A SPY STORY: A Spy Beholds Himself – I recollect the day my covert operative father saw le Carré’s first film

EntRichard Burton as Alec Leamas in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”er a caption

For me, a convention-bound girl, it was a glimmer of something significant.  For my father, it was as if the very first day had dawned.

The year was 1966.  My family was on vacation in Germany—we were posted to The Hague then, I was about twelve—and my father, who I thought was a diplomat, had gone out to see “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the film based on John le Carré’s novel, at a U.S. army post, alone.

My mother, brother and I spent the evening lounging about our Heidelberg hotel room, taking baths and reading after a day of castle-viewing in the wet.  We were all in typical fettle.  I was reading my umpteenth Enid Blyton and begging my mother for a green purse I’d seen in a shop window.  My brother, two years my junior, was gobbling one of his World War II accounts, and my mother was snuggled under her covers with a mystery, grateful, at last, to be warm.

Then, about ten o’clock, my father appeared.  He walked in from out of the drenching German rain, dripping in his Balmacaan raincoat, crossed the threshold, and it was as if the world was stunned.  The bustle stopped.  My father stood there, all joy, illuminated by a Renaissance beam from heaven.

“Well?” my mother said, putting down her book.

“It was very, very good,” he said, his voice full of a hoarse breathiness.

He walked around the room—it was as if he was so abuzz with energy he couldn’t sit down—and then he came over to my brother and me on our beds and gave us big, hard squeezes.  My squeeze was delicious; it thrilled with an exuberance I hadn’t sensed in my father before.  I forgot myself for a moment and watched this new, charged father.

In the film, the washed-up British covert operative, Alec Leamas, played by Richard Burton, pretends to defect to East Germany, and, at the behest of “Control,” the British spy-master,  sacrifices an earnest, truth-telling East German secret serviceman, a would-be whistle-blower, in order to keep in place a ruthless but useful tyrant-traitor, so that he can be further exploited by the British intelligence service.

Leamas has fallen in love with Nancy, the Communist woman he’s used in the operation. When she protests, during their flight along a dark East German road, that he’s killed a good man, he says, “The only rule is expediency. Mundt gives London what it needs, so Mundt lives and Fiedler dies…

“You think spies are moral philosophers measuring everything they do against God or Karl Marx?” he continues.  “They’re seedy, squalid little bastards like me—little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives…It was a filthy operation to save Mundt’s skin.  God save us both.”

Then, taking on Nancy’s belief in the Communists’ purity, hard-bitten Leamas says, “How big does a cause have to be before you kill your friends?  There are a few million bodies on that path.”

I don’t know to what in the film my father most chimed. Perhaps it was the ending, really, in which Leamas dies for love rather than country, that so moved my father.  Or all the complex all of it.

My father was a man who, quite young, had cut himself away from his origins.  Having sipped the elixir of Japan in the army, he’d left his large St. Louis family behind to join the federal government—and not just any arm of government.    He’d joined a club—the covert operations side of the C.I.A.—in which all his activities were secret and those secret activities were fraught with moral quandaries and logistical puzzles of serious consequence for foreign affairs and human lives.  In his daily work he was nameless or falsely-named, engaging in activities he supposedly wasn’t engaging in, invisible.  Neither my brother nor I, nor anyone in the outside world, knew about the underground democrats inside China he lent secret support, the agents he recruited and hid from despots’ torture, the daily work of weighing: Is that worth this?  He often felt un-recognized even at the CIA, where—ironically, but like everywhere—the most visible got the attention and rewards.  Elegant in a khaki suit, kind, a man of thoughts—but misty, my father easily slipped into the backdrop.  He had a talent for “hiding in plain sight.”   The ideal spy in a sense, he was never, literally, seen for who he was.

My father asked for little, and as the years passed, it seemed he cut more and more ground out from under himself, living on less and less.  He believed in living for a higher good.  His ideal was Gandhian renunciation.  But everyone, even a man who can subsist on a couple of sardines and a chunk of carrot, needs affirmation.

Around the time he saw the film, I later learned, my father was liaison to Dutch intelligence during a murky episode in Dutch-American-Chinese relations in which a Chinese “welder,” possibly a would-be defector to the West, fell to his eventual death from the upper story window of the The Hague row house of the Third Secretary of the Communist Chinese diplomatic mission, under very suspicious circumstances.

I have no idea what my father’s specific involvement might have been, nor what he thought of the affair.  What I do know, from my father’s rapt face that rainy night in Heidelberg, is that, to see Alex Leamas–caught up in morally dubious schemes, engaged in relationships behind the Iron Curtain wherein people are supported and used and sacrificed in the name of national security — must have been like seeing himself.  All the passions and perplexities of his own life, usually cached in his mind, there to behold, flashing before his very eyes.  At last: here I am.  I exist.  I am not just a phantom slipping into mist.  What relief, what gladness—even, or especially, to see the hardest and most troubling things.  Oh the joy in my father’s face—at beholding his reflection.

There is something so deeply human–and urgent–about the need for confirmation: to see one’s experience shown, concretized, reflected back.  This is what movies provide, and art, and books, and friends:  They allow one to see oneself, in essence, in action in the world, bulking around.  To a mirror, the heart trills.  And for the spy, whose life is hidden away, how much more powerful such a reflection must be.

But what was it, I wonder, that made this particular moment stick in a self-absorbed twelve year-old girl’s mind?  I knew nothing, at the time, about the true nature of my father’s work.  I think it was simply the experience of seeing my father in a new light: standing tall, apart from me, elated.  Usually, in his daily life, he was intent and hard-working, always attending to the home- or work-related crisis at hand.  His brow knotted behind his horn-rimmed glasses as he tended to multitudinous needs, ever endeavoring to be someone for others.  He was the opposite of unfettered and free.  But in this moment, in that hotel room in Heidelberg, I saw a man on his own, cut loose on his own raft—affirmed and completely joyous.

What I absorbed, as a young girl on the cusp of adolescence that evening in Heidelberg, was a picture of my father as he seldom seemed.  To put beside the busy, buffeted, burdened man, invisible but giving himself away drop by drop: here was a man easy inside his own skin, buoyant with happiness.  And this gave me a kind of permission: to not just bend to demand, but to look out for a sort of cut-loose joy.

Originally published Sunday, January 15th, 2012

How to Write a Memoir: Five Ways of Getting Started

If you want to write a memoir and don’t quite know how to begin, you might start with one of the following five tried and true methods.  The methods may be taken up in any order, singly, or not at all.  But then again, “not at all” might mean just that: no memoir at all.  Best not to choose that. :

  1. The Scribble Down Method: Sit down and toss onto the page all the aspects of  your past you’d like to write about: particular experiences, emotions, people, places, images, metaphors, objects, books, relationships, foods… You name it.  It can be anything, anything at all.  Don’t worry about what comes out or how it’s written.  Get dreamy, free associate, scribble it all down.  Spill until you’re spent—for the moment.  This splatter may be added to at any time—and should be, as more thoughts come to you.  Warning: Now that you’ve opened the spigot, they will.
  2.   The Story Method: Now, if you wish, if this seems right for you, sit down in a comfortable chair and engage in the age-old writer’s exercise: asking yourself what your memoir is to be about.  Here is how it goes: In your easy chair, with your laptop or with a piece of paper and a pen, begin by writing to yourself: “This story is about…” Let the thoughts come and write until you stop.  Next write: “This story is really about…”  Again, write until you stop.  Finally, write: “This story is really about…”  Keep writing, again, until you’re written out.    The goal of this easy exercise is to help you clarify for yourself what your story is, what the purview of your memoir  will be, on both the surface and on the deepest, most essential levels.  It will serve to orient you: the writer who is trying to make a story out of the clutter of life.  With this beginning map at hand, you can set out on your voyage.
  3.   The index card method:  Get yourself a packet or three of index cards.  Any color will do—whichever pleases you—and lined or blank.  On each index card, note down something you’d like to include in your memoir.  Again, these may be incidents, people, cars, etc. Spend index cards like free money.  Toss them in a basket or pile them up into a neat stack. Now you have the ingredients of your memoir (always to be added to, of course).  If you wish, get yourself a little box and plunk them in there.  This is your recipe box, your treasure trove, for your memoir.  If you’re the sort who loves organization, or believes in Divide and Conquer, you can purchase a pack of dividers and sort your cards by subject.  When you sit down in the cool dawn or in the satin-dark of night, you can simply pluck one of the cards and begin to write, or rather cook up, the small dishes which will comprise the banquet of your memoir.
  4. The Pivotal Moment Method: Again, fetch a nice, clean sheet of paper or click yourself up a nice, fresh computer screen.  Now: list all the important moments you would like to include in your slice of autobiography.  Begin writing them, one by one.  Pick out the one that calls to you each time you sit down to write, and conjure it on the page.
  5. The “Just Sit Down—Anywhere, Any time—and Write” Method.  Just write whatever it is that writes itself down.  Collect these issuances, and with time, your memoir will assemble itself like a magnet gathering filings to its heart.

Mind you, if none of the above five methods appeal, just do it your own way:  You might make notes in the bathtub on rubberized notebooks on Thursdays at two o’clock, or sketch ideas on corners of the newspaper while you drink your coffee, or jot thoughts in your secret computer file when you’re supposed to be figuring out your office budget.  The latter, the task of budgeting, come to think of it, might be just onerous and dreaded enough to induce you to engage in the slightly less onerous and dreaded task of writing.  We are all, after all, avoidant, stubborn, rebellious cusses…The bottom line is: Whatever way works, seize it.

*Orlando II, painting by Maud Taber-Thomas.

To see more of her work, go to maudtaber-thomas.com

Originally published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

A Spy Story: How my Friend Discovered her Father was a Spy

One day last fall I saw an old friend from childhood days in The Netherlands.  It was the first time we’d seen each other in forty-four years.  I had always liked her, but we’d lost touch once we both left Holland, she for boarding school in England and me for my father’s new assignment in Washington D.C.  In the long interim, just a few months before, I had discovered that her father had been a covert CIA operative just as mine had been.  It was a shock to me.  I’d believed her father’s cover like everyone else, assuming he was what he said he was, that is: a foreign service officer.  I thought my father was a foreign service officer too. Our fathers, unbeknownst to us, lived under the same cloak.

As we got to talking, at the Silver Spring, Maryland Starbucks, my friend told me (I still have an instinct to hide people’s true identities) the story of how she found out her father was a spy.  She learned the news a few years before I did, and she just stumbled onto it.  It was while she was in eighth grade, in Holland, back when we were in school together.

This is how it happened:  Our eighth grade class had gone that day on a field trip to the American Embassy in downtown The Hague.  Our school, The American School of The Hague, periodically took its students there, to give us a little taste of America.  The ambassador greeted us, and then we had American cookies from the P.X. and coke. When Celia, as I’ll call her, got home that evening, she and her father went out for a walk with their Irish Wolfhound.  These walks with her father were special to my friend: for once she had her father to herself.  She was one of four children all competing for their busy father’s attentions.

As they set out into the night, her father asked her, “Well, Celia, how was your day?”

“We had a field trip to the embassy.”

“Good.  What happened there?” her father said.

“We met Ambassador Tyler.”

“Oh?” her father said, “And what did he have to say?”  Celia’s father was slightly British in manner.  He had served in England, and in then-Rhodesia.

Celia thought it would be boring to say just that the ambassador said “Hi.”  Her family was the kind that fooled around and matched wits, and Celia wanted to entertain her father, so she thought, “Hmm, well I could say the ambassador said Dad worked for the FBI, but no…they only work in the States.  I’ll say he told us Dad worked for the CIA!”  Not thinking her father’s job was anything different from what she’d been told, she just made something up, to kid around.

“Well…” she said, drawing out her clever-but-oh-so-innocent response.  “He told me you actually work for the CIA.”

Her father didn’t say anything.  There was a pause—a long pause—and then he said, “That’s very interesting.”  And then: “I wonder why he would say that.”

As Celia described this at Starbucks, she said, “It was a noticeable pause.  He didn’t say anything for about thirty seconds.  A lot of thoughts must have run through his mind.  Would the ambassador have said that to her?…Maybe Thomas (my older brother) told her?  Or maybe Cheryl (my mother) told her?…”

It was that noticeable pause that gave it away.

Celia doesn’t remember what happened after that.  Her father didn’t tell her the truth that day.  She doesn’t remember when he did, but she thinks that sometime not too long afterward he probably told her, “I do work for the Agency, but don’t say anything about it.”  In any case, after that conversation, she knew.  It was all totally accidental.

Originally published Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Writing, Stillness and Joy

It is a grey, rain-lit new years day.

Pico Iyer’s piece in the New York Times this first 2012 morning –on the unrelenting stream of information with which we are bombarded—hits the mark, I think.  He quotes Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher:  “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  The average American, Iyer reports, receives 75 text messages a day, and the average office worker experiences no longer than three minutes at a stretch without interruption.  Iyer concludes: “We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say.  Partly because we’re so busy communicating.”  Stillness and time for reflection have become the luxuries we crave.  Jet-setting Iyer, who chooses to live in small Japanese village, advocates, to complement our obligatory involvement in the world, the purposeful creation of regular stretches in our lives when we are “out of radio contact.”  He writes, “Nothing makes me feel better—calmer, clearer, happier—than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music.  It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Stindl-Rast describes as ‘that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.’”

I will be distracting for one minute to let you know that Bethesda Magazine’s January-February 2012 issue contains my article, “The Spy Who Loved Me: With a father’s confession, the pieces of a mysterious childhood fall into place.”  It offers a couple of snippets of my memoir, (due out January 10,) which, during its ten years of gestation, required long, absorbing, sometimes painful but always deeply happy stretches of shutting out the world.  I wish everyone the luxury of such joy in 2012.

Originally published on Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Lisbon Book Launch

It seemed both needlessly grand, and yet somehow fitting, for Lisbon to be the place I should launch my new book, set my newest baby in its paper boat out to sea.  As it happened, this was how things came to pass, and it was my great luck and privilege that they did.

I was invited, in November, to give a couple of workshops and a reading from my new book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a cold War Spy’s Daughter, at the Portugal meeting of the European Council for International Schools.  This is a yearly event at which teachers from around the world gather, in a rich and festive atmosphere, to share tricks of the instructional trade as well as the emissions of their bright, curious and adventurous minds.  Yes.  Bright, curious, adventurous: this was my impression of school teachers, of whose company, it turns out, I have been too long deprived.  Teachers of the young, it seems, are an exceptionally interesting, hospitable, polymathic and world-gobbling breed. As they graciously greeted my suggestions for drawing writing from their students, and warmly welcomed into their midst my young book—as I imagine they greet the young beings who fetch up in their classrooms—I spent my time soaking in their zest for the world.  I am immensely appreciative of this rare treat.

As for my impressions of Lisbon, the site in which all this eager exchange was taking place:  This former empire, a place of once-gleaming tiled abodes and grand palaces, seemed down at heel—and somehow, spectral.  (Aren’t we all, perhaps, from our imperial babyhoods onward, and in the end, former empires?  And on the broader canvas, and in the end, and especially now, aren’t all countries headed that way?)  At the same time, it seemed a place where the best things are available: meals of fish, potatoes and olives, rides in tiny, old wooden trolleys, and warm people, with nothing to prove. Simple, delicious.


I would like to share with you, in photographic form, my two strongest impressions of the place. This first image shows the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive, stone, peopled prow which honors Henry the Navigator, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and others who opened up sea routes through the world during Portugal’s Age of Conquest.

This second image shows just a few of the winged cherubs that seem to pop out—laughing and cavorting and generally creating mischief—from alley niches, cathedral alcoves, and, indeed, atop serving tureens, turning Lisbon to a celebration and festoon of romping babies.

It occurs to me that this is how we should all take up life: with the grand vision of a Portuguese explorer and the unself-conscious chortle of a baby.

My Eyewitness Lisbon guide reads, “Although the Hindu ruler of Calicut, who received him wearing diamond and ruby rings, was not impressed by his humble offerings of cloth and wash basins, da Gama returned to Portugal with a cargo of spices.”  In Lisbon, I launched—with trepidation, gulping for bravery–my little prow, my book, my humble offering of personal perspectives.  Perspectives on: what it is to grow up the daughter of a spy; what it means to live with secrets; how it is to traipse across the world, discovering other cultures but in a pitched battle for identity; how it is to watch a father and a spy engage in secret activities and grow increasingly dismayed; and what it means to be an American in this world.  I returned from that still-grand city with a cargo of spices.

In this periodic blog, it is my plan to offer my cloth and wash basins: my thoughts on writing, global nomad adventures, spies, and other clandestine and miscellaneous affairs.   I will try to make the missives shorter than this one.  Perhaps you will share your spices with me.

Originally posted Thursday, December 29th, 2011