Katherine Verdery


On her book My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File

Cover Interview of January 23, 2019

In a nutshell

This book is about how surveillance functioned in communist Romania from 1973 to 1988, the period during which I was one of its subjects. The text contains many verbatim quotations from documents in my secret police file, enabling the reader to encounter the world view of those officers. These form one of the three voices the book employs, the other two being my own research notes and correspondence from that period, and my authorial commentary in the present. In this sense, it is a polyphonic work.

“There’s nothing like reading your secret police file to make you wonder who you really are.” This first line of the Preface sets one agenda of the book: to describe the effects that reading your own surveillance file has on your identity, and along the way, to indicate how we can make use of such a file to understand something about the secret police who wrote it. They were, after all, masters of deception and approached any new “target” with the assumption that she was too. Moreover, their optic was shaped by assumptions and values that differed markedly from those of an American scholar like me, coming to do research for a dissertation in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Convinced I was a spy, they give us a rather unexpected idea of what spying looked like from their viewpoint.

It is also a kind of primer on what it’s like to do research in a place and time defined by the “Cold War.” It describes my growing awareness of the surveillance around me, as well as presenting my interviews with friends who informed on me to the police. In this light, the best way to read the book is to treat it as a kind of adventure story, which tells how I rode my motorbike into a military base and what repercussions that had, how I struggled to become more tolerant of people who informed on me, how I managed to track down three secret police officers to interview, and finally, how I came to understand my place in the world of these officers.