Held Hostage opens with a riveting scene. Ken Cooper – a serial bank robber – is robbing a bank. Juiced up on ‘joy juice’ (the natural flood of adrenaline into his system), Cooper feels invincible. Little does he know that this will be his last armed robbery. Segueing from being shot in his last hoist, he flashes back into childhood, where Cooper recounts the rebellion and sin in his life that escalated from childhood thievery to teenaged joy-rides to full-blown bank robberies as an adult.
Cooper’s memoirs recount his journey into the depths of adrenaline addiction and crime, followed by being sentenced to 99 years in prison for repeated armed robberies and hostage takings. While living an externally acceptable life – wife, children, and a career in publicity for a Christian college – Cooper’s addiction to danger fueled a dark, hidden lie of crime. It is only after a life-changing encounter with God in prison that Cooper’s life is deeply transformed, and his release effected with only three short years of his sentence being served.
The promises hinted at in the first-person action filled introductory scene go largely unfulfilled in the remainder of his memoirs. Like the authors of many autobiographical efforts, Cooper’s writing isn’t his strong suit. He effectively conveys the horrors of the prison system, the Christian support, friendships, and ministry opportunities he found while imprisoned, and the challenges to his new faith believably. Cooper’s descriptions of prison life are intense enough to convey the dangers and challenges inherent in the situation, while shielding readers from the foul language and explicit vileness that he no doubt encountered there.
However, the sharing of his relationship with his first wife (who died of cancer), his second wife (divorced), third wife (post-conversion), and his children ring hollow on the written page. He fails to convey the more tender emotions of the heart when it comes to relating to his family, though he does have some success in describing the Christian brotherhood he finds amongst prison ministry workers, volunteers and fellow inmates.
In addition Cooper leaves many loose threads. Whatever happened to his partner in crime, Jonathan? Did he turn Cooper in, did he get away, or was he also convicted? Also, whatever became of Cooper’s daughter Becky, and his stepson Lee? What is his relationship like with them? They seem to disappear following the first third of the book.
The areas where Cooper succeeds are in sharing God’s wonderfully transforming power, His provision, and His protection. Cooper doesn’t pull any punches when describing the dangers encountered in the prison system as he narrowly avoids rape and abuse while serving as a sanctifying and transforming presence in his cellblock. Witnessing God’s miraculous power made manifest in ways both small and large during Cooper’s time in prison sent chills down my spine on more than one occasion.
As a result of God’s grace Ken Cooper is now serving inmates affected by addiction through The Ken Cooper Prison Ministry, proving that God does indeed work all things together for the good of those who trust in Him.