Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sara Mansfield Taber on Airing Secrets

The Washington Independent Review of Books just published another author Q&A I did, this time with Sara Mansfield Taber, author of Born Under an Assumed Name. I did not get to read her answers to my questions before they were published (they were submitted via her publicist), so oddly enough, even though I "did" the interview, reading it was a fresh experience for me.

In Born under an Assumed Name, Taber explores what it means to be American. Born in Japan, her early childhood is spent on the colorful streets of late 1950s and early 1960s Taiwan, where her father works for the CIA. Living in China cements in her a love of all things Asian, and when she spends her late teenage years in Japan, she feels at home. And yet, she is more foreign there than ever, while she does fit, at least appearance-wise, into the suburban D.C. neighborhoods where the family is relegated between her father’s assignments.

The memoir details her coming of age and her father’s career which slowly takes its toll. Secrets, machinations that cost other people their lives, weigh heavily on her father’s soul. In her stunningly poetic language, Taber examines what it means to live between cultures because of an organization that proves increasingly dangerous and unreliable, and to eventually make peace with a past fraught with unsettling decisions.

A particular benefit of this interview is that Taber also teaches writing, and so her answers were particularly astute when it came to the challenges of writing memoir. Here's her answer to my question about airing secrets:

Annette Gendler: The power of secrets is one of your main themes. Do you feel writing a memoir helps in airing secrets? And why is it important to do so?

Sara Mansfield  Taber: Secrets hold great power and almost call out for exposure. The whole issue of secrets and secret-keeping is a knotty and interesting one to me. Are secrets allowed? In individuals? In government agencies? In countries? When are secrets damaging and when might they be beneficial or even essential? Huge questions. I suspect that secrets and secrecy are of keen and inherent interest to many of us who have grown up with parents living under cover or engaged in secret intelligence work. I also posit that the secrecy that is practiced in a spy’s family is of a particular and odd kind, in that there can be a kind of thrall in which the family and children are held. This thrall leads some to cleave to the mystery, thrill and secret-maintenance, and others, like me, to poke about in it.

Of course, much memoir writing is a search to uncover the truth: to find out a secret or to air known but un-uttered secrets. The secret that is sought might simply be “Who am I?” or it might be “What was my father up to when he slipped away at night?” To find these things out can be essential to one’s sense of oneself, one’s understanding of one’s heritage or the direction one takes in life. A secret that needs to be aired often is a secret that has in some way caused harm. This sort of secret might be one of child abuse or incest or alcoholism — secrets that often keep the secret-holders trapped or confined in some way.

As for the secrets in spies’ families, there is, most fundamentally, the big secret of the parent’s concealed work. That may not be too problematic in itself. But a life of lying, concealment and secrecy, and the associated required stoicism and silence, can have long-term inhibiting effects on spies and their families. In my case, I wanted to air my father’s secret and examine his life as a spy because he suffered from the lying, secrecy and silence required by his job, and consequently, so did the rest of the family. I wanted to break the silence, to point to the subtle or stark harm that can sometimes be caused to families and the spies themselves by life in the CIA. Secrecy and silence can become a habit that works against emotional openness and human connection. As a CIA family, we were supposed to be stoics, and maintain face even while we were under stress and while a lot was going on under the surface. This was a secret I wanted to release: to say out loud that stoicism and silence can hinder rather than abet human intimacy and joy. I wanted to break the silence: to write about the emotional story, the untold story underneath the beguilement and glamour of Hollywood tales of intelligence work.

To answer your question, yes, of course, writing a memoir facilitates the airing of secrets. That is often its basic purpose. I should add that not all secrets should be revealed. It is essential that some secrets be kept secret. To air the surname under which I was born would break a trust and might put people I don’t know in danger, for instance. Which secrets should be aired and which not is a fascinating question.

Read the entire interview here.

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