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.
The Cuban flag now hangs at the newly re-opened Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. The Cold War freeze is thawing. But I wonder what Dad would have thought about these changes. He worked on the Cuban Missile Crisis after all, and growing up I remember hearing plenty of criticism of Castro and other totalitarian leaders. When I asked about this assignment, his first with the agency, he said it had been his job to watch the Soviet build up. “I read reports from all over the world. Watched the whole crisis.”
Reading his book was like meeting a different father.
Six years ago, he published a book about this experience, called Mind-Sets and Missiles: A first Hand Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, he described the crisis from his point of view. When it came out, I remember thinking I would find the dad I remembered from growing up – someone who always defended US foreign policy, and who rarely agreed with my criticisms of the US. But my politically conservative dad, the one who always championed US interests and seemed seldom critical, was in his book. In Mind-sets and Missiles, he criticized the way surveillance was conducted during the crisis and argued for changes to intelligence gathering. Reading his book was like meeting a different father.
We are all more complex than we seem.
In another conversation, when I asked how he ended up in the CIA in the first place, he told me something else I didn’t expect: it wasn’t the first organization or the only one he interviewed with. He interviewed with the FBI and AID. Even the Peace Corps. When he told me that, I almost fell out of my chair. The Peace Corps? Dad could have been building irrigation ditches or helping villages install clean drinking water instead of meeting with informants and telling cover stories? If he had signed on with the Peace Corps, maybe he would have been someone I understood more, someone whose beliefs were more like mine. To my mind-set, he had always only wanted to be a spy and would have never considered anything else.
But we are seldom who others think we are – especially spies.
If he had lived to see this day, I wonder what Dad would think about the current shift in US and Cuba relations. Maybe he would stay inside his Cold War mind-set and disapprove. Then again, maybe he would surprise me. Again.
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.