The story of Tania Georgelas and her husband John unfolded across four continents, but it is one of the most American stories I have ever heard. Stop me if this one is familiar: John, a Texan from a wealthy Christian family, converted to Islam as a teenager and 13 years later ascended to the high echelons of the Islamic State. In London, along the way, he married Tania, a native-born Muslim with ambitions of becoming a suicide bomber. They had four kids, and together they fantasized about becoming a family of itinerant holy warriors, a sort of Islamic version of the Von Trapps, substituting slaughter of infidels for Alpine showtunes. In 2013, they went to Syria, hoping to make it into ISIS territory. Only John succeeded. He will probably die there.
If this sounds to you more like an anti-American story than an American one, the fate of Tania and her kids might change your mind. After weeks in Syria, she and kids ditched John and returned to Plano, Texas—home of John’s parents—in late 2013. She and the kids left Syria by slipping through a barbed-wire fence into Turkey. On arrival in Istanbul, she was exhausted. (If you’ve ever dragged kids through an airport terminal, imagine doing the same punishing journey, but under sniper fire.) John’s parents rescued them and brought them back to Plano.
Now, talking for the first time since her return, she has transformed as remarkably as her husband, but in reverse. John, whom I profiled in this magazine in March, traded his American patrimony—money, family, for jihad. Tania traded jihad for America.
The physical distance between the couple seems to have broken John’s spell over his wife. Once compliant, she sought and obtained a divorce, uncontested, and stopped praying. She remade herself into a Texas society woman, so thoroughly adopting the ways of her new home that only her accent reveals her as non-native. From the way she dresses, you’d think she spent the last decade reading Italian Vogue, not the Koran. She goes to concerts. In lieu of a mosque, she attends a Unitarian church. In lieu of a jihadist cleric husband, she has Craig, a boyfriend from Minnesota, who squires her around to the wine bars and bistros of the north Dallas suburbs. Craig makes good money in IT, and although he was raised Christian, he is now a spiritual searcher, ready to sample any faith tradition except, perhaps, his predecessor’s.
To watch the couple together is to forget, at least for a moment, the cause to which Tania until recently devoted her life. She says she has met people skeptical of her conversion from jihadism. The Daily Mail ran a story asking “Has the British beauty who fled her ISIS leader husband for Texas REALLY cut all ties?” She never, in my conversations with her, advocated violence or seriously regretted leaving John at the Syrian border.
And yet there are signs—not of violence, but of a permanent effect of her jihadist brainwashing. She once told me, offhandedly, that she thought the Shia were “not really Muslim”; ISIS is a radical Sunni group, and hatred of the Shia is central to its theology. She never said she wished to return to Syria, but she did lament that so many of the Islamic State’s followers are being bombed “just because they just want to live under a caliphate.” Lines like these come out after hours of perfectly normal conversation.
I cannot, as Queen Elizabeth said, make a window into a woman’s soul: maybe part of her longs for the thrill and purpose that jihadism once provided. But if the Georgelases’s saga teaches anything, it is that people change, and that our capacity for self-reinvention can be immense.
Indeed, the dual transformation of John and Tania is the most American part of this story. What is America, if not a promise of infinite possibility, and ability to transcend one’s origins? John grew up wealthy, Christian, and patriotic; now he is poor, Muslim, and full of hate for his native land. Tania’s metamorphosis has taken the precise opposite form, as if the universe demanded symmetry in their stories, and decreed that she resume the prosperous suburban life that he left behind. They met in the middle, trading fates. His ending is probably already written. Her life, if she’s lucky, is just getting started.