My Dad the Spy

CIA Rubber StampThere’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.

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.