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Two Closets: My Dad’s Secret and Mine

There were two secrets in my house growing up — the fact that my dad was a spy and the fact that I liked girls. When I was 26, and not yet out to Dad, I found myself inside a low-ceilinged room at CIA headquarters attending his award ceremony. Dad sat at the end of a row of chairs, his white hair cut Army-short on the sides. We were all dressed up: my stepmother in a gray skirt suit, my sister in a skirt and me in a rare dress. On my left wrist hung the silver bracelet that my girlfriend had given me.

As I waited for the ceremony to start, I glanced around the small, windowless room. There were no meat and cheese plates or decorations of any kind. Dour portraits of former agency directors lined the wood-paneled walls. When the announcer stepped up to the podium, I listened for information about my father’s secret life as a spy. Even though Dad was conservative and I was a liberal, I hoped I would learn more about him from the event — maybe even something personal. But the announcer spoke in generalities. The only clue was a range of dates during the 1980s. Grenada, I thought. The invasion of Grenada.

I thought back to an early morning phone call during my freshman year of college. Dad’s voice had sounded washed out. “The U.S. is about to invade Grenada. I’m telling you before it hits the news so you know how to reach me. Do you have something to write with?”

I scanned my messy dorm room floor for paper and a pen.

“OK. Ready,” I said and took down the phone number to the Barbados Hilton.

I didn’t know if he would be in danger, but I sensed he would be. Even after we hung up, I gripped the spiraling phone cord, afraid it might be the last time we would ever talk. When he called me a few days later, I exhaled.

Now he was receiving an award.

Once the announcer finished his introduction, Dad rose from his chair and moved to the front of the room. He stood before the small group of colleagues and thanked everyone for coming. He looked down at the award and then out again at the audience. Was he contemplating his next remark, taking a moment before delivering a prepared speech? I remember he said little more. I slumped in my chair as he made his way back to our row. In his eyes, I thought I saw all the words he had wanted to say — the toll of keeping a secret, how proud he was of his work — but didn’t.

We were both good at keeping secrets back then.

Not long after the ceremony, I sent him a letter saying I was gay. I had wanted to tell him for years but anticipated his disapproval. He called the day he received it. “I can’t accept this. It’s not natural,” he said, making me instantly want to take my letter back. “But there’s no reason for us to lose contact,” he added.

It made little sense to bottle up as soon as I came out, but that’s exactly what I did. Sometimes I dropped clues about a close “friend,” but when my father didn’t follow up with a question or comment, I fell silent again. I dyed my hair purple, joined a feminist radio collective and told him little about my life. The distance between us began to feel clean, complete, as if he were the first chapter in a book and I the last, the pages between never touching.

Then one day he called to say he was retiring from the agency and that he wanted to teach. “Teach what?” I asked, not following. “Intelligence,” he said. In order to do this he had to go through an agency-sanctioned process of having his covers removed. I was in my early 30s then and couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that my Cold War dad was finally letting go of his secret. He may have been ready to be out about his spy identity, but I wasn’t.

It would take years before I was ready to come out of that closet.

I did it by publishing a story in the newspaper about how I first learned Dad was in the CIA. I sent the piece to him for input before it ran. We went back and forth on the phone, negotiating changes related to the specifics of his career. At first, he was receptive, saying, “It’s your story to tell.” But then things grew tense and he seemed less positive. I took sleeping pills at night and fought with myself during the day, wondering if I should pull the piece. In the end, I decided to publish.

Afterwards, I received emails from other children of spies. There was a breathless quality to the messages, as if we were breaking the law by being in contact with one another. One spy kid said, “Don’t use my name in anything.” Another said that it was no wonder that when someone asked her not to tell anyone something, she kept that confidence. “I guess not everyone comes from a family where secrets are . . . secret,” she wrote.

I understood the fear. Telling our spy parents’ secret feels like a betrayal — of them and the country. For many, it would mean putting a parent in harm’s way. Telling my story had been terrifying, harder in ways than coming out as a lesbian.

After the article ran, Dad and I didn’t speak for months.

When we did reconnect it was about his book. He had published an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his earliest assignment. “I’d love your comments,” he said. I was flabbergasted. He wanted my opinion? I told him it was a fascinating insider account. Just as I hoped he had seen me in my article, I wanted him to know that I was at least trying to see him in what he wrote.

When my partner Susan and I planned to travel to Texas for a wedding, I was sure Dad wouldn’t want to see us — after all, he hadn’t attended our commitment ceremony — but when I called to say we would be a few hours away, he invited us to his house.

Like a page out of a spy novel, Susan and I approached the agreed-upon highway exit and pulled to the side behind my father’s mid-sized American car. He gave a quick wave and led us off the shoulder and down the exit ramp to a Marriott Residence Inn Suites, where he’d arranged a room for Susan and me with credit card points. He pulled into a spot and I watched him get out of his car: cane first, one leg, then the other and finally a giant push to standing. I stepped toward him for a hug. He was still tall and imposing, with a slight Buddha belly, but he looked older. I was shocked by how fragile his body felt. Tears welled up after we hugged and so I looked away, missing the warm embrace he gave Susan.

After checking us in, Dad waited in the car while we put our things in the room. We wheeled our bags down the hallway, clicked into our room with the card key and stepped into a spacious, light-filled suite. “Wow,” Susan said. I followed her eyes. In the middle of the room was a king-size bed. One bed. Not two.

We had a nice visit that day. Dad and Susan enjoyed getting to know each other and I felt as if my father had finally accepted me for who I am. It’s in this spirit that I honor him this Father’s Day. He may be the one who first showed me how to keep secrets but I like to think we taught each other how to break free of them. I think he would agree.

This article originally appeared in Salon.

Rape, abduction, murder: The fate of an Indian family who dared to challenge human trafficking

I don’t know the whole story. All I know is that I’m going to meet a woman named Mukta* whose husband was killed saving girls from sex trafficking. She survived but her husband – a pastor and part of India’s Christian minority, a man who ran a home for children, many of whom were rescued from the gangs – did not.

Ayush*, another Christian Indian pastor who runs an orphanage I donate $35 (£26) to every month, sits beside me as we rock along a dirt road lined with sugar cane fields. He talks in hushed tones into his phone while the driver watches the road behind dark glasses. We pull up to a small collection of cement buildings. Scrubby trees wave to us from the side of the road.

“Wait here,” Ayush says. He gets out and disappears inside a small house.
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‘An abortion or I’m dead’: Horrors of human trafficking revealed

A moment later, he opens the door and says, “You can come.”

I climb out into a dry, hot day and walk to the front of the car. Ayush moves toward the doorway of a low ceilinged house, pushes back a cloth curtain and motions for me to follow. I try to ready myself to meet someone who has just lost their husband, a man who was killed for trying to save girls. I tell myself I won’t stay long, just long enough to greet her, ask if she has anything she’d like to share. I imagine we’ll sit around a small table in plastic chairs and she’ll offer snacks or a soft drink. Then I’ll leave. After all, what can one say to a woman who has lost her husband, the father of four daughters, in such a violent way?

I step into a shaded room. It is empty except for a narrow cot. I see a woman lying on the cot beneath a single, floral sheet. Her face is turned toward the wall. I immediately want to back out of the room. This is a mistake. This woman is sick. This is a house with a very sick person. But I know it’s her – Mukta, the pastor’s wife. Suddenly the room feels crowded with people staring down on her.

There is no air. Ayush motions for me to move toward the head of the cot. Mukta turns her gaze from the wall, sees us, shakes her head and murmurs, “No, no, no.” Her hair is limp, plastered against her head, fragile, the bones of her face so thin. Her lips are chapped. Flies sputter around the room oblivious. Did she know we were coming? Did she have any say in this visit? Her eyes seem fixed on something I can’t see, something beyond this small, dark room. I’m not at all sure she can hear or see us.

“These are visitors from America,” Ayush tells her. “They are here to see you.”

I have no smile or appropriate facial expression to offer. I sit down beside her and stumble through a few words. “I am sorry for your pain,” I say. They are useless words, irrelevant. My lungs tighten while she stares toward the ceiling.

Mukta recovering in hospital in India after she was found in the jungle when she had been dumped

Mukta recovering in hospital in India after she was found in the jungle when she had been dumped

A few minutes later, Ayush signals it’s time to go.

We move out to the road and back into the car. The village shrinks behind us. Everyone in the car is silent. I don’t ask what happened to her, why she is in this condition. I take my cue from the mood in the car, from the silence. In the months I’ve been traveling the world, I’ve learned to be patient, to not always look for explanations.

“She was taken after he was shot,” Ayush says later. We are back in his home, and his children are lounging on a blanket in the common room. “They put her into prostitution. Then they took her somewhere and many men rape her,” he says this in a low voice, while his children are distracted, playing with my smart phone. My breath catches in my throat. He says acid was thrown onto her vagina and then she was thrown off a wall into the jungle. Discarded. Later, she was found and brought to a hospital.

Where are her daughters?” I ask.


Later Ayush says more.

“They took the daughters,” he says.

The daughters, four of them, were young, barely teenagers, and they disappeared inside some system of torture that is normal here along the border between India and Nepal. It’s a normal danger for girls and for anyone who objects to the selling of girls. My mind can’t comprehend what Ayush has just told me. I nod but I can’t really feel. Not tears. Not rage. Just nothing.

Ayush pulls out his flip phone and shows us the photographs of the pastor’s body. In them, the pastor is shirtless and lies on his side, already dead from a gunshot wound to his chest. I wonder if it helps Ayush in some way to share this with us. He’s a young man, barely thirty, with a wife and two daughters of his own. And even though I am too overwhelmed to feel, I act normal, make sure Ayush sees that I am not a weak Western woman, too spoiled or entitled to see the world for what it is.

I ask if there is any official information about the pastor’s murder, such as a newspaper article, police report or coroner’s report. He shakes his head. There is nothing giving the pastor’s name or the day he was killed or by whom. Just like there is no information on the abduction and rape Mukta endured. No record on the abduction of their daughters. Only silence.

A week later, my wife and I are about to leave India when we get another message from Ayush. We’ve been messaging back and forth about the wire transfer we’re trying to send, our attempt to allay some of the cost of the Mukta’s medical care, so she can heal. Ayush sends a series of grainy photographs of one of the daughters. She was found in the jungle not far from where her mother was found. I look at the image, a teenager with acid burns splashed across her left cheek. She lies on a bed inside some clinic, eyes closed, face swollen. One girl brought back from the brink. Not her sisters but her. Now she is just like all the children her father rescued.

Later, I find out from Ayush that two more of the pastor’s four daughters have been found. They are safe and in hiding. Mukta is also in hiding and has recovered enough to walk.

* Pseudonyms are used to protect the safety of the people I met

This article originally appeared in The Independent.

Where Are All the Women in Ai Weiwei’s Exhibition?

When I walked into the New Industries Building where the Ai Weiwei @Large exhibit is housed on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, I was greeted by a giant Chinese dragon. Suspended from the ceiling, it snaked through the prison’s old work space, where model prisoners were once allowed to sew uniforms or do other jobs. As I explored the room, the dragon seemed a fiery ally, tasked with guarding an exhibit that brings attention to bloggers, artists, activists and human-rights advocates, all jailed for speaking out against their governments.

A quote by Weiwei, who has been imprisoned and whose passport was taken away by the Chinese government, hangs as part of the dragon’s body and powerfully sums up the exhibit’s message: “Everyone of us is a potential convict.”

In the next room, I came to one of the most famous aspects of the exhibit: the pop art-inspired portraits of many of the world’s exiled or political prisoners (pictured at left). Here, portraits of political prisoners held in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and North America are laid out side by side across the cement floor. Some portraits are instantly recognizable—Martin Luther King, Jr., Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning—but many are not. There’s a sense of equality here, famous prisoners next to those not everyone knows. Regardless, they all share floor space in a grid of interlocking, colored Legos that taken as a whole look like a giant mosaic of faces.

Male faces that is. Out of 176 prisoner portraits, I counted only 13 women. Looking out across the sea of male portraits, I couldn’t shake the irony of this disparity. The exhibit is humane and moving, giving a much-needed voice to the silenced, but why aren’t more women included? Aren’t there more women activists in prisons across the world?

A quick internet search proved there were.

Online, I was able to more than double the number of women who had been included in the exhibit. If I could double the numbers, why couldn’t the artist himself? By under-representing the number of women political prisoners, the exhibit prevents their stories from becoming better known, and more importantly prevents the public from getting involved in their campaigns and advocating for their release.

Part of the exhibit features a book of biographical information on each prisoner. This book gives vital information on that prisoner’s plight and struggle, detailing who has been released and who is still jailed. The fact that so few women are included in the portraits means that the people who visit Alcatraz from all over the world during the seven-month run of the exhibit will leave with the misguided impression that only men suffer, sacrifice and have the courage to stand up for what they believe.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth—and I’m here to share some of those women’s stories.

Among the women I found on my search was Mao Hengfeng, a longtime Chinese women’s rights activist who challenged China’s forced abortion policy in the late 1980s. Because she had refused an abortion for her third child (China allowed only one child per woman at the time), she was arrested and tortured. She continued to call attention to forced abortions and has been imprisoned repeatedly. Her treatment has been abysmal and she was finally released due to poor health in 2011. She was repeatedly beaten and denied basic medical care while incarcerated.

While the exhibit includes a number of male Iranian political prisoners, as well as five Iranian women, there are still more women prisoners of conscience in Iran who could have been included. Maryam Shafi’Pour, for example, is a 27-year-old leading Iranian student activist and human rights campaigner. She was arrested in 2009 because she campaigned for an opposition leader and was a member of a political women’s committee. She is currently being held in the women’s wing of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Amnesty International reports that she was kept for two months in solitary confinement with no access to a lawyer.

Another Iranian activist who could have been included, Hakimeh Shokri, 44, was arrested on December 5, 2010, along with a group of other individuals after she participated in the memorial service that followed a crackdown on demonstrations against a disputed presidential election. She was a member of the “Laleh Mothers’ Group,” which used to be known as “Mourning Mothers,” a group composed of women who had lost their children in the mass prison executions of the 1980s, and later in other protests against the government.

In addition to activists and human rights workers, women journalists are especially vulnerable to imprisonment. Reporters Without Borders relays that as of July 2014, there were 10 women journalists imprisoned in Iran, many on charges of “plotting to commit crimes against security and insulting Islam.”

The erasure of women’s stories isn’t even the most disappointing ramification of Weiwei’s show. One of the most moving aspects of the exhibit is the opportunity to send a postcard to a detained prisoner. It’s intended to be an active component, to get people to reach out and to advocate for political prisoners who have been silenced. Postcards are displayed inside the old mess hall where prisoners used to eat in silence. Now, visitors flip through the books of biographical information about political prisoners, choose someone they want to write to, find the postcard already addressed to them and compose a message of hope or thanks. While postcards may not be enough to change an unjust sentence, they can send a message to repressive governments that this person’s life is valuable, that her work is vital and that the world is watching. Just as important, they can also send a message of hope and solidarity.

When I sat down on the wooden bench to send a card, I chose one featuring a luminous lotus blossom addressed to Irom Sharmila Chanu, an activist who has been on a hunger strike for 14 years against repressive laws enacted by the Indian government. I was personally moved to have the opportunity to write Chanu a message and to know the card would be sent to, and hopefully read by, her. But after I handed the card to the friendly docent standing by, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more women sitting in dark cells right now need us to know about them, need our help in demanding their release. Not highlighting more women’s stories in an otherwise powerful exhibition is truly a missed opportunity.

This article originally appeared in Ms.

My dad, the spy

I’ve criticized the CIA all my adult life — for its role in overthrowing democratically elected governments and supporting brutal dictatorships. But as a child, I had no idea my father worked for the CIA.

He was a nerd who wore black horn-rimmed glasses, a dark suit jacket and a tie most of the time. Whenever we referred to his place of employment, we just called it “the office.” We moved around every two years or so for his job.

As I grew older, I became more curious. One day when I was about 10 years old, I stood before him, hands on hips, and asked what kind of “office” he worked in. He said he was in the Army. “The Army” didn’t conjure “office,” but it was an acceptable answer. Tangible. I pictured him as a soldier protecting America, marching in drills, bending over field maps. It didn’t register that I had never actually seen him in a uniform. I wanted to believe him, and so I did.

Not long after, he changed his story. “I’m with the Defense Department,” I overheard him tell someone over the phone. What happened to the Army? The Defense Department wasn’t something I could imagine. I had no images of what it did. I saw a blank screen. But I didn’t ask my father to explain.

Over the next couple of years, his job description continued to shift. The Defense Department became the State Department, then the Pentagon. His titles as an attache or advisor rotated even when we didn’t move. Each time he rolled out a new cover story, he did so with perfectly still eyes. That’s what made me think he wasn’t switching jobs as much as switching titles. But if I suspected he wasn’t exactly telling the truth, I was in no way ready to admit he was lying.

My awakening to the truth came during one of our weekly Sunday drives. At 12, I loathed being trapped inside an automobile with my parents and younger sister, but Sunday drives were a family obligation. That day, as my father guided our Caprice Classic down the driveway, something didn’t seem right. My mother wasn’t commenting on the well-groomed lawns, and my father seemed more restrained than usual. Did they have a fight? I stared out the window, vaguely aware of the strange mood in the car, when, unprompted, my mother turned to my father and growled, “Tell the girls what you do for a living.”

My father’s neck stiffened. “I’m a supervisor,” he mumbled feebly. “I manage people.”

Irritated, my mother whirled around, her eyes mocking, and asked, “Do you girls have any questions for your father about his work ‘managing people’?”

I loved the tone in her voice just then. It was a tone that refused to settle, a tone that said, I have had enough of your secret. I didn’t know why my mother had chosen to confront my father just then — and still don’t. Maybe she was tired of keeping his secret and of how it stifled their relationship and constrained our whole family.

Regardless, her nerve cheered me, so I assailed my father with questions and tried to pin him down to specifics, as he clung desperately to abstract generalities. Finally, my mother narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and said, “You work for the CIA, don’t you?” I didn’t have any real sense of what the CIA was, just a Hollywood version of it, as the world of spies.

My father said nothing. Staring straight ahead, he gripped the steering wheel as if it was all that kept him from flying from the car. My mother knew my father was in the CIA, of course — she had to have known — but instead of saying anything more, she dropped the subject as abruptly as she had brought it up.

For a moment, the door had cracked open and I had learned the truth: My father was a “spy” for the CIA. I was flabbergasted but, at the same time, unable to square my dull father with images of 007. None of us pursued the subject that day, or the following day, week or month. Over time, that moment faded almost entirely, until it became a dream, something I only half-believed (and barely remembered).

During the next four years, our family disintegrated. My mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy but wasn’t able to beat the disease. After she died, I continued to march from school to home and back again like the soldier I was raised to be. I finished high school, applied to college and moved to Boston.

While I was in college, my father moved again, this time to central Virginia. The summer of my sophomore year, I went “home” to visit him. My father drove me through unfamiliar, remote parts of Virginia, turned onto a wooded road and pulled to a stop at an unassuming cinder-block gatehouse. I sat in the car while my father got out to discuss something with a uniformed guard at the gatehouse.

I was disoriented. Where exactly were we?When the guard motioned for me to get out of the car, I stepped out into the oppressive, muggy heat of that June day. Somewhere in the distance, popping sounds shattered the air like firecrackers. I looked down the road and thought “guns,” but said nothing.

The guard ushered me into the low-lying brick building. Once inside, he lifted a clipboard from his desk and said matter-of-factly, “This is a CIA base. Everyone who lives here — and their guests — must sign a form stating they will not disclose this information to anyone.” His words rang across the silence that had intervened since that Sunday drive. After endless shifting cover stories, I finally had confirmation of the truth. It didn’t matter that it was a stranger telling me. It only mattered that I knew. I felt betrayed. All my life, my father had lied to me.

It was freeing to hear the truth, but, like that Sunday in the car, this moment too was short-lived. The guard stood before me, clipboard in hand, waiting for my signature. After I signed, the guard took a picture of me for the badge I would show coming and going from the “home” I could tell no one about. My father’s secret was mine now.

That was more than 20 years ago. In that time, I came to understand why my father had to lie. Our relationship has improved and is still evolving as we talk more and more. He has since retired and, because he wanted to teach, has gone through a process controlled by the agency to remove his covers and change his status from covert to overt. He’s now happy to share his secret of having been in the CIA. He teaches, gives interviews and lectures, and has appeared on the History Channel. He’ll openly talk about his service in Vietnam or running the intelligence arm of the Grenada invasion, all of which he says the agency has declassified. It’s ironic that after a lifetime of secrecy, he now enjoys “blowing his own cover.”

After keeping my father’s secret for so long, I’m free to disclose it. Yet, to this day, I still can’t help but feel like I’m betraying him every time I say, “My father worked for the CIA.”

This article originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.