The Children of Spies

A friend sent me a pre-publication copy of an article featured in the November 2012 issue of the prestigious journal Foreign Policy.  The article, by Peter Buck Feller, entitled "Declassified,"  tells the story of what he learned from his father's KGB file, and the common thread he found in other “children-of-spies” memoirs.

Feller describes reviewing his father’s file in Moscow some years earlier: “The file revealed that my father … a German national, had been an agent for the Red Army Intelligence in the 1930’s, before being arrested in Moscow in January 1938 during Stalin’s Great Terror….  He was sentenced to an eight-year term in Vorkuta, one of Stalin’s Gulag prisons north of the Artic Circle, where he starved to death in 1943.”

Feller’s father and mother were living in this country in the 1930’s when he was born, but according to Feller, “With a sigh of great relief, I learned that [my father] never spied against the United States.  Instead, his principal mission was to spy for the Soviets against Japanese-occupied Manchuria.”

Feller’s father’s intriguing life is only the first focus of the article.  It also addresses the author’s discovery of other books by the children of spies.   Feller refers to seven memoirs other than his own.  Three of them were written by the offspring of CIA agents, and a fourth and fifth were penned by the daughter and son of American and British citizens respectively, who spied for their governments during World War II. The sixth isn’t really about a spy. It was written by a German woman whose Nazi officer father was executed in 1944 because he took part in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  Finally, in the author’s words “[a]t the far end of the continuum is An Execution in the Family…” written by yours truly.

I don’t think my memoir belongs in the mix.  Feller mischaracterizes it.  He describes it as “a passionate defense of his parents,” but the book is primarily about me and the journey that led me to found and build the RFC.  Feller’s portrayal coupled with his quotation of my line, “I believe that my parents acted patriotically,” leads me to believe that he didn’t read An Execution in the Family, but rather read a review by a certain writer who could not see beyond my parents’ case.

Unlike the other authors, I did not write my book to discover who my parents were.  In some ways, my niece Ivy Meeropol’s film, Heir to An Execution, fits that bill more, because in it, she set out to learn as much as she could about her grandparents.

Despite these distinctions, I was intrigued by the issues he raised about the impact of parents’ secret lives on their children.  He writes that even for those parents who spied for their own nation: “There are lies your country asks you to tell and those that ruin the life of a kid … What’s common in these books is a tension in the children.”  He concludes: “Precious little attention has been given to the filial cost of espionage.”

I wonder if this isn’t making espionage-related parental lies too much of a special case.  Intergenerational relations become problematic any time parents feel compelled to keep significant parts of their lives secret from their children.  For instance, during the McCarthy period many parents hid their past or current involvement with the Communist Party.  I’ve read books by those who were traumatized when they discovered these or similar family secrets.

In other cases, militants who went underground to hide from the authorities or escape repression and then had children, may have kept their kids in the dark.  The more secrets parents keep and the more lies they tell, the more distance they will place between themselves and their children, and the greater the sense of betrayal their kids may feel when they learn the truth.

Experience has taught me that, at best, such secrets should be viewed as a necessary evil.  It is usually better for parents to be as truthful as possible with their children as soon as they can.  The more open and loving parents are, the more likely it is for them to have positive relationships with their children.

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