- My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File by Katherine Verdery
by Katherine Verdery
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 344 pp. $27.95 (paperback)
How seductive is this secret world of the file! How it sucks you in, quietly insinuating its categories into your thoughts!(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 a 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 field site 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 2008—eleven 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 United States then and skimmed them but didn’t begin a close reading 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 [End Page 251] (several of them, as the book details). However, My Life as a Spy is also, perhaps even more, an autoethnography, in which 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, identities that do not bear any resemblance to her own self-perceptions, and confronts people whom she saw as friends and confidants, 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, and the different “identities” that the file creates, which she describes as her “doppelganger.” As the file was created, depending on era and place and the political state of Romania, she became Vera, the deceitful, cold, calculating, pro-Hungarian diaspora spy; Vanessa, the Baltimore resident who associated with Romanian dissidents; and the Folklorist, who spied for the military. In part 1, “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...