The Magazine

Prisoner of Love

An American girl grows up quickly in Afghanistan.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By BRUCE BAWER
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Chesler’s account of this period of captivity, during which she endured an illness that brought her close to death, is never less than riveting. But it’s more than just (as they say) one woman’s remarkable story: Chesler brings to her material—the raw experiences she underwent as an unworldly girl—a half-century of personal reflection about that episode of her life, decades of professional work in human psychology, and years of research into Muslim (especially Afghan) history and culture. In addition to providing ample excerpts from the diaries she kept at the time—juxtaposing, to striking effect, the voice of the callow girl with that of the wise and erudite woman—Chesler quotes from a great many books, some of them over a century old, by other Westerners who visited Afghanistan, including Western women who, like her, made the mistake of marrying into a culture about which they knew next to nothing. 

The result is an utterly enthralling work in which every page is rich with insight. But the real triumph here is that Chesler’s account of her Afghan sojourn—which makes up the first half of An American Bride and feels un-toppable—is, in fact, overshadowed by what follows. For it turns out that Chesler, after making it back to America against her husband’s wishes, gradually reestablished a unique, if consistently tense and uneasy, friendship with him that has endured to this day. 

One hardly knows what to make of this. On the one hand, Chesler’s compassion for her ex-husband—who, eventually, also had to flee Afghanistan for America, and whom she now regularly hosts in her Manhattan apartment—speaks extremely well of her. On the other hand, her readiness to forgive him, not only for his long-ago deception and tyranny, but also for his continuing patriarchal arrogance and condescension, almost makes one want to see her behave like a real hardcore feminist and kick him in the pants before tossing him out the door. 

But that’s not all. Before the book ends, Chesler shares a dark fact about her ex-husband’s family history that she discovered relatively recently—and that forced her to sit down for a few moments to catch her breath. The revelation, which is also guaranteed to shake up any sympathetic reader,  underscores just how dark and treacherous the waters were into which a young girl once, long ago, so eagerly, ignorantly, and recklessly dove. 

In the final analysis, this is not only the extraordinarily engaging and moving story of a young woman and the man she once loved—and still, now, despite her formidable intelligence and instincts, clearly continues to love in some mysterious way. It is the story of two civilizations: one of them ancient, and yet considerably less than civilized; and the other, for all its newness, perhaps too civilized to acknowledge just how far short the other falls of true civilization.

Bruce Bawer is the author, most recently, of The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind