Author Q&A: Sara Mansfield Taber

  • July 24, 2012

Q&A with Sara Mansfield Taber, Author of the new memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name.

Q&A with Sara Mansfield Taber, Born Under an Assumed Name

by Annette Gendler

In her memoir Born under an Assumed Name, Sara Mansfield 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.

First of all, I would like to tell you that yours is the kind of book whose stunning poetic language had me reading with my pencil out, ready to underline phrases I loved, such as “the disturbance inked itself into my brain.” Do you think your life growing up among so many colorful cultures heightened your talents of observance and expression?

I am happy that you enjoyed the figurative language in the book. I have never thought about the effects of my life abroad specifically on my use of words, but yes, of course it is the case that growing up amongst so many different tastes and sights and smells awakened my senses quite young. The stink of the Taipei fish markets, the springy texture of the moss of Japanese temple gardens, the taste of Dutch cocoa, the beeping clamor of the Saigon streets and the riotous floral colors of Bornean batik were unavoidable, seductive and delicious. The shifting, swirling worlds around me were a feast that made me want to gaze and listen and sniff forever, and then write it all down!

The title of your memoir is brilliant in that it suggests a spy novel of great suspense. And yet the issue of the family’s name is explained early on and then seems to carry little significance throughout the book. What made you choose that title?

The original title for the book was “American Girl,” and I still feel that is a good title for the book because the book is steeped in the question of what it means to be an American. As the book came nearer to publication, though, people pointed out to me that to call it that would summon to mind the Pleasant Company’s American Girl dolls.  The title had been claimed really, and in quite an over-powering way. Once it seemed I needed another title, I conjured pages of alternatives, and, as a writer must, looked for a title that would both point toward the story’s heart and entice readers to open the book. My editor also had a hand in the choice.  Born Under an Assumed Name seemed and still seems to me a meaningful and apt title because the book is all about identity and about the different identities I assumed as I sought to be a gracious “diplomat’s daughter” and “little ambassador for America,” as I moved to and —chameleon-like — tried to fit into culture after culture, and as I struggled to figure out who I was at the deepest level. As you know from reading the book, it took a dramatic psychiatric crisis to clarify my sense of myself. Furthermore, I was, in fact, born under an assumed name, and my father’s whole life was under cover — to his detriment — and his life under a difficult assumed identity, as I hope the book shows, had an enormous effect on him, and thus on me, his daughter.  There are more relevant connotations to the title as well, I think.

While your book is essentially a coming-of-age story as it follows the narrator from age 7 to 17, it also contains many flash forwards, and many musings on the narrator’s current state of mind, that often take the reader out of the main narrative. What made you settle on this structure?

The writer Sue William Silverman has written about memoir as including “the voice of innocence and the voice of experience.” In this memoir, I very much wanted to convey both the up-close experiences of a young girl growing up as a spy’s daughter in many different countries, and the perspective on all of it by the grown woman that the girl became. I wished to depict the naïve and innocent point of view of a girl watching her father — and not knowing her father was a spy or having a clue as to what was going on — and also the understanding and increased knowledge I have now, as an adult, of what happened. The factual knowledge I possess as to my father’s work is still very limited, of course — my father was a spy engaged in top-secret work, after all! — but I think the adult outlook sheds light on what the girl was seeing and going through, and on what the father was up to. Kids don’t and can’t know how to think about what they are going through, or give it meaning. They just live. The adult looking back can give meaning to the child’s life.

Basically, I wanted to give the reader the growing girl’s experience and also what I now make of it all. I hoped readers would be interested in both the child’s open and wide-eyed take on her father and the world, and in that of the hopefully wiser grown-up who has thought very hard about the trials and ordeals of her childhood, as well as about her sensitive father, the meaning of intelligence work and about America’s role in the world. For these reasons, the childhood scenes are sometimes followed by jumps-forward or passages of musing. While these elements might take the reader out of the unfolding story at times, my hope is that the illumination they bring enhances the story. Developing the “composite voice” often essential to memoir is always a challenge and entails tough choices. Many readers have written to me to say they have appreciated both the child’s eye point of view and the insights put forth in the book.

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?

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.

The narrator realizes early on that her father is up to things in his work that are important, dangerous and not to be talked about. Yet I would contend most kids grow up with a rather fuzzy idea of what their fathers do at the office. Why was it so important to this narrator to know what her father was doing?

I totally agree that perhaps most children grow up with only a vague idea of what their fathers are up to, and have questions about what their fathers do or did. Perhaps what gave these questions special urgency for me was that my father did do work that had to be kept secret, and because his work was complicated, morally fraught and caused him much anguish.  My father’s silent suffering made me want to figure out what had happened to him. Also, spying is inherently an ethically problematic enterprise, and I needed to grope my way through it and figure out what I thought about intelligence work and especially covert action. I haven’t completely sorted this out, of course, since it really is an endless question, but writing the book helped me along the way.

Your book has two protagonists, you and your father. Did you consider writing a biography of him instead? What made you choose memoir?

The writing of this memoir had many phases and iterations along the way. I started writing the memoir simply to describe and express my feelings about my experiences growing up. At the start, I wanted simply to record the story of my peripatetic girlhood — to write a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up being dunked in culture after culture, struggling to adapt to new schools and trying to find her place in the social world. I wanted to depict, also, how a child sees the world at different developmental stages. This came from my training in human development and social work. At later periods in the writing I felt compelled to throw other parts of my life into relief. I had a lot to think through! In one revision, I focused most on my friendships with girls, in another I focused more on my changing feelings about being American, in another I went to town describing the cultures I had lived in, and in yet another I gave my mother’s story dominance. Finally, though, I decided the story I most wanted to write, the focus that felt most right, was the father-daughter story: the parallel, intertwining lives of a man involved in intelligence work and the questions about country, morality and identity he grappled with — and of a girl following that man around the globe, responding to her father and being shaped by him and his very particular globe.

I didn’t want to write a biography of a spy. That has been done many times. Rather, I wanted to depict a spy’s life from the daughter’s inside-the-household point of view.  I wanted the reader to experience what it was like to live inside one spy’s family.

In your acknowledgements you note that your father endorsed your writing this book. What about your mother? She comes across as a competent and resilient world citizen of her own, a steadfast and reliable partner to your father. Yet she seems sidelined in this book. How did she feel about that? Is that the story of her life?

As I indicated above, I did consider — and try out — focusing the book on my mother and her life, but I decided this wasn’t the right emphasis for this book. I wanted to explore Americaness and intelligence work and America’s role in the world, as well as the personal side of my life, and my father’s story lent more directly to these concerns.

It’s interesting that you should ask whether being sidelined — as she is in this memoir — was the story of my mother’s life. The opposite is actually true. My mother was, in fact, the more dominant force in my childhood. This is, actually, another reason I chose to put my relationship with my father into relief in this book. I wanted to elevate and claim his role in my life. My father was a gentle, philosophical man, the perfect spy in his ability to fade into the background.  My mother, on the other hand, was colorful, dynamic and indomitable. If I had given her more of a role in the story she might have taken over. Her life deserves its own account.

Your book also raises the question of faith in an organization, in this case the CIA, which ultimately grinds up a good employee like your father and does not reward his loyalty. Most corporate careers will do that if the employee does not toe the line (and sometimes for no particular reason at all), although they will probably ask less of a sacrifice from the employee’s family. How did this experience influence your choice of career?

I would never recommend that anyone join the covert side of the CIA. At the same time, I believe is it essential that we have intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious people like my father and his friends working for the CIA — to carry out this secret work to protect our country. So I’m going to contradict myself here. The main point is: I think covert work is a really tough assignment, potentially physically and psychologically very taxing for both the spy and his family. It all depends on a particular person’s temperament, postings, the current policies, the bosses he or she works under … how the chips fall. There are so many variables.

I chose careers — social work, human development, writing — that permitted me to promote emotional honesty, something repressed by the culture in which I was brought up. By “culture,” I mean America as well as the CIA. To claim one’s experience, one’s truth, in a memoir, is deeply reassuring somehow. So I do recommend memoir writing for anyone who needs to think life through.

Your father had his moment as a hero evacuating from Vietnam, and yet this receives short shrift in your book. Why is that?

I have to confess that I, like many who find out someone is a spy, was most intrigued with my father’s covert work, and less immediately interested in his escape from Vietnam, which was an overt and obvious story. My father was a very modest man, never one to put himself in the limelight, much less to boast about his achievements, so I, like he, focused little on his exodus from Vietnam. It was, in fact, only at the very end of the long process of writing the book that I realized how significant what he had done was, both personally to him and in the name of the good. Instead of abandoning the local people who had worked for him in Saigon and helped the CIA and America, as is so often what happens when push comes to shove in foreign affairs, he helped 1,300 Vietnamese people whose lives would have been in jeopardy, to escape to America.  He would have said we owed them this, but still, it was quite a feat since the United States had, in fact, abandoned him! I wish now that I had included more of that story, though it can be read, first-hand, in his book, Get Out Any Way You Can.

Another reason I gave this key episode in my father’s life short shrift is that I had originally intended just to make this a coming-of-age story, and not to move in time beyond my own age 18, but then, again toward the end of the writing, it seemed important to include a least some of “what came after that.” I offered a very light sketch of this, and included the barest essentials.  To move into my own college years and adulthood seemed like another story. People are writing to me, though, to ask for more details about what happened next and what became of all the members of my family. Maybe there is more story to come.

The narrator’s quest and longing for a national identity is one of your other main themes. I relate to that very much as I have an American mother and a German father, and while I was born in New Jersey, I grew up mainly in Germany. I have always been uneasy about being called “American” or “German,” because I am both or neither. Your narrator, on the other hand, is not conflicted about being American, even when she wants to be Japanese. Rather, she is conflicted about what this America is. Was being sold on one version of America as a child one of the other secrets, if you will, that this narrator had to discover wasn’t true? Did the secret send her on a lifelong search for the real America?

I think you have put your finger on a key quest in the book, and encapsulated it beautifully. The story of America with which this girl was engrained as a child brought up in embassies was very black and white and idealized — almost mythic. This virtually set her — and America — up for a fall. Inevitably, after the fall, she had to find the “real” America.

I do agree that the narrator in the book is conflicted about what America is, but I also think she is conflicted about being an American. She was very deeply concerned about what America was doing in Southeast Asia, for instance, and sometimes wanted to bail — to become Dutch, for instance.

I think I am still, really, on a search for America — for “home.” I admire America and feel American, but the truth is, I think I will never feel quite fully easy in America, or calling myself American, because I will always miss the other cultures in which I lived, and part of me will always be Dutch, Japanese, etc. When a person has more than one culture under the skin, as you literally do as a German-American, one often feels like one is more than one thing, more than one nationality. This felt like a big problem when I was younger. I was restless and always hungering for other cultures. I still have this hunger, but I am more in touch with the richness now, rather than the sense of confusion and deprivation.

Strangely and unexpectedly, the response I have received to this memoir has made me feel more at home in America than I ever have. To have received notes from so many Americans of wide-ranging backgrounds saying my story resonated with them has made me feel less weird and like I belong to something: not only to a league of spy kids, but to the American and the human families.

When the narrator first moves to the United States and lands in Bethesda, Md., and then visits family in Indiana, she is sold on the suburban and small-town version of America, where she fits in given her looks but not given her experiences. Do you think that landing in those more homogenous environments, rather than, let’s say, in a diverse urban setting like San Francisco, made it even harder for her to grasp what America really is, or could be? That there are many ways of being American?

That visit to Indiana was marked in the 7-year-old Sara’s life because it fit a sort of storybook version of America — that of swimming pools, barbeques, and cousins — which she longed for as a foreign girl growing up, looking and feeling so different in Taiwan. It was an America she could grasp and hold onto. It was a sort of “Leave it to Beaver” life, which I think was the ideal at that time, 1962, even in cities. I was pretty much always among the middle and upper-middle class, when I was in America for brief periods as a child, so I was pretty sheltered. And the Americans I knew abroad were kids of diplomats, spies, servicemen, businessmen and missionaries. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and worked in the housing projects of Somerville, Mass., at age 21, that I became acquainted with other kinds of Americans and other ways of being American.

The narrator seems more at ease now with who she is as an American, and obviously, after living all over the world, she has settled in the United States. Did writing this book help at all in accomplishing this sense of being settled?

Yes, writing this memoir really helped me think through what it means to me to be American, and to feel more comfortable being American. It’s helped me to come to terms with holding an American passport.

It is easy to be critical of America — and I am. Living abroad makes one keenly aware of different ways of structuring society, and of living life, and brings one to question one’s own culture. The Dutch, I think, provide better human services, for instance. Writing about these sorts of childhood impressions has confirmed my sense that America can and should improve in its ways of serving its own people and the world. On the other hand, writing the memoir and considering my childhood also led me to a deep sense that America, like all countries, has its own special strengths: among them, a flexibility and a sense of adventure and possibility that I especially love and enjoy. While writing the book, and reflecting on my experiences abroad, I was also able to see that America’s weaknesses, which I abhor, are not unique to our country. Our self-interestedness, our greed, our warlike tendencies are all too human and can be found in a lot of other countries as well. All countries are deeply flawed, as are all human beings. This acknowledgement has helped me to come to terms with my country — though I will never let go of what I wish would change! Actually, this push for bettering one’s country — as I reaffirmed by rereading American history for the book, and contrary to what some might contend — is patriotic and quintessentially American. America was founded in a spirit of challenging the status quo, so perhaps I am the real McCoy after all! If Americans can question, and wish to incorporate, the best ideas from other countries while simultaneously enjoying our great strengths, I’m in.

Interviewer Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.

Buy Born Under an Assumed Name

comments powered by Disqus