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Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA

by Amaryllis Fox

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19810108,894 (3.63)4
"Amaryllis Fox's riveting memoir tells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world's most dangerous terrorists in sixteen countries while marrying and giving birth to a daughter"--
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nonfiction/CIA memoir (on audio)
one young woman's experiences prior to and after getting recruited by the CIA (names and details have been changed for obvious reasons). Suspenseful and thoughtful at the same time. The audio version is well-narrated--Recommended. ( )
  reader1009 | Jul 3, 2021 |
I wanted to read about Amaryllis and her time in the CIA for 'research' of a fictional variety, but found her account really easy to read and very engrossing. And yes, she is actually called Amaryllis! I love that she started with her childhood, which partly formed her (positive) reasons for wanting to become a spy when her best friend was killed in the Lockerbie explosion. Her parents, an English actress from an eccentric family and an economist who travelled a lot for his work, and her scattered education across the States and in the UK seemed to build her into the type of woman who would travel to Burma undercover at eighteen to interview a female leader under house arrest and then smuggle the tape back to the BBC! All this before she even joined the CIA to become the youngest female operative at 22. I do question Amaryllis' track record of marrying men she barely knew rather than choosing between them and her job, however - at least now she can be happy, I hope, with the grandson of Robert Kennedy and a new baby!

An interesting balance between technical details, which I was looking for, and an almost spiritual accounting for her work, which I was not. Amaryllis sounds like an amazing woman and her book makes a refreshing change from all the macho memoirs from soldiers and Jason Bourne types which have flooded the market. ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Mar 12, 2021 |
Good memoir of a career in the clandestine service of CIA by someone who seemed to get into it very young (family background, plus a high school project to learn about Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi...). There were elements fictionalized to protect sources/methods, but overall it was consistent with what I knew about the backgrounds of those who joined CIA in the late 90s/00s and how the organization has changed post cold war (basically, a pretty massive schism between paramilitary/military ops and drones, vs. more traditional humint and analysis, with most of the great people from the cold war days leaving in the 90s before the war on terror, at least at the mid levels.). I'd never really thought about the problems of case officers being pregnant and their relationships/families -- she certainly seems to have had a particularly challenging personal or romantic life due to CIA needs.

Downsides of the book: pretty short actual career, and lots of basically boring/generic childhood stuff (I almost stopped reading until the Myanmar stuff started about 1/3 of the way in; rich girl and divorce just isn't that interesting, almost no childhoods are interesting, it should be a few pages, tops.). A lot of the "why" was pretty over the top. Much of the "what" and "how" was fictionalized or cursory (for some legitimate reasons, but also because a lot just isn't that special or interesting and the IC likes to maintain mystique). The real problem with the book is that she didn't have a long enough or varied enough career to put any of this into much context -- it's a front line junior person's account of her time in an important job, but for a reader who doesn't know much about intelligence or CIA, that's a detached story.

It's interesting what she seems to have done post-CIA; much higher profile than others to have left, and more connected to the work she had been doing. ( )
  octal | Jan 1, 2021 |
I found this story fascinating. I listened to the audio read by the author and found it an easy, entertaining listen. Interesting insight to covert government programs and the people that carry them out. ( )
  carolfoisset | Nov 15, 2020 |
Fox is an exceptional writer who had lived an exceptional life. She is exactly the type of woman I would have expected to marry a Kennedy (side note -- she has a new baby - named Bobcat after her great grandfather Bobby Kennedy -- and I am so worried she will listen to her crazy antivax father in law and not get the baby her shots.) But I digress. This is a really unique coming of age story. It is about different types of patriotism, it is about putting the safety of others before your own--(a poignant message at this time when people are dying because Americans seem to think being told they need to wear a mask during a pandemic is an assault on their liberty.

Fox has made me feel pretty good about the CIA and its operatives. but she also criticizes plenty. Her biggest criticism is that the agency refuses to understand Muslim countries, and as a result it is less effective then it could be, and that this willful ignorance ruins the lives of innocent people and not a thought is given to that injustice. Her stories on this subject are chilling. We need to do better. But most of the work that is done is noble and most of the operatives who are doing it are pretty badass, and pretty effective.

This is primarily about Fox discovering herself and forming her world view. It has a bit of Spy, Pray Love about it. That said, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (who has written novels I love, but whose memoirs I hate) Fox is not entirely self involved. Gilbert is a parody of white privilege (her "one from column A" approach to Eastern religions is SO disrespectful!), but Fox thinks of herself in terms of how she can use her exceptional intellect, education, and privilege to help others, including others she will never meet. Gilbert is what is wrong with America, and Fox is what is right.

People who come to this looking for a spy story are going to be disappointed. People who come looking for a personal growth story that also includes cool and sometimes really touching spy stories (where details like locations have been changed to protect operatives, informants, and the rest of us), and a tiny bit of strategy for devising framework within which America might come of age in a good way will find a lot to like. My only ding is that Fox spends a lot of time at the beginning talking about her family, and her siblings utterly disappear never to be heard from again. If her point is that she lost family relationships because of the lies she had to tell for 8 years, she should have been more explicit. Otherwise, the first 20ish pages seem extraneous. ( )
  Narshkite | Jul 24, 2020 |
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Dedication
For my mum, who taught me to live without cover
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In the glass, I can see the man who's trailing me.
Quotations
I think of my old boss and his Mideast negotiations--remember asking him how our allies can give us something we won't tell them we lack. Turns out, the same goes for friends. And spouses. And moms.
At the afternoon's end, Jon tells me about the moment he knew it was going to be okay. "When that girl sat there and held hands with the kid of the guy who killed her brother and said, 'We have to honor our parents by not repeating their mistakes.'" He makes a gesture like his heart just exploded.

"Let's hope our kids honor us the same way, huh?" ...
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"Amaryllis Fox's riveting memoir tells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world's most dangerous terrorists in sixteen countries while marrying and giving birth to a daughter"--

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