“American Mother” begins in 2021, as Diane Foley sets out for a Virginia courthouse. It’s been seven years since her son James “Jim” Foley, a freelance journalist, was slaughtered in the Syrian desert. Now, she will confront that past.

In a windowless room, Foley takes a seat across a conference table from Alexanda Kotey, one of a trio of terrorists nicknamed the Beatles, who tortured and decapitated her son, then shared a video of his killing on social media. Kotey, a British-born Islamist militant, has pleaded guilty to numerous counts, including conspiracy to murder Jim and three others. As part of his plea deal, he has agreed to speak with members of the victims’ families. So here sits the grieving mother, wrapped in a Libyan shawl Jim gave her, with “a family friend alongside her to help her ask questions.”

That friend is Irish writer Colum McCann, who plays multiple roles in Foley’s story – supporter, participant and ultimately narrator. The novelist had been drawn to the Foleys’ story after seeing a photo of Jim in a bunker in Afghanistan reading McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin,” which won the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.

In this unusual literary partnership, it’s the novelist who takes top billing. “American Mother” is the work of “Colum McCann with Diane Foley,” not vice versa. Her story has become his, retold through his characteristically agile prose and with strategies he has used in fiction. He switches the storyteller, for example, from the omniscient narrator of the cinematic opening and closing scenes to Foley’s own voice – speaking in the past tense – for the more conventional memoir that forms the midsection of the book. The result is an innovative, unsettling and utterly compelling narrative.

Those differing perspectives offer intriguing insights into the questions of blame and forgiveness that consume Foley – not only with respect to Kotey and his militant sidekicks but also the U.S. government and its refusal to negotiate or engage in the backdoor ransom deals that had won release for European nationals from the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State (ISIS). When the Foleys tried to figure out how they might bring their son home, they were told to back off.

“It was even insinuated that we could be prosecuted if we were to try to take things into our own hands,” Foley recalls.


Immediately after Jim’s death, Foley, a nurse practitioner, devout Catholic and mother of five, took things into her own hands, lobbying for policy changes including measures that were adopted a year later, in 2015, to improve the support for families of Americans held captive overseas and to ensure better coordination among government agencies. She also founded a nonprofit, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, whose mission, in part, is to advocate for the freedom of “U.S. nationals wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad.”

This book hits the shelves amid renewed debate over ransoms, rescues and prisoner exchanges prompted by the U.S.-Israeli citizens taken hostage in October by Hamas and by the ongoing captivity of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, a Bowdoin College graduate who was wrongfully detained by Russia a year ago this month.

For the Foleys, personal anguish met blunt government bureaucracy: Diane and her husband, John, thought little of it when two FBI agents showed up at their New Hampshire house one August morning in 2014 asking for samples of Jim’s DNA. Many strange things happened during the 21 months of his captivity. A call from a sobbing reporter later that morning alerted them to the tweeted imagery that would tell its own story: of Jim dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his head severed and placed on his back.

Frantic calls to government officials went unanswered, even as news reporters began to gather outside the Foleys’ house. Late that evening on TV, President Barack Obama confirmed Jim’s killing. Neither the president’s call a few days later to express condolences nor a White House meeting with him convinced Diane Foley that Jim had been, as Obama claimed, “his highest priority.” It was only after Jim’s death that she learned of a failed high-wire rescue mission to save him.

Still, Foley wants to believe in America and its institutions. At the time of Jim’s death, she writes, “two of my other boys were in the military … and my daughter was in the Navy. I have enormous respect for anyone who gives their life over to protect others.” She praises the U.S. judicial system for bringing another of the Beatles to justice, even as she wonders whether the millions of dollars the trial cost had been well spent.

“I immediately thought of how many things could have been done in the world of hostage advocacy with that amount of money,” Foley writes.


What, after all, was her son’s life – or any life – worth?

Jim Foley had been paid a pittance as a freelancer to tell stories he believed the world needed to know. His hostage-takers had demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom for his release. And his death brought an immense outpouring from donors.

Jim had witnessed the coarse calculation of assigning a price to a life. He had watched a U.S. military sergeant count out $1,000 in compensation for an Iraqi mother after her son, a guard at U.S. checkpoints, was killed.

It was, Foley recalls, as if Jim were “telling his own story in advance.”

There is no easy answer to the many public conundrums that animate this book, nor to Foley’s private quest to gain insights from Kotey. She learned of his distress when he pulled a dead baby from the rubble of a U.S. drone strike. She saw him moved to tears when he spoke about his own children. And she decided, after receiving apologetic handwritten letters, to face the man again.

This later meeting is also unsatisfactory, devoid of revelation. No information about where Jim’s body might be. No true signs of remorse. Foley scoots back her chair to get up and go and then, in a closing gesture of great grace, reaches across to shake Kotey’s hand.

Why, our participant-narrator now wants to know, did Kotey, a devout Muslim who claims not to have touched a woman for many years and suspects he never will again, accept Foley’s outstretched hand?

Kotey ponders for a moment before replying. “She’s like a mother to us all,” he says.

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