True Stories of Great Escapes

Book Reviews

While reviewing this book, Madhuri reflected on issues like control, power struggle and verbal abuse and how it affects us.

Readers Digest Stories of Great EscapesTrue Stories of Great Escapes
Editor: Charles S. Verral
Technical Editor: Robert Grant
Reader’s Digest, 1980
42 accounts of death-defying attempts to escape and elude captors

I don’t remember how this book fell into my hands – usually the words ‘Reader’s Digest’ are enough to make me run the other way. But I ended up immersed in it in a rapture for a week’s worth of bedtimes… deriving all sorts of nourishment, and feeling full of admiration for the stories, the quality of the writing, and the quite wonderful illustrations. Even the occasional taint of patriotism could be overlooked in the suspense and fascination of these 26 stories.

There are several accounts of people escaping from East Germany – once with the help of a border guard. There were Russians who leapt from a cruise ship into the sea off Florida and were picked up by a pre-arranged boat. There was a soldier near death in Viet Cong prisons; airmen helped out of Nazi-occupied France by the Underground; a teenager who hid in a jumbo-jet wheel-well to escape Cuba; a dog who went along on bombing missions and later helped his person escape on foot from behind enemy lines. There was an amazing tale of a Frenchman in a terrible penal colony in French Guiana, who finally managed to escape, and after many adventures and tribulations ended up owning a sporting-goods store in California!

But the crème de la crème was definitely The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz, as told to Ronald Downing, about a group of escapees from a slave labour camp in Siberia, walking 4000 miles to India. It took them a year, and the story is so rich, so touching, so scary – and so beautiful, where they were helped lavishly by kindly Tibetans all the way across the Tibetan Plateau. And they actually saw a pair of Yetis, hanging out on a shelf of rock in a wild, wild hinterland… astonishing, wonderful! The book was worth reading for that story alone.

So why was it all so fascinating? Well, besides the obvious – the gratifying (if rather craven) contrast between all that hardship and scariness and my own quiet bed in a silent house, with food in the fridge and clothes on the shelves, with nobody harassing me or demanding to see my papers or know my allegiances – and the freedom to stand up in an open mic and read a poem about anything I like – there was a subtext to my fascination.

I was musing on the very different types of people in this world – including those that I absolutely can’t understand: why on earth would somebody go to all the trouble, expense, inevitable violence, recruitment of manpower – to create a country where nobody is allowed to leave? Why would you do that? Okay, if you had a lot of goodies you might want to keep people out – but why wall them in? Of course, they will immediately want to leave – and then you have to commit gazillions of shekels and soldiers and spies to keep them in. What would be the point?

And I thought, What kind of psychology would there be in a person to make him consider it his business to do this; what urge would make him bring his thumb down on his fellow-creatures to keep them in control? To me, it sounds like contemplating a career as the sole plumber for a megalopolis; or owning 56 MacDonald’s franchises, or having 12 children, or smuggling armaments, or running a dairy farm with 3000 cattle – no, no, no! Just trouble and hassle and muck! And, really, of course, much much worse than those things…

I have heard Osho say that all countries are prisons; you might only know it when you got to the border, but there it is: somebody somewhere is dedicated to controlling your freedom of movement. And so you have to pony up your papers smart-like, and really never know what is going to happen, in that line drawn between proprietary territories.

So then I was pondering Control, and violent control; and families. Yes, families – for we have microcosms of all sorts of power struggles within the messy nests of our domestic lives.

Parents yell at kids. Parents yell at each other – sibling yells at sibling. Do this, don’t do that, why did you do that? Shut the fuck up or I’ll give you something to cry about.

And I was observing how each scolding is imprinted in the body’s memory. A recent bout of scolding that had come my way was replaying itself every few minutes, as I read; as a dread, then an impact, in my body. It had almost a rhythm to it, as if each few minutes the organism was bringing it up to try to resolve or expel it.

Research shows that the brain receives verbal abuse in the same location as physical abuse – so when you shout at your child or your husband it is precisely as if you have slapped or punched or kicked them. Then, verbal assaults are remembered by the brain as more important than loving words. So ten years of loving behaviour can be wiped out by one episode of screaming.

There are some people who are wired to be bullies. I am really into Human Design; it is amazing how the universe has supplied so many different kinds of people, for its own reasons. And each person might contain utter contradictions – gentle, loving, lightsome; beastly, hateful, nasty. It’s up to each of us to trust our own inner knowing about who is allowed in our lives, and when; about when it might be prudent to leave a country that is sliding into political oppression; about when to slide away from a madman and save our own skins.

My own advice is, if you know a bully, keep out of his way. And if you are one, well, I hope you can find somebody who loves you for it, and lets you bellow. Dynamic meditation is the best medicine in the world, and gives anyone a chance to let out whatever bully-ness of bullied-ness is in them. Voice Dialogue is also a great technique for observing, and having compassion on, the Controlling and the Controllable within us. This beautiful, elegant, exhaustive technique, invented by Hal and Sidra Stone, goes with the principle that by re-identifying with something consciously, we dis-identify from it.

I personally think that whenever we invade somebody else’s space – and I have done it, in my sexually-marauding years – we accrue karma – which just means, we are in a state of boo-boo, and we are suffering. It is not only that we might suffer later for it – and we might; but we are right now disconnected from what seems to be a basic law of the universe: each being is to be given the respect of its autonomy.

I was most impressed by this, from Osho: somebody asked him that if he had one rule for life, what would it be? And he replied, “Do whatever you like. Just don’t interfere in anybody else’s life.” I think that just about says it all – for governments, families, lovers, friends, everywhere.

So. It’s a phenomenon – this thing of seeking to control others – often under the guise of it being ‘for their own good’ – and the insidious thing is that the scoldings stay inside us, and go on controlling us for years or lifetimes. When an independent, original thought or inspiration arises, the internalized teacher/parent/boss scolds, “You can’t do that! Stop it! What kind of idiot are you? Somebody’s going to yell at you if you do that!” And the impulse is cut off at the knees – until another one arises.

This cutting is so destructive to the spirit! And thus to the spirit of us all; and the All!

While reading this book, I was watching the Internalized Fascist having his/her say; and was so grateful for the opportunity to be aware. Each time I caught the thought rising, “No! You can’t!” – the awareness of it brought freedom. More and more freedom was moving through my body, as very old scoldings rose up and popped themselves.

It was perhaps a lot like finding myself on the west side of the Berlin Wall.


Madhuri is a healer, artist, poet and author of several books.

Comments are closed.