John McCarthy: "Homeland is an unrealistic portrayal of somebody re-entering society"

The journalist and former kidnap victim compares his experiences of being kidnapped and tortured with Damian Lewis's portrayal in the hit hostage thriller

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John McCarthy: "Homeland is an unrealistic portrayal of somebody re-entering society"
Written By
Stephen Armstrong

Homeland is officially the hottest US drama of the year. Two weeks ago the psychological thriller about a returning Iraq war hero turned by al-Qaeda picked up six Emmys including best drama, best writing and best actor gongs for its two leads – Claire Danes and Britain’s own Damian Lewis. Even Barack Obama is a fan, Danes revealed. Lewis hailed TV’s golden age – golden acting, golden scripts, gold all the way.

As US marine Nicholas Brody, he finished the first series wearing a suicide bomber’s vest and trying to blow up the vice president. In series two, he’s become a freshman Congressman. In interviews for season one Lewis told journalists he took inspiration for Brody from An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan’s memoir of the four and a half years he was held hostage in Lebanon by the terror group, Islamic Jihad. Keenan’s cellmate for much of that time was John McCarthy – the British journalist and broadcaster taken at gunpoint from a Beirut street in 1986 as he drove to the airport to catch a flight home.

As the second series of Homeland starts on Channel 4, he agreed to watch the first season – something he’d previously avoided – to see if he recognised his friend, his experiences or the show’s portrayal of hostage taking. Some of what he saw, he explains, resonated with him, while some profoundly disturbed him.

“Brian remained unbelievably strong throughout his captivity,” McCarthy begins. “He would acknowledge fears and torment but remained strong to himself as an individual. He was always fighting, if you like. Not physically, obviously, but fighting mentally against anyone trying to break him down. He kept his strength, his sense of individuality and his humanity. And that’s really important. I imagine that would be inspiring for Damian Lewis trying to get his head into his character.

John McCarthy“Lewis really did well capturing the sense of confusion I felt on coming home. There’s a scene where he’s beginning to cut his hair and shave, looking in the mirror, which really grabbed my attention. He captures that sense of looking at yourself and beginning to think about yourself in a completely different world. Suddenly you’re a free man, you’re theoretically safe and you’re beginning to try to adjust to that world. When he’s on his own, he goes into dramatic flashbacks, which I never had, but I could believe in someone treated as badly as his character…

“We were beaten up, kept in a darkened room under ground. We were chained and always made to wear blindfolds when the people holding us were in the same room,” he explains carefully. The moves between prisons and locations were terrifying. I was there, terrified in a cell, with a guy I knew could abuse me pacing up and down outside. I’d be heart in mouth, maybe looking across the cell at Brian thinking, ‘What’s going to happen next? How long can I hang on to my sanity with this going on?’

“It was a feeling of being utterly beyond any shout for help, any sense of justice, and totally vulnerable. I don’t often think about it, I’m lucky my life’s moved on, but as I think about it now, I’m going cold inside remembering what a frightened – well, almost what a frightened little boy I was then… utterly frightened.”

Keenan writes in An Evil Cradling about days without knowing the time of day, the date, having any connection with the strands of his identity and how that led to hallucinations and a tentative grasp on sanity. The isolation made him vulnerable. In Homeland, Brody returns to the US as an al-Qaeda sleeper agent – the suggestion being he’s undergone some form of Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon where hostages excuse and even defend their captors, mistaking the withdrawal of abuse for affection.

McCarthy dismisses the idea that this could create suicide bombers. “Clearly Brody’s character spent an awful lot of time in solitary confinement,” he begins carefully. “Most of us went through that, certainly I did. It’s very hard to be adrift of time – you desperately want to know what time of day it is, but you’re under ground. Brian and I were in one underground cell for a year and a half, so we never saw the light of day. You get a feeling of descending into a maelstrom of self-doubt. You’re in these little boxes or cells, sitting on this little floating mattress and you’ve lost any sense of perspective. There’s no colour on the walls, there’s just grey, blank cement and you can lose yourself in there – it can be very frightening.

“You review your life because any moment could be the end and frankly I think it seemed to add up to being nothing. You wish you’d been better at everything; a better son, boyfriend and everything you like seems like it has been a waste. Then, gradually, hopefully, you get through that shock. When you see, for instance, Brody’s character talking to his little girl saying, ‘I remember you and these thoughts kept me going over the years,’ you think, ‘Ah, that really strikes a chord; that’s how we do survive in those circumstances.’ We tried to remember the good things as well as having addressed some of the stuff we didn’t like so much about ourselves in the old times.

“We were torture victims, but there was no identification with their aims,” he explains. “We didn’t really know what they wanted beyond trading us for other people. We recognised they were human beings and, for all the horrors that they were inflicting on us, they were people caught up in a civil war. Most of them, for the most part, maintained some fairly strong levels of humanity. We saw the situation in Lebanon, the whole conflict in the Middle East and the Palestinian issues… we were cognisant of that. But that didn’t make us support what they were doing in any way. That simply didn’t happen.

“Now if you’ve completely lost your sanity – which wouldn’t be surprising under those circumstances – then maybe you might come round to your captors’ way of thinking. But you wouldn’t be able to function in the way Brody does: a largely efficient, reasoning character. And my concern is that, with the flashbacks and hints and really horrible violence we see, his conversion is almost like titillation – let’s keep watching… Did he really kill his comrade?”

He recalls the scene in Homeland where Lewis appears to beat a fellow marine to death to appease his captors. “It all seems so mad, the whole bloody plot. It seems ridiculous,” McCarthy sighs. “But watching someone being beaten to death in that way, even in the fairly snippety bits I’ve seen – it is absolutely grotesque and makes your stomach churn. I do fear we’re not really appreciating the absolute horror of what someone’s going through there. Anybody who has been severely beaten wouldn’t see that as entertainment. They would be feeling, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ Stockholm Syndrome can happen, of course, but I don’t think it would happen through appalling torture frankly,” he says firmly. “I really don’t think you could beat your mate to death. I mean Brian can be irritating, but…” he laughs.

Jill MorrellWhen McCarthy returned from Beirut he did feel briefly like entertainment himself. Cameras followed him everywhere – there was speculation about his relationship with Jill Morrell, his girlfriend at the time of his kidnap who organised a campaign to secure his release. Like Brody, McCarthy was also debriefed by MI6 and by the CIA.

“It was done in a very sympathetic and generous way,” he recalls. “The fact that the CIA and the military seem to be immediately on Brody’s case, and pressure is brought to bear on his family and his friends that they’ve got to push him towards being a national hero… this doesn’t ring true. It’s an unrealistic portrayal of somebody re-entering society.”

McCarthy’s homecoming, his rebuilding old relationships, was one of the most wonderful things about that time. “I’d been stuck in this hole in the ground, sometimes out on a limb in terms of sanity, often very frightened for all this time, but actually not doing anything. I was worried they’d have moved on. Will I just be this poor little man who is lovely but always alone.

“Obviously, it took me time to adjust, but it never really felt like rebuilding relationships was an issue. With Brody you just think – why don’t they go on holiday? That really helps. He’s been away for eight years. Give these guys some space. Instead they think he’s a terrorist.” Chief among those who suspect so is Claire Danes’s character, who contrives to have an affair with Brody as his marriage falters.

McCarthy’s relationship with Jill Morrell didn’t survive. They split and he married Anna Ottewill in 1999. “When I came home, Jill and I were together for a number of years. We worked hard as a couple to make that work. Eventually we realised, very amicably, it wasn’t going to be the relationship or marriage of a lifetime.

“We remain very close friends; we always will be, and I’m always going to remain in awe of what she did for me. So I can’t answer the question whether or not it’d have been different had I not been kidnapped… What would life have been like, how would both our lives have panned out? You can never know the what ifs, just live the life you have.

Since his return he’s become a patron of Freedom from Torture, formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and he campaigns for such victims whether they’ve been abused by terror groups or governments. “With torture, you have to allow for the fact that some people enjoy exploring what it’s like to inflict pain when they have the power to do that,” he says quietly.

“One or two guards holding me, Brian and Terry Waite couldn’t resist exploring that. I think that would happen with any group of people in a position of extreme power over helpless individuals who couldn’t even see them because the victims were blindfolded…

Recently McCarthy wrote an article for the charity questioning the extreme violence used in Bond films and shows like 24. “What is so important is that we stop anybody from thinking there are circumstances where it’s important, where it’s justified,” he says, then pauses, wary.

So I basically wrote that this wasn’t the best thing for kids to see – as a lot of them would do with a Bond movie – and the comedian Marcus Brigstocke made a joke about the whole article, saying, ‘Come on, we all know it’s just entertainment.’ I thought, ‘Well he’s probably right and I don’t want to appear like a killjoy.”

Then McCarthy trails off. “But in my heart I know that it isn’t right. I just don’t think it is. This is not good entertainment.”


Series two of Homeland begins tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4

John McCarthy is patron of the charity Freedom from Torture, which cares for survivors of torture. Visit www.freedomfromtorture.org or text "TORTURE" to 70007 to donate £3.

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