The Memoir-Writing Process: Hazardous

Sometimes as I wrote, I was in a fugue, as when I was drugged at sixteen, an episode of the memoir.  And all along, the process led me toward the precipices of foolish acts, unaccountable acts.  For instance, immersion in old years left leaves me prone to fits of sweet love, when I wanted to fling my arms around all the people of the past, throw caution to the winds, and kiss them passionately.

…This brings me to the hazards associated with writing the memoir. Warnings for the novice, for any about to set their walking sticks on the memoirist’s trail.

Many have noted how the writing robs the writer of his memories.  Nabokov laments, as he refers to the writing implements of his childhood, “Alas, these pencils, too, have been distributed among the characters in my books to keep fictitious children busy; they are not quite my own now…Few things are left, many have been squandered…”

In Proust we find the thought that it is not the author who creates the story, but the story that creates the author. Beware who you create.  She’ll stay with you, take you over, define you forever after.  I think it prudent—and I have done this myself—to purposely leave out, preserve, some memories, episodes, and favorite people, so that not all your memories are stolen from you, trapped in the cage of sentences.

Another hazard of writing a memoir:  the people of your past seem, alternately like a pack of zombies ready to attack and submerge you, and a throng of dream people showering you with love.  Either shakes your little pram.

Originally posted on Monday, November 19th, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: The neglect of friends

While in obsession’s thicket—it is true—I neglected my friends.  I couldn’t talk to them while I was in this haze, this morass of yearning, this bubble, while I tried to negotiate this watery ground, palpitate this tumor of the past.

Originally posted on Monday, November 12th, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: Frenzy, fever, insomnia

Writing my memoir, I let myself go—both ways—into my head.  I surrendered to the force.  Without me, my mind brushed on the next dab of paint, as if by instinct knowing how to make it all fit by association.  Many days, I worked in a fever, a frenzy, as if the bombing started the next morning at dawn.  Memories and thoughts awakened me at night.  In the darkness, I shuffled around in the bed clothes, hitting my knuckles as I tried to wrest index card and pencil from the bedside table in the dark, waking up my tired husband—and then was blurry and short with the kids in the morning.  But there was the petite, incomparable thrill of note cards spilled around my bed at dawn: little jewels I gathered in the morning, a harvest from the blackness of night.

Originally posted on Monday, November 5th, 2012

What of Spying? Two Books, Two Faces of Espionage

I have been thinking a lot about espionage lately—its noble aspect and also the messiness of an enterprise based on secrecy, manipulation, and deception.

Spying, by nature, has these two faces.  To look at the first, its noblest mien: espionage is an attempt to gather information about the actions of other countries, and particularly bad actors in the world; to stop aggressions, if possible; to undermine or change inhumane regimes; and to support democracy, and protect the lives of ordinary people, around the world.  All of these objectives may be criticized, but the CIA was created in the wake of Hitler’s devastation, and under that light in particular, espionage might be seen as not only necessary but among the higher callings.

To look at its other face, there is an inherent murkiness, ambiguity, and morally-troubling side to spying.  The disasters and long-term ripple effects from its mis- or faulty-use are legion: Iran, Chile, Vietnam, to name three.  Back to the other face again, the CIA contributed to the ending of Osama Bin Laden.  If one tries to reckon with espionage, the two faces of the spy service swing in and out of relief…

A pair of books into which I have dipped have, for me, shed clear light on these two faces of intelligence work.

I will begin with the volume that shines a startling and penetrating—not to say dismaying—beam on the series of mistakes, havoc-wreaking, and deaths-of-thousands that can result from espionage mis-handled, mis-used, and gone rogue.  I cannot recommend enough Curveball by the Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Bob Drogin.  Drogin was assigned to the intelligence beat for his paper before 9/11, and was central to the investigation of, and reporting on, the WMD search preceding and following the start of the war in Iraq.  The book follows, beat by beat, the series of mis-steps by American spies, the State Department, and the executive branch, that followed the claim by an Iraqi con man-asylum seeker in Hamburg that Iraq had, hidden in its outlands, a series of mobile bio weapons labs—the faulty intelligence upon which the war in Iraq was based, and which Secretary of State Colin Powell called up as key evidence, in his fateful speech to the United Nations on February the 5th, 2003.  It is a crystalline example of an instance in which, as Drogin puts it, “The defector didn’t con the spies so much as they conned themselves.”  He sums up this story of disastrous espionage:  “[Curveball’s] marginal story took on an importance it did not deserve.  Senior intelligence officials irresponsibly hyped his claims and accepted unconfirmed reports.  They cast aside contradictory evidence, brushed aside clear warnings, and ignored a rising clamor of skeptics.  Time and again, bureaucratic rivalries, tawdry ambitions, and spineless leadership proved more important than professional integrity.”

New York Times reporter Benjamin Weiser, has written a book that presents the other face of espionage.  His fascinating book illuminates spy-craft at its finest.  Here again is a story of an informant and CIA operatives, but this round, all the actors concerned are models of nobility, rigor, and integrity.  A Secret Life is an account of the life of a Polish colonel who, out of a deep love for Poland and a drive to help his country free itself from Soviet domination, volunteered to secretly supply the Americans with information pertaining to Soviet weapons and military planning.  The reams of documents he handed over in the course of nine years, at great personal risk, contributed to the freeing of the nations of Eastern Europe.  The commitment, consideration, loyalty—and perhaps even love—that undergirded the relationship between the agent and his CIA handlers are deeply moving, and remind the reader of what under-cover, inter-cultural alliances can accomplish at their best.

Espionage has two faces, dark and light—and most spying is probably a mix of the two.  A look at these two starkly contrasting books sheds brilliant light on its grey world.

Originally posted Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

A SPY STORY: A Mysterious Cold War Death

I recently discovered—during one of those browses on the Internet that turns up up a silver nugget—a snippet of a documentary about a confrontation between the Dutch and the Chinese during the summer of 1966.

The extract of documentary reports on, and reconstructs, a sinister episode that took place in The Hague, on July 16th, during which a Chinese “welder” was found wounded on the sidewalk of the third secretary of the Chinese diplomatic legation.   The ensuing events—the severely wounded man was later kidnapped from the hospital where he’d been rushed by the Dutch for treatment, and whisked to the home of the Chinese chargé d’affaires, where he died—turned into a months-long stand-off between the Dutch security police and the Chinese.  It was never clear whether Hsu Tzu-tsai had accidentally fallen from an upper story window, had met with foul play, or, whether, as the Chinese maintained, Hsu had been incited by “U.S. secret agents” to defect, and fallen from the building while trying to sneak away.

My father’s job as a covert CIA operative in The Hague was to serve as liaison to the Dutch intelligence service, and his portfolio included work with potential defectors.  What his precise involvement in this tragedy and hot-point in East-West affairs might have been, I can’t know, but I ponder the episode in my book about my covert operative father, Born Under an Assumed Name.   The short documentary-extract is, in any case, a fascinating lens into a moment—one of so many—in the Cold War.  Here is the link:

Originally posted Tuesday, February 28th, 2012