For those of us who grew up reading le Carré or Clancy or Fleming, there’s more than a bit of swashbuckling in these books. At times, there’s even an odd but palpable nostalgia for the Cold War cloak-and-dagger, good-vs.-evil spy game, and yet something tuned to another, different generation: After all, baby boomers like to talk about their feelings.
What’s common in these books is a tension in the children: What’s most important — country, family, love, honor? And it stretches across borders, from Britain to Spain to Australia. Did my father — a German working for the Soviet Union, while pretending to be Canadian and living in Manchuria — think about giving up the business when I was born in America? Did he realize that his death was something we might have to live with, that deception can be corrosive? There are lies your country asks you to tell and those that ruin the life of a kid.
Spy literature holds a special fascination for readers. It’s the thrill of being let in on a secret, the sense of sharing an adrenaline-pumping adventure, and the allure that the earthshaking global events we watch on TV are shaped (or perhaps prevented) by a few men and women operating covertly. But the narratives by children of spies add another dimension altogether. They overlay the story of their fathers’ — yes, most of them are men — exploits with the inchoate anguish of feeling excluded from an essential part of family life.
These memoirs read half like hero worship and half like the product of 15 years of asking, “Daddy, what did you do at work today?” and getting a lie for an answer.
Precious little attention has been given to the filial cost of espionage. Taber’s book title, Born Under an Assumed Name, captures the essential predicament. After she was born in 1954 in Japan, her birth certificate was registered under a made-up surname to avoid blowing her father’s cover as a diplomat — though he was a U.S. intelligence officer whose secret mission was to debrief individuals who had escaped from communist China and to recruit agents to operate there.
Her father’s life in the shadows and the veil of secrecy forced on her, she writes, dominated her adolescence and led her to write her memoir decades later. “Now and then, I sipped tiny tastes of my father’s clandestine activities — they were like the little sips of scorching Chinese tea my father shared with me from his glass,” Taber writes, “but I didn’t know that I was sipping.”
As 17th-century British poet John Dryden observed,
Secrets are edged tools
And must be kept from children and from fools.
It’s not just children, however, who suffer from the lies that result. Throughout these new spy-children memoirs runs a deep, persistent sense not just of trying to understand one’s father, but also of speaking for one’s mother — the unwitting or unwilling accomplice to the deception. Johnson’s The Wolf and the Watchman attributes his parents’ divorce at least in part to such strain. In my own case, the stress on my mother, Frieda, long after my father had disappeared in the Soviet Union, resulted in mental illness during the McCarthy era. But the real source of her terror remained a mystery to me even after I went to Moscow and discovered my father’s secret past. Spying in the family, it turns out, generates many riddles.