Tag Archives: spy daughter

Closets, etc

 

Ancient door Closed and Locked

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.

Charlie Hebdo and Me

"Don't show yourself, don't share your feelings, or single yourself out. Ever."

“Don’t show yourself, don’t share your feelings, or single yourself out. Ever.”

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.

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.