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.