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: Is it important to humanize yourself to your kidnappers?
Stanley Alpert: I think that to survive a hostage situation, it’s very important that you humanize yourself. That your captors view you not merely as a target, not merely as some stray lawyer with too much money, in their view, that they picked up off the street. Of course, I was an assistant U.S. attorney at the time. I wasn’t making as much money as they thought. But rather to view you as a person that was a human being, which is a strong incentive for them to keep you alive.
So I tried to do that. Right away when I was in the car with them, they asked me whether my watch was gold. And on instinct I said, you know, “I don’t know particularly, but my father gave it to me for graduating from law school.” I wanted them to realize that I’m a human being with a father. Turns out that actually backfired on me because they later threatened to kill him. Maybe I planted that idea in their heads. But I had a real feeling that they ought to know that.
I also tried the good-guy-lawyer thing. You know, I’m an environmental lawyer, who at the time was an environmental prosecutor. I ran in our district and I felt like, if I told them I was a good guy lawyer: I’m doing good things. I’m trying to help save the planet, I’m try—I mean, I didn’t use those words, but those ideas that they might be less likely to kill me and actually that backfired too. Because one of the toughest thugs, who went by the name of Sen said that was ridiculous. Why would I be suing ExxonMobil to get money out of them that goes to the Federal government when that money belongs here in our community, which was his point of view. So that too didn’t work, but it was another effort to try to humanize myself.
Now, another way to do it was to be very nice and kind no matter how they talked to me. Another way to do it was sort of midway through this, they decided to toy with me and get a little free legal advice. So they asked me actually some very serious legal questions. One of them was about how one of the guys had been, what he claimed, falsely arrested and he wanted to know if he could bring a lawsuit even though he had given a false name to the police. Now you can imagine a Federal prosecutor is not in a position to assist somebody who has given a false name to the police. But I was struggling for my life. So I asked a lot of questions, found out the facts and then I gave him a legal theory by which he might be able to win. I said, “Well,” you know, “You could say the reason you gave the false name was that you felt frightened by the police themselves because they had falsely arrested you.” Now I give you this, this is definitely not one of my prouder moments. And as a Federal prosecutor, I would never try to manipulate something in that way, but here I was just trying to hold onto my life.
By giving them positive legal advice, a positive theory that they could feel good about, that was a bonding experience. And you need to humanize yourself and bond with your captors in order to enhance your chance of surviving.
Question: Should you ever try to deceive your captors?
Stanley Alpert: So for the most part, you’re in the experience, I was as kind and friendly and responsive. I tried to be a good listener. You know, one guy was complaining about how his father wasn’t nice to his... you know, his father wasn’t nice to his mother. I tried to be very decent and kind. And I was honest most of the time. But in the art of survival, which in my case was also the art of war, there are times when it’s critical that you use a weapon that all fighters use, which is to deceive the enemy.
So toward the very end, right before they were planning to take me back, or said they were planning to take me back, the leader of the gang turns to me and says: “Stanley, if you had to chance to put me away for life, would you do it?” So what do you say? If you say yes, you’re dead. If you say no, you’re dead. I mean how stupid are they? So, I needed to give an answer that was a little more nuanced and obviously I couldn’t tell the truth. Because the fact is, putting my own experience aside, I couldn’t possibly let them do this to any other human being again. I couldn’t live with that on my conscience if I didn’t try to get them. So I thought about it and I said, “Look, you already told me you know where I live. You know where my father lives. I don’t know who you are; I don’t know where we are. You haven’t hurt me so far, and you say you’re gonna release me unharmed. I don’t think this has to go any further.” And in giving that answer I was deceiving my enemy, which was critical in that moment. I couldn’t tell the straight truth, yeah, I’m a Federal prosecutor, of course as soon as I get out of her I’m gonna get the FBI on your ass and get you locked up. I couldn’t do that. So there are times when you have to deceive the enemy and that’s what I did.
Recorded August 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller