by John H. Richardson; New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, 314 pages, $24.95
Dr. Rakfeldt is professor in the social work department at Southern Connecticut State University and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, both in New Haven, Connecticut.
Mom calls. Dad's in the hospital, on oxygen. It's his heart. I fly down." Thus begins Richardson's My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir about his father the sleuth. The book ends with, "One last trip to the bathroom…. The toilet paper roll is almost empty and that's when he says his last words: 'Another roll.'" The book's almost universal theme is searching for who we really are as people, and one way of doing so is by understanding our parents more fully. Richardson leads us through this odyssey in his carefully researched, often compelling, sometimes funny quest to learn about his CIA station-chief father, also John H. Richardson, who served in Vienna, Manila, Saigon, and Seoul.
As a top CIA officer, John H. Richardson, Sr., stonewalls when his son asks him about his job, his life, or anything else by saying, "You know, son, I took an oath of silence." When Richardson contacts the CIA regarding his father's career he receives the official response: "Not only no, but hell no—and if you pursue this, we must contact John Richardson, Sr. and remind him of his secrecy oath."
Richardson begins and ends his book when his father is dying in Mexico. He uses old letters that his father had written to a friend, diary entries, and interviews with former colleagues as his source material. Richardson Sr. grew up in Whittier, California, and attended Whittier College (Nixon was one year ahead of him). The most surprising thing he learns is that his stiff, straightlaced father, who built a career fighting Communism, had once been a devout romantic, a poet, a wanderer, a dreamer, and a soul-searching, agonized idealist who read voraciously while searching painfully for some kind of spiritual and intellectual deliverance.
His father joins the Army during World War II and is selected for a new, top-secret wartime intelligence unit, the Counter Intelligence Service, the precursor to the CIA. Through the Cold War decades, the family moves from post to post. His father is a workaholic, totally absorbed by his mission. Growing up in this family, Richardson and his older sister rebel as teenagers during the tumult of the 1960s. Their acting out, with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and all is an effort to evoke some sort of human reaction from their distant father. They yearn for a relationship with him. The young Richardson details his abuse of alcohol and drugs. One time he got arrested for giving the finger to the military police in Korea. Another time he was escorted in handcuffs out of Hawaii and placed on an airplane. In response to the Hawaii incident Richardson Sr. writes a note to his daughter and states that her brother had arrived unexpectedly from Honolulu on the evening of Christmas Day, that he's in good health, has put on weight, and so on.
A major turning point comes when CIA station chief Richardson is abruptly removed from his post in Vietnam after the coup in Saigon. Realizing that his career is essentially over, Richardson Sr. descends into brooding, chain smoking, drinking too much, and popping sleeping pills. All the while he remains aloof, remote, and stoic. About the same time, the younger Richardson experiences an emotional breakdown while in college. Interestingly, this occurs at about the same age that his father had had a "nervous breakdown" years earlier, also while in college. It is during Richardson's breakdown that his father begins to relent, and finally responds to his son's imploring, "I know nothing about you!" His father reluctantly begins writing on "a thin sheet of paper."
"Well, to begin the saga at the beginning, with origins…." All is not settled; however, son and father reconcile to some extent and even share a drunken embrace. But his father the spy remains enigmatic, as his final words reveal, dealing merely with needing more toilet paper: "Another roll."
This book would be of interest to the readers of Psychiatric Services. It forcefully chronicles the vicissitudes of a complex family's life that unfolds during the last half of the 20th century, with major historical events such as the Cold War and Vietnam framing the contexts.