Anthropologist or Spy?
Kathy carrying suspicious bags, 1984 (surveillance photo)
At the age of 25, an idealistic anthropologist traveled to communist Romania in the 1970s to study village life for her doctoral thesis. Unbeknownst to Katherine Verdery, now a distinguished professor of anthropology at The Graduate Center, CUNY, she was quickly branded a spy by the communist regime and was followed and surveilled during the nearly four years she was in the country.
Verdery has just published a memoir, My Life as a Spy, a revealing account of her time in Romania, written from her perspective as well as from the perspective of her “file,” a nearly 3,000-page dossier penned by informants. In the memoir, Verdery comes to terms with this double life she was supposedly living, the fabrications made about her, and how the secret machinations shaped her research without her realizing it.
“I was absolutely appalled at the amount of surveillance and secondly at the certainty of the officers that I was an enemy of Romania and that I should be very closely watched if not indeed expelled from the country,” explains Verdery in a podcast about the book.
Kathy and friend dressed for Pentacost, 1974 (author’s photo)
Among her most difficult realizations was that at least 70 people had informed on her to the Securitate, including people she considered close friends. Though she initially felt betrayed, she tried to understand the position that they were in and why they informed on her. “When I would find out that one of my closest friends had written nasty reports about me, I had to stop and say, ‘What was his situation? What led him to be able to do that?’” she says in the podcast. She also spoke to a few of these friends after she retrieved her file. “One of my closest friends would talk about how horrible it was to be an informer,” she says. She said she would shake for hours after a visit from Verdery, knowing that she’d get a call from the Securitate to inform on her.
In the memoir, Verdery moves back and forth between her own descriptions of her actions and the Securitate’s interpretation of them. The Securitate created an alternate reality of her, an evil doppelganger named Vera (among other names they used), who was plotting various things against the country. “There is nothing like reading your own police file to make you wonder who you really are,” writes Verdery.
Though the surveillance happened decades ago, Verdery sees parallels to the world we’re living in today. “We are all under surveillance now, but most of us have scarcely any idea what that really means,” she writes in her memoir.
Her book is a lesson in what it feels like to be spied upon, and to be suspected of something that is completely foreign to who you are.
Explore This Work
My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File
Duke University Press, 2018
Katherine Verdery (Professor, Anthropology) | Profile
Colleges and Schools
The Graduate Center
The Thought Project, Episode 20: Interview with Katherine Verdery (The Graduate Center)