In 2011, Jessica Buchanan was on a routine field mission in Somalia as part of her work as an international education advisor when she was abducted at gunpoint by Somali pirates and held captive for 93 days.
Beaten, forced to live outside in the unforgiving desert with very little food, water, and two dozen men threatening to kill her day and night, Buchanan made a bargain with the universe: “If you get me out of this thing alive, I promise, I won’t ever abandon myself again.”
Days and weeks went by, and Buchanan was convinced she could very well die out in the desert. Then, on January 25, 2012, President Barack Obama enlisted Navy SEAL Team VI to rescue her and her colleague.
Watch: ND authors discuss their experience writing essays for ‘Deserts to Mountaintops’
Since then, Buchanan has made it her mission to share her story, the story of reclaiming her voice. She set out to help others do the same.
Shortly after her captivity, she penned a New York Times bestseller, “Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six,” went on the speaking circuit, and reinvented her life as a woman who vowed to honor the inner knowing she’d found in the desert once and for all.
Today, Buchanan, who lives in the Washington, DC, area, is the publisher of Soul Speak Press and lead author of an anthology series called “Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming Our Voices,” which houses stories from women around the world who, like her, beat impossible odds and lived to tell the tale.
Turns out, three North Dakota women were invited to share their stories in the anthology. Ruth Hetland, Sue Muraida and Lonna Whiting, all longtime residents of the region, penned essays for the project with intentions similar to Buchanan’s—to bring hope and healing to others facing their own journey through physical, emotional and spiritual deserts.
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Ruth Hetland: ‘Nothing Really Happened’
Raised in Pelican Rapids, Minn., Ruth Hetland, a product management leader at Allegiance Group in Fargo, had always thought nothing that bad happened when, as a child, a predatory uncle touched her inappropriately.
Today, as a grown woman with an adult daughter of her own, Hetland feels a little differently about what happened to her as a child, which turns out was something after all. In addition to enduring sexual abuse, Hetland was raised by parents who had hoarding tendencies.
“I tell my story from the perspective of the child I was at the time the abuse occurred,” Hetland said. “It was a way of letting go of secrets and shame I held for decades about child abuse, hoarding and hiding from what happened.”
After reckoning with the fact that she had a difficult upbringing, she eventually realized her story could have the power to help others enduring similar home environments. Maybe they wouldn’t have to pretend nothing really happened.
“I had held onto these secrets for so long, carrying shame that was not mine to carry. I wanted to let go of this shame and heal. I also wanted to bring strength and healing to others,” Hetland said.
Hetland met Buchanan during a virtual self-improvement retreat they’d both been attending. She became intrigued by Buchanan’s own harrowing story of surviving 45 days being held captive by Somalian land pirates and how she’d since used her story to help others find resilience in the face of great adversity—even danger.
“I had held onto my story for so long, I didn’t think I had a story,” Hetland said. “And I wanted to bring awareness, to prevent more children from experiencing similar trauma.”
Sue Muraida: ‘Becoming Me’
Muraida is the Humanities ND program director who grew up believing she didn’t have a voice, that she couldn’t speak up, mostly due to her experience being sexually abused at the hands of her brother and an uncle.
For years, Muraida, who by all outward appearances seemed happy with her gregarious, outgoing personality, felt on the brink of losing her soul. Inside, she was riddled by a fear of rejection and judgment.
“I grew into adulthood and hid my authentic self in plain sight as a mother, a wife, a friend, and daughter,” she said.
Yet, about 15 years ago, Muraida began feeling a tug in her heart, one not unlike Buchanan’s, that was telling her she was meant for more. That by silencing herself, she’d been silencing the best parts of life.
She stepped away from “the church” and found spirituality instead. She initiated a divorce from her husband. She reckoned with the abuse she suffered while growing up. She “found the mountaintop,” she said.
“My life has changed dramatically over the past 15 or so years of healing and reconstructing a life of self-love and I’ve had to walk away from people and situations that have never served me. And that’s okay. I am ready to share my story and offer love and grace to other women who are dying in their silence,” she said. “It’s time to stop being quiet about abuse.”
Muraida has signed a contract with Soul Speak Press to publish a full-length memoir about her story of reclamation.
“It is the 10,000 foot view of each healing journey I embark on. There is not just one mountaintop. There are many. And even when I reach a summit I continue to circle back and keep doing the work,” she said.
Lonna Whiting: ‘Dining at the Dementia Cafe’
Whiting is writer and owner of lonna.co, a content marketing and communications company. She’s written and published extensively about the experience of helping her mother navigate a decade-long dementia journey, and she felt pulled to share a part of that journey in “Deserts to Mountaintops” in hopes of reaching a wider audience.
“I’m of the mind that the only way we’re going to figure out how to care for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s and hopefully someday have the medical knowledge to treat or prolong the health of those diagnosed, is through sharing our stories,” Whiting said.
In her chapter, Whiting uses the theme of food and eating to symbolize grieving the loss of her mother over the years. She explains that through food, she’s been able to connect with her mother when there are few ways left to do so.
“As she’s gotten sicker, she’s lost her ability to talk, even smile,” Whiting said. “Helping her eat has given me the gift of communing with her again. And we loved to eat together when she was healthy, so it’s extra healing for me.”
Whiting intends to keep writing about topics of dementia because she wants families to know they’re not alone.
“I hope people read it and get a better understanding about how we can say goodbye to someone we love a million times, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” she said. “And I also hope my story inspires others to share theirs, as well, because I just know the more we do that, the closer we’ll get to the first Alzheimer’s survivor.”
Since “Desert to Mountaintops” was published on Jan. 25, 2023, the book has been received with critical acclaim.
Within 24 hours of its launch, it hit 13 No. 1 categories on Amazon. The book continues to sell well among women looking for good reads on topics of spirituality, feminism, addiction, grief and general memoir.
The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble in both print and digital formats. Buchanan intends to release an audio book featuring authors reading their own works sometime this spring.
Learn more about the Deserts to Mountaintops project and order copies of the book at www.desertstomountaintops.com.