Leslie Absher. Spy Daughter, Queer Girl: In Search of Truth and Acceptance in a Family of Secrets. Spokane, Washington: Latah Books, 2022. Pp. iv + 249. Paperback $19.95.
Leslie Absher is the daughter of a man who worked for the CIA and of a creative mother who lived a life not untypical of women of her generation: she mainly followed her husband and adhered to his rules—until she finally doesn’t, forcing her husband to admit to his daughters what he does for a living, for instance (30). Readers who pay attention to the full title of this book will probably find it more satisfying than those who don’t. Leslie Absher offers us memories from a huge swath of her life, trying to come to terms with her own sexuality and with the legacy of growing up in a family full of secrets that implicitly or explicitly she felt had to be kept. As an out adult she launches a journey to determine more about her father’s role in the CIA, specifically with regard to the colonels’ junta that began several months after her own family started to live in Athens (1966-1971). She conducts a tremendous amount of research by reading books, interviewing eyewitnesses and other experts on Greece, there and in the USA, and making her way through hundreds if not thousands of pages of unclassified documents. However, this is not a history book, and readers who expect to learn more about the junta or the CIA’s role in what happened in Greece will be disappointed. That would be a shame because there’s a lot here to admire.
For starters, the author loves Greece. This love has the taste of the sadness of losing paradise, which is understandable given that the family was there for the years of Absher’s earliest childhood and that her family was able to afford an upper middle-class lifestyle in Old Psychiko, including enjoying many nice meals during excursions, throwing parties, and for child Leslie seemingly most importantly, employing the nanny “Anna.” Remembering her childhood preferences, the author admits that she “loved being with Mama, but I loved Anna too” (4). Absher reports further that Anna gave her a book of Greek nursery rhymes and helped her learn how to read simple sentences. One day when she sounds out a whole sentence on her own, she runs to Anna’s room in the house’s basement where Anna “pulled me onto her lap and listened to me sound out the words. When I was done, she gave me a hug. I felt Greek then, just like Anna” (4). I linger over this scene because it demonstrates the connection of being loved and feeling Greek, a feeling she’s going to lose soon after because her father’s work requires the family to move frequently.
Once the family returns to the United States, Absher acquires some bad habits, like stealing treats or consuming them in the grocery store on the sly. While she couldn’t explain why she did this to her parents when they confront her about it as a child, years later the author-narrator parses consumption of the treats as “trying to replace the home I had lost” (11). For years of her life, Greece seems to her like the place that can heal her. Accordingly, she relearns the language and spends a semester in Greece as a college student. This is an interesting case of you can’t go home again, because while, on the one hand, Leslie “goes native” drinking her coffee “the Greek way” and “wearing long black skirts, as if I was already a yiayia,” on the other, she constantly feels like she’s actually going to be unmasked as the “Daughter of an American spy!” (81). In other words, as much as she would like to be Greek, she can’t shake her own sense and even guilt for being related to someone who worked for the CIA in Greece in the 1960s. And this feeling that others can tell who her father is by just looking at her doesn’t go away during later trips to Greece. It actually seems to get worse.
The author is eventually able to add to her private affective relationship to Greece and to her personal sense of guilt-empathy with the suffering the US, the CIA and the colonels inflicted on individuals in that area of the world. At least as told in the book, it is from two Cypriot lesbian friends, Efi and Daphne, that Leslie learns about the 1974 attempted takeover of Cyprus by the junta that leads to the division of the island. For Leslie: “Their words were an avalanche of sorrow” (94). Images of divided families, lost homelands and especially of imprisonment and torture pain Absher and are a big part of why she goes in protracted pursuit of knowledge about what the CIA did or did not do during the junta. In a trip to Greece far along in her investigations, Absher does everything she can to try to be in the physical space of the infamous torture center in Bouboulinas Street, because she wants “to whisper a prayer there for all who had been harmed” (208). But those whom she encounters inside the building that now houses the Ministry of Culture, say that there is no one to take her on a tour and in any case “nothing to see” (208).
This idea of nothing to see is one red thread in the memoir, since in addition to wondering what her father and the CIA did in Greece, Absher suffers from trying to see what others, especially her father, do not want her to see. Uncovering how her father did his magic tricks serves as a metaphor for Absher’s larger search for the “real,” by which she seems to mean sincerity, genuineness, intimacy, and openness, more than the historical truth per se. Leslie and her sister Evelyn are certainly not the only children lied to about their mother’s health. Still, the account here reminds us of what damage adults cause when they try to hide important things like mental breakdowns and terminal cancer from children.
The search to be open and honest with herself is a big part of Spy Daughter, Queer Girl. Absher tracks in great detail her long journey to embrace her sexual feelings—“Does that make me gay?” she asks her therapist at one point. The reader can feel a bit antsy when she reports hearing herself rush to say next: “’Or maybe I’m bi’” (90). This reader felt a sense of relief when Absher recounts on the following page that she finally kissed a woman and declared at least to herself: “This is me. This is who I am” (91). Coming out to others, especially to her father, takes longer and has many painful turns in the road, for instance, the father cancelling a visit at the last minute when Leslie has assembled her lesbian friends for him to meet or the father’s absence from her eventual commitment ceremony to her first and refound love, Susan. Some of the author’s pain and awkwardness is surely due to the 1980s, the period in which Absher was coming into adulthood and her own sexuality. But some of it seems to have been made more difficult because of the early and profound training Absher had in obfuscation: “Dad kept his secrets to himself, and so did I. Just like him, I lived a double life. One life had my queer self in it, and the other didn’t” (98). Many of the negative feelings the author experiences seem to be due to this inability to integrate the self, or rather the multiple parts of her identity: the intellectual, the political, the playful, the feminist, the familial, and the queer sexual.
One trajectory not explicitly foregrounded in the title or by Absher and yet traceable throughout the memoir is that of coming into an identity as a writer. Journaling at the suggestion of her first therapist, Absher reports that her “hand tried to keep up as anger and sorrow raced each other across the page” (88). Understandably more unsure about going public with her writing, Absher enrolls in some creative writing workshops in Northern California, where she had moved so that she and Susan could be together. A particularly big boost comes when Absher decides to attend a workshop in Greece (coincidentally on Andros, the maternal home of this book reviewer), where the workshop leader, none other than the brilliant Dorothy Allison, tells her: “’I think it’s a book’” (135). The struggle of keeping her father’s secrets and being a good or bad daughter is played out powerfully in scenes recounted of going truly public with her research, especially with her first article in the Los Angeles Times. Absher’s father sees the final draft and tries to dictate to his daughter what she needs to take out. Calls come from his (second) wife and from Leslie’s sister to please not let the paper print it. Leslie reports: “I felt myself giving up, agreeing to everything he wanted” (218). She even tells herself: “You can stop this from happening. There is still time. You can pull the piece” (219). But she does not. Instead, she discovers dozens of messages in her inbox from “other spy kids” (220). My readers will have to read the book to find out how her father reacts to the published piece and the extent to which Leslie achieves what she’s been trying to achieve with her years of research about the CIA and the junta.
Before closing, I feel obliged to come back to the issue of Anna. Absher first introduces her as “nineteen when she left her village to come to Athens and take care of me and my sister” (4). Understandable that a child doesn’t think much about the lives of their caretakers prior to their interactions with them, but I think it’s more problematic for adults. How did Anna manage to buy a book to give to child Leslie? Had Anna’s own journey as a literate person been cut off by financial needs? How did she feel about leaving her village? And how did she feel about the room she had been assigned in the bowels of this big villa? None of these questions are posed or at least they are not reported to the reader as having been considered by the author-beneficiary of Anna’s labor and love. During one of several research trips to Greece Leslie decides to find the actual villa her family had lived in when she was a child. The current owner reluctantly agrees to showing her the garden and then the house. In a gesture that seems to surprise even herself, Leslie insists on going into the basement to find Anna’s room, and the author repeats the scene she had recounted at the beginning of the book (and I above) of reading while being held on Anna’s lap and her feelings of being loved and of being Greek. Once she finishes that slightly longer account, the author describes surfacing from the physical depths, rushing out of the house, and uttering a quick thank you to the owner through her tears (196-97). While the encounter with a place that can arouse emotions from the very far past is powerfully evoked in these pages, the thought to try to find Anna is only backed up with an hour’s effort (204-205). Even her mention in the acknowledgements is framed in terms of what she did for Leslie (247). To put it otherwise, Anna remains a prop in the author’s own drama. Given that the author has immersed herself for so long in US-Greek history, I am stunned by the lack of reflection on what Greeks might be or have been feeling or to take the more explicitly political, the class relations that imperialism inevitably imposes. It doesn’t make me more comfortable that a Mexican woman named Maria in San Antonio who helps when Leslie’s mother has her first mental health breakdown is labeled “kind” (13), and readers find out nothing about her life outside of the Absher household.
Dorothy Allison was right. The story of Leslie Absher’s efforts to understand what her father did or did not do, what he knew or did not know, IS a book. A memoir, I remind us. And one worth reading. It’s important, however, for the reader to register, that the author has retained the right that the great theorist of autobiography Philippe Lejeune explains. Autobiography implies a pact with the reader, with provisos that the autobiographer is honest to the extent possible, since we all forget, make mistakes, involuntarily distort. Further, the autobiographer promises to tell “the truth about such and such an aspect of my life, not committing myself in any way about some other aspect” (22). This is not a memoir that bares it all. It reveals little of the actual content of Absher’s research into the CIA and the junta and little about other aspects of Absher’s life like her own health. The book merits framing these absences differently: guessing about what isn’t told can be part of the reader’s pleasure—and secrets can be expected from the daughter of a spy, no?
Irene Kacandes is the Dartmouth Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature. Author or editor of nine books and scores of articles, she coined the term “paramemoir” to describe an experimental work she wrote about her paternal family’s survival in Fascist Occupied Greece, Daddy’s War: Greek American Stories (University of Nebraska Press, 2009).
Lejeune, Philippe. 1989. On Autobiography. Forward by P.J. Eakin. Trans. K. Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.