Leslie Absher's 'Spy Daughter, Queer Girl'

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday March 14, 2023
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author Leslie Absher
author Leslie Absher

When Leslie Absher was ten years old, she asked her father what he did for a living. He responded that he was in the Army. Later he said he worked for the State Department. His rotating stories made her suspicious. When, during a family car ride, her mother challenged him to tell the family what he did for a living, he talked in circles, saying he "managed people." Finally, her mother challenged, "You work for the CIA, don't you?"

No answer. Absher's thoughts flashed to James Bond. Bond was portrayed as having endless cash and an enviable life. He romanced models on yachts, wore elegant suits, and drove sexy sports cars, nothing like her father.

She recalls thinking, "Dad was a nerd. How could he be a spy?"

"Dad kept his secrets to himself, and so did I," Absher writes. "Just like him, I lived a double life. One life had my queer self in it, and the other didn't."

Absher ultimately decided to tell her truth. And she decided that her life as a spy daughter was also hers to reclaim. The result is an intimate portrait of personal healing. She discussed her memoir in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

teenage Leslie Absher with her father  

Laura Moreno: Your story involved coming out of two closets. Do you agree that the CIA closet was the more difficult of the two?
Leslie Absher: Coming out of the spy daughter closet was in many ways more difficult than coming out of the queer one. When I came out in the late 1980s and earl '90s in Boston, there were support groups at local women's centers. It was a queer-friendly time even though so many battles were still to come like same-sex marriage and transgender rights. It wasn't easy to come out to my father, but I felt essentially supported.

But being the child of a spy felt quite lonely. There were no support groups and it felt to me like the CIA was a dirty word in left-leaning circles. So in that way, it was easier to come out as gay, at least at first, than it was to talk about what my father did for a living since it opened me up to judgment and criticism. I felt I had to keep it a secret.

Interestingly, I was interviewed last summer by Kathimerini, a prominent Greek newspaper. The article ran on the front page and described my process to come to terms with his role in the Greek military coup in the late '60s. My being gay was completely left out of the article. The reporter focused on the spy angle, which I understand, but coming out as a lesbian is also a huge part of the story and that wasn't included.

One of the things I love about this memoir is that it is very personal, and you really go into how you worked on yourself to heal through yoga and finding a good therapist. Do you have any advice for how young people can come to terms with their sexuality?
I feel like if you're a young person and you are struggling with anything, you need to find your advocates and allies. Adults who have been through what you have or are open to supporting you.

There was that campaign not too long ago of "It gets better" and I agree. Once you leave childhood, in many ways it gets better if you're queer. But I think no one should wait for adulthood. Find your supporters in your family, community, or in safe online chat groups. It's easy to feel alone while in the midst of a life transition but I guarantee you others feel similar. No one should feel alone.

That said, I live in the Bay Area Bubble. My rights are protected and will likely continue to be. This isn't the case in many other parts of the U.S. Look at Florida with its "Don't say gay" bill that bans public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity. I think young people have to stay safe, find allies and keep organizing for change. We all have to do that. We have to overturn these laws.

The Vietnam War had a very negative impact on the image of the CIA, but do you find that today's 'spy kids' are viewed as kind of cool, against the evidence? What responses have you received to your book?
What it's like to be a spy or the child of a spy is dominated by Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Spydom has colonized everyone's minds including my own.

author Leslie Absher  

In my 30s when I started to come out as the daughter of a CIA officer, I got very divergent responses, everything from, "Wow! Your dad was a spy! That's so cool!" to people giving me chilling looks and shunning me. My dad was either a hero or a villain.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a podcast featuring Stewart Copeland, the drummer for the '80s band The Police, whose [American] dad was in the CIA. The producers wanted a counterpoint to Copeland's point of view, which was pretty favorable. It was difficult to be the daughter of a spy and I struggled with the political and human implications of what the CIA did and does in the world.

I know a lot of children of spies now and most have responded really positively to the book. I think there has been a sense that I've sort of voiced things that are hard to say out loud. There's still so much secrecy. It's part of our DNA. We feel like we have to protect our spy parents so it can be hard to give ourselves permission to tell our stories.

And like all groups, we are varied in our views and experiences. Some are 100% believers in what their parents did, whether they know what that is or not, and some are more critical. I know spy daughters who are probably more critical than I am.

We would also likely agree that being a spy wasn't like the exciting Hollywood image of sexy cars and high-tech gadgets. My dad often talked about how tedious it could be. I try to make space for all of the experiences someone dealt with in terms of growing up the child of a spy.

Given the negative impact your father's work had on your family, especially on your mother —who had a nervous breakdown while he was in Vietnam and died of cancer a few years later — would you urge others to not work for the CIA?
There are lots of dangerous jobs; firefighters, soldiers, EMT responders, cops. I feel like working a dangerous job like intelligence work, a job that you can't be open about with others, is extra difficult. Speaking personally, having gone through the difficult journey of coming to terms with having a dad in the CIA, I myself can't really see endorsing it or recommending it to anyone. Life is challenging enough without adding all the secrecy to it. But I think it depends on the person and the family.

I recently did a speaking event with former senior CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos, a Greek American. He seemed to have been able to have a family in a healthy way despite the danger and secrecy of his work. He also has a lesbian daughter and so he understands the importance of living an open life. So I think it depends.

I often think of people in the armed services who serve multiple tours in war zones as having jobs that are just as difficult and dangerous as intelligence work. So I think it would be similarly hard to grow up in a family where the parent is in the military. But the secrecy does set intelligence work apart. It adds a dimension of repression.

I think the key is to have a family culture of openness and listening. My parents grew up in the 50s which wasn't known for its openness or focus on feelings. I think American society has changed since then. Marc tells me that the agency has made some shifts in this regard as well, and that there is more support for families now.

What are you working on now?
I write for Ms. magazine, where I focus on the political and social challenges women currently face here and around the world. I wrote about the misogyny Korean women have battled and the wins they've achieved, and the #MMIW movement that gives voice to the thousands of indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing in this country.

But my newest memoir project is going to be about being an open water swimmer in the San Francisco Bay. I want to share the experience of not wearing a wet suit and swimming in the cold, wild water, and how doing this sort of extreme thing helped me get through some recent traumas. The waves healed me. They still do. But I had to let go into them, too.

Leslie Absher will read from 'Spy Daughter, Queer Girl' March 18, 4pm at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, 3207 Lakeshore Ave. www.oaklandlgbtqcenter.org

'Spy Daughter, Queer Girl: In Search of Truth and Acceptance in a Family of Secrets,' Latah Books, $29.95 hardcover. www.latahbooks.com www.leslieabsher.com

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