In 1984, 5-year-old Mahtob Mahmoody and her mother, Betty, found themselves trapped in Iran by their abusive father and husband, Sayed Mahmoody. Through a harrowing journey, they managed to escape and move back to the United States, where they spent years hiding in fear. In part to raise more awareness, Betty wrote a memoir about her experiences, Not Without My Daughter (St. Martin’s Press, October 1987), which became an international phenomenon. Their lives quickly changed and soon they were interviewed by Oprah and a movie of the same name starring Sally Field was released in 1991.
It’s been 30 years since she left Iran, but Mahtob can still recall details that would escape most young children. She recently published her first memoir, My Name is Mahtob (Thomas Nelson, December 1, 2015), recalling her nightmarish years spent in Iran and the life that followed afterwards: adjusting to American culture, the fear of her father showing up at her door, and the spotlight that came from the success of Not Without My Daughter.
BookTrib chatted with Mahtob Mahmoody about what it’s like to grow up with the world watching:
BookTrib: Your mother wrote Not Without My Daughter in 1987. When did you realize that you wanted to write your own version of the story?
Mahtob Mahmoody: One of Mom’s editors in Germany, Anja, became like a grandma to me. It was always Anja’s dream for me to write my memories of the experience, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to live my life and do my own thing. Several years ago I got the request again from a publisher and Anja was very sick: she’d had several strokes and she was in her 80s. I knew she wouldn’t be around much longer and I wanted to do this to honor her.
I never really had the desire [to write the story]. So many people go through something really traumatic and they feel isolated, or they feel the need to be heard or understood or validated in some way. I had that in so many other ways in my life that I never felt the need to write my story. But I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity.
BT: You were just a child when you left Iran. Do you think you fully understood what was happening?
MM: I think people underestimate what children understand and comprehend. At the same time I was a child and I understood what was happening but I had a completely different perspective. I understood that my dad wasn’t letting us come home, I understood he was being violent, but for me as a child things were so much simpler. He’s holding us in Iran and I want to go home. That’s it. Let’s go home. Mom had all these other things she had to take into consideration: the escape was going to be dangerous and we may not make it. I did feel the weight of [those concepts]; I understood what was happening. But things were so much simpler because they were black and white for me.
BT: There seems to be a contrast between having your story be very public, but also having this underlying fear that your father would find you and make contact. How do you think that contrast helped shaped your life?
MM: It was a very big part of my life. I think it’s a timely issue too, in today’s society: how do we balance security with some sort of normalcy? It’s this world where there’s so much violence and fear, how do we balance those two things without giving up too much freedom and yet maintaining our safety? It was a constant balancing act in my life. Mom really thought it was important for me to live as much of a normal life as possible, but we needed to find a way to make it as safe as possible too.
BT: Did all of the publicity make it easier or harder to hide?
MM: I think it made it easier. People knew our story and they protected us. At first, before we shared our story, only our immediate family and friends knew that I was using a different name. But as soon as word was out, now we had all of these other people who knew and cared and who were there to keep an eye on me. I think it added a level of security.
On an emotional level, it definitely had a protecting effect. Secrecy breeds shame. If we had kept our story a secret, it would have been very difficult to deal with emotionally. But by sharing it, then there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. We’re not hiding anything. So while we were taking all of these measures to be safe, there was this huge level of openness too that helped deal with the trauma of what we’d gone through.
Before we went to Iran, my mom suspected this would happen. But she couldn’t get any help! These issues existed, but nobody talked about it. She didn’t want me to live in a world [like that]. She thought it was really important that the world knows that these dangers exist and that people talk about it.
BT: This is clearly such an emotional story, did you find any specific parts of the book difficult to write?
MM: My college roommate Trish called me one day and she said, “Are you crying?” And I said, “Yes, my grandpa died!” She was like, “That was twenty years ago!”
It brought up all these emotions. I was 6 years old when my grandpa died and at the time I didn’t understand why everybody else was crying. And then 20 years later I write about it and now I’m crying. It was really funny how those emotions came back to me.
BT: You have a background in mental health. But now that you’ve written this book, do you see yourself pursuing a career in writing?
MM: I don’t know what comes next. God has a plan. One of these days he’ll let me in on it, I suppose. I have lupus and during the last few months while I was writing I was getting sicker and sicker. I made it through the editing process and then I was really sick. For the past two and a half years I’ve been really battling that. So the timing of the book ended up being a blessing. It’s this interesting break in my life right now. I feel like I’m in limbo. I don’t know where I go next! Maybe a cookbook. Mom has always wanted us to write a cookbook together.