Brian Keenan - A journey beyond imagination


There’s a pivotal moment in Keenan’s captivity that he writes about in An Evil Cradling when he realizes that Said his tormentor is himself tormented. Brian explains: “Said is praying and he’s annoying me with his prayers because he’s right on the other side of the sheet [dividing McCarthy and Keenan from their captors]. And he would do this because he knew it was like putting a hot poker inside me.  Now, I would have cut Said’s throat and smile while doing it because he was not a pleasant man, he got off on torturing you. But [this one night when he was praying] he started sobbing and  I realized, this man is genuinely disturbed. I knew that place because I’d been there. My instinctual reaction was that I would reach out and hold him, but I couldn’t because he was on the other side of the wall. In some strange way, Said knew that I knew. It changed things. No words were ex-changed, but Said knew that there wasn’t anything more he could do [to me].”  

Asked if he truly believes, as he had said, that the only way out is love – it’s like a stepladder out, he said: “But that’s very hard. It’s really hard for people to climb out of their own sense of dislocation or dispossession or to fight their way out of it.  For me the true revolutionary is really a lover and not a fighter. Because the object of his concern is all of the people — not all of the idea. There’s nothing in our DNA that marks you as terrorist. So people become that for some reason, and you’ve got to find out the reason.”
Given all that happened to him, Keenan seems remarkably normal. How had he managed to go on with his life while others did not? Hostage Frank Reid, taken at the same time, never recovered and died a broken man.

“There’s a term for coming back to earth, a kind of reentry. That’s the way I thought of it. Or like coming up from a deep dive, when you’re taken to a decompression chamber for a while and then another one, and that’s the way I kind of unconsciously chose to work this through. I refused to talk to a psychiatrist. I don’t need anyone to tell me what’s wrong with me.”
 He signed himself out of hospital after 10 days and headed to the West of Ireland by himself. It was something he had promised himself he would do.

“I found an old cottage, and as much as I could do with my own hands and labor I rebuilt it. I wrote a book – it wasn’t supposed to be An Evil Cradling. But it’s what I wrote. And the other thing [I wanted to do] was to paint because for five years I looked at a concrete wall but I hung pictures on that wall which I created out of my head. I haven’t done that yet [painted]. I have the colors and the brushes but there’s part of me that says the pictures in my head are more perfect than if I was to try to put them on canvas,” he said.
The image of Keenan as a loner who left Belfast – because all his friends were getting married and he was not in a relationship (and in An Evil Cradling he wonders if he will ever have children) – began a fast fade on  a day soon after his release. Keenan was still in hospital when a physiotherapist named Audrey  Doyle brought him down to the gym, had him sit on the floor and tied a cord on his ankle and the other end to a bar on the wall. It was for resistance training because he had lost so much muscle tone during his confinement, she explained. Shackled thusly, he looked up wide-eyed at her and the incongruity of the situation hit her. She burst out laughing. “She’s inclined to do that whenever she’s nervous”  he said.

He had been worried about affection – giving it and receiving it. For so long the touching had been aggressive beatings – but he found himself drawn to Audrey, perhaps because she was the first one to touch him in a physical way after his release. They dated for a couple of years before marrying and now have two young sons, Cal and Jack, 9 and 11.

 He admits that he had to work up the courage to ask her out.  But the one thing he had learned during his confinement was to push through his fear. “I have this absolutely firm belief, which I discovered the importance of when I was locked up, that choice is the crown of life. If you don’t activate choice, you’re not living. You’re just breathing in the antithesis of what life is,” he said.
Keenan followed up An Evil Cradling with a book called Four Quarters of Life in which he explores Alaska, object of his fascination which began as a small boy when he chose Call of the Wild from the school library. It’s a soulful book, beautifully written. He also co-wrote Between Extremes with John McCarthy, about a trip they took together to Patagonia and Chile where they crossed the Andes on horseback.