The prologue of Leslie Absher’s new memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl sets the stage for the central conflict of the story: The author sits across from her father in a restaurant in a tense standoff. Neither yields, nor shows their hand.
Her father’s gaze returns again and again to a blank television screen; they cannot connect.
The author has lived a life shrouded in secrets—secrets she never asked to keep, secrets that alter the course of her life, shape her world view, and corrode her most intimate bonds, specifically that which she shares with her father, Mike Absher. This isn’t a story about secrets, but rather a testament to what happens when one commits to unwinding those secrets. The very nature of memoir is to reveal and make vulnerable—which is a perfect subversion of another type of work: spying for the CIA.
Spy Daughter, Queer Girl begins as a typical memoir, describing an atypical life. We follow Absher through the earliest memories of her childhood in Athens, Greece, which she calls her first home, and later throughout the United States, where she moves often—sometimes because of her father’s mysterious, unnamed job, sometimes because of her mother’s illnesses, both psychological and physical, which are also cloaked in secrecy.
Absher describes a difficult and often sad childhood—punctuated in adolescence with the devastating loss of her creative, loving and outspoken mother to breast cancer, as well as the confirmation of what she has suspected for years: that her father works covertly as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Readers can imagine the heartbreak of this young woman, contending with loss and betrayal of this magnitude in a world where she already feels adrift as closeted gay teenager. Knowing that her remaining parent is a furtive, Cold War–era spy who either cannot or will not connect to his own children made me grieve for young Leslie and all young people like her who must carve out their own safe places when the adults in their lives don’t do it for them.
After following young Leslie from country to country, state to state, and eventually landing in Boston, the memoir begins to feel like more of an investigative thriller. As Leslie develops her own world view and political identity, she begins to piece together her personal history with that of United States foreign policy. The resulting questions haunt Absher and foment anger around what role her father may have had in the Greek junta (the right-wing military overthrow that resulted in a repressive dictatorship in Greece from 1967 to 1974). As she sets out to write the book, we watch the project evolve as the writer discovers what she is truly after.
The impulse that propels Absher’s research forward is a desire for truth. We sense, with anticipation, that each research trip to Greece, each interview with her father, each document might finally reveal a definitive answer that will make it clear who was right and who was wrong. What we get instead is not a dossier of state secrets damning her father as complicit in the torture of innocent civilians, nor absolving Absher of her long-standing sense of shame—but something much more compelling and profound: a sense of self beyond the restrictive nature of family as well as a nuanced and evolved acceptance of a complicated parent.
Absher the journalist finds some answers, but Absher the daughter discovers a truth that sets her free. The growth is mutual, but it is Absher’s ability to witness her father’s attempts at connection that illustrate an almost radical degree of compassion. We follow Leslie on a dogged journalist’s mission that bleeds into her personal life and at times borders on obsessive fixation only to watch it fall away, as a nuanced relationship comes into focus.
At this point I must show my own hand by sharing that the author and I have a lot in common: I too was an American living overseas as a child, I too contended with a family culture of secrecy and shame, and my father also worked covertly for the CIA. Absher’s book struck a highly personal chord for me, and it was often difficult not to exclaim out loud as I read, “Wow, her too?!”
Another thing we have in common is that I also wrote a memoir about coming of age with this specific type of secret. All families have secrets, but not all of them are state-sanctioned. What struck me as a fellow spy-daughter and memoirist is the metanarrative nature of Absher’s memoir, enhanced by the fact that she could not have written a work more antithetical to the nature of her father’s. And this is ultimately what creates a bridge back to him.
Spy Daughter, Queer Girl is a book of paradoxes. We watch young Leslie position herself in direct opposition to man whose values she ostensibly opposes while using the same spycraft her father models to hide her own secret identity.
Later on as a journalist intent on exposing her father’s secrets, she again mirrors his life’s work: collecting information, covertly soliciting details to use against her subject. She is defensive of Greece as a country and ashamed of what her father may have done to the Greek people, for whom she feels profound love and attachment. But this devotion to that place is a gift from the very man she would defend it against. In many ways she views her father as the enemy, but as the memoir develops, we see their lives and passions shift into a place where connection is possible. I found the passages where Absher and her father speak to each other in Greek to be quite moving: the ability to speak to each other in a foreign language, the shared love of a place neither can claim.
Spy Daughter, Queer Girl is succinctly written, gorgeously rendered, and emotionally illuminating. One could describe it as part memoir, part spy thriller, but it also has a wider scope: It brings to life a micro-history of being young and gay in America in the ’80s.
It is also a story about a woman finding her creative voice when she was expected to keep quiet. At times it’s also a glittering travelogue and love letter to the people of Greece. Woven in is an epic love story with her now wife, Susan. And perhaps, above all, it is a book about how the process of becoming a writer allowed the author to create and discover an identity, one that is both tied to and transcendent of a painful family history.
That Absher can fold in this spectrum of experience is a testament to her skill as a memoirist, as well as the power of memoir itself.
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