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When a Hostage Is Just a Wife : NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER A True Story by Betty Mahmoody with William Hoffer (St. Martin's Press: $19.95; 420 pp.)

November 01, 1987|Diane Johnson | Johnson's most recent novel is "Persian Nights" (Alfred A. Knopf). and

Betty Mahmoody, with her Iranian husband (an osteopath in Michigan) and their little daughter, Mahtob, go to post-revolutionary Iran to visit the family that 'Moody' left behind. Betty is apprehensive: For instance, will there be problems getting out again? But Moody reassures her. Only gradually during the uncomfortable and lengthening visit does it dawn on Betty that Moody is changing; that perhaps he does not intend, and never intended, to take them back to Michigan. He reveals that he's lost his hospital job in Michigan, and he is growing depressed, secretive and cruel.

The stuff of thrillers. And yet dramatic events happening to real people have a certain edge over fiction, something to do with the extra certitude they give us that when something "really happened," it could also really happen to us, and that the lessons to be learned therefrom have a practical value that a made-up story doesn't.

On the other hand, it is sadly true that exciting events rarely happen to people who are good at writing; the real writer might make more of them than can the honest citizen who struggles to tell a story with a writer-helper. Not that Mrs. Mahmoody and William Hoffer don't do a good job, but it does seem that this frightening and absorbing story, though it may be unkind to say so, seems a little lost on Betty and leaves the reader wishing for something more.

A novelist might at first have tried to make of her a more engaging heroine. When she gets to Iran, she seems like a picky American tourist, complaining about the bathrooms ("at least this bathroom had an American-style toilet . . . in place of toilet paper, however, was a water hose hanging on the wall); the traffic is "compounded by pedestrians willing to gamble their shabby lives"; "there was no wax paper or Saran Wrap," etc. And the novelist might have made a more complex character out of the villainous brute Moody, who in real life was probably torn with cultural conflicts: love for his family, hopes for Iran after the Shah; problems in America, the hostility and intransigent bureaucracy he found upon returning to Tehran. Because of his cruelty and instability (soon he is beating Betty and locking her up), their daughter Mahtob is taken away.

Betty's plight seems to have been truly dire. That the rules for men and women were so different in Iran, and the risks for an American wife so great, was hard for a sheltered American to realize: "I do not understand why American women do this," remarks an Iranian employee at the Swiss embassy, when Betty at last makes her way there to get help.

At the Swiss embassy she is told that the Swiss can't help her, that she is subject to the laws of Iran, and that although the U.S. State Department has been told about her, it plans to do nothing either. It was a case, on an international level, of a woman being considered the property of her husband, and where it might seem to a reader that Betty was as much a hostage as any male hostage in Beirut, it does not seem so in male-dominated international arrangements, because she is a wife. (She did have the option of divorce, arrangeable through the Swiss, which would have freed Betty but not Mahtob.) One would really like to understand why U.S. arrangements with the Swiss do not protect women and whether a man, held against his will in Iran, could find protection in foreign embassies.

In any event, Betty is thrown back on her own resources, to find help in disparate quarters, and she wins our respect for the courage, craftiness, patience and design of her plan to get herself out of Iran and, to point up the significance of the title, not without her daughter. It is interesting that throughout her trials, her most useful allies turn out to be men. Moody's female relatives abuse and ignore her, sedulously following his instructions. Helen at the Swiss embassy can't see why she won't leave her daughter behind. When she hesitates over the peculiar offer of two "free" American wives of Iranians (free because they have the proper passports), they abandon her without another thought. Slowly, pretending to cooperate, pretending to do the shopping or in stolen moments before picking Mahtob up at school, Betty begins to win allies. Then her feasible plan is thwarted when Moody suddenly decides to send her to America alone, keeping Mahtob as hostage. Betty's alternatives are chillingly clear: leave without Mahtob, risk a dangerous course of escape across snowy mountains into Turkey, or stay in Iran forever.

The Turkish plan, despite rumors that such a course may mean rape or murder, seems the only feasible one: The elaborate cloak-and-dagger denouement makes very good reading.

Betty's story certainly does raise some issues about the protection of women under international law. One hopes it will stimulate some explanations and changes.

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