You know when you have a physical response to something someone says, and you feel it coming on (minute shaking, for instance), and it grips you with its teeth chafing at your wrists, and you have no control? That’s what I felt when I learned ISIS—an insurgent group taking over territory in Syria—had kidnapped my brother, Pete Kassig, in February 2014. But the story began way before that.
Pete and I—and Pete and our family—had a complicated relationship. My mom became pregnant when she was in nursing school. She decided to continue the pregnancy but found a loving couple to raise Pete. She didn’t hear from him for eighteen years—that’s when he reached out to her and became a part of our lives. I was twelve and my sister Jana was fifteen.
He would come to my soccer games, pick my sister and me up from school, and come to family events. We went to his track meets and to dinners with his adopted parents. I met his friends and he met ours. We quickly realized he was an intimate part of our lives.
He went off to the army right after high school. He was immediately successful, he made it into the Army Rangers, and eventually he was deployed to Iraq. But something changed him while he was there. A year after his deployment, Peter was (honorably) discharged. He struggled with this—that he worked so hard for so long and it was all pulled away from him. The reason for the discharge was Pete’s story to tell, not mine to share.
After he came back, he was in and out of our lives. He resented our mom for not keeping him, blaming her for most of the challenges he faced.
There are still good memories, though, like driving around with him listening to Nirvana or Green Day in his green pickup truck as he smoked a cigarette. There’s this one song I wish I could find that I remember specifically—it was not by any of the bands I remember he listened to but was on a mixed CD. If I heard it now I know I would recognize it. It was something about time.
When I was fifteen and he was twenty-one, he ran off to Russia. We didn’t hear from him for over a year. Then he came back and resumed being a part of our lives. I always forgave him after his disappearances, at least at first.
I remember when he returned he told me, “Sam, listen to this. It’ll help when you find a girl. Fresh flowers are the key. I took the train across Moscow carrying flowers, but the key is to hold them upside down—for them to stay fresh and hydrated.” This compelled me: I took all of his advice and applied it to my life, striving to be more like him.
A few months later he was gone. This time to join friends in Atlanta. We reconnected again shortly thereafter.
Later, when I was sixteen and he was twenty-three, Pete dropped out of college. He had been a senior at Butler University in Indianapolis studying political science. He told everyone he was going on a Butler University trip to Europe. Instead, he flew to Beirut to start a new life as an aid worker. I learned this years later when I reconnected with him.
“Sam, it’s good to hear from you,” read Pete’s Facebook message in August 2013, a year after he left for Beirut. We had just reconnected. “I have been thinking a lot about you and Jana too, as always. I am fine buddy, very busy but good. Currently I am in Istanbul for some meetings, but they end today, and I am on a flight out tonight back to the Syrian border. A lot has changed since I last saw you. Let’s talk on Skype when you get a chance.”
After that message, we tried and failed several times to video chat. His internet was spotty, and the time difference made things difficult. We did our best to figure things out over Facebook messages. I asked him what happened, and why he left.
He told me he didn’t know what my mom had told me, emphasizing he didn’t consider her his mother any longer. It was the same story—he resented her and their relationship. But he effusively talked about his new life as an aid worker. He often made trips from Beirut into Syria to provide medical equipment to sufferers of the civil war.
It should be said that Pete was happy in this new career—he was saving lives. He thought he could influence and change the course of events in the region. He was lost for so long after he was discharged from the army, and I believe he found his passion in the Middle East.
We went on like this, our fingers furiously clacking onto keyboards, sharing our current lives.
I remember another message. I had just updated my profile picture with an image of my friend Erica and me.
“Hey buddy, looks like you have a girl. Good job. Tell me all about it over Skype soon.” This was awkward. I was going to tell him I was gay—explain that Erica was just a friend. I was nervous. I had just come out earlier that summer and was waiting for the right moment.
I didn’t know how he would react. Pete was staunchly religious, and at times, a bit fanatical. I like to think he would’ve accepted me, but I’m not sure.
But that was it. His Facebook profile disappeared. It was the end of September 2013.
The following January, I was at the old Starbucks in downtown Indianapolis. My worries about Pete had become overwhelming. He had disappeared before, but this was different. I didn’t know how to reach Pete’s adopted parents—all I knew was their address. So I sent a letter.
A few weeks later, they called my mom and explained that we couldn’t tell anyone what had happened to Pete, per the instructions of the FBI. He had been taken by ISIS. Not much was known about the group at the time; I had never heard of them.
ISIS soon after gripped the American psyche. Americans committing acts of domestic terrorism would soon cite ISIS as their violent influence.
ISIS threatened that if their demands for ransom money were not met, they would start killing hostages one by one. I knew there were Americans, Brits, Japanese, French, and other nationalities in captivity. Some countries, such as Italy and France, were able to negotiate the release of hostages. It wasn’t until the summer of 2014 that they started beheading hostages.
The families couldn’t do anything as our loved ones were beheaded by ISIS on video. With each one, I knew Pete was getting closer to his death. I never believed he would make it out alive.
In fall 2014 I began college in Chicago. My class went to a show at Second City, where they happened to do a sketch about ISIS. I got a Google alert during the sketch—the video of James Foley’s murder was sent across the world that night. As soon as I saw the notification, I left the theater.
After this I felt constant tension, constant anxiety. I devoured each new piece of information about ISIS, each new victim, each new person slaughtered. It was all I could think about. Sometimes I’d find a break, like in my intro to drawing class. One day my professor set up a still life with a luxurious flowing blanket on a grey box. I became completely absorbed. There was a ceramic red skull. A tennis ball glistening in the mix of natural and artificial light. A golden figurative vase of fake flakey flowers. My thumb and index finger traced the outlines of the forms on the paper. My fingers were dusted with charcoal.
While sketching I heard my phone ping twice, and I pulled it out of my pocket. It was a Google alert, this one simply for “ISIS.” They had just taken over more territory in Syria, in a violent slaughter. I shouldn’t have looked.
My concentration thoroughly broken, I went back to my dorm after class and pulled out a letter Pete wrote to my sister during captivity. He must have written it around May 2014, and one of the hostages, Ramone (I have changed his name), smuggled the letter out. He was released after his country paid a ransom. It made its way to the US, to the FBI, and eventually, to my sister.
“Its been a while, huh?” the letter began. Pete talked about how he had been lost in himself for so long, and had a lot of regret about his relationship with my sister and me. He said he was scared but prepared. He wasn’t going to “make it out of this alive.”
ISIS soon killed more and more hostages, and I decided to tell my professors what was going on. With each beheading, I knew Pete’s time was running out. And what would I do then? I would obviously go home to Indianapolis to be with my family. It would be easier if my professors had some notice. After I sent my drawing professor an email, she pulled me aside during class.
“I just read your email, Sam,” she said. “And I only have a couple things to tell you. One, is that I think you are incredibly strong and brave. And two, it is through art we find solace. Pour yourself into your work, and you’ll find that somehow, you will make it out of this.”
I rolled this philosophy into my life and hereafter my anxiety into my budding art practice.
A few days later I was studying at the library with some friends when I got the Google alert: Pete was next. My fingers stopped tapping on my laptop, frozen. The light shone through the tall windows—the oversized wooden desks, my black leather phone case, my friends’ faces when they saw me and knew something was wrong.
I began crying and called my mom. I broke the news to her.
I had already told Emily earlier that fall what was happening, and she then explained to my friends what was going on.
“What can we do, Sam?” Heather, sitting near me, said. “I’m going to try to find a bus home,” I said.
I got to Indianapolis late that night, and there was nothing we could do but sit and wait at this point. The next day, the FBI met with my family and me and told us their plan. They were seeking “to make Peter seem as Muslim as possible.” So, Pete’s adopted mother donned a headscarf and made a pleading video on Twitter to Pete’s captors. I knew this was not going to work. Pete was going to die. It disturbed me to see Pete referred to in the news as Abdul-Rahman Kassig. It was all government propaganda, doomed to fail. I’d have no issue if Pete’s conversion to Islam was genuine. But the FBI told us it wasn’t, and an ex-hostage years later in Paris confirmed they were all forced to convert.
A month later it was November 16, 2014, in Chicago. I couldn’t sleep. Somehow, somehow I knew, this was the day. At 4 a.m. my mom called and told me the video of Pete’s beheading had been released.
Pete’s video was not like the others. There was no scripted message; news outlets reported that the government believed Pete resisted, that he fought back and was actually killed by a bullet to the brain before his body was dismembered.
I should never have looked at the picture. It was cruel. I haven’t looked at the video image in a while, but I can still clearly see his severed head lying on the desert floor somewhere in Syria. Never to be found, never to be properly buried. Now it’s believed that all the bodies of the hostages were thrown into a mass grave of dismembered parts somewhere in the Syrian desert.
The Indianapolis Star, USA Today, the Guardian, and several others all picked up Pete’s story. CNN interviewed people who had had only a glimpse of Pete in their life, which struck me as ridiculous. One of his ex-girlfriends was interviewed on CNN. And then my sister, mom and I got caught up in the frenzy. A journalist from the Indianapolis Star interviewed us, and the piece was eventually published in USA Today as well. It called us Pete’s “invisible family,” and told the story of our struggles getting information about what the FBI was doing to save him.
Those articles didn’t bother me—it was the ones in the UK Daily Mail, rather. Those journalists combed through our social media profiles and published what they found, like profile pictures and statuses.
I first met Ramone, the hostage who smuggled out Pete’s letter to my sister, when he visited Chicago in the summer of 2015. It was eight months after Pete’s death, and I had decided to stay in the city after my first year in college, living in a small studio apartment in Boystown. I loved that apartment—it was the first place that felt like home in Chicago.
We hit it off immediately, finding a brotherly connection in our love for Pete. We told stories about Pete, and eventually wandered off to the Lake Michigan shoreline to drink rum and cokes. It was during these conversations that I realized I needed to make art in response to Pete’s death.
The following year I finally had the chance. I had transferred from my first college to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was able to dedicate myself full-time to my art practice. In the summer of 2016, I was approved to do an independent study about Pete’s life. For inspiration and research, I traveled to London to visit Ramone.
He met me in a train station, his hair a lot longer and fluffier than the last time I’d seen him. His voice still had a British and Italian lilt to it, showing that he lived all over Europe. We talked the whole way to the suburbs. His house was on a predictable UK street—rows of the same houses repeated, all smaller than what you see in the US. They seemed like quaint little cottages, all nestled close to one another, with ivy growing over their brown bricks.
“Pete and I were handcuffed together for six months,” he told me later over beers. “So, we grew close, due to the fact we could never get the fuck away from each other. We’d even have to use the toilet together. I’ll spare you the details of that, but we had to use our hands and the sand floors if that gives you any ideas.”
What Pete did and didn’t tell him about his life confused me. He had stories about my sister and me, about his adoptive parents, but none about our mom. Even a pinkie-finger length from death, he still could not forgive our mom for whatever wrongdoing she supposedly had done.
“I think eventually, as all of us got to know each other, we realized what we all had in common: stubbornness. Everyone in our lives told us not to go into Syria, but we still did,” Ramone said. Everyone, including Pete’s friends and business partner in Beirut, had told Pete not to go into Syria. ISIS’s rise in Syria was swift, and Pete was warned that he should not go on his last mission over the border.
“The situation had changed, we had then heard the first rumors of foreigners getting kidnapped while traveling through Syria,” one of his fellow aid workers told me after I returned from London. But Pete went anyway.
After a week in London, Ramone took me to Paris to meet several other ex-hostages. Hearing their stories disturbed me, especially when one of them said he hadn’t liked my brother.
“No one liked Pete except for one person. Pete would fall into long-lasting panic attacks, then moments of sanity, then get inconsolably mad.”
This broke me.
Six years later, I’m left with aching in my fingers radiating up my arms and into my eyes. I’m angry—inconsolably angry at Pete, at the US government, at myself for feeling I didn’t do enough before Pete’s kidnapping, and at his death. Should I have convinced him to come home? Stopped him from going to the Middle East in the first place? Had I failed him?
I am numb. I feel loss, too. Simply loss. When Pete and I reconnected, I felt like I could understand what he’d gone through with my mom, with his discharge from the army, and with his ailing relationships. I know that we could have strengthened our relationship and been closer than ever before.
I don’t know how to carry his memory on, but I feel an aching to tell the story straight. He was human, I promise. And I want to reveal his humanness, so people can grow and learn from his story, and mine, for that matter.
That story he told me of the flowers really shows me who Pete was—he was always trying his best, even if he failed. He did what he thought was right at all times, no matter how flawed that thought was. I see myself now trying to hold the flowers of his memory upside down to keep them fresh.
When I was twelve, Pete gave me a coin that he received in army training, as one of many markers in training. It was stunning, made out of silver. The soldiers were to place it in their breast pocket when they jumped out of a plane for the first time.
It was my talisman for years—something I’d absently play with in my pocket, carry with me during tough times. It’s one of the few things I had left from Pete.
I’d walk to the lakefront when Pete was in captivity, following the moon in a winding path with the coin in hand. It’s where I would read Pete’s final words over and over again: “Your brother, always, Peter.” Where I would look up at the moon, and wonder just maybe, just maybe, he was looking at the same moon.
In August 2016 I took the coin to the spot on the lakefront where I used to go in 2014. I let it slide between my fingers, gripping its edge just one last time, and let it slip into the lake. This was the first and last burial for Pete.
In the work I made about Pete, I wanted to reveal how my hands are metaphorically callused by these events—how everything I make, whether it’s explicitly about Pete, is influenced by what happened to him.
Pete told me years ago, “Sammy, we just studied this in my psychology class. The text said that every time we remember, we grip onto the last recollection of that memory—only remembering the remembering. I thought you’d find that interesting buddy.” Now I’m sculpting these memories of memories.
In this photograph, Pete (center) is pushing an ambulance up a hill in Syria after it stalled. Using the photograph as a guide, I made the cardboard sculpture of the ambulance doors pictured below, in 2016, because that is what Peter’s hands were touching.
Here I copied the letter Pete wrote. I etched excerpts onto anodized aluminum, leaving large chunks of it out. It’s too personal, and in the end, it’s not mine—it’s my sister’s. I wanted to create something tangible from the letter. The FBI has kept the original handwritten letter as evidence since 2014. We’ve never seen it. So, this artwork was for Jana.
It reads, “Its been a while, huh? . . . I spent so much time wrapped up in myself . . . By now I’m sure you know the situation . . . the truth is, things are looking pretty grim . . . We just have to hope beyond hope that we somehow make it out of this . . . I am afraid of course . . . but I am @ peace with my situation and I will face whatever comes with as much dignity and faith as possible . . . Your brother, always, Peter.”
When taking a long walk along the Seine, deep conversation about Pete, I spotted a lamppost and made this sculpture, abstracting it as documentation of this conversation, and decapitated it,
There is still more to tell. So many memories, so many stories. His life cannot be summed up in three sculptures, in one essay. I see this as the beginning of documenting Pete’s life. By writing and sculpting, hopefully I am doing some work, some fraction of work, to keep Pete’s memory alive—his true memory, my memory. Six years later, he’s still a part of me.
Even though I let the coin go, I will continue to hold flowers upside down to keep them fresh and vibrant.
Samuel Schwindt is from Indianapolis and is now based in Chicago. He received his BFA in studio art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2019.