‘Spy Daughter, Queer Girl’ Author Leslie Absher Opens Up About Coming Out To CIA Agent’s Father

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When Leslie Absher was growing up, her father was notable for both his presence and his absence – even when he was there, performing magic tricks at Leslie’s birthday party, his father never fully revealed himself.

Mike Absher was a CIA agent, which Leslie only learned about when her mother insisted that she and her sister know the truth. They had lived in Greece during a military coup and later his father was in Vietnam during the war there. (Leslie’s mother died of cancer when she was a teenager.)

As she got older, Leslie began to hide her own secret: she was a lesbian, which she knew her father would not accept. Now, in “Spy Daughter, Queer Girl,” Absher recounts how she had to investigate her father’s life and career to come to terms with him while learning to live openly as herself.

She recently spoke via video from her home in Oakland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Your father was secretive and distant. Did the CIA make him that person or was he naturally a good candidate for the CIA?

I think the CIA was a good fit for who he was. There was a family culture around silence and secrecy, and that fed it.

Q. Your father lied to you about things – like knowing a CIA member who seems to have broken with official protocol in Greece. Do you have any lingering doubts about your father and what he did or does finishing the book put that to bed?

I don’t stay up at night, but there is this gray area with the lingering doubts – not knowing will always be part of the story for me. I feel pretty clear about what he did in some places, but I have to live with an incomplete understanding. I’m sure he knew this agent and knew him well. And it wasn’t the first time he had misled me. The slippery, untrustworthy dad was inseparable from the dad I always loved. It’s strange.

Q. Did your research and experience temper your view of the CIA or just how you felt about your father?

I think it did both. When I started I had a black and white view of the CIA and my dad without much information. Then I waded through this investigation and tried to be objective as much as possible. In the end, I started to see gradations between different CIA missions – some were successful, some weren’t, but I could see more complexity. It’s not black and white anymore. I don’t have a quick and easy CIA clearance, but I don’t have the quick and easy conviction that I once had.

Thanks to this project, I met other child spies of the CIA but also former officers. I’ll even talk in Virginia with a former senior CIA officer, so I’m letting them into my world more, which is ironic.

Q. Do you feel like you need to be on your guard?

The CIA officers I’ve been in contact with and let into my life are pretty progressive people. The CIA is full of individuals and everyone approaches things from their own perspective. But I will always be a bit on my guard.

Q. Does growing up in the environment you find yourself in make it hard to trust people?

I had to make a conscious decision to let go of that bias, to always say, “What’s really going on here? It became a protective shield I needed growing up and I don’t need it anymore, but I’m always going to untangle it – getting away from that suspicious spirit is the big personal job I’ve done.

Q. You hid your sexuality from yourself and then from your father. Once you embraced who you were, how was it when he refused to accept or acknowledge your truth for so long?

It was very painful. It started in my twenties when I told him a letter and he rejected it. Then there was silence. I was really angry. He wasn’t accepting anything happy in my life, so I thought, “What good are you?”

I’m surprised I hung on the way I did, but I wasn’t able to pull myself away from him completely. We had our infrequent phone calls and visited every few years. I know my sister also very much disapproved of him not coming to my commitment ceremony to [wife] Susanna. He was such a compartmentalizer and he became more religious so there were things that shut him down.

My mom was more heart-focused – they were both culturally conservative people in the late 50s, but I think she would have embraced me, sooner or later.

Q. Are you suspicious of secrecy in general?

My overall life story is that I have done a lot of work to live an open life. That’s how I’ve lived most of my life now, whether it’s through the gay liberation movement or the feminist movement, that’s how I live. It was because of these secrets that I felt so confined and so I made the decision to walk away from living like this.

Q. Were there any moments of doubt about the writing of the book?

There was a shame I carried privately for years, an inner angst that I was a bad girl for investigating my father. I loved my father.

When my first article was going to appear in the Los Angeles Times, it said, “You can’t say this, you can’t write that,” and I had to keep giving myself permission to put it on the page. It was traumatic because it got big and it was a bit ahead of what I was at the time. It was a big risk and I felt ready to be denied again, like when I came out.

In the end, it is a story of reconciliation but it is well deserved. But the biggest transformation for me was learning to trust myself. I trusted myself to ask the questions, to kind of betray my dad by looking into this as best I could because I needed to know. Following my inner voice was my guiding light and although the end product was the book, the whole process set me free. I feel stronger now. I trust the story I told.

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