According to the Lubyanka file, after my father’s arrest he spent 13 months in Butyrskaya Prison, where he was subjected to nine interrogations, one of them lasting all night. Finally he was tried by a military troika and sent to the notorious Gulag. When informed of his sentence, my mother resolved to stay in Moscow until his release. But Adolf Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. She had no choice but to flee. The problem was that she had been traveling under a false Canadian passport, and the U.S. State Department was hesitant to issue a replacement for the U.S. passport she claimed to have lost. Based on proof that I had been born in Los Angeles and was, therefore, a citizen, a special passport was issued. I was 4 years old.
The rest of the details came only last year when my long-standing Freedom of Information Act request turned up my mother’s FBI file. Hoover’s G-men, I discovered, had conducted a 13-year espionage investigation of her, stemming from the passport incident. Sadly, my mother died in 2007 at age 97, and I was never able to share the file with her. Throughout my childhood the life she could not tell me about lingered like a malevolent mystery over our small family. She could not keep a job.
She was constantly looking over her shoulder, conscious of the investigation. I understand this now, and I realize that the stress of constant surveillance, mail interceptions and surreptitious searches of our one-room apartment when we were out were more than her sensitive temperament could take. Undoubtedly, she was afraid of being charged as a spy and for using a false passport. My guess is that she was intent on protecting not only herself, but also my father — whose fate she did not know — and me, her only child. No wonder she descended into madness for a time.
The sense of a mystery slowly unraveling, of one secret leading to still more, is a common thread throughout these books; having a spy for a father, however loving, is about eventually acknowledging that you do not know the truth about your parents. And never far from the surface is the sense that a government sanctioned this betrayal — that somehow your own private life had become a matter of high politics.
In Richardson’s My Father the Spy, for example, we learn that during the Cold War his father, John Sr., was a “high-ranking” member of the CIA who had previously operated in stealth in Vienna’s Soviet zone. Later, he served as CIA station chief in Saigon before he was recalled as a scapegoat for Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge when U.S. policy was in disarray.
“His bitterness,” Richardson wrote of his father, “was the mystery of my childhood.” At the far end of this continuum is An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, by Robert Meeropol, one of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies for the Soviet Union. In a passionate defense of his parents, he relives the childhood trauma of being shunned because of his parents’ notoriety. Perhaps reconciling the tugs of loyalty to parents versus country, he asserts, “I believe that my parents acted patriotically.” While my father’s espionage was focused on Japan, not the United States, I hear echoes of Meeropol’s plea in my mother’s anguish.