It has become a well known fact that I enjoy memoirs and biographies of female journalists who cover the Middle East – It’s What I Do and In Extremis are two of my all time favorite books I’ve ever read. This past year, however, women in the armed services and intelligence work has begun to share their stories of the past 20 years and I have found that my interests regarding the Middle East have expanded as well.
From the Front Flap:
Amaryllis Fox’s riveting memoir tells the story of her training and deployment in the most elite clandestine operations unit in the CIA, her eight years hunting the world’s most dangerous terrorists in sixteen countries, and her marriage and the birth of her first daughter, all while working undercover.
As the book opens, Amaryllis is alone, navigating the back alleys of Karachi as she prepares to negotiate with terrorists to avoid deployment of a nuclear device. How, the reader wonders, did she come to be here, in a dark room in Pakistan, surrounded by men who could just as easily kill her as cooperate with her requests?
After studying international law and theology as an undergraduate at Oxford, Amaryllis enrolled at Georgetown, where she created an algorithm that predicted the likelihood that a terrorist cell could erupt anywhere in the world. At twenty-one, she was recruited by the CIA. Her first job was analyzing hundreds of classified cables a day and assembling them for inclusion in the president’s daily brief. Her next was at the Iraq desk in the Counterterrorism Center, where she worked to locate prisoners kidnapped by al Qa’ida; a year later she was working to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, flying all over the world, debriefing detainees, and negotiating with arms dealers to buy chemical and biological weapons on the global black market. After completing the most demanding espionage training on earth, she was deployed as a spy under nonofficial cover to infiltrate terrorist networks in the most remote areas of North Africa, Southeast Asian, and the Middle East.
Life Undercover is astonishing, exhilarating, impossible to put down – an extraordinary record of a life of service and passion and almost unfathomable courage. It is also an intimate, raw, deeply layered memoir about marriage, motherhood, and life’s work. A must-read memoir from an immensely gifted new writer.
Amaryllis Fox’s writing mentor was Daniel Pearl, the man who’s story first got me interested in journalism and the American presence in the Middle East, specifically Pakistan & Iraq. I was just shy of twelve years old when the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place in New York City, Washington DC, and Somerset County PA. And I lived in Gettysburg, a town home to many who worked in our nation’s capital, and not far from Camp David. My father’s childhood best friend’s office at the Pentagon was destroyed (he was okay), and my aunt worked in one of the World Trade Center complex’s buildings (thankfully home from work that day).
In 2003, my brother graduated from high school, and many of his friends enlisted before the ink on their diplomas had dried – they felt it was the best way to serve their country. A few years later, when one of them published their memoir of their time in Iraq, I was intrigued, but not overly interested. I was still wrapped up in my own world, trying to finish high school and not really caring about what was going on around me – at that point the US had been fighting the war on terror for a more than a couple years and I had gone back to studying medieval European history and reading fantasy novels after my initial interest in the Middle East faded.
But in college, I realized how important globalization was becoming, and particularly how the US was viewed abroad. And when I student taught World Geography to 6th graders in September 2013, my interest returned as I taught the kids born the year of the attacks, and they were the same age I was when it happened. While the other, older, teachers shared their memories and recollections of the day, they wanted to hear more from me about how I processed such information at their age. I shared with them how it brought the world to me. I’d always been fascinated by traveling and geography, but I suddenly had a much greater awareness of how different groups and countries interacted with each other on a global scale. I went on to study international politics and world history (among many other things.)
Nearly a decade older than me, Amaryllis Fox’s life direction was changed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks – she decided to pursue a masters degree in DC and was recruited by the CIA. She spent the first decade of the 21st century cultivating relationships with contacts and preventing additional terrorist attacks. She was a real life James Bond. And her book, while a memoir of her time as a spy, is remarkably touching.
At it’s core, Life Undercover is a coming of age story along the same lines of It’s What I Do. And like Lynsey Addario’s memoir, Life Undercover is being adapted for the screen as well, but this time with Brie Larson portraying the author, where Jennifer Lawrence is set to portray Lynsey. Two amazing actresses of my generation, taking on the roles of women who set out to document and protect not only Americans and loved ones, but the civilians of the countries to which they traveled.
There’s an inherent maternal thread that runs through both memoirs, one of being a caretaker both literally as parents, but also of humanity. If they didn’t listen, didn’t take the time to understand the people of the locations they lived in, the world would be an even darker and fearful place. I took some time to figure out how I wanted to write this review – I know it’s more of a story about me then it is actually a review of the book, but I figure books are here to bring us together and make us look at our experiences differently and to find similarities across different groups and opinions. So that is my focus, but I can say strongly and succinctly, I wholeheartedly recommend Life Undercover.
Rating: 8 out of 10 stars (only because it’s not quite as good as It’s What I Do)
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through IndieBound or your local independent (most of us received signed copies from the publisher!), in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.