My Dad’s first CIA field assignment was in Athens, Greece. It was the late 1960s when my uncle Tom came to visit our family. He didn’t know his older brother was a spy then, though he suspected it. “One day your father and I were about to enter a store,” he told me years later. “We got to the door, and just before stepping inside Michael turned to me and said, ‘By the way, everyone here knows me as ‘Fred.'”
I laughed when I first heard the story. “Fred” seemed so random. But what really struck me was the offhand way Dad apparently mentioned having an alias. Like, of course he had a fake name. Doesn’t everybody?
The two never spoke about why Dad had an alias. My uncle says that they grew up inside the “Absher silence.” It was a Midwestern credo—my grandfather was born in Oklahoma before settling the family in Texas—where almost nothing was fit for discussion, where there was literally silence all of the time. Tom said that they went to an Episcopal church every Sunday and then to the San Antonio country club for lunch but never discussed the sermon or the music or the message. Nothing.
Both my uncle and Dad were sent East to private boarding schools for high school, which is where my uncle says they both learned to talk more freely. Teachers expected them to discuss literature and share their thoughts. It was a revelation, Tom says. But even as he and my father learned to do this at school, it never traveled home when they returned for vacations. They just switched back to the family culture. Every now and then, Tom says, they would “slip up” and mention something from the news or what they were learning at school. My grandfather would shut down the conversation immediately. It seemed an impropriety to talk openly about oneself or the world.
The “Absher silence” affected my upbringing too. I didn’t find out Dad was a spy until I was 20, when I was told by a guard on a CIA base the summer before my junior year of college. Dad stood nearby, but it was the guard who told me. Just a stranger with a clipboard. I marvel still that it hadn’t been Dad.
Nevertheless, when the guard told me, it finally made sense. All the deception. The mask was off. And not just Dad’s. Ours. We weren’t like other families, though it had seemed like we were—we went to movies, restaurants, and the beach for summer vacation—but I always knew there was something that set us apart. When did I first become part of this deception? I wonder. When did we all morph from an ordinary family into one that was supposed to appear normal but was in fact hiding something?
I was eleven the first time I tried to unmask my father. On my way out to ride my bike in the alleys of our Dallas subdivision, my eye caught on a title in the living room bookcase—In Search of Enemies. The word “enemies” stopped me. It registered that all of Dad’s books were about war. The year before I asked him what his job was. “I’m in the army,” he said. I had never seen him in a uniform.
That book title seemed to whisper something to me about who he was. It went beyond what he did for a living. It signaled something to me about what made him tick. I intercepted him after work, just as his six-foot one-inch frame swept through the door, suit jacket unbuttoned, boxy briefcase in hand.
“Did you know that all of the books you read are about war?” I said, standing before him in my 1970s era Tough Skin jeans, a messy ponytail trailing my back. I was sure he would deny it. He would say it wasn’t true, that not all of his books were about war. I would be ready. Tell me the title of one non-war related book, I would say. Just one. He would falter. I was sure of it. And when he did, I would have proof that he wasn’t like other fathers.
“You’re right,” he said.
I was dumbfounded. “Don’t you think that’s strange?”
I didn’t know what else to say. I wanted him to admit that I was right, that thinking about war all the time wasn’t normal. But here he was implying that it was. He stood there a moment longer. I wonder what he was thinking as he watched me. Did he think I had him made?
My next discovery came during a late-night movie. I had come downstairs for a snack and found him in the living room in boxers and an undershirt. A black and white movie played on the television. In it, American soldiers dodged bullets and pushed their way through dense jungles.
“What’s the fighting about?” I asked.
Dad jumped up and disappeared from the room. He returned with a piece of faded blue and white cloth in his hand. It looked like a rag.
“This is a Viet Cong flag,” he said, his cheeks flushed. “A Communist flag. Communists want to take over the world. That’s what they’re fighting about!”
It felt like the war was in the room with us. I knew Dad had gone to Vietnam. Had he fought the Viet Cong? Is that why he was so worked up? I stared at Mom’s painting of daylilies on the wood-paneled wall behind his shock of white hair. It looked like a hat with bright orange flowers. His cheeks were red and shiny. It was no act. I didn’t understand the connection between “Communism” and the movie. But I knew he was telling me something important about the world. And I liked that he was trusting me with that something.
But the next day everything returned to its place. Dad came home from work, Mom made dinner, and we all watched television. No more talk of war or Communism. It all went back under the surface. The Silence was like that, it seemed to pulse in and out of my life and unfoldment.
My first inklings that I was different, that I preferred girls over boys, happened in elementary school, but it was a sixth-grade bus ride that made it clear it wasn’t okay to be this way. My best friend, Nisha, and I sat huddled at the back of the bus, passing notes as usual. Our thighs touched as the bus rocked along. I tried to find the words to say how I felt for her. “I’ll never forget you,” I wrote, “no matter what.”
Nisha pressed the paper against her tanned thigh and scrawled a response. Her cursive looped across the page, big and fat, “Don’t let boys get between us EVER!!!”
I felt light and happy as I moved to the front of the bus. I grabbed the smooth chrome bar, ready to swing out into the Texas sunshine. Then a boy by the door said something.
“Lezzie,” he hissed.
My joy fizzled. I stared straight ahead. I knew what lezzie meant. I don’t know how I knew. It wasn’t a good word. That’s when it clicked. It was shameful to be who I was, to like girls. I felt stained by the word, exposed. Now everyone would see.
I got off the bus and stumbled my way across a field of crumbled dirt toward home, the air knocked out of me.
The crushes didn’t stop after this, but I never allowed myself to go too far or admit who I was. I waited until after I graduated from Boston University to come out. Boston was an easy place to be gay. There were lesbian soccer teams and feminist support groups and Pride parades, and I joined them all. I was in my mid-twenties when I decided to tell Dad in a letter. He called the day he received it to say he couldn’t accept my sexuality, that it wasn’t natural.
“But we don’t have to lose contact,” he added.
He didn’t want to sever ties but he didn’t want to know me, either. That’s how it felt. It didn’t make sense to go back into the closet, but that’s what I did. I withheld personal details and made no mention of girlfriends, my left-leaning activism, or how hard it was to find a job during the mid-80s recession. I acted like someone else’s daughter.
But he wasn’t the only person to whom I told partial truths. When friends asked what my father did, I offered euphemisms like, “He works for the government.” Sometimes I used the covers I had grown up hearing from him, that he worked for the State Department or the Pentagon. I worried people would reject me if they knew the truth—that my father worked for a shadowy agency that deposed democratically elected presidents the world over. Or worse.
Still, I desperately wanted to know my elusive father. I tried. I asked him once what his childhood was like. He said there wasn’t much to tell. When he saw my disappointment, he said, by way of a story, that when he was a boy wasn’t allowed to use “Dad,” only “Father.”
My uncle’s stories, by contrast, are personal and profound. They populate the narrow world he and Dad grew up in, one Tom insists was still loving. Once, the family was driving to their vacation cabin in Texas hill country. It was summer. Grandfather drove, Grandmother sat beside him. Dad and Tom were in the back. “The summer stretched out ahead of us. I couldn’t wait to read a whole stack of comics. I imagine your dad was as excited as I was. But when we pulled up to the cabin, Father’s mood changed. I followed Father’s gaze out the window and saw a flock of sheep and spring lambs grazing lazily on his land. I can still remember the way their tails moved back and forth like windup toys as they ate.”
Grandfather turned off the engine and stepped out of the car. He walked to the back and opened the trunk. “I knew what he was getting from it,” Tom says. “We all did.” Grandfather came to the front of the car and without a word braced the rifle against the car door and started shooting. The sheep scrambled toward the broken fence, colliding with one another in their rush to find the opening and escape. “Your dad and I watched helplessly as they dropped, one by one. Our father had told the neighbor the summer before to keep the sheep off his property. Father only warned you once.”
“Father only warned you once.” Father not Dad.
Tom and Dad spent the rest of the afternoon dragging the heavy sheep bodies onto the neighbor’s property. Then they replaced the missing fence boards and reset the barbed wire. “Neither of us said a word. We had learned by then that talking only made it worse.”
Dad was in his early 70s when I asked about that day. He said he didn’t remember it. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, my reach for something more, he said, “But that’s how it was back then—a man’s property was his right.” He added, “If Tom said it happened, then it did.”
How could he not remember such a traumatic event, or one that at least seemed so to my uncle? We’re all capable of suppressing trauma. Maybe that’s what Dad did. Or maybe it wasn’t traumatic for him. I am saved by Dad’s faith in Tom. He trusted his brother’s recollection even if he couldn’t confirm it himself. That’s big. Dad wasn’t the type to take someone else’s version of an event as his own. He didn’t release control like that to just anyone.
The one story Dad did tell, that he told often, was his interview with the CIA.
It was the early 60s and the Cold War was heating up. Dad was twenty-six and living in San Antonio, working for the City Manager’s office. He says his heart wasn’t in it. He felt the threat from the Soviet Union acutely and feared the days of the United States were numbered. He flew to Washington D.C. and set up interviews with various agencies. He met with the Peace Corps, the FBI, and AID. None would hire him because of a childhood injury to his eye. His last interview was with the Agency, inside an old army barrack. The interviewer looked like a stern prep school dean. The man positioned himself behind a desk and in the corner sat a bird on a perch. Parrot or a toucan, Dad could never remember which.
Where had Dad gone to school? The man began. What had he studied? Each time he asked a question, he tossed a seed at the bird.
“That bird caught everything,” Dad said laughing. “Fastballs, curveballs, sliders, everything.”
When the man had exhausted his questions, he said, “I can’t tell you anything about where you would live or who you would know or what you would do, so why the hell do you want to join the Agency?”
Dad said he didn’t know much about what the CIA did then. “I knew they were on the front lines but that’s about it.”
He told the man he had no idea why he wanted to join. “You haven’t told me anything.”
The acceptance letter arrived two weeks later. And that was it. Dad’s future determined.
The story baffles me. Why did he join when the man told him so little? Why would anyone do that? It’s through my uncle that I’ve come to see how adapted to silence my father was. Not speaking, not being told information – that’s how he was brought up. When the tight-lipped interviewer said he couldn’t divulge anything, maybe it didn’t feel like an impediment. Maybe joining an organization that told him little wasn’t a stretch. Maybe it felt like family.
I was in my late twenties when Dad called to say he was retiring from the Agency. He said he wanted to teach.
“Teach what?” I asked, not following.
“Information gathering, the history of the CIA, things like that.” He seemed upbeat, like he was looking forward to it.
Just as I couldn’t imagine Dad talking openly about having been a spy, I couldn’t imagine him not being one. After nearly 32 years of clandestine work in which he was twice chief of station, twice chief of base, and twice received the Intelligence Medal of Merit, he was leaving. He was ready to remove his own cover.
Years later, I asked if it had felt good to do this, cathartic. He said it didn’t matter to him. “I got paid either way.” Again, that disappointed me. But I think it really was liberating to finally be open. Maybe his not saying so was a bit of old-habits spy posturing. Perhaps acknowledging the freedom he felt would send the message that he had lots to say or that he wanted to further unburden himself. It would invite scrutiny or make him appear unprofessional. Good spies follow orders regardless of personal preference.
Or maybe he really didn’t care one way or the other.
I asked him once if he had ever thought about how and when he would tell me and my sister he worked for the CIA. I was in my forties and we had been talking about family and his career, part of a writing project I was working on. I asked if he had ever made a plan as to when he would tell us. He said he hadn’t. “It’s not the kind of thing you can decide to say on this day or that day.”
When my father died in 2012, my wife and I traveled to Texas for his funeral. After the service, at a catholic church in College Station, where he had spent his last years teaching at the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, I met many of his students. People from different walks of life approached to say how much they loved my father and what a great teacher he had been. They told me how open he was, sharing stories from the field, and that he was a passionate teacher. I had witnessed him enthusiastically sharing his views of Communism or the Soviet Union many times, but open? That surprised me, even though by then he had been in documentaries, written books, and taught college courses. I listened as they acquainted me with a stranger.
Dad and Tom found their voice inside classrooms, first at boarding school, then college, and finally as teachers—my uncle as literature professor and poet and Dad as a specialist on intelligence gathering. My journey was less straightforward. I found my first therapist when I was twenty. She helped me name my feelings. I discovered more of myself through lesbian/gay liberation, feminism, by working for non-profits, and by teaching high school dropouts. Like my dad and uncle, I’m a teacher too.
My uncle is 82 now. I love hearing familiar stories and new ones. Every time he and I talk about his and Dad’s childhood, and I share from my own, we feel lucky to have learned to talk freely, lucky to have each other. The “Absher silence” I grew up with may have been a bit more watered down than my uncle’s, weaker maybe. Still, it took me years to let go of my own ‘Inner Fred,’ to trust that I could be myself. No alias needed.
LESLIE ABSHER is a teacher, journalist, and personal essay writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Ms., Independent, Greek Reporter, and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, California with her artist/comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.