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.