Review by Benjamin L. Landis
Born under an assumed name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter by Sara Mansfield Taber, Potomac Books Inc., ISBN13: 978- 1597976985,2012, 396 pp. $29.99
If you are interested in girlish pre-pubescent and pubescent angst, this book is for you. Although there may be other reasons that may dampen your interest, if you are not interested in girlish angst, this book is probably not for you.
First, let’s address the scope of the book. It begins in 1961 when the author, Sara Taber, is 7-years old and the family has moved to Taipei, where Sara’s father has been assigned to the Naval Auxiliary Communications Center. Sara was born in Japan in 1954. During her first 7 years the family moved successively to Okinawa, the Philippines, Taiwan, Connecticut, and then back to Taiwan. Ms. Taber tells us nothing about those years, probably because of her youthfulness, even though, as I will demonstrate later, she must have a photographic memory. They left Taiwan in 1962 to go to Bethesda, MD, her father being assigned to the State Department headquarters in Washington, DC. In 1964 the family moves to the Netherlands, where the family stays four years. They then return to Chevy Chase, MD, her father once again assigned to State Department headquarters.. In 1970, her father is assigned to the consulate in Kuching, Malaysia, as vice-consul and Sara after a few months, along with her brother, is sent off to an American missionary high school in Kobe, Japan. She is now 16-years old. In 1972, while in Kobe Sara has a serious mental breakdown that is finally diagnosed as the result of an allergy to ephedrine. Nonetheless, she spends several weeks in the psychiatric ward of a U.S. military hospital, being treated for schizophrenia. Apparently, her father is transferred to the American Embassy in Japan so that Sara’s mother and he could be with her. There ends the chronological tale.
What was the author’s purpose in writing this story? As a memoir of her years from seven to eighteen, she writes as though the events occurred just yesterday. She recalls in fine detail her thoughts throughout those eleven years. I am very skeptical that anyone can remember more than forty years after the events precisely what one thought, the intensity of what one thought, the very thoughts themselves in the precise way that Ms Taber recounts her youth. There are, of course, in the book strong indications that Ms Taber has a photographic memory. For example, starting at age seven she remembers verbatim what her father told her at the dinner table about international relations and the role of the United States in the world. The reader knows this because these dinner-table lectures are quoted. She also throughout the book quotes verbatim what her schoolmates and she said to one another more than forty years ago. It seems to me more appropriate for a true memoir to use expressions, such as, “My father told us that...” Also, she remembers exactly what she and her family had to eat on any given day. One example from many: “After our walk, since this was Saturday, we drove...for lunch at the ...Club...[My brother] ordered a hot dog and French fries. My father and I ordered Salisbury steaks and my mother ordered liver and mashed potatoes...” This memory occurs on page 11, but throughout the book Ms. Taber regales us with the family’s dinner menus as well as those when they eat in restaurants or are guests in others’ homes.
I am impressed. If Ms. Taber does not have a photographic memory she must have been taking short hand notes of family conversations starting at age seven or was recording them. But I opt for the photographic memory, because she writes, “I’d felt different from the day I looked up into the pine fronds over my cradle back in Japan.” Astounding! She remembers what she was thinking in her cradle!
Ms. Taber mentions in the first paragraph of the book that her father was using a fictitious name in Japan at the time she was born. Afterwards, nothing more is said about cover names. This raises in the mind of a slightly curious reader a number of questions. Did she have a Japanese birth certificate? If yes, under what name? I feel confident that her parents registered her birth at the American Embassy in Tokyo to ensure her U.S. citizenship. Under what name? By the time she was seven and on her way to Taiwan, did her father have a new cover name? The same question applies to all his other assignments. Did he take his son and daughter aside and tell them, “We’re off to the Netherlands where your name will be such-and-such. You must forget the old name you used in Washington.” It seems to me that this would have a real impact on a child, but no mention after that first paragraph is made of cover names. The probable truth is that when she was born, Sara was probably declared to the American Embassy under her family’s real name, so she would not, in fact, have been born under an assumed name.
The question of passports obviously comes to mind. Her father’s CIA cover was as a Foreign Service officer. She writes in that first paragraph that her father received his cover name from his superior after the family arrived in Japan. So, his diplomatic passport was in his real name and when Sara began traveling with her family her passport was very likely in her real name. Was this true for the assignments to Taiwan, the Netherlands and Malaysia? Or didn’t her father have cover names in those countries? And Sara, when she traveled to Japan at the age of fifteen, what was the name on her passport? I imagine that a child would be curious about such things, but Sara apparently was not.
When her father was assigned to Taiwan in 1961 his cover was that of naval attaché. So says Sara. Did she know that at the time because he told her or because she saw him in a naval officer’s uniform or is this bit of the family history something she learned much later? Her father always in all his assignments worked as a Foreign Service officer, except apparently the one time he impersonated a naval officer. Ms. Taber never mentions any of his CIA activities. She does make occasional suppositions that he is meeting with mysterious men or dropping messages at pre-arranged spots, but she has no actual knowledge of any of her father’s clandestine activities. She does late in the book tell of his involvement in a failed CIA operation he was responsible for in Japan, but she only learned of it as an adult, not as a child between the ages of 7 and 18, which this memoir theoretically covers; more about that later. The subtitle of the book could just as well have been “The Memoir of a Foreign Service Officer’s Daughter”. That title might have been less exciting perhaps, but it may have been more accurate. As far as Sara was concerned, she did not know that her father was a CIA operative until the age of 15, just before going away to school. As far as she knew until then, her father was a Foreign Service officer, except again for that curious cover as a naval officer. Switching from the Navy to the Foreign Service obviously never aroused Sara’s curiosity. This is even stranger, since she knew that he had been in the Army during World War II.
When her father was the vice-consul in Kuching, Ms. Taber recounts the astounding fact that Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed him as the consul “of Brunei”, which the author characterizes as a “British protectorate”. What does this mean? Was he the British consul “to” Brunei or was he the consul “of Brunei” to Malaysia? Was such a thing possible, an American diplomat being appointed by another country’s reigning monarch to represent her country’s interests or to represent a “protectorate” of her country? And why wasn’t the consul appointed to this post rather than the vice-consul? Ms Taber provides no additional information.
The most obvious error she makes, however, concerns the sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, which she visited during the period 1962-1964 between the ages of 8 and 10. This experience had a tremendous impact upon her, because throughout the later pages of the book she writes of trying to emulate Marine stoicism and courage. She writes of seeing the sentinel “...in his spiffy navy high-collared dress tunic, his pants with the gold stripes down the legs....” But, the exclusive privilege of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier belongs to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, not the U.S. Marine Corps. The Army dress blue uniform worn by the sentinels does not have a “high-collared dress tunic.” It has a dark blue jacket with lapels. Also, the stripe on the trousers of the Marine Corps enlisted man’s dress uniform is red, not gold. I don’t doubt that Ms Taber had the occasion to see Marines in full dress uniform in various embassies during her travels, but she did not see any guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The book is replete with other lesser errors and omissions. This book is not really a memoir. It is a reinvention of the author’s childhood in the light of her adult experience. In my opinion, the author would have done better to write a novel based upon her childhood, which is, of course, what she has, in fact, done, even though she tries to pass it off as a memoir. And yet this book is not solely a memoir. The author offers a great deal of political commentary on both domestic and international affairs, commentary that she was not likely to have conceived as a child. These commentaries eventually turn into sermons about the failures of the United States government and of the American people to live up to their ideals and their heritage. Again, not likely emanating from the mind of a young teen-ager. Lastly, she creates a sub-story, a defense of what she perceives to be the failed career of her father in the CIA. He probably retired as a GS-15 (Ms Taber mentions once in passing that he was passed over for a promotion to GS-16.), a perfectly honorable end to a career, GS-15 being equivalent to a Colonel. The picture she paints of her father leads one to believe that he did not have the temperament to be a CIA agent. Yet, he remained one. He might easily have transferred to the Foreign Service or almost any other government agency early in his career if he was not happy doing CIA work. He stayed with the Agency. One can only assume, despite his daughter’s recriminations, that he enjoyed the work and took satisfaction in it.
The author’s greatest fault is that she tries to write literature with a capital “L”. She strains for the picturesque. Her style can be described as oscillating between the pretentious and the quasi-illiterate. Most disconcertingly, and even jarringly, she regularly and frequently uses “like” as a conjunction. “It was like I was...reading a mystery novel like she used to do...” There are dozens of such examples, possibly more than a hundred.
The author has a very personal stylistic tic: she loves to create hyphenated compound adjectives, many of which are incomprehensible. “The car was spit-spot.” “...from the recent-cut suburban sprawl...”...wiggly-lipped ponies...” “...with four or five clean-noisy children...” “...white rock, sweet-humming Wyoming mountaintop...” “...wind-stunned hair...” “sun-glow shirts...” “...a yearning so liquid-big...” “...fly-away-haired girl...” “...the under-bridge of New York...” “...low-bowing houses...” “chap-nosed girl...” “...bottom-grazing black hair...” “...torn-leafness of the poems...” “...shining black-rain hair...” “...hard-painted American sentences.” And so on.
She particularly likes unreal colors and color combinations: “...a beam of celestial yellow-blue...” “...Madonna-blue sky...” “...Storybook-green hill...” “...green-white tender shoots...” “...green-black, brown-crimson scenes.” “...in the shimmering black-purple water...” “...white-green hall.” (One is tempted to ask what the difference is between white-green and green-white.) There are dozens of other examples, but I have undoubtedly quoted too many already.
There is, unfortunately, more. Ms Taber likes to invent adjectives. Thus, the reader encounters “turrety”, “The air was Magellan air.”, “groggling”, “rubbled”, “wavery”, “sweatery”, “globby”, and “caramelly, coconutty, chocolaty”, some understandable, others not. The list could go on, but enough! She also invented one unfortunate adverb: “blasély.”
As I mentioned earlier, Ms Taber is literary with a capital “L”. Here are some of my favorite phrases and sentences, some comprehensible, some not: “The tears receded into their keeping pouches.” “My mother was like a soldier with a flagpole.” (I was a soldier for 30 years and have no idea what that sentence means.) “Feeling like my fury would grenade all the windows...” “...he...saw me walking, throwing up my heart.” “...an umbrella of singing green...” “I was toffee at the moment in cooking that it turned to itself.” “The autumn sun was Achilles slashing swords of brilliant light...and Demeter pouring a yellow of glory and goodness across the pastures.” “The differences are as infinitesimal and subtle as the hand of a watch.” Unhappily, when the author goes into her Literary mode, she comes up with some mishaps. For example: “...dwellings that rose like topsy to their rears in...stacked additions.” “I licked my wounds and seized, ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’” And “...if I didn’t get a pit in my stomach whenever I thought of talking in class...”
In addition to the above idiosyncrasies, Ms Taber writes many ungrammatical phrases and sentences. I have written enough about her shortcomings not to bore the reader with other examples. Let me say, however, that a very large part of the responsibility for the book’s shortcomings must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the editor assigned by the publisher, Potomac Books, to edit the manuscript. A diligent competent editor could have corrected most of the errors and faults.
I found this book difficult to read as I went from one contrived compound adjective to a recounting of Sara’s detailed thoughts in her youth to too many uses of “like” as a conjunction, to the author’s adult comments on politics, domestic and international, to ungrammatical constructions, to her defensive attitude on what she perceived to be her father’s failed career to sermonizing about the failures of the United States government and of the American people.