Roundtable

MFA vs. CIA

A writer considers an alternate life as an undercover agent.

By Jennifer duBois

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

IMAGE:

 “The Crow Spy Talks to the King of Owls and His Ministers,” folio from a Kalila wa Dimna manuscript, c. 18th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“A good spy is but the secret writer of all moments imminent.”
—Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker

When I was twenty-three, I was hired by the CIA. I was working at a Catholic school at the time, coaching squash and teaching seventh-grade social studies—which was funny, since I had never before seen a squash game before and was not even so much as a lapsed Catholic. I lived behind the school in a former convent where the only consistently functioning lights were a pair of glowing red exit signs. My prevailing feeling that year was one of intense personal absurdity, and it was in this spirit that I applied to the CIA (I liked international relations, and who knew they had an online application?) and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (I liked writing stories, and what the hell?). These things certainly didn’t make any less sense than coaching squash and living in a convent—though they weren’t really ambitions as much as gestures: reflections of my general hope that I would, someday, do something else. Each was something in between a dice roll and a delusion, a promissory note and a private joke to no one but myself.

Later, it turned out that this was a lot like what writing a novel would feel like.

 

In some ways, it is hard to imagine two paths more different than being a writer and being a spy. It is certainly hard to imagine two careers with more wildly disparate stakes. And yet there are parallels in the underlying qualities of their practitioners: an interest in psychology, a facility with narrative, a tendency to position oneself as an observer, and a willingness to lie and call it something else.

In The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, Frederick P. Hitz notes that one of the requirements of a good intelligence officer is “a profound understanding of human nature”—the ability to get into “the heads and the guts of a recruited spy.” Spy running often involves a carefully choreographed pulling of psychic marionette-strings: threads of desire and ambition, paranoia and greed, ideology and pragmatism—all unique to the individual in question and to the broader cultural and geopolitical context. Vanities and resentments are especially important, and CIA officers must play to these without ever acknowledging them outright (Hitz’s book offers a catalog of spies who were motivated, at least in part, by the most minor of grievances—and won over by the most minor of flatteries). Intelligence failures, like literary ones, tend to stem from failures of empathetic imagination.

We do not generally think of spying as an exercise in empathy, since its results are rarely benign. But insight into another person is a tool like any other (everything depends on what you do with it), and empathy forms the only springboard from which we can hope to access it. Spies must be empathetic in gaining understanding and ruthless in using it. In some ways, this is the real-world counterpart of the kind of empathy writers extend toward their characters. Novelists spend years conjuring fictional people—intricately constructing backstories, lovingly sketching minds—so that they can be made to react plausibly to whatever horrors have been planned for them all along. The stakes of this process are, in the scheme of things, nonexistent. Yet to be good at it does demand a non-squeamish imagination, as well as an aptitude for what Keats called negative capability: the ability to accept uncertainties, to sustain incompatible possibilities. This is an uncommon quality, I think—and like insight itself, much depends on how it is used. It lets us consider ideas we don’t completely believe in, inhabit perspectives we don’t totally endorse. It lets us linger too long in liminal spaces where we don’t necessarily want to stay.

 

A few weeks after I submitted my online application, the CIA contacted me for a phone interview. I was surprised by this—less by the fact that my résumé had passed some initial scrutiny than that somebody had read it in the first place. This, combined with the quick turnaround, left me in the very weird (and possibly unprecedented) position of being impressed with the honesty of the Central Intelligence Agency and the efficiency of the federal government.

The phone interview was brief and went objectively poorly. The request for written material that came a short time later seemed like it had to be a clerical error, though I wasn’t shocked when my essays vaulted me into the next round: an interview and information session in Boston (looking back, this is still the only step of the whole saga that really makes sense). At the information session, I met a young female officer who had worked in a country I was very interested in; another candidate bragged about his skills in the language, then became hilariously flustered when she addressed him in it. This exchange alone was worth the trip. During the interview, my one great triumph came in ranking the significance of various objects in a hypothetical scenario. In retrospect, it is tempting to call this a kind of storytelling—and in a way, this is precisely what intelligence work is: a blend of inductive reasoning and formally constrained fiction writing. It is intuitively appealing—and for me, appealingly benign—to make this the entire explanation: I was hired by the CIA because I’m a writer. But I’m hesitant to oversell this theory, especially to myself. Look at the available information and bend it into a plausible through line: this is what intelligence analysis is, yes. But it’s also what this essay is, which makes that conclusion feel a little circular.

 

I spent the summer after college working at a movie theater and reading my way through the CIA’s recommended book list. The books on the list were very good, it turned out, and contained an unexpected range of perspectives about the CIA, not all of them flattering. I was struck by this—that an employer would want prospective candidates to know the complaints of disaffected former employees; this seemed, once again, surprisingly transparent, and it was a long time before I wondered if that hadn’t been part of the point. At the time, I appreciated the CIA’s interest in having informed candidates, and I was increasingly interested in being one.

I was particularly interested in being informed as to why I was a candidate in the first place.

For a while, this was an extremely fun question to consider. The notion of actually being hired felt safely fantastical (which, statistically, it pretty much was), so the idea that the CIA might see some quality in me that I did not see in myself was exciting, not yet frightening. Particularly in my less impressive moments (cleaning the bathroom at the movie theater, scraping predawn ice from the windshield before another tragicomic squash practice), I liked to speculate about what these special qualities of mine might be.

Compounding my curiosity was the radio silence from employers in the normal world. I’d applied to dozens of entry-level positions (nonprofit and, God help me, print media) and could barely get a rejection. Though I was frustrated about this, I wasn’t really surprised. The economy was bad, and I wasn’t the sort of person who tended to really stand out, either on paper or in person. In fact, I couldn’t ever remember being overestimated before this one ludicrous example—though that’s a hard thing to know about yourself; other parties might beg to disagree. What is certain is that I was routinely slightly underestimated—I knew because people were always telling me they had done it. At the time, this bothered me a little less than I knew it probably should. It was not a good thing to be thought less than you were—the drawbacks were obvious. Yet it did seem one could learn things this way.

 

Writers and spies share an ability—and a willingness—to hide in plain sight, to deflect attention not only from the nature of their role but from the fact that they have any role at all. A spy obscures his relationship to events in order to affect them, just as a writer hovers anonymously beyond the page in order to exert her tyrannical, obsessive control. What is authorial distance, anyway, but a form of plausible deniability? This willingness to disappear is another difficult quality to gauge in normal terms—it seems to be simultaneously a form of delusional arrogance and its exact opposite. But writers and spies both understand its uses; in both cases, it is the vanishing act that enables the sorcery.

“The Three Ages of Man,” Dosso Dossi, c. 1515. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the fall, I began my teaching job. I wasn’t the only one to notice I wasn’t great at it. Maybe jobs aren’t for me, I thought, and applied to MFA programs. And then the CIA invited me to Washington, D.C., for a three-day interview.

As one does with unforeseen outcomes, I began to make a retroactive case for inevitability—not of my future position as a CIA officer, but of my present position as an apparently viable CIA candidate. For this, according to the CIA itself, was what I was—a fact too bizarre to be meaningless. I still felt almost totally sure I would not get the job—beyond the candidate evaluation lay a vast labyrinth of security-clearance assessments from which, it seemed, almost nobody emerged—but it was time to seriously entertain the possibility.

It was also time to reconsider the question of whether I actually wanted this job. In a way I had wanted it all along, of course, but more like someone who wants to go to space someday and less like someone who wants to leave for a mission to Mars in six months; it was an issue that needed revisiting in light of this new, apparently literal reality. Another question was the ethical one—heretofore academic or, at most, civic. I believed in the necessity of the CIA; I respected many of the things it did or tried to do and was, like all sane people, horrified by other things. I’d raised some of these issues in my initial interviews, but more as a citizen in a unique position to learn how she should regard actions undertaken on her behalf than as a person contemplating undertaking any particular action herself. Should morally alert people shun the CIA, or are they the very people we most need working for it? I’d thought about this question in the way I’d thought about a lot of questions—as a philosophy major. I was going to have to think about whether there was another way to think.

It is fair to say that I had doubts. But doubts, I reasoned reasonably, were not a reason not to go to Washington. Doubts were a reason to go and get more information. And maybe they were. But the bigger thing was this: I was curious.

 

Here is a common paradox of curiosity, in parables and in life: a condition of knowing the truth is to never, never tell it. When it comes to writing for publication, the CIA’s terms are stark: once you have been under their employ, everything you write for the rest of your life will be subject to their review and redaction. Some of the books on their suggested reading list included these redactions: blocks of black obscuring sentences or words. The CIA emphasizes that these redactions apply only to matters of national security—that a potential novelist would not, for example, be forfeiting her artistic autonomy for a lifetime, which is a question I think I actually asked—and, for what it’s worth, I believe this. But then, how could we ever know? Who would ever tell us? To be a spy is to permanently relinquish authorial agency in order to become the protagonist of a highly interesting plot.

While I worried over the artistic integrity of my nonexistent future book, other, more concrete trade-offs were at hand. Intelligence officers work under cover—either commercial or diplomatic—and establishing that cover begins long before you’re hired. People will want to know why you’re going to Washington, and why you’re going back again so soon, and why a security-clearance investigator is showing up at their house to ask about your recreational drug use. The application process had involved a few thrilling encounters with secrecy before this point—mailing application materials to an anodyne-sounding company at a P.O. box was a small highlight—but now I was going to have to actively practice it. The first step was deciding who not to lie to.

This was something applicants were encouraged to consider very, very carefully. I told my mother and my boyfriend (later, an alert friend quietly got it and never said so: for both of these things, I was enormously grateful). In retrospect, I’m a little amazed no one seemed to consider I might just be going nuts. I was twenty-three: exactly the right age for a psychotic breakdown. This must have struck me as an obvious explanation even then—one of my first short stories at Iowa a year later was about a man who recounts his recruitment by the CIA and by the end you realize that none of what he’s saying is actually happening and really he’s just going crazy. It was a first attempt at an unreliable narrator, I guess, though I’ve never liked that term. It implies that some narrators aren’t unreliable—and I stopped believing that around the time I realized that I was an unreliable narrator myself.

One might argue that all of this is just an elaborate way of describing lying—and I, for one, would not argue back. As Hitz politely notes: “Human qualities are called upon [in spying] that either are not overly developed in other people, or, in the spy or spy runner, become outsized,” including what he calls “a number of less admirable qualities.” Perhaps because of the common psychic schism underlying their life’s work, writers and spies tend to share a number of occupational hazards, including isolation, loss of perspective, grandiosity, and alcoholism (alcohol is “important for social lubrication within diplomatic circles,” Hitz explains, and an entire category of tradecraft is devoted to concealing its abuse). Writers and spies also tend to inspire related suspicions, though they differ (as ever, and by an order of magnitude) in degree. Both are thought to exist on some level apart from normal people, even while living in their midst. Both are known to have skewed relationships to consensus reality and predatory attitudes toward other people’s information. God help you if you blurt out your life story to one of these people at a cocktail party. Who knows what they’ll do with it? You don’t know who they’re going to tell. You don’t know how they’re going to say it. You don’t know who you were talking to at all.

 

Cover is partly about what you say—that you are applying for a job with the State Department—and partly about how you say it. I described my prospective position as “stamping visas”—making a point of sounding a little ambivalent about the job and embarrassed by the rigmarole, but excited about traveling to adventurous places (all of which was true). Then I’d change the subject.

But it couldn’t actually be that simple, could it? I asked this in one of my interviews (a few months after my first round of assessments, an invitation came for a second: dazed, I went). I was sitting across from a genial older former intelligence officer. I was still being vigorously invited to ask questions, which I did, though I was beginning to have the sense that my real questions were the ones not worth asking. Out in the real world, I said, was it really just a matter of changing the subject? Yes, he said, a lot of the time, it was: what people everywhere really want to talk about is themselves.

This was something I’d always suspected, deep in my misanthropic heart, but to hear it said out loud in this way made the observation suddenly useful: a helpful tip for all kinds of scenarios, not only those involving a security clearance. This is one of the things I learned that still matters to me.

Here are some others:

My first round of interviews involved the delivery of memorized briefings (mine were on the takeover of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia and the death of an important tribal leader in Baluchistan, which is another way of saying I had a subscription to The Economist). At the time, I had a phobia of public speaking that was crippling even before a civilian audience; from this experience, I learned that I could operate while terrified.

There was a battery of testing, intellectual and psychological, as well as follow-up conversations with the CIA psychiatrist. I learned that my psychological profile suggested a contempt for authority—which was news to me, since I’d never behaved contemptuously toward authority in my life, as far as I could recall.

But then: In a purely philosophical sense? Deep down? Now that they mentioned it?

One of the questions on the psych exam asked whether it was true or false that you, the applicant, had never wished to be the gender other than your own (there was a lot of such wording, because the test rephrased the questions endlessly, in order to catch discrepancies). This flummoxed me. Had I never wished to be a man? Were they kidding? Were they aware of the terms of being a woman? I left it blank. Later, the psychiatrist blinked at me over his eyeglasses.

“Rama Releases the Demon Spies Shuka and Sarana,” folio from a Ramayana “Siege of Lanka” Series, c. 1725. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

The most interesting evaluations were the ones whose metrics seemed to shift—you’d think they were looking at one thing, and it wound up being another. I had decent instincts in such situations, and even though they were confusing—and often sort of socially unpleasant—I obscurely enjoyed them (later, this shifting of terms would turn out to be one of my favorite tricks of fiction: the epic poem’s hijacking by a deposed king in Pale Fire). I found myself unfazed by the hostility and trickery they involved—maybe because it didn’t matter, or maybe because it did—and uncharacteristically unyielding, even assertive, under their particular kind of pressure. Maybe I did have the ability to enter an ethical morass and do the right thing, I thought—a reassuring idea in light of the ominous moral question still looming overhead.

But even then, I knew that the question wasn’t entirely ethical but epistemological: if I could never see the larger plot, I could never know what role I was playing in it. This is how novels break your heart (those final pages of Middlemarch!)—and thinking about this still haunts me. This does, too: If I didn’t know what a storyteller I was yet, who knows what stories I might have wound up telling myself?

The experience haunts my writing, too, in some respects. Some of this is pretty straightforward: espionage has a tendency to weasel itself into my novels and, once it’s there, crash a plane. There are quieter resonances, too. Many of my characters feel a sense of their unlived lives flickering around them; in my first few years of writing almost all of my narrators were men. As both a writer and a reader, I seem to possess a steroidal sense of credulity. “That wouldn’t happen,” I’d hear my workshop colleagues say later on—but the thing about things that wouldn’t happen is that once in a while, they do. And these make for interesting stories, if there is anyone to tell them.

 

My Conditional Offer of Employment came in the winter. By this point my surprise had settled into a queasy disorientation I wasn’t quite willing to admit was fear. My security investigation was launched; I met with my investigator—an amiable middle-aged woman—in a hotel off the highway. She asked if I had any questions, which by then I did not. I knew the investigation would be rigorous, and it was. Most COE candidates do not pass their security clearance and are never told why. But here, for the first time, I liked my odds: I lived in a convent, for Christ’s sake, and my rebellious streak was purely theoretical, according to official CIA testing.

The investigator interviewed my childhood friends and their parents, my boyfriend and his startled roommates. She asked them about my international trips and foreign national contacts and whether I’d been known to smoke marijuana and, if so, when (applicants who have done so within a year are encouraged, in the parlance, to “self cancel”; in retrospect, this policy seems less about screening out drug users and more about catching people willing to try to lie about such things on a polygraph). The investigator showed up unannounced at the school where I worked, endearing me further to everyone. She drove to my hometown, several hours west, to interview my mother. While I was there over winter break, a car tailed me for twenty minutes, late at night, through the deserted woods. Perhaps that’s the CIA, I thought, and thought about how those were the sorts of thoughts I had now. Sometime during this strange season, I got a voice mail from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop asking me to call them back.

 

This is where the story really ended; still, I was curious about the epilogue.

Iowa asked for a reply by April, so I waited to respond: there was no point, at this point, not to see how things turned out.  I realize now that this probably seemed deeply weird to Iowa—they called a couple of times to check in. A CIA HR person had been calling that week, too. She beeped in on one of the Iowa calls, and I hung up on the Iowa program director so frantically she must have thought I was deranged. The HR person seemed to think so, too, when I asked how one might go about turning down her job offer.

It turned out that you couldn’t, exactly—but you could “self cancel” via fax, which I did. I said that I was going to graduate school to study writing and that I hoped to reapply one day. I’m not sure why I said this: Was I worried about hurting the CIA’s feelings? At any rate, it wasn’t true. That was either the last lie I told as a candidate for the CIA or the first story I wrote for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

 

There are a handful of things I did not write about in this essay, though not because they would be devastating to national security. In another life I might have known true things and kept them quiet; instead I imagine untrue things and go on about them for four hundred pages. Some lives only get so many secrets. How many more might I expect in the one that I have chosen?

In the MFA program where I teach, I tell my students that suspense comes from the feeling that things might have gone differently. In real life, we call this free will—and just as in fiction, it may be an illusion. I’m grateful for it, anyway: this sense that somewhere out there is an alternate draft, that the story I am in now is not the only one I might have told.