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.
Everyone in Cambodia is young. Tuk-tuk drivers look like they are in their late teens or early twenties. Hotel and restaurant staff look twenty-something too. Outside the city of Siem Reap, young mothers walk along the roads with small children. Outside a handful of monks and nuns, I hardly saw anyone who looked elderly. People seem young because they are. 75% of the population was born after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge ended. Their brutal reign is the dark truth behind this demographic. When the Communist Khmer Rouge government ran the country from 1976-79, they emptied the cities and took away the middle class and anyone who was educated. Visiting Cambodia brought the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities to life. Their impact is everywhere. It doesn’t feel a thing of the past at all.
I met a man who told me his story. He was born before 1979 and when he was five, the Khmer Rouge took over and took his parents. He never learned what happened to them. He shared this calmly and quietly. I wasn’t expecting to be told this. I thought the trauma of the Khmer Rouge was something many people didn’t talk about but this man was open. He said he was taken out of school to work but that he was fortunate and met a man who raised him.
His face was somber as he told me. He told me about a former killing field turned memorial just outside of town. So one afternoon, instead of going to a temple we went to visit this site. There are thousands of killing fields everywhere, he said. It was located outside of town. He said every year a local politician comes to honor those killed there.
When we pulled up to the killing fields memorial, we got out of the car and walked over to some informational boards. There were photos of people forced to do hard labor, to build roads. A few other tourists around milled around. A donation box sat in the shade.
In the center of the site sat a burial container filled with what looked like bleached bones.
I thought, Those can’t be real, can they? The sides of the burial container were made of clear plastic. I stepped up onto the platform and leaned toward the Plexiglas. Some skulls were bleached white. Others were yellowed. Then I saw that many had molars still intact. Real jaws. Real skulls. It was like a stone dropped inside me. The man who had told us his story and who had driven us here leaned in over my shoulders. “I remember seeing people doing this,” he said. “I was a boy and I looked over a ditch and saw people working like this.”
Before we said goodbye, he showed us photographs of us family.
He told us that the education of his children was the most important thing. His parents were educated and this is probably why they had been taken. He seemed like a quiet man. But also a hopeful one. His children were his hope.
This is what I learned in Cambodia: it is filled with so many kind people. Tuk-tuk drivers gave directions. Nuns invited me into temples to receive a blessing. Our guide took endless photos of us and shared his passion for his country and culture with us. What I really learned is that Cambodia’s people are more beautiful than the ugly past that shapes them. They are more than they know.
Traditionally dressed Tibetan men in wide brim hats and heavy, dark coats, and women in long, multi-colored skirts stand near the entrance to the courtyard where I’ve come to take photos. I’m in Tibet for a week and during one of my wanderings a faded yak skull hanging on a shop door catches my eye. I move toward it and start taking pictures.
Just then, in a nearby building, I hear a man’s voice. He yells in a rapid, staccato manner and sounds angry. More than angry, he sounds vengeful. Is there a fight somewhere? But then his tone shifts and becomes more melodic. Maybe he’s chanting. I look up at where I think the voice is coming from and see a bank of windows. Several heads are all turned in the same direction. Then another traditionally dressed Tibetan couple steps into the courtyard and disappears through a doorway. I walk to the courtyard entrance and see a sign: King Gesar Storytelling Center. Is that what’s going on up there? I wonder. Some kind of story telling event?
I walk over to the doorway, push back a heavy cloth curtain and step into a grungy stairway.
Curious, I approach the doorway, push through a curtain and climb the stairs. My heart pounds hard from the strain of being 12,000 feet above sea level. As I climb, the singing/chanting sounds closer. On the third floor, I pull back another heavy cloth curtain and step into a room filled with small sofas and low lying tables. At the head of the room, a man wearing a white silk shirt and a white head piece holds a mic. The storyteller. His lips move fast and his words spill out. The whole time I’ve been listening, he hasn’t taken a break. His words have continued unabated, something I don’t think I could do. I can’t understand what he’s saying but whatever it is, he is telling from memory. No script.
People notice I’ve stepped into the room. I am the only foreigner here, the only Westerner. Heads turn. A woman looks over at me, then a few children. They smile and I smile. “What is this Western woman doing here if she can’t understand Tibetan?” they must be thinking. Even though this center is in the heart of one of Lhasa’s main shopping thoroughfares, I feel like I’m in a village high in the Himalayas.
I wonder if I should leave but it feels rude somehow, so I take a breath, find an empty spot on a nearby sofa and sit down. I focus on the storyteller. He’s talking as if he were in a trance. The family to my right is drinking tea. A boy half listens while he plays a game on his iPhone. Another boy smiles shyly at me from across the narrow room. I smile back. Now that I’ve sat down, adults from the other side of a nearby aisle turn to look at me. We smile.
A woman in traditional dress walks up and down the aisle picking up and dropping off thermoses.
The storyteller’s voice rises and falls. I pull out my journal to jot down what’s happening. If I don’t write this down now, I’ll forget important details. Just as I start to write, an extremely old man walks up the aisle, a dark cowboy hat on his head, his gate uneven. He sits down on the other side of my sofa and smiles at me. I smile and nod. He keeps smiling and watches me as I write.
As I scribble, I fold the pages of my journal so that he won’t see that my journal has a kitschy image of Mao’ face on the cover. I bought it at a tourist shop. It seemed wrong to put Mao – a man responsible for so much suffering and starvation during the years of agrarian reform in China – on the cover of a journal, but the shop seemed in on the irony. I’m only in China once, I thought, so I bought it.
But now I’m sitting inside a room of Tibetans, inside the so-called “Tibetan Autonomous Region.”
But being in Tibet is another matter. China’s grip here is clear. Military bases dot the city and check points are everywhere. When we first arrived, the airport felt like an occupied territory with Chinese military planes and helicopters sitting to the side of the runway.
But the dynamic came more into focus when we entered Lhasa itself. A huge blue banner stretched across the wide avenue announcing, “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful, socialist Tibet.” Just beyond it, a huge sign featured the portraits of the last five chairmen. Mao’s face was at the top. It didn’t look kitschy at all.
But in this small room where a traditional storyteller tells a cultural story, the Chinese State seems distant. I’m just starting to relax, jotting down my thoughts and impressions, when I sense someone over my shoulder. The tea server stares down at me. She’s all smiles but I close the journal anyway. After all, this is a room devoted to the oral tradition of storytelling not the writing of it.
Just then a man two tables away approaches and asks me if I like Tibetan tea. “Yes!” I say.
A moment later a thermos is placed before me and the old man next to me pours me a cup. It’s tangy and buttery and like nothing I’ve ever had. In fact, it doesn’t taste like tea at all. It’s more like liquid butter. People turn to watch me drink. Even though it is a bit sharp, I smile and give a thumbs up.
By the time the storyteller ends, I’ve drained my cup, making sure to finish it all.
I don’t want to seem rude or unappreciative. The moment I place my empty tea cup on the table, the old man takes the thermos and fills my cup again. I wasn’t prepared to drink more so I laugh. Still, it’s kind of him to pour the tea and I take another sip.
Five minutes pass and then the storyteller stops finally, putting down his mic. Although I don’t know what he’s been saying, I later learn that he has been reciting a story based on the mythic story of the Tibetan King Gesar. I also learn that the way someone becomes a King Gesar storyteller, is through a dream. The person wakes and begins to tell the story of King Gesar, a story he’s never heard nor read before. It’s a kind of divine knowledge and so telling this story becomes their calling. The storytellers travel Tibet and tell the exploits of this mythic king, a king whose story traces the history and outlines of the culture of Tibet itself.
I see it’s time for me to leave. I take a last sip of the yak butter tea, get up and make my way over to the counter to pay. I smile at a few more faces and thank the server. Afterward, I step into the gray hallway and make my way down into the courtyard below.
The guide books say the future of Tibet is unclear.
I think about the future of Tibet under so much Chinese control. The city of Lhasa is now at least 50% Chinese. Can it survive continued Chinese control and domination? But today, I feel I witnessed the strength and power of a culture told through story. Children and families had gathered to listen to the old story, the story of Tibet itself. I’d like to think that stories can heal us, that they can help us stay whole and free and strong. This then is my wish for Tibet.
The sounds of talking are distant, bouncing off trees and walkways. I’ve made the morning trek up Takao Mountain outside of Tokyo with my partner and many other tourists. Everyone has come to see the main Buddhist temple further up the mountain. Soon enough, I will see it too. It will be vibrant with color and burning incense and people. I will hear the chanting monks who walk in procession to and from their quarters, a procession announced by deep throated horns. They will light a fire and perform the Goma fire ritual by throwing sticks that symbolize human defilement into the flames. But that’s all for later. A rush of cool air penetrates me. I am standing before a seated Buddha, part of a smaller shrine on the way to the main one, and no one else is here.
It’s a relief to be inside this tranquility.
I step up to the seated Buddha and everything shifts. Externals fall away and I am in some deeper chamber inside myself. Is it the eyes that don’t seem to look outwardly? The formalized hands, the fingers, the wrist, all turned just so? A small sprig of red flowers grow just behind the statue. I feel hushed and crave nothing.
Maybe it’s the plain gray stone that quiets me.
My mind bounces for a second and I wonder when this Buddha was created. I remind myself to look it all up later – the meaning behind the hand gesture, the nuanced importance of the gaze, the historical context. Right now, none of this matters.
It’s like a reset button to stare into a face so self-contained.
As I stare at the Buddha’s tolerant expression, I shed the train ride and all the station changes my partner and I took to arrive here. I don’t think of the language barrier that surrounds me or what it’ like to be on the edge of a world I’ve no footing on.
The world stops. I breathe and listen and soften. And nothing else.
I became a writer inside the clean pages of a journal. Over and over, I wrote whatever I needed to say. Each word freed me – whether it was a tangled emotion, intractable problem, or intense joy. I was uncensored. Writing became the path to understanding my life, and so I followed wherever it led. There was little risk because nothing I wrote was read by anyone. It was simple.
Is self-censorship sometimes the right thing to do?
Publishing and writing for an audience, on the other hand, brought me into complex questions. What if speaking my truth caused someone else to feel exposed or unsafe? I’ve grappled with this dilemma in many essays, some I’ve published and some I’ve decided not to. Each decision required my weighing the costs of self censorship against the cost of honoring the needs of others.
It’s a riddle more than a decision.
Personally, I believe writers need to tell their stories. I’ve published my words when others told me not to but when I thought it was the right thing to do. In some of these difficult situations, it worked out. More than this, it brought healing to myself and the other person. But there have been other times too, times I’ve stopped myself and listened to the internal voice that said, Don’t publish that. I don’t have any easy relationship with this voice. It’s a familiar voice. As a lesbian and as the daughter of a spy, I hear it often, both internally and externally. The voices that silence are everywhere. But writers are trouble makers and truth tellers in the best sense of the word. In the stirring, thought provoking, healing, bringing-up-what-needs-to-be said, kind of way.
What is a writer’s responsibility?
So how can artists and writers, especially those who write non-fiction, be responsible to our own creativity and selves and at the same time be responsible and compassionate about those included in our work? What is a writer’s responsibility? Honestly, it feels like an unsolvable riddle to me. Sometimes silence is the right thing. Other times not. Maybe the best we can do is to stay conscious, to ask questions, and to hold onto a sense of compassion for ourselves and those included in our work. The trick is to lean into this compassion until it lights the way forward. Maybe solving the riddle isn’t really the point.
Maybe compassion is.
A friend posted an archival photo today that made me stop scrolling my feed. It was a photo of a group of six or seven, men, women and children, that he said were standing in a cotton field circa 1776. Their faces are blank as they stand still facing the person taking the photo. Why were they standing like this? Likely because someone white person wanted to record them. Cotton plants stand nearly as tall as the children. No one is smiling. The friend who posted the photo said this is what the Fourth of July means to him – slaves working the fields, very much unfree.
It’s Bree Newsome’s revolution.
As I think of the fourth this year, I think of Black Lives Matters, and five (yes, five) black churches set on fire since the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. I think of the woman who took the matter of the still-flying confederate flag at the state house in South Carolina into her own hands (and got arrested for it) Bree Newsome. I think of whistle blowers like John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden, who have brought to light uncomfortable things about the United States.
I think of all the unfreedom of these times. The past and the present of it.
I think of Greece too, and all the articles and tweets I’ve been obsessively reading, as I try to follow the unfolding situation. I think of how badly the issue of debt relief needs to be on the table, not off. And I wonder what Greeks will say on Sunday’s referendum. Will people even be able to travel to the cities and villages they were born in so that they can vote?
A clamoring toward freedom. That’s what the Fourth of July means. And this year the voices are rising. Let them.
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.
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.