Leslie Absher: Spy Daughter, Queer Girl
"A gut-wrenching portrait of a daughter in search of her father’s love, affection and attention, with Greece as a backdrop and the CIA always in the shadows. It is a cautionary tale about the effects of parental neglect, and ultimately a long overdue and touching reconciliation between father and daughter. I loved the book as a Greek American, a former CIA officer, and the father of a brave LGBTQ activist who may have felt many similar emotions growing up in a CIA family."
––Marc Polymeropoulos, former CIA senior intelligence officer and author of Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA
Leslie Absher knows the cost of keeping secrets. Growing up as the queer daughter of a father who worked for the CIA, she understood that in her family, there were topics that were not to be discussed. Absher also knows that there is value in speaking your truth.
In her debut memoir, Spy Dauhgter, Queer Girl: In Search of Truth and Acceptance in a Family of Secrets, Absher tells her story of searching for the truth about her father’s spy work while coming to terms with her queer identity. When Absher was ten, 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 cover stories made her suspicious.
She recalls thinking, “Dad was a nerd. How could he be a spy?”
When Absher was in her twenties, she learned that the CIA had worked to overthrow democratically elected governments and conducted torture. Shame engulfed her. She spent the next two decades in inner turmoil, not knowing what her father had participated in.
“At thirty-six, I only knew the bare minimum about his missions––that he started out working on the Cuban Missile Crisis, got transferred to Greece and after that Vietnam,” she writes.
Absher fondly remembers growing up in Athens, but struggled with the fact that the timing of her family living there likely meant that her father was involved in the famous 1967 Greek coup, when a right-wing military dictatorship overthrew the government. Weighed down by guilt and with the intention of uncovering her father’s complicity in the coup, she traveled to Greece to revisit places from childhood and research new sources of information. But this did little to resolve her central dilemma: was her father a good or bad guy?
While Absher worked to uncover her father’s identity, she was also gradually learning something new about her own: she discovered that she was queer. She describes moving to Boston for college and meeting Susan, a classmate with “the kind of smile she had been looking for always.” But Absher wasn’t ready to come out yet.
“If I kept going, did what I wanted to do––my other life, the forbidden one, would start,” Absher writes. “Everyone else seemed so certain about who they were, and all I felt was afraid and confused.” In addition to the fear of admitting to herself that she was gay, she worried about what her father would think. “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, coming out and even reconnecting with Susan, her college crush. And she decided that her life as a spy daughter was also hers to reclaim.
“I sensed a path opening before me,” she writes. “A new story. One that was fully my own. I was finally ready to tell it.”
Leslie Absher is a journalist and essayist. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Ms., Greek Reporter, and San Francisco Magazine. She received a master’s in education from Harvard, taught G.E.D. to high school dropouts, and currently teaches writing and study skills to middle school and high school students. She lives in Oakland with her comic book writer/lawyer wife..