Spy (n.): agent, asset, informer, infiltrator, scout, sleeper,
snoop, scout, mole, mule, operative, ghost
Spy (v.): 13th c., from Old French espier “espy,” expiier “to watch secretively”
Secret (n.): late 14c., from Latin secretus “set apart, concealed, private”
Secretary (n): from Medieval Latin secretarius, “a person entrusted with secrets”
I’m breathless at the conclusion of Homeland, giddy from the climactic scene. I gripped my chair and paced the room, gasped at times and held my breath at others, through the eight turbulent seasons that chart the chaotic bipolar life of sometimes agent/sometimes maverick Carrie Mathison. I binge, for the second time, on the 78 episodes of The Americans, a Cold War saga of KGB sleeper agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. Elizabeth (Russian name Nadezhda) is steely and unflinching, the more steadfast of the two; she keeps Philip from going soft.
I rewatch favorites—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Cambridge Spies—and consume novels that feature female spies, including Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, and William Boyd’s Restless. Real events are as enthralling as fictional ones, if not more so. Recent memoirs by former CIA agents Lindsay Moran and Amaryllis Fox recount harrowing ordeals with the CIA along with the toll on their personal lives, relationships sacrificed to duty. Unlike much of the male-dominated spy genre, we’re reminded by these women, as well as the fictional Carrie and Elizabeth, that when spies aren’t spying, they have lives. A reviewer wrote that Fox’s Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA read “as if a John Le Carré character landed in Eat, Pray, Love.” A former agent found it verging in the realm of speculative fiction. Well, yes, that’s the allure: both spying and fiction are predicated on artifice.
As a child, Lindsay Moran spied on her neighbors, rifled through her parents’ things, communicated with friends in secret code, lied with alacrity. She considered herself “naturally subversive” and always wanted to be a spy—getting into the CIA would fulfill her cloak-and-dagger birthright. I was a secretive and cunning child, but fearful, inhibited. I never entertained fantasies or had aspirations of adventure and danger. Over-cautious, even in my modestly rebellious teens, my risk-taking now is limited to jaywalking, eating raw fish, and skipping an occasional flossing.
I’m not a thrill seeker, an idealist or political extremist. In Why Spy? Espionage in an Age of Uncertainty, a former CIA director suggests seven possible reasons: ideological commitment, money, revenge, blackmail, friendship, ethnic or religious solidarity, and the game itself. A speaker at the International Spy Museum used the acronym MICE: money, ideology, compromise, ego. Lucas Romer, the double agent in William Boyd’s Restless, boiled it down to three: money, blackmail, and revenge.
I rule out these incentives. An illusory attraction to “the game itself” is mitigated by the knowledge that I don’t have what it takes to play. My fascination comes out of nowhere, and I’m not sure what it suggests: vicarious adventure or escape from everyday life; yearning for the danger and deception, glamour and excitement of these fictional heroes and villains and their real-life counterparts. The sleuth in me needs to dig deeper, to explore the objective and idiosyncratic aspects of my puzzling proclivity.
Online resources are abundant, but I opt for the printed page when possible. From 327.1247 through 327.1273, from Christopher Andrew’s KGB: The Inside Story to Giles Whittell’s Bridge of Spies, I scan six wide shelves of books about spies and spying in the San Diego Central Library’s second floor Political Science section. Biographies and memoirs would yield hundreds more, novels innumerable. My focus on female spies from World War I to present narrows the field substantially, and I leave with a list of titles and references, and just one book—a title in the new fiction stacks that catches my eye.
The women in the CIA clerical pool in Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept speak as one, a Greek chorus: “We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable. Our fingers flew across the keys. We came to the agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was ‘Can you type?’”
A few were singled out for extra duties after their regulation days at the typewriter. One spoke of “the power that came from being a keeper of secrets … more intoxicating than any drug, sex, or other means of quickening one’s heartbeat.” Another learned how to take a package from a passerby during rush hour, to leave a hollow book under a park bench, to slip a piece of paper into the pocket of someone sitting next to her, all surreptitiously. The excitement of her first courier assignment must be like having an affair, she thinks, and it never ceased to thrill, “like the moment when a roller coaster crests at the top of a hill and pauses just before it lets gravity pull it down.”
A secretary for the first decade of my working life, not too many years after the novel’s timeline, I was a keyboard whiz, exceeding a hundred words a minute. Seeing myself in this scenario adds a new dimension to my private fantasy.
Women can be armchair explorers, warriors, or quarterbacks, but, lacking role models, they’ve had to put themselves in the shoes of legendary men, real and fictional. It’s never worked for me; I never was able to imagine myself an Ernest Shackleton or Robinson Crusoe. As a budding armchair spy, neither Kim Philby nor James Bond captured my imagination. I sought muses and mentors for my flights of fancy.
Louise de Bettignies, aka Alice Dubois, aka Lili, aka the queen of spies, ran the most successful spy ring in Occupied France during World War I. They crossed borders, duped guards, switched identities, hid messages, smuggled soldiers, all at horrendous risk. Bettignies was captured and died in a German forced labor camp; others were executed, but they saved the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers in 1915. Their story was revived and recounted in 2017 as historical fiction, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.
The Gestapo called Virginia Hall “the most dangerous of all Allied Spies.” Hall, an American with one leg and a prosthetic named Cuthbert, served with both the OSS (now the CIA) and British Special Ops (SOE) and worked with the French Resistance during World War II. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for her heroic actions, then consigned to obscurity after the war, Hall has been exhumed by multiple biographies, the latest—A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell—being made into a movie.
Indian-born British agent Noor Inayat-Khan, aka Nora Baker, aka Madeleine, became the first female wireless operator to be sent into occupied France to aid the French Resistance. Betrayed and captured, she didn’t break even under the extreme torture and was executed at Dachau concentration camp. She too has been resuscitated by history, most recently in Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris.
I find these women and more. They’ve always been there, numerous and noteworthy throughout hot and cold wars, but their stories have been buried under layers of neglect like forgotten vestiges of an earlier civilization, awaiting the excavation that at last is taking place. Viewed as anomalies, rare and exotic, they were patronized and subjected to double standards until they stood out in some exceptional way (the old “backwards and in high heels” dilemma), good and bad. Say “women spies” and the first who comes to mind is Mata Hari. A Dutch exotic dancer in Paris, she was recruited with a million-franc bribe to spy for France during World War I, then lured by more riches to sell secrets to Germany. She got caught and was executed by French firing squad in 1917. She became the standard bearer of what’s become known as “sexpionage,” using seduction to gain information. The titillation factor and the lore, both fact and fiction, have overshadowed the intelligence work of female spies. In popular culture we’ve had the “Bond girls” and others who are inevitably compromised, neutralized, or killed off. Some say the sexism that historically saturated the field contributed to making women so successful at it—they were flying under the radar, less likely to be noticed and suspected.
FBI agent Kate Burroughs, portrayed by Laura Linney in the 2007 movie Breach, was a high-ranking operative on the mole hunt that landed infamous double agent Robert Hanssen in 2001. Burroughs was “one bad-ass, rocking Fed” according to Girl Spy, an online compendium, sadly now defunct, of both fictional and real, on-screen and in-print, good and bad “dames” and “skirts” in the intelligence game and modern-day exemplars. Aldrich Ames—Hanssen’s mole counterpart in the CIA—was tracked down relentlessly over the course of several years by agents Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, their deeds dramatized in The Assets.
Valerie Plame was a CIA covert operative outed by the Bush administration in retaliation for her husband’s opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A memoir and subsequent film, Fair Game, cemented her place in the pantheon. Now she writes spy novels. As does former British Security Service Director General Stella Rimington, drawing on her 25-year MI‑5 career. Since her retirement she’s authored ten novels featuring intelligence officer Liz Carlyle (I’ve just completed the eighth in the series) and an autobiography.
Girl Spy sums it up: “No one ever said that the CIA [or the FBI, MI‑5 or 6] was a bastion of female empowerment, in fact, sadly, after so many years, it is still quite the opposite, but the skirts who have had the fortitude to stick it out and carve out a place for themselves inside the Agency must be admired.”
The British Secret Service of John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy was a male bastion, but an important minor character was Connie Sachs—based on legendary MI‑5 Soviet watcher Millicent Bagot—whose work in Soviet intelligence and whose recall of people and events, even during the embittered alcoholic haze of her forced retirement, help George Smiley save the day. There again, in an imaginary life go I. My research skills and memory for detail surely would have passed muster and earned me a place in this otherwise unapproachable world.
Surrounded by creature comforts and protected by reality, I create a clandestine life in an alternate universe—time travel to an earlier, imagined lifetime—in which I’m recruited out of university because of my intuitive intelligence, like Amaryllis Fox, or by a crafty lover, like Serena Frome in Sweet Tooth. Or from behind a typewriter, like Irina in The Secrets We Kept and Juliet in Transcription, a scenario in which an undercover stockbroker, engineer, or football coach (I’ve been secretary for all three) woos me into the secret services, where my perceptiveness and proficiency separate me from the pack.
Elevated from clerical duties I sail through the rigorous training that weeds out the weak of spirit and sinew. My skills have prepared me well for tradecraft: I excel at surveillance and counter-surveillance, tailing, recognition, evasion, memorization, dead drops, lock picking, transmission, cryptography. I learn steganography, concealing a file, message, or image within another. In Mission Impossible III an operative hides a microdot containing a magnetically stored video file on the back of a postage stamp. Mata Hari was said to write between the lines of books. Josephine Baker, spying for the French Resistance, hid messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.
Homeland’s Carrie Mathison is Wonder Woman incarnate while at the same time an often unreliable and unsympathetic character. Despite her erratic bipolar behavior, her freakish highs and jagged rock-bottom lows, she’s intuitive and courageous, and excels at stealth. I like her ruthless streak too. Claire Danes, who inhabited the role, initially was intimidated by Carrie’s darkness and her condition but came to admire her intelligence, strength, and power. “I grew to really love her,” she said. So did I. I marvel at these fierce women, the chutzpah of Carrie and the others, in fiction and especially in real life—alter-egos of my submerged persona.
My fantasies are surpassed by admiration and awe as I contemplate the roles these women assumed and the challenges they rose to, the perils they met and overcame in the face of countless obstacles. They didn’t grow up wanting to be spies, but they reached for more than traditional paths allowed. It’s a world that wasn’t destined for me, but it’s one I can enter in my wildest visions, from the comfort of my armchair. It’s never too late to adopt role models.
Alice Lowe writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been published in numerous literary journals, this year in Bacopa, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, ellipsis, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), Superstition Review, and Whale Road Review. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables” and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, and she recently served as guest nonfiction editor for Hobart. She lives in San Diego, California and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.