving in places ... The storytelling is similarly tight, almost blinkered. There’s no step-back section to present the context of Syria’s war, and not much about Padnos’s anguished mother back home in Vermont ... The narrative in this account of nearly 400 pages meanders at times, and contains a few strange omissions. He does not mention, for instance, his failed escape attempt in August 2014, or the humiliating video message he was forced to record soon after ... And there are times when Padnos, despite his acute insights into others, is frustratingly elusive about his own emotional state.
Padnos’ exquisitely painful accounts of his torture, and the tortures and deaths of his fellow inmates, both horrify and provoke a strange hope that it can’t get any worse. He survives, in part, by dreaming of a brook in Vermont, letting his mind drift to the most important parts of his life and, eventually, writing a novel on paper given to him by one of his captors ... Blindfold unfolds at a slow pace with a tedium that evokes Padnos’ own physical and psychic experiences. By the book’s conclusion, we’re drained and relieved that Padnos has survived. With emotional clarity, Padnos endows his captors with humanity, casting them as people struggling to survive in a world turned upside down, just as he is.