Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA
“Life Undercover reveals the rewards that serving the country provide as well as the toll this service extracts with an intimate and compelling portrait of a woman who literally comes of age in the CIA.”
Amaryllis Fox’s memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, is aptly titled as not only does it chronicle the author’s youth—she was only in her early twenties when recruited by the CIA—but it also reveals the hidden costs paid by those who live their lives immersed in deep cover.
Bookended by the start and finish of Fox’s attempt to prevent a nuclear terror attack, the material in between is no less fascinating. Fox’s childhood seems the perfect breeding ground for a future spy: a globe-trotting father with an unknown second life, a quirky genius brother to challenge her, a mother who hides her pain by perfecting the façade of a happy homemaker, and an early tragedy when Fox is eight and her best friend dies in the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.
The origins of her future career as a spy are seeded in her father’s response to this childhood tragedy. He teaches her how to read the London Times, telling his eight-year-old daughter that, “You have to understand the forces that took her. It will seem less scary if you do.”
Fox takes this lesson to heart and spends the next two decades of her life driven to achieve that impossible dream of understanding, first taking the cash her mother gives her for a prom dress and using it to spend the year after her high school graduation in Thailand and Burma. There she works for an underground newspaper, prompting clandestine meetings in secret locations, and a trip to Rangoon pretending to be a businessman’s wife in order to video imprisoned dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. After a harrowing interrogation and brief detention by the military junta, she and her “husband” are able to smuggle the footage out of Burma.
All that before she even begins university at Oxford, followed by grad school at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service where she’s recruited by the CIA. Without disclosing any classified information, Fox provides an entertaining account of her training, including the kind of tradecraft that most readers are used to only seeing in movies. But what is truly riveting is the emotional rollercoaster that comes with working as an analyst, privy to the truth behind a multitude of impending threats, and then later as an officer with a non-official cover.
During this time, she is married, twice. The first is a short-term relationship that seemed easier to enter into rather than to explain her secret, second life to her boyfriend—mirroring her parents’ own marriage and the secrets it contained—and which quickly falls apart, wrecked by Fox’s deceptions.
The second marriage is almost forced upon her by the CIA when they want to send her on a long-term mission, which would mean either leaving her fellow-CIA partner behind for six years or bringing him along. They decide not only to get married, but despite being deployed overseas with little to no backup other than a covert communication device, to also have a child.
The middle part of Fox’s memoir will touch any mother’s heart. She seems in constant motion, flying from one assignation to another, all while breastfeeding and cradling her child in a swath against her chest, even making use of special concealment caches in her daughter’s diapers. She loves her baby, so much so that she convinces herself that taking the baby with her on missions to meet arms dealers and potential terrorists is the best way to protect the baby. But she also recognizes that even at such a young age Fox and her husband’s lives of deception have impacted the baby who refuses to make eye contact with Fox while she’s lying—which is constantly. “The harder I try, the more diligently my daughter avoids locking windows and granting me access to her soul.”
The greatest lessons to be learned from Fox’s experiences are the power of humanity to overcome the most hardened extremist’s heart—a weapon more effective than any military might. Fox repeatedly bridges chasms of religion, nationalism, and ideology with simple human gestures: reminding an arms dealer that working with her will help protect his grandchildren, sharing an asthma remedy with an al Qa’ida leader, asking the Chinese spy charged with reporting Fox’s family’s every move if she ever gets scared—and getting and giving an honest answer in return.
The price of a decade working undercover is evident as Fox’s second marriage fails, and she decides to leave the CIA. Perhaps she might have suffered less psychic trauma in her chosen field if she’d remembered the words her father told her when she was a child, after the suicide of her aunt: “I was so busy pretending I was okay, I forgot to check whether everyone else was.”
Life Undercover reveals the rewards that serving the country provide as well as the toll this service extracts with an intimate and compelling portrait of a woman who literally comes of age in the CIA.