My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File

by Katherine Verdery, Duke University Press, 2018, 344 p. $27.95 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-8223-7081-9

“How seductive is this secret world of the file! How it sucks you in, quietly insinuating its categories into your thoughts!” (p.10)

During her first trip to Romania in 1970 as a PhD student at Stanford University, Katherine Verdery, a leading scholar and anthropologist of Communist Romania, accidentally drove her motorcycle into a restricted area the grounds of Romanian weapons factory. Taken in by local police, she was interrogated in Romanian (a language she barely spoke at the time) and then ostensibly let go to continue her efforts to find a fieldsite for her research. In actuality, this incident was reported to the Securitate, the secret police agency of Communist Romania, which began a surveillance file on her. For the next few decades over numerous trips to Romania (and even back home in the United States), Verdery’s file grew. It came to include photographs of her in intimate moments, reports from her friends and acquaintances (who served as informers), and other evidence of her “espionage” activities.

Verdery, currently the Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor at City University of New York, did not know of the existence of this file until 2006 when she returned to Romania to conduct research on a book project and was made aware of her file through the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS). After some soul-searching, she decided to request a copy of the file and went back to pick it up from the archives in 2008eleven volumes, spanning the early 1970s through the 1980s, 300-400 pages in each cardboard and string bound volume, for a total of 2,781 pages. She brought them back to the US then and skimmed them, but didn’t begin a close read of the file until 2010.

In My Life as a Spy, Verdery reflects on reading the file, interviews many of the people who informed on her and several high-level operatives assigned to her, and intersperses excerpts from her files and from her ethnographic fieldnotes. The author’s deep understanding of Romania during this era provides a backdrop for understanding how enemies of the state were identified and how the documents and files in the Securitate archives created those personae, including her own (several of them, as the book details). However, My Life as a Spy is also, perhaps even more, an autoethnography, where the author uses the events of her life to illuminate larger historical and cultural events (and vice versa). Even as she contends with the multiple identities that the Securitate constructed that do not bear any resemblance to her own self-perceptions and confronts people that she saw as friends and confidantes, she is also exploring her coming of age as a scholar of the Cold War and the development of her sensibilities as an ethnographer from the perspectives of the secret agency that saw her as neither, but as an enemy of the State.

The prologue describes how the file came to exist, how she came to know the file existed, the different “identities” that the file creates which she describes as her “doppelganger” (a multi-partite one). As the file is created, depending on era and place and the political state of Romania, she is the deceitful, cold, calculating Vera, the pro-Hungarian diaspora spy; Vanessa, the Baltimore resident who associates with Romanian dissidents, and the Folklorist, who spies for the military. In Part I, which she titles “Research Under Surveillance”, the author is at her most autoethnographic. She introduces the reader to some of the important people in her life in Romania and details the two decades of her life as a spy. Through the interweaving of her fieldnotes, photos, excerpts from her file, and her analysis, the reader begins to understand the content of her studies in Romania (village life, ethnicity, and other topics), her intellectual and emotional coming of age as an anthropologist and ethnographer, and of course how these activities and engagements were perceived and documented by people around her and her Securitate file. Part II is more ethnographic as it explores the world of the informers and Securitate officers Verdery engages. In this section, she draws on other scholars’ reports on their own files (not just in Romania, but also East Germany), interviews with informants and officers, and again, fieldnotes and excerpts from her file, to construct how the apparatus of the Securitate functioned to create enemies of the state. She also explains her choices with respect to the anonymity of her interviewees and relationships and reflects on the difference between ethnography and surveillance. The book ends with a description of a party she hosted to mark the forty years since she first arrived in the village of her first fieldwork. The book also includes a brief description of the typographic and pseudonymic conventions Verdery uses and several epigraphs.

Verdery’s unusual access to her own file and her informers, her willingness to lay bare her inner life on encountering both, and her particular scholarly lens make for a rich and multilayered book. Scholars of document studies and those interested in the role of the archive in totalitarian regimes will find much to appreciate here. For ethnographers of archives and documents, Verdery’s book adds a deftly written autoethnography. For those who teach or are interested in fieldwork as a practice, the book provides an excellent synthesis of technique, reflection, and the development of an ethnographic voice.

On finishing the book, one is left with many questions (and a certain uneasiness). For the researcher, the book troubles any facile acceptance of the fieldworker’s tasks and interventions in the lives of others. For any reader, the book makes us reflect on how we are represented “in the file”, what secrecy means, and how surveillance functions, and how archives and documents construct our multiple identities.

Kalpana Shankar, Professor of Information and Communication Studies, School of Information and Communication Studies, University College Dublin, Ireland