Living in the Shadow of a Spy
It’s a choice for the parent but not for the kids — we’re born into secrecy
Years ago, I learned Stewart Copeland (drummer for ‘80s rock band The Police) had a dad in the CIA. I felt an instant kinship. It’s a unique club, the spy child one. We have more members than you might think, but not everyone talks. Actually, few do. Every time I listened to a song of theirs, I thought about Copeland. I wondered what it was like for him. Was it similar or different from my own experiences growing up with a CIA dad?
Things got a touch surreal when a London-based producer approached me recently to be interviewed for a podcast about Copeland and his dad. The show wanted a counterpoint to Copeland’s take on having a spy parent, which was generally positive. They had read some of my essays and thought I would have something different to say.
I can only ever tell my side of things — my story — but I said I’d be happy to share. What I didn’t say was how relieved I was to see the kids getting some attention. We tend to be stuck behind the scenes, living in the shadow of our spy parent, in my case, my dad. It can be hard to feel heard. And seen.
Especially given the proliferation of Hollywood myths about spydom — car chases, shootouts, gorgeous location shots. What they all have in common is that they have little to do with actual intelligence work. My father told me that spy work was often tedious: “There are a lot of reports you have to write.” I can believe it. Hollywood doesn’t usually get what it’s like to be a spy right, which means it never accurately captures what it’s like to be the child of one.
And seeing all the spy content now available is weird. I never get used to it. It’s like knowing that there’s this huge story out there that seemingly touches on my life but that in truth bears little resemblance to it. Like I said — weird.
So when Audible Book’s podcast My Dad the Spy was released in the U.S. last week, I was encouraged.
Copeland and his siblings were getting a chance to report on their experiences first hand; the series wasn’t going to just tell the spy’s side of the story. This time it was all about the kids. When the point of view changes, interesting things come to light.
Like how Copeland and his sister, Lennie, found out their dad was a spy in the first place (hint: it wasn’t from their father). They had always been told their father was a businessman, something they accepted — that is until a friend came running up to Lennie, a teenager at the time, waving a book their Dad had published about his work as a spy.
“Your dad’s a spy,” the friend announced breathlessly.
Their father had published a whole book about who he really was and what he really did without saying a word to them.
But then my dad wasn’t the one who told me either.
I was in college and had just come back from a semester abroad. Dad picked me up from Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia and said he was taking me to his new house. We chatted on the car ride and everything seemed normal until he pulled up to a small guardhouse in the woods. I wondered where we were but didn’t say anything. That’s a spy-child thing. Don’t question. Go with silence.
Dad got out of the car to talk to the guard. A minute later the man waved for me to get out of the car. I stepped into the muggy late summer afternoon. Somewhere in the distance, I heard popping sounds. Were those guns? The man ushered me into the room, lifted a clipboard from his desk, and said matter-of-factly that this was a CIA base and that everyone who lived there had to sign a form saying they wouldn’t disclose this information to anyone.
Before that moment, Dad said he was with the State Department or the Pentagon or the Defense Department. I had always been suspicious and unsure. Why all the different titles? Now I knew. And it felt good. It didn’t even matter that it was a stranger telling me this. It just mattered that I was finally being told.
But then I noticed the guard was waiting for my signature promising to keep my father’s secret. I signed the form, my head spinning.
Strange is how the Copelands describe their upbringing. Sure, it was full of luxury — getting to travel and live internationally — but it was also a bit crazy. Unexplained things happen in spy families.
Like the story about how a Persian rug in the Copeland household came to be full of bullet holes. Was that just one of their dad’s tall tales or were the bullet holes actually connected to an orchestrated mission?
Strange things happened at my house too.
Like the night my dad left the house in a hurry around midnight, saying, “Do not, under any circumstance, answer the phone. Don’t pick it up. You got that?” I was fourteen. I don’t remember if it actually rang while he was away. What I recall is wondering why I shouldn’t pick it up. And what would have happened if I did?
And like a few years later, when as a freshman in college Dad called to tell me the U.S. was about to invade the Caribbean island country of Grenada. “I’m telling you before it hits the news so you know where I am and how to reach me,” he said. He gave me the phone number for a hotel on Barbados. Hours later I watched footage of the invasion in the dorm lounge and pretended I was learning about it for the first time like everyone else. It’s just what you do as the child of a spy. You pretend.
Copeland and I have unusual experiences like these in common, but one thing that strikes me is how different our dads were.
Copeland’s dad liked to tell stories, bending events from his career into entertaining anecdotes. My dad, on the other hand, was by the book. He retired from the agency, taught at universities, and published books about being in the CIA too. But his accounts read more like history and less like novels. Copeland’s dad seemed to love talking about the CIA. He made it sound exciting. My dad, on the other hand, was always changing the subject and trying to make being a spy sound boring.
Nevertheless, there’s one story my dad did tell — and it was far from boring.
Unlike Copeland’s father’s interview, which included background checks and a battery of psychological tests, Dad’s interview with the CIA involved a guy who looked like a stern prep school dean (probably a former OSS officer) and a brightly colored bird. My Dad could never remember if it was a parrot or a toucan.
It was 1962 and my dad was working in the city manager’s office of San Antonio, his hometown. But the Cold War was heating up and he felt like the days of the U.S. were numbered, so he flew to D.C. and set up a series of interviews. His last was with the man and the bird inside an old Army barrack.
Dad said the man began with typical questions — where had he gone to college, what had he studied — but each time he asked a question he tossed a sunflower seed from a mound in his palm to the bird.
“That bird caught everything — fastballs, line drives, curveballs,” Dad said, laughing.
The man said he couldn't tell my father anything about what he would be doing or where he would live. “So why the hell do you want to join the Agency?”
“I have no idea. You haven’t told me a thing,” was my father’s reply.
Two weeks later, Dad got his acceptance letter. That was it.
I think of that moment and how it set the course for our family. It surprises me too, to see my twenty-something father undecided and open. Joining the CIA hadn’t been a calculated act. More like a giant leap of faith. The decision that determined his life and shaped so much of mine was the result of happenstance — a random interview with a guy and a bird. So different from Copeland’s dad.
But that’s the point. There’s no single kind of spy just like there’s no one type of spy family.
Whenever I am contacted by other children of spies, usually in response to something I’ve written, they tell me their story. Then they tell me not so share it with anyone. In many ways, the children of spies hold the secret more deeply than the spies themselves. After all, the spy joined the agency of their own volition. It was a job and at some point, they retired. But children of spies are born into secrecy. It’s not a job for us. It’s our childhood. Sharing it can feel like a betrayal.
Stepping out of the shadows as a spy kid is a good thing. At least it is for me. I feel lighter and at the same time more grounded. My childhood wasn’t exactly like Stewart Copeland’s — or other children of spies — but that’s okay. At least the kids are talking. And being heard.
That’s a good start.