Overcoming Psychological Trauma
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: Do you still struggle with the trauma of your kidnapping?
Stanley Alpert: So my physical survival was done 25 hours after they picked me up. My psychological survival was at another level. As I mentioned before, people with PTSD tend to feel a complete lack of control, and it’s very painful. I mean, when you think about it, especially for a man. Okay, men have this sense that somehow they’re supposed to be Rambo, they’re supposed to be able to blast their way out of any situation. That’s sort of a subliminal message that we’re taught.
I didn’t have much control while I was in there except for the psychological games that I could play, the effort to influence them and what they were doing, and also gathering clues. So I had, as much as I could. Once I got out, my control went through the roof because suddenly I had a very big, tough gang on my side. I had 120 very smart, very tough, NYPD detectives plus FBI agents all working to solve this crime. And they will tell you that they do it because they actually care about the victims. They actually care about the person that it happened to and they actually care about making sure it doesn’t happen to somebody else. They were out in a sweep across the city. That was very empowering.
Another thing that helped me psychologically in the aftermath was I was surrounded by friends and colleagues. And after all, if you’re at the U.S. Attorney’s office, there’s a certain power in that. And all these dozens of people from the U.S. Attorney’s in Brooklyn to the Department of Justice in Washington were calling me, were offering me help, were telling me how much they were happy that I survived. That was helpful too. In order words, a sense of community is very powerful, psychologically. So I had power on my side in seeking the people who did this to me, plus a wonderful sense of community around me. So that was very helpful to me in terms of easing the pain and getting past it.
And another thing that was really good and really helpful was: how do you take a bad situation and turn it positive? Well, I had been tortured psychologically for 25 hours. I had been threatened repeatedly with death; they threatened to murder my father. This was hideous. But the question in life is not: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"—although that’s a very important question. The real question is: "When bad things happen to good people, what do you do with it? How you transform it?" Because something bad is going to happen to all of us. We know that. It just is the way of life. The question is, how do you adapt? Remember, I said be flexible earlier, and turn it into something positive.
So I decided to dedicate the energy from this negative experience to writing a book. So I wrote "The Birthday Party, a Memoir of Survival," to memorialize these events; to purge them, which was very successful in doing; and also to give my thanks and credit to these wonderful officers of law enforcement who really... they didn’t save me physically, what they did was they saved me psychologically because by rounding up the criminals within 48 hours after I’d gone, that gave me peace. I could walk the street and know that these guys weren’t out there doing it to someone else. I think that if that hadn’t happened, if I’d either been harmed physically or if the perpetrators hadn’t been caught and really given their just due. I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking about my survival story. I think I’d be in a very different place.
So, I think that my physical survival ended 25 hours later and my spiritual and psychological survival continued through this wonderful empowerment and also purposeful focus that I could take the experience and I could do something positive with.
Recorded August 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Being able to retain some sense of control during his kidnapping—albeit small—helped Alpert overcome the trauma of the experience.
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