I was a CIA covert operative.
First, I worked as a Disguise Officer, creating wigs and mustaches for spies, then as an Operations Officer — an actual spy like Alias’s Sydney Bristow, but without the killer wardrobe (much to my chagrin). I couldn’t tell my friends or family what I did for a living or where I worked. CIA spies use fake identities overseas, and I was no different. Often creating bogus stories to explain my absences away from home, I lived a double life for years, similar to The Americans’s Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings). Even though the CIA and KGB are portrayed as mortal enemies, the two spy agencies share the same kind of emotional stress and pressure that performing espionage places on its employees.
Set against an amazing eighties’ soundtrack (when was the last time you heard Squeeze’s “Slap and Tickle”?), last week’s episode, “Covert War,” examined the real struggles that spies face attempting to balance their jobs and personal lives. Elizabeth realizes that her need for love and authentic human connections may be overshadowing her deeply patriotic commitment to the KGB. As she talks with her mentor General Zhukov, whose life companion is a golden retriever, in a flashback, she begins to see that she’s creating a lonely existence for herself. The KGB designed her marriage for show, but it turned into a real one. Elizabeth knows how to live her fake marriage, but she’s afraid that her genuine emotional connections could negatively impact her KGB mission focus.
Being a spy — CIA, FBI, or KGB — isn’t a normal nine-to-five profession; it’s an all-consuming lifestyle. Accepting a position with one of the world’s most secretive organizations means stomaching dramatic sacrifices to your personal life. Spies work two jobs: their cover jobs and their “real” ones as actual spies. Typically, spies work 80-100-hour weeks, which leaves little time to parent a child (the Jennings’ daughter and son seem to raise themselves) or nurture a marriage. Espionage is stressful, dangerous, and full of deceit — factors that put an unnatural strain on any relationship. In order to be an effective spy, you have to be willing to put your personal life on the back burner to focus on the core duty of stealing secrets overseas. You cannot compromise your commitment to your job, especially when the stakes are that high. If you fail at espionage, someone could die, like Zhukov did.
Working at the CIA or FBI or even (as I could imagine) the KGB is lonely — and that loneliness is palpable. The Americans is at its best (and most honest) when it’s showcasing the dysfunction of relationships and how the duplicity of espionage can rip a marriage to shreds. Whether it’s Phillip moving into a motel when his fake marriage falls apart, Sandra Beeman getting furious with her FBI agent-husband Stan, who emotionally “checked out” decades ago, or Elizabeth grasping the realization that her training and patriotism couldn’t prepare her for a real marriage she never knew she wanted, loneliness is the only companion that these characters have.
When I left the CIA after six years, my Agency friends thought I was crazy. They couldn’t imagine a world outside of the clandestine white walls of the CIA. But while my colleagues were magnificent spies, they were shit in the relationship department. Those same Agency friends had shuffled from girlfriend to girlfriend (or boyfriend to boyfriend) and, in some cases, from spouse to spouse.
Toward the end of my CIA career, I experienced some of the same struggles as Elizabeth but coped with it very differently. For instance, I used words; she uses violence, vendettas, kidnappings, and beat-downs with metal paper towel racks in dingy bathrooms. I was exhausted from the lies, trying to remember the lies, and then keeping all the lies straight. I was finding it impossible to maintain romantic relationships at home when I was traveling out of the country for months at a time. I was making human connections with people who happened to be wittingly — and sometimes unwittingly — sharing information that was vital to U.S. interests. While I knew my missions were important, I felt a sense of guilt over this deceitfulness.
I asked my CIA mentor Doug for advice over coffee in the Agency cafeteria, which looks eerily similar to a mall food court. In his sweet, southern lilt, he said, “Emily, in 30 years when you’re sittin’ on a porch, who’s gonna bring you a glass of lemonade?”
I stared into my Diet Coke bottle, hoping the caffeinated bubbles would provide an answer.
“When you leave this organization, you leave with a cardboard box. That box will not keep you warm at night, it won’t help you raise children, it won’t give you comfort when a parent passes away.” Stoic, but with a tear flowing down his cheek, he told me stories of two failed marriages, children he wished he knew, and the day he chose work over comforting his grieving wife the day her father passed away.
We sat in the cafeteria hoping the government-issue plastic chairs could give us each some type of support. Tears rolled down my cheek as I muttered, “I get it.” Doug nodded with a soft, fatherly smile; he was my Zhukov. In that moment, I knew I couldn’t choose the cardboard box.
A few months after my conversation with Doug, I left the CIA. My friends now ask me, “Do the guys at the Agency look like Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne or Colin Farrell in The Recruit?” Sadly, the answer is no. However, I may have stayed longer if Peter Gabriel played in the background during my time at the CIA. I still long to work to a “Solsbury Hill” montage.
Now living in Los Angeles, I have the freedom to tell my friends and family how I spend my days. The only lies I tell are to my husband about my shoe and purse purchases.
Emily Brandwin is a former CIA Operations Officer (aka spy). She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes and loves to discuss Broadway musicals, tabloid magazines, and shoes. Oh, and she can still keep a secret.