The Greek Junta

xounta1Forty 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.

Dad’s Interview with the CIA (1962)

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.

Coming Out of Hiding

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.