I've criticized the CIA all my adult life -- for its role in overthrowing democratically elected governments and supporting brutal dictatorships. But as a child, I had no idea my father worked for the CIA.
He was a nerd who wore black horn-rimmed glasses, a dark suit jacket and a tie most of the time. Whenever we referred to his place of employment, we just called it "the office." We moved around every two years or so for his job.
As I grew older, I became more curious. One day when I was about 10 years old, I stood before him, hands on hips, and asked what kind of "office" he worked in. He said he was in the Army. "The Army" didn't conjure "office," but it was an acceptable answer. Tangible. I pictured him as a soldier protecting America, marching in drills, bending over field maps. It didn't register that I had never actually seen him in a uniform. I wanted to believe him, and so I did.
Not long after, he changed his story. "I'm with the Defense Department," I overheard him tell someone over the phone. What happened to the Army? The Defense Department wasn't something I could imagine. I had no images of what it did. I saw a blank screen. But I didn't ask my father to explain.
Over the next couple of years, his job description continued to shift. The Defense Department became the State Department, then the Pentagon. His titles as an attache or advisor rotated even when we didn't move. Each time he rolled out a new cover story, he did so with perfectly still eyes. That's what made me think he wasn't switching jobs as much as switching titles. But if I suspected he wasn't exactly telling the truth, I was in no way ready to admit he was lying.
My awakening to the truth came during one of our weekly Sunday drives. At 12, I loathed being trapped inside an automobile with my parents and younger sister, but Sunday drives were a family obligation. That day, as my father guided our Caprice Classic down the driveway, something didn't seem right. My mother wasn't commenting on the well-groomed lawns, and my father seemed more restrained than usual. Did they have a fight? I stared out the window, vaguely aware of the strange mood in the car, when, unprompted, my mother turned to my father and growled, "Tell the girls what you do for a living."
My father's neck stiffened. "I'm a supervisor," he mumbled feebly. "I manage people."
Irritated, my mother whirled around, her eyes mocking, and asked, "Do you girls have any questions for your father about his work 'managing people'?"
I loved the tone in her voice just then. It was a tone that refused to settle, a tone that said, I have had enough of your secret. I didn't know why my mother had chosen to confront my father just then -- and still don't. Maybe she was tired of keeping his secret and of how it stifled their relationship and constrained our whole family.
Regardless, her nerve cheered me, so I assailed my father with questions and tried to pin him down to specifics, as he clung desperately to abstract generalities. Finally, my mother narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and said, "You work for the CIA, don't you?" I didn't have any real sense of what the CIA was, just a Hollywood version of it, as the world of spies.
My father said nothing. Staring straight ahead, he gripped the steering wheel as if it was all that kept him from flying from the car. My mother knew my father was in the CIA, of course -- she had to have known -- but instead of saying anything more, she dropped the subject as abruptly as she had brought it up.
For a moment, the door had cracked open and I had learned the truth: My father was a "spy" for the CIA. I was flabbergasted but, at the same time, unable to square my dull father with images of 007. None of us pursued the subject that day, or the following day, week or month. Over time, that moment faded almost entirely, until it became a dream, something I only half-believed (and barely remembered).
During the next four years, our family disintegrated. My mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy but wasn't able to beat the disease. After she died, I continued to march from school to home and back again like the soldier I was raised to be. I finished high school, applied to college and moved to Boston.
While I was in college, my father moved again, this time to central Virginia. The summer of my sophomore year, I went "home" to visit him. My father drove me through unfamiliar, remote parts of Virginia, turned onto a wooded road and pulled to a stop at an unassuming cinder-block gatehouse. I sat in the car while my father got out to discuss something with a uniformed guard at the gatehouse.
I was disoriented. Where exactly were we?When the guard motioned for me to get out of the car, I stepped out into the oppressive, muggy heat of that June day. Somewhere in the distance, popping sounds shattered the air like firecrackers. I looked down the road and thought "guns," but said nothing.
The guard ushered me into the low-lying brick building. Once inside, he lifted a clipboard from his desk and said matter-of-factly, "This is a CIA base. Everyone who lives here -- and their guests -- must sign a form stating they will not disclose this information to anyone." His words rang across the silence that had intervened since that Sunday drive. After endless shifting cover stories, I finally had confirmation of the truth. It didn't matter that it was a stranger telling me. It only mattered that I knew. I felt betrayed. All my life, my father had lied to me.
It was freeing to hear the truth, but, like that Sunday in the car, this moment too was short-lived. The guard stood before me, clipboard in hand, waiting for my signature. After I signed, the guard took a picture of me for the badge I would show coming and going from the "home" I could tell no one about. My father's secret was mine now.
That was more than 20 years ago. In that time, I came to understand why my father had to lie. Our relationship has improved and is still evolving as we talk more and more. He has since retired and, because he wanted to teach, has gone through a process controlled by the agency to remove his covers and change his status from covert to overt. He's now happy to share his secret of having been in the CIA. He teaches, gives interviews and lectures, and has appeared on the History Channel. He'll openly talk about his service in Vietnam or running the intelligence arm of the Grenada invasion, all of which he says the agency has declassified. It's ironic that after a lifetime of secrecy, he now enjoys "blowing his own cover."
After keeping my father's secret for so long, I'm free to disclose it. Yet, to this day, I still can't help but feel like I'm betraying him every time I say, "My father worked for the CIA."
Leslie Absher is a writer living in Northern California. E-mail: Lesabsher@hotmail.com