For the past 12 years, I’ve been writing a book about secrets – my spy dad’s and mine. Every day that I wrote, I was immersed in feelings. Love. Sadness. Fear. Lots of that. But I just kept doing it – kept sitting with memories, doubts, and questions. I had so many questions. About my dad and the CIA, about coups and dictatorships and a million other things. I researched, traveled, interviewed people (including my dad), and wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. The pile of journals in this photo represents just a fraction of the pages I filled. This project feels like a lifetime. It engulfed me in a crazy mix of uncertainty and hope, and it made my father extraordinarily real to me, realer even than growing up, when I would find him eating Doritos and watching SNL. Now the book is done and I am at a loss. You could call it “letting go” or “transitioning” but I don’t know what it is or what to call it. I just know that I’m going through it. Still, I marvel that I did it – wrote into material that took me through my mother’s death again and again, took me into my fears about speaking out and breaking the spy family code of silence, and took me through so much human sadness. My own and the world’s. But what stuns me most is the way writing became its own path and how the path it created led me to healing. It is what I hoped for but was never sure of when I started 12 years ago. I am finally here – wherever here is. It feels like a miracle. The starting and the finishing. And everything in between.
The Cuban flag now hangs at the newly re-opened Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. The Cold War freeze is thawing. But I wonder what Dad would have thought about these changes. He worked on the Cuban Missile Crisis after all, and growing up I remember hearing plenty of criticism of Castro and other totalitarian leaders. When I asked about this assignment, his first with the agency, he said it had been his job to watch the Soviet build up. “I read reports from all over the world. Watched the whole crisis.”
Reading his book was like meeting a different father.
Six years ago, he published a book about this experience, called Mind-Sets and Missiles: A first Hand Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, he described the crisis from his point of view. When it came out, I remember thinking I would find the dad I remembered from growing up – someone who always defended US foreign policy, and who rarely agreed with my criticisms of the US. But my politically conservative dad, the one who always championed US interests and seemed seldom critical, was in his book. In Mind-sets and Missiles, he criticized the way surveillance was conducted during the crisis and argued for changes to intelligence gathering. Reading his book was like meeting a different father.
We are all more complex than we seem.
In another conversation, when I asked how he ended up in the CIA in the first place, he told me something else I didn’t expect: it wasn’t the first organization or the only one he interviewed with. He interviewed with the FBI and AID. Even the Peace Corps. When he told me that, I almost fell out of my chair. The Peace Corps? Dad could have been building irrigation ditches or helping villages install clean drinking water instead of meeting with informants and telling cover stories? If he had signed on with the Peace Corps, maybe he would have been someone I understood more, someone whose beliefs were more like mine. To my mind-set, he had always only wanted to be a spy and would have never considered anything else.
But we are seldom who others think we are – especially spies.
If he had lived to see this day, I wonder what Dad would think about the current shift in US and Cuba relations. Maybe he would stay inside his Cold War mind-set and disapprove. Then again, maybe he would surprise me. Again.
I was born in south Florida and from there moved from place to place, in the US and abroad. But despite all the wandering, I somehow absorbed the message that I should diminish myself and stay small. Maybe we all did. Maybe for me this message had its origins in my spy dad whose training was to blend into the background and observe, or from his Midwestern parents before him, who believed so much in the power of silence and keeping to themselves. Maybe it came from my shy and introspective mother, who spoke most comfortably with brushes and acrylics, water colors and canvases. Maybe it came from my own reluctant self. Certainly it comes from a world that teaches girls, and queers, and so many of us to stay inside our closets and doubt ourselves.
But isn’t it time we left the smallness behind?
Let’s leave the cobwebbed walls and dusty floors, the cracked windows and uninsulated walls. Let’s leave the crumbling floorboards and dilapidated chairs. All the rooms we’ve outgrown and the ways we hold ourselves back. Let’s abandon our fear of trusting and risking, our penchant for careful circumspection. All the stabs at erasure.
It’s time to tweet and report and paint and blog and write and film and speak. Time to shed and become, and stop trying to squeeze ourselves into tight places. Isn’t it finally time to do this? To breathe under a wider sky?
My writing life began in private journals and remained there for years, until I was well into my 20s. I never considered sharing anything I wrote until one day, while I was working on a prose poem, the writing seemed to lift off the pages of my journal. There was a larger force creating my words alongside me and the words seemed intended not for me alone, but for some kind of audience. I was the one typing, yes, but what I was writing didn’t feel solely “mine” anymore.
But sending out my private words to the world was another matter altogether. Going public was terrifying. When I published my first piece about my relationship with my mother, vulnerability thrummed inside me.
Children of spies are never supposed to talk
This was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve published more family pieces, some about what it was like growing up with a CIA dad, which added another dimension of fear because children of spies are never supposed to talk about anything too private or secret. We are supposed to keep the BIG secret forever. I’ve experienced what it’s like to liberate myself from this silence, still, whenever I publish something, I feel the old spy kid fear. And once the piece comes out, my perfectionist side comes into play and I wonder, Could I have said it better? Did I get it right? It doesn’t matter how much I’ve edited or researched, sharing my work is daunting on so many levels.
Sending words out into the world is also difficult because writing has the power to change the world. Its effects can ripple out far beyond the writer and her initial creative impulse, which of course, is the point.
The bottom line is that it’s scary to tell something alive and true.
Over time, I’ve learned to take up space and to voice myself. Each time I write an article or blog post, the girl I once was worries. I tell her I understand – it is scary to tell something that feels alive and true. But it’s also great.
Growing up, I learned an unspoken and unwritten rule: don’t ever talk about it. It being what Dad did for a living. If I talked about whatever “it” was, not only would I be betraying him, but I would also be putting him in danger. It wasn’t until I was twenty that I found out he was in the CIA. By then I was a lefty, and critical of U.S. foreign policy, but I loved him and wanted him to be safe, so I stayed inside this closet.
I was born into two closets – the spy-daughter closet and the gay closet.
I came out of my other closet first. Boston was an easy town to be a lesbian in and as soon as I graduated from college I dated girls, went to gay pride parades, and joined a feminist radio collective and women’s soccer team. I felt very out except that I still hadn’t told Dad. He was conservative and I was sure wouldn’t approve. When I finally did tell him, he said he it wasn’t natural, “…but that we shouldn’t lose contact over it.” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, so I went right back into the closet with him and rarely brought it up in our phone calls.
He was ready to be out about his spy identity, but I wasn’t.
Then in the 90s, my father retired from the CIA and decided to teach. But in order to do this he had to undergo an agency sanctioned process of having his covers removed. Once this happened, he would be able to tell people he had worked for the Agency. He agreed to this process and after his covers were removed, he started teaching classes on intelligence at US colleges. It was a remarkable journey, to move from being a Cold War covert officer to an openly ex-CIA college professor. He seemed unperturbed by the change but it shocked me. I was in my early thirties then and couldn’t get my head around the fact that my secretive father was now going to talk openly, or somewhat openly, about his career. He was ready to be out about his spy identity, but I wasn’t.
Closets have a way of multiplying.
It took ten more years before I came out of my second closet. I did it in a personal essay in the LA Times, in which I told the story of how I found out what my dad did for a living. I received many emails after the piece ran, mostly from other children of spies. There was a breathless quality to the emails, as if there wasn’t enough time to say what needed saying. As if we were breaking the law by being in contact with one another.
“I guess not everyone comes from a family where secrets are…secret.”
One person said, it was no wonder that when someone asked him not to tell anyone something, he kept that confidence: “I guess not everyone comes from a family where secrets are…secret.” Another person said, “Don’t use my name in anything you write.” I understood the fear. Putting my story out there had been terrifying for me. I was breaking a code I had lived all my life by and for a while it seemed like a totally destructive thing to do. I thought it would ruin my relationship with Dad and other family members.
“It’s your story to tell.”
And there was some fall out. A few family members asked me not to run it but Dad wasn’t one of them. He said, “It’s your story to tell.” So I did. Not only did putting my story out into the world lead to a breakthrough in my relationship with my dad, but it also led to a sense of connection with other spy kids. I realized that there was a community of us out there. Suddenly, sending that piece out into the world, the secret I had carried all my life, no longer carried such power over me.
This then, is why I write – to diminish the space that separates us all from one another. Coming out of both my closets taught me that the only way to be free is to break down closet doors regardless of where they are. We’re never free or safe inside them anyway. They only keep us small and living a partial life. The spy family closet may seem an unusual one but really it’s no different than all the others. The rules are the same.
As the daughter of a spy, no matter how often I publish or risk my truth – as I did with the most recent PEN Charlie Hebdo controversy – I can never fully shake the old message I grew up with that says “Don’t show yourself, don’t share your feelings, or single yourself out. Ever.”
At the end of April I received an anonymous letter from dissenting writers within PEN, the human rights literary organization I’m a proud member of, and was asked to sign the letter in opposing an award for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I read through the letter – I agreed with its point that no one should be censored and agreed that the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff in January were contemptible – also, I would have preferred the award go to a journalist or magazine with a different kind of overall message – and so I hit “reply” adding my name to a list that included Junot Diaz, Michael Ondaatje and other literary figures.
I saw my name on top of the list, as usual.
A few days later, someone with a feminist-sounding twitter handle with hard-to-pin-down views, started tweeting me. They said my name had surfaced on a list of signers and attached a link. I clicked on the link, went straight to journalist Greg Greenwald’s blog, and saw my name at the top of the list. As usual. Sort of.
Having a last name that starts with the letter ‘A’ followed by the letter ‘B,’ you’d think I’d be used to being at the top of lists but I’m not. It’s always a shock. In school, it was a curse. If there was some kind of book report or presentation and the teacher decided to go alphabetically by last name, I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of learning from other presentations before it would be my turn. I would just have to go first and be the one everyone else learned from.
It was an old panic, deep in my bones.
There it was, my name near the top of the list of signers. After a quick Google search, I saw the controversy was heating up. I messaged the tweeter who had contacted me, trying to explain my nuanced views, then realized they just wanted to bait me, so I stopped. But what I couldn’t stop was the panic, an old fear buried deep in my bones, one part female and one part daughter of a spy.
For my CIA Dad, passing below the radar was just part of the job. He knew how to blend into a crowd, get along with everyone, remain conversational and deflect questions about his work. He also liked jazz, spoke fluent Greek and loved to debate. Yet when needed, he was good at being unassuming. As his daughter, I learned to do this too – learned how not to take up space and how to stay in the background. Most girls learn this. We learn to defer, be polite and how not to call too much attention to ourselves. I learned this lesson in two ways – as a female and as a spy’s daughter.
The spy-daughter voice harped, “See? Next time write something safe.”
As the Charlie Hebdo controversy intensified, I saw there was little tolerance for dissent in the twittersphere. Many seemed to think signing the PEN letter was tantamount to being pro-censorship or anti-satire. The thing that most struck me was the fact that it seemed taboo to even have a different view. I received emails from strangers who called me a coward for signing. I felt my old fears rise up, the spy-daughter voice inside me harping – See? You shouldn’t have been so bold. Next time, write something safe.
After being followed a bit on twitter and receiving some critical emails, I decided to write an article on the Charlie Hebdo debate for Ms. Magazine, where I’m a regular contributor. I wondered what feminists were saying about the controversy. As soon as I began the article, that inner voice emerged –You shouldn’t have signed the letter in the first place! You should have stayed quiet, hidden, been discreet. What are you doing courting controversy?!!!
The thing is, writing frees me from fear.
Writing doesn’t just trigger fear; it also frees me from it. It is literally how I know who I am and what I think about things. But it also means that everything I do as a writer can drag me through the terror of revealing myself. And no matter how many pieces I have published about being the daughter of a spy or how many letters of dissent I sign or whatever I write, I will always be the spy-daughter who is supposed to blend in and the girl/woman who is supposed to stay small. I will always experience some kind of fear when I write, no matter what it is that I write.
The lesson? The impulse to stay small will always be a part of me, just as I know that it comes from two sources in my life – my spy-daughter self and my female self. It’s also part of a larger social force that wants us all to stay quiet, to stay invisible, when in fact dissent is valid and good and healthy. And yet, if we can resist the impulse to remain invisible and instead cultivate the courage to speak up, then we will create a slightly bigger space to occupy and speak from next time.
Which is a good thing because no matter what, there’s always a next time.
There’s a story out recently about a spy daughter who found out her dad was in the CIA during a long car ride, when she was 16. The first thing she said was, “My father’s an assassin.” I was twenty when I officially found out my dad was in the CIA. But it was a stranger who told me and unlike this other spy daughter, I had few words for the experience.
Growing up my dad 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.
But 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 attaché 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.
I learned the truth 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 base I could tell no one about. I said nothing. My father’s secret was mine now.
Forty eight years ago the Greek military took over and began a seven year dictatorship. At the time, many Greeks assumed the CIA was behind the takeover. The year was 1967 and I was there – a baby, brought to Athens by my CIA dad, who had arrived in Greece on his first field mission with the Agency. I had no idea what was happening in Greece at the time and spent my time in the garden singing Greek nursery songs with my Greek nanny, who I adored.
I was in college when I learned that while I played in my garden, political prisoners were dragged from their homes and beaten using a technique called ‘falanga.’ This was done by having a metal pipe swung onto the bottoms of feet. It left no scars but could cripple for life. The dictators, who were known collectively as ‘the colonels,’ ruled Greece for seven years. They banned political dissent, controlled the media and arrested and detained thousands. When I learned the details of the junta as a college student, my relationship to Greece became more complicated.
So did my feelings for my father. My mother had died of breast cancer by then and I was left with a dad I didn’t understand. Although I loved him and knew he loved me, he had been so preoccupied with work growing up that I often felt invisible. We were also very different. He lived in Texas and I lived in Boston. He was politically conservative and I was liberal. Still, we had more in common than I liked to think. He told no one that he worked for the CIA and I told no one I was gay. Like father, like daughter.
After college in Boston, questions about Dad’s work in Greece haunted me. The CIA had sent Dad to Athens for his first assignment and so Dad, Mom and me had arrived in Athens just months ahead of the coup. Was the timing of our arrival intentional? Did he have a role in the coup?
I did nothing to answer my questions. They say inside me unexamined, heavy as stones.
By the 90’s, Dad had retired and was teaching a class on intelligence at the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M. I had come out to him by then. When I did, he had told me it wasn’t natural and that he didn’t approve. But, he also said, “We don’t need to lose contact over it.” We didn’t see each other very frequently during my 30s. When we talked by phone, he seldom asked about my personal life. Years passed.
The journey to learn the truth about the Greek coup began when I was forty after I attended a writing workshop in Greece. Writing about Greece and my spy dad was more difficult than I imagined. Children of spies aren’t supposed to talk about their spy parents. Ever. We are supposed to carry the family secret indefinitely. After all, it’s our secret too. After this workshop I started the process of trying to learn the truth. I researched the coup, traveled to Greece, met scholars, and had conversations with my father. It was challenging but the process helped me heal my connection to Greece and my father. I learned that it was the Greek security police who tortured prisoners during the dictatorship, not the CIA. Moreover, I learned that the situation in Greece during the Cold War was complex, and not as black and white as I once thought.
Even though my relationship with my dad had healed, it took a few more years before I was ready to publish anything about Dad and Greece. Finally, I did. My first piece about the Greek Junta was published last November, the start of more to come.
The CIA recently tweeted the story about a woman who worked overseas for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, during World War II. She described an interview process in which she wasn’t told anything about what her job would be. “They fingerprinted me and told me not to speak about anything, although I didn’t know anything anyway.”
Dad was interviewed by an old OSS man too and his interview was even stranger.
He didn’t tell many stories about his work but he loved this one. He always started by saying, “Those were dangerous times. The Soviets wanted to take over the world and I thought the days of the U.S. were numbered. I really did.”
He was working in the San Antonio city manager’s office at the time but his heart wasn’t in it, so he bought a ticket and flew to D.C. He lined up interviews with the FBI and the Peace Corp and then landed one with a mysterious man inside an old army barrack.
“This guy who looked like a stern prep school dean sitting behind a desk. There was a bright bird on a perch in the corner. Can’t remember if it was a parrot or a toucan. He started out with questions. Where did I go to college? What was my major? Things like that. Every time he asked something he threw a seed. That bird caught everything too. Curve balls, ground balls, line drives.
At the end of it, the old OSS guy said he couldn’t tell dad much about the job.
“The guy said he couldn’t tell me where I’d work or what I’d do or anything. He said, ‘After what I’ve just said, why the hell do you want to join the Agency?’ I told the guy, ‘I have no idea. You haven’t told me a thing.’ He must have liked what I said because he said, ‘Good answer!’ Two weeks later they sent me a letter and that was it.”
Every time I think of this story, it’s like I’m discovering a different of Dad than the one I remember. When I was growing up, he seemed so sure, focused. But twenty-something-Dad was different. He was undecided and open. Joining the CIA hadn’t been a calculated act after all. More like a giant leap of faith. He accepted a job with an agency he knew virtually nothing about. It seems amazing to me that the decision that determined so much of his life and shaped so much of mine was the result of happenstance – a random interview with a guy and a bird.
As a writer, growing up with a CIA dad means I’m forever trying to come out of hiding. Forever trying to unlearn the lessons of blending into the background, keeping quiet, letting others go first. On the surface, Dad was sociable and gregarious. He liked listening to jazz records, was an amateur magician and loved football. But if he was in a crowded restaurant or at some social function he’d blend into the background, smile, laugh, nod. He’d seem innocuous, and to my teenage mind, boring. I didn’t put it together that he was being this way on purpose then. That’s because as a teen I didn’t even know he was in the CIA. I knew something about his job was a big secret, and that he often changed who he said he worked for- sometimes it was the Pentagon, other times the State Department – but I didn’t know he was officially in the CIA. But even if I didn’t know that, I knew whatever he did was important and that I should never, ever talk about it. Not with him or anyone. There was no family meeting with dad saying, “Okay kids. Here are the rules. My job is secret and so we can’t talk about it to anyone okay? It’s important and keeps our country safe and that’s why it stays between us.” He never had to say these things explicitly. All he had to do was example them and I learned. If someone at an event asked him about what he did, he’d say something dry, general and unmemorable. Something no one would remember or ask a follow up question about. I watched him do this for years until I became good at it too. I’m still good at it, still peeling back the onion, learning to voice, take up space. As a woman. As a lesbian. And finally as a writer. Writing about what it was like growing up with a CIA dad is the last frontier in my quest to shed my internal self censorship. Every time I put a pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I remove my own inner silencer, day by day, word by word.