After reading Gracia Burnham’s autobiography, I was left with an odd taste in my mouth. I’ve read biographies in my time, but this one made me feel empty after I read it. Perhaps it is the title: In the Presence of My Enemies: a Gripping Account of the Kidnapping of American Missionaries and Their Year of Terror in the Philippine Jungle. What this title tells us is that it will be an exciting and thought-provoking biography. However, when I read it, I did not feel excitement, terror, or any emotions whatsoever from the people represented in this book.
For those who don’t know of Gracia’s story, here’s the rundown: in May 2001, Gracia and her husband, Martin, were on a vacation in the Philippines to celebrate their anniversary when they were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf. The Abu Sayyaf is a terrorist group with distant ties to Osama bin Laden. Their name literally translates as “Father of the Swordsman.” This book deals with their year with this terrorist group and their experiences in captivity.
In between her narrative in the jungle, Gracia also writes about her marriage with Martin, and their beginnings in missionary work.
Although this seems very exciting, the way her ministry is presented in the book is kind of off-putting to me, because she doesn’t seem to struggle with questions and emotions the way many would in her situation. Take for instance, how easily she lets go of her emotions when she leaves friends behind during a missionary training exercise:
When we left boot camp after a year, I was devastated. We had bonded with these eighteen people, and it tore my heart out to say good-bye. I cried and carried on until I realized, Girl, your whole life is going to be a series of good-byes. You’ve got to get your act together if you’re going to survive in the future. I determined never again to let good-byes devastate me as they had this time. (pg 43)
After I read this line of dialogue, I was confused. How does she let go of the sadness of saying goodbye? I don’t understand how someone could turn their emotions off at will. Then other lines kept cropping up. After her husband dies in the jungle, with a gunshot to the chest during a battle between the Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine police, this is what she wrote:
I looked back at where Marin still lay. The red spot on his shirt was larger now. His complexion was pasty white. And then I knew- the man I loved more than anyone in the world was gone. I wanted to stop the world in that moment, to reflect on my dreadful loss, to mourn the senseless death of my wonderful husband. Unfortunately, circumstances demanded otherwise. (pg 262)
Although there isn’t anything wrong with this line of dialogue, she never again in the book mentions her emotions at Martin’s passing. She doesn’t ask God why, doesn’t take time to mourn his loss. Even at his funeral, she seems sad about his death in a way that I could never relate to.
I feel really bad writing this review, because I know it is about real people who really suffered and all of this really happened. And I do think that Gracia did mourn her husband’s loss, that while she was in the jungle she really was dealing with shock and fear, and that she was devastated and questioned life for a while. However, this book does not describe or express her real emotions in a way that is relatable to the audience. The whole time I read this book, I thought, “God, is this really how missionaries feel? Totally devoted to you, never ever wavering or becoming depressed?” The message I left with was that being a missionary really is a higher calling, like becoming a saint. The missionaries in this book seemingly dealt with issues and quickly confronted them without ever looking back. This made them extremely hard for me to relate to, because I understand emotions differently. Emotions are things that need to be constantly kept in check, do not always work the way we want them to, and are not always easily resolved. It’s the way we were made.
It is because of these reasons, I can say that I would recommend reading the book, but I still didn’t like it. I do believe it was an accurate account of what happened in the jungle, but I think the real emotions of the characters or even Gracia’s account were hard to understand, and even harder to relate to.
Published on 2 July, 2014. Last updated on