In Espionage Thrillers, Emotional Intelligence Matters, Too

From Publishers Weekly:

When you work at the CIA, you’re taught to keep everything you do secret. You must be invisible. As a woman who grew up in a patriarchal family, I was not unfamiliar with the imperative. So it felt dicey when I decided to make public that I worked at the CIA and was writing a book on the subject. Being exposed and vulnerable was unsettling, but with this exposure also came freedom.

I started working at the CIA shortly after 9/11. In the years that followed, there was an immediacy and relevance to the counterterrorism mission that is difficult to quantify. In 2005, I was assigned to support the CIA’s mission in Iraq. As a CIA targeting officer, my days were spent hunting elusive high-value targets, which typically meant high-ranking members of a Sunni extremist group.

In 2010, I graduated to hunting targets in the CIA’s Pakistan Afghanistan division—not just in support of the CIA’s capture/kill operations but also targeting for the potential recruitment of sources. These were challenging tasks in my 20s and early 30s—navigating both the war zones in the Middle East and the male-dominated vaults at Langley.

On one trip to the Middle East to debrief a terrorist we were trying to recruit as a source, I was told to let my male counterparts do the talking. This entailed describing me as an “expert from Washington” and a married, pious woman who took her faith very seriously. When I asked the reason for this backstory, my male colleagues said it was because the source had never met an American woman and that his idea of an American woman came from TV and movies.

At first I was appalled, but then I began to understand. This was when the TV show Homeland was wildly popular, in which Claire Danes plays a CIA officer with bipolar disorder who sleeps with the terrorist she is hunting. Similarly, Red Sparrow,starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy, shows the actor nakedly taunting one of the male trainees to prove that she’s unafraid to use her body in exchange for information. This was a widespread misconception among those inside and outside the agency about women at the CIA that I had to fight against constantly.

But it’s not all Hollywood’s fault. Mata Hari, who was convicted of seducing French men and spying for Germany during WWI, remains one of the most infamous female spies in history. Movies like Zero Dark Thirty staring Jessica Chastain, depicting the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, did a much better job, having resisted the temptation to reduce female spies into dominatrices who exchange sex for information.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

5 thoughts on “In Espionage Thrillers, Emotional Intelligence Matters, Too”

  1. Conversely, nobody ever raises the late Sean Connery’s eyebrow at Bond’s use of… seduction†… to obtain information and turn women against their other loyalties. Because it’s “ok” and “unexceptional” for men to do that. Historically, too.

    But then, the CIA has never been a paragon of, well, anything.

    † Using a toned-down descriptor for the family-friendly audience — that is nowhere near an accurate description of what occurs in the books.

    • As a child I would browse the bookcases at home for fodder, including those my mother used from auditing courses at the local university. Among the many other not-for-children books I devoured were all the Ian Flemings. The oh-so-boring sex scenes went right over my head and left no mark at all, but I do remember the startled look on my mother’s face when she noticed one of them in my print-devouring grip and visibly grappled with the notion of restricting my access.

      • I read the James Bond books when I was young enough to be interested in any of the scenes of a sexual nature that appeared in the many books I managed to get hold of. It was a time when even the mildly salacious was very uncommon: it was really just not the done thing amongst respectable publishers (at least in the UK).

        It was a long time ago when I was reading Ian Fleming but I don’t recall any real sex scenes (boring or otherwise), though the fact that Mr Bond and one of the female characters were about to have or had just had sexual relations was never in doubt – I simply don’t think that the details of their interaction were revealed. In fact, my memory says that the most sexually charged scene in the series did not actually involve any sex*.

        * “Live and Let Die” chapter 22, “Terror by Sea”. I doubt that a reader of modern romances would even notice, but to a teenage boy in a very prudish age …

  2. I found the idea intriguing, and the lack of a purchase link to the book on PW odd, so I made the extra effort and searched, and then went to the Amazon page – and opened the Look Inside, and read past the ‘praise for’ and finally made it to the text…

    Not for me – the opening is two people in a tense potentially deadly situation – and the first two pages are all backstory! Every step they take is accompanied by thoughts no real spy would take the time to think when their life depended on hearing tiny sounds in the night. Too bad – the backstory was competently written – no grammar or capitalization or punctuation mistakes – and stopped me dead in my tracks. I might even have paid the $8.99 for an ebook otherwise.

    I hate having to skim when I’m getting started on a story. Maybe that’s the standard for spy stories nowadays (I too read all the Bonds WAY too young), but it isn’t mine.

  3. Good old Mata Hari. I used her as a codename for one of the iDevices at and old job. I named assorted devices after female operatives executed in service of the France; I no longer remember why I was on that kick. But Mata Hari suited the purpose of “name no one would think of, if trying to casually break into the device.”

    But the title of the post strikes me as very true. How else can you spot if someone is lying? If someone is being evasive, or maybe they’re afraid or complacent? There’s a scene in an early episode of “Leverage” where Sophie and Elliot try to help Parker understand the concept of “persuasiveness.” Elliot has an apple, and he loves apples, but Parker has an orange and she’s supposed to try to convince Elliot to want the orange instead. Parker, who is understood to be emotionally damaged, simply resorts to claiming she spiked the apple with a razor. She lacked the EQ to figure out how to make the orange appealing to an apple-lover.

    If I’m reading an espionage thriller, I want the protagonist to have Sophie’s EQ, not Parker’s. It makes it more plausible the spy would survive well enough to be a series character, anyway. Plus, Sophie would have been sophisticated enough to study the culture she was going to, and would have thought to craft the backstory herself, rather than be befuddled by it. Sorry, it just disturbs me that someone involved in HUMINT has to have it explained why she should pass herself off as devout and married while in the Middle East.

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