On the nights I couldn’t sleep, my father stood guard at my bedroom window, identifying constellations and predicting the weather. His narration was a notable mix of fact and speculation. Inspired by my father’s storytelling, my book Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets mingles fact and speculation to reveal the truth: about my father, our family, and ultimately me.
My father’s ongoing silence in life indicated that he surely had secrets. And I needed to know those secrets. He never talked about his extensive travels in Latin America in the 1950s. I thought maybe he was a CIA agent, but in memoir, trying to prove suppositions is a slippery concept. I tracked down a family friend who had been in Guatemala with my father. I intensely questioned him about what my father, the unassuming accountant of my Connecticut childhood, was doing in Central America. He confirmed that he and my father were spies and said, “Your father was a noble man.”
The responses to my Freedom of Information Act requests bluntly asserted that my inquiry could be “neither confirmed nor denied” that my father was a spy. My request for my father’s passport records from the 1950s resulted in a surreal telephone call with a bureaucrat at the Department of State who told me the records were unavailable. He concluded the conversation with this: “They’re pretty tight-lipped at the CIA.”
I was not surprised when I found out my father was a CIA agent. It was a relief to have an explanation for his silences. It was a relief to confirm something I knew all along. The first stirrings of Asylum are in an unpublished collection of short stories that I wrote over 30 years ago. Those stories reflect that deep down I knew my father was a spy who traveled throughout Guatemala at the time of CIA-orchestrated mayhem and insurrection.
My father stalwartly died with his secret. There are still aftershocks from cracking open my narrative with the CIA disclosure. However, in the end, Asylum deploys the essential equation of how facts and speculation can yield truth. I finally know the truth of our story—my father’s and mine. It is etched in the stars he once described to me and conveyed in the words of the Kaddish I said for him.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is a writer of memoir and creative non–fiction. Mandel Vilar Press published her memoir in fall 2021.