Stanley Alpert is a former federal prosecutor and the author of "The Birthday Party," a memoir about how he survived being kidnapped on his 38th birthday. Alpert spent 25 hours held hostage by men who offered him drugs and threatened to kill his father, but he eventually convinced them to release him. Using clues he had memorized while captive, Alpert then lead FBI and NYPD agents to his kidnappers within mere hours. Alpert is also an environmental lawyer and a former federal prosecutor.
Big Think's interview with Alpert, in which he recounts his experience and gives advice about how to survive a kidnapping, is part of our Ultimate Survivor Stories series.
Question: What skills or strategies did you employ to survive this ordeal?
Stanley Alpert: All the experts—by that I mean the NYPD and the FBI—agree: I should be dead. And some how I managed to get through this horrendous experience. First of all, I stayed very calm. I stopped, I thought, I listened. I didn’t do anything without calculating the power and the import of my words. For example, “Stanley, it’s your birthday. Wow! You deserve something nice for your birthday. How about a sexual favor for your birthday?” Obviously, they didn’t use those words, but I won’t say them on camera here. And going slow and being calm and thinking about it, I realized that if I said no, that might be very offensive. Why doesn’t this lawyer think that our girls are good enough for him? So I was very careful to answer in a way to not offend. So I said, “Well, I’m sure the girls are lovely, but considering my circumstances, I’d really rather not. I made it seem light, yet was very respectful.
And actually many hours later I had the opposite problem because they were smoking marijuana, they were in a good mood, and I’m blindfolded with my own scarf covering most of my face. And one of the men said, “Well, these, you know, Stanley, I think these girls are starting to like you, they’re looking at your lips.” And that gave me the opposite problem because if we went down that path and their girlfriends liked me, they could get angry at me for the fact that their girlfriends liked me. So I had to deflect me in the opposite fashion. And in that instance I used humor, which I think you have to use very carefully in these situations. But humor is another thing in the arsenal of a hostage, but only to be used sparingly and with great care. And I said, “Really? The only reason these girls like me is because most of my face is covered.” And they thought that was hysterical. And they burst out laughing.
Now, the fact is, if you use humor the wrong way, it can twist against you. For example, there was a point at which they, again, they are high on weed, they’ve had sex with the girls, this was the second time around—I was there for 25 hours, and they—one of them started imitating a Jamaican accent. Well, I’m very good at doing all sorts of different accents. And I pondered very carefully whether to go with it and to go where they were. And I made a decision to do it, so I imitated my Jamaican accent for them and they loved that. It was hysterical to them. The thought that this polished, pressed, Caucasian attorney could be imitating a Jamaican accent was hysterical to them. But then they were talking about a store that was owned by Indians. And I thought well, should I do another kind of accent just to have some fun and keep things light and I said, no, let me stop because I didn’t know... as long as I was doing an accent that they were doing, I thought okay, that’s far enough. But don’t take it any further. You just don’t know when they might twist against you.
So I think survival skills. Stay very calm. Think, listen, observe. Understand your circumstances. Also, give up your ego. Give up who you were. I was a Federal prosecutor; in that position I had considerable power. In this position I was in, I had no power at all except the power of my wits, which I tried to get by with. But understand that you’re no longer who you were in the situation and adjust to that. So that’s another principle I would say for survival is to be very flexible. You know? Get in the car, guns pointing at me, you know, if I was inflexible I might have started yelling, fighting... All the detectives I spoke to say, “Listen, you can’t second guess yourself Stanley because you managed to survive.” And I think because I was flexible, I was able to go with the situation. That helped me a lot.
Another thing you need to do is feel some sense of empowerment. I mean, let’s look at my thing. How much control did I have? I had seven people with automatic weapons on me who could have killed me at any moment—and who might have killed me at any moment. And I have no doubt in my mind, nor does the NYPD or the FBI, that they were perfectly capable of doing it. Yet there were certain things where I felt I needed to keep control.
For example, when I first went in, they invited me to take off my shoes. I said—they put me down on a mattress, they took off my trench coat, I kept my sport jacket on, but they invited me to take off my shoes. And you know what I thought? In my head I thought, a guy with his shoes off isn’t walking out. A very powerful symbolism. So, I said, “No thanks, I’ll leave them on.” Because in my mind and I think in the psychology of the room, a man with his shoes on could walk out; a man with his shoes off might not get the chance to walk out. Or, for example, there was the point in time I purposely didn’t ask to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want to ask for anything that wasn’t offered to me, but they eventually asked me if I needed to use the bathroom. I said, “Yes.” And as soon as I said, “Yes” and sort of military alert cocking the guns, pointing them at me. In other words, they were nervous that on the way to the bathroom I may pull something.
So, again there, I felt the need to maintain some control even though they’ve got the guns, they’re in control. Still I wanted some small bit and I stopped. And I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I didn’t even get up. I said, “Whoa. Hang on a second. Relax; I’m not going to do anything. All I’m gonna do is go to the bathroom.” And they calmed down and then we went to the bathroom. And I didn’t get shot.
Another example of me getting some control was when I first got in there, they kept calling me “Steven.” And I kept saying, “My name's not Steven, its Stanley.” And they thought this was really funny. “Oh, sorry Stanley. Steven’s the guy we did this to the other night.” And it turns out later they’d actually taken him to the bank, not to the apartment, gotten his money and then left him in the backseat of his own car.
I felt that it was very important not to be called “Steven.” I felt that it was important to be called by my correct name—my name’s Stanley—because my identity was my life. If I’m a real person with a real name, then you’re less likely to kill me, and so I maintained that bit of control. I think that’s also... to feel a sense of some empowerment. And if you read the studies of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, what they say is that people get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because they felt a complete disempowerment. They felt a complete lack of control. I was in a situation that was out of my control for the most part, but where I could find, I used it. And also, I gathered clues the whole time. So that to me, although purely psychological, was a form of control for me to have. So I think all those things helped me survive.
Recorded August 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller