American Mother



About the Book

American Mother is a book that will shake your soul out. A thriller, a memoir, a mystery; a portrait of forgiveness, and a literary song of grace, Colum McCann and Diane Foley have filled the empty chair for us all. One of the most extraordinarily well-braided stories that I have read in years. –Sting

American Mother takes us deep into the story of Diane Foley; whose son Jim, a freelance journalist, was held captive by ISIS before being beheaded in the Syrian desert-the video shared online for all the world to see. In American Mother; Diane’s voice is channeled into searing reality by National Book Award winning author Colum McCann, who brings us on a journey of strength, resilience, and radical empathy.

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A Note from Colum

“In August of 2014 my inbox was flooded with emails regarding the death of the American journalist James Foley.  In a video seen and heard around the world, James had been brutally killed by ISIS.  But the image that flooded my inbox was not the iconic one that marked an era, but a quieter one of an earlier time, a happier time, when James was still alive. 

He had been photographed in a military bunker, reading a novel.  That novel happened to be my own 2009 book Let the Great World Spin.   I was flabbergasted and emotionally stunned. 

A few months later I decided to write to James Foley’s mother, Diane, telling her that I would be happy to help write her son’s story, or indeed her own.  I never heard back from her.  Shortly thereafter, I heard that she had signed a contract to write her own book, and I thought that I would leave well enough alone — Diane was more than capable of telling her own story.  

Fast forward another six years and I was on book tour for a new novel “Apeirogon.”  In the course of a Zoom at Marquette University (James’s alma mater) I said that I had tried to be in touch with Diane, and that I was still intensely touched by the photograph of her son reading one of my novels. 

One of James’s best friends, Tom Durkin, was on the call.  An hour later my inbox pinged.  It was Diane Foley.  She apologized and told me that she had never seen my email.  In the years after, she had tried to write her own story but had come up short.  She expressed a sorrow that her story would not enter the world.

I was taken by Diane’s candour and grace and honesty.  I suggested that I would drive from my home in New York to her home in New Hampshire, where I could sit with her and her husband, John, and perhaps operate as a “story whisperer” of sorts.   I knew that her story needed to be told, and I hoped that I could help thaw some of that frozen sea.   As it turned out, she told me that she would like me to accompany her to a Virginia courthouse where she had been given an opportunity to talk to her son’s killer, Alexanda Kotey, who had recently copped a plea to kidnapping and conspiracy to murder.  Part of his plea agreement was that he would talk to the victims (of whom there were some still living) and/or the victim’s families.  This updated the story for me — it was taking on a whole new life …

So began ”American Mother“.  

The writing of this book has been one of the most searing and yet rewarding experiences of my literary life.  I got to know Diane and her husband John.  I got to know the story of James Foley.  I got to meet his confessed killer, Alexanda Kotey.  I got to experience the arc of justice.  I also got to see what it meant to excavate the principles of forgiveness and compassion. 

This book is not mine.  Nor is it just Diane’s.  It’s a book about journalists and storytellers and how they join the world together.  It’s also a book about a mother’s uncompromising love, and not just one mother, but a nation, or nations, of them.  It’s also a book about a time that seems so far away, and yet it penetrates every waking moment of where we are now.  Not only that, but it is a book about those others, around the world, who have been, and are being, kidnapped and held hostage, or wrongfully detained.  There are many of them.  They have another hero in their midst – Diane Foley and her cohorts in the James W. Foley Legacy  Foundation who have spent the past years working tirelessly to help alleviate their plight.

I am grateful that I got a chance to be a part of this story.  Of course, one wishes that it would never have happened in the first place.  But it did.  And rather than succumb to the harsh reality of terrorism and violence and death, there have been many people in the world, not least Diane herself, who have sought to bring a slice of solace to the world.

So much of this solace comes in act of storytelling.  Even more of it comes in the art of listening.   So, I thank you for reading and listening.  I hope that in some way it echoes back into the days when James Foley’s moral courage and desire to tell the world about injustice came ringing through.  And I hope also that it reverberates in the words of Alexanda Kotey who, despite his horrendous deeds, was able to recognise, through Diane Foley, the compassion we crave in us all.”

–Colum McCann

Diane Foley

Diane Foley founded the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation to advocate for freedom for innocent Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad and for journalist safety. Foley has raised awareness about international hostage taking through her government advocacy, the documentary, Jim: the James Foley Story, and opinion pieces in The New York TimesThe Washington Post and USA Today. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, Dr. John W. Foley, and is the mother of four other children and seven grandchildren.

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“There is nothing quite as moving as a mother’s words about her lost child. In American Mother, the courage and generosity of spirit of Diane Foley in sharing her story about the loss of her beloved son, Jim, is a very special gift. Diane’s unyielding faith in the goodness of others and her commitment to changing the status quo give us all hope.”

–Nancy Pelosi

Having lived through every mother’s worst nightmare and somehow survived, Diane Foley leads with her heart in her fierce advocacy for Americans captured abroad. Now, in this she helps us understand how that is possible by inviting us to walk with her through some of the hardest moments of her life, courageously facing the unthinkable, sharing a candor that takes your breath away; and a deep hope that generations to come will never have to face what she did.

–Judy Woodruff

This is an extraordinary story of grace, forgiveness and moral courage. Bookended by Diane Foley’s meetings with her son’s killer, American Mother plunges us into the heart of darkness and then, somehow, on the far end, discovers unexpected light and hope. Diane Foley’s voice, as captured by Colum McCann, is one of the most compelling in recent literary memory. An honest, searing, heartbreaking book.

–Patrick Radden Keefe