Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, we are publishing “Spy Baby” by Kris Lindsey. Kris is always curious and usually hungry. Following a thirty-year career in philanthropy, politics, and higher education, she started a new career dedicated to writing in 2019. Her writing explores the intersections of identity, race, history, and place. She is at work on a book honoring 18 generations of Black resistance in America and a collection of essays on identity. Her work can be found in Cutleaf Journal and kriswritenow.com.
Back in the 90s, when my friend Greg and I got together, we were usually talking adoption. Greg was weeks away from bringing his adopted daughter home, and deep in the mix of home visits and social workers. I had just tracked down my biological mother.
“At orientation, the counselors warned us that adopted children invent fantasies about their birth parents,” Greg said during one of our walks. “It’s a way to make sense of being given up. Of course, they had to leave me, the thinking goes, they were curing cancer, fighting aliens, defusing nukes...”
“My mother was a spy,” I said.
“That’s a good one.”
“No. I mean Marty. My birth mother. She worked for the CIA.”
My search for The Womb, the code name I gave Marty before I knew her real one, was straightforward as these things go. I called the adoption agency to request whatever records I was allowed and gave proof of my identity and birthdate. A few weeks later, a manila envelope arrived in the mail containing details as reported and collected shortly after my birth, in June of 1966.
It went on like that for two pages, my history with the juicy bits redacted.
As it happened, I knew how to attack this problem. I studied international relations in college, and a favorite professor had also been a senior diplomat. When I reached out to him, he told me where to start.
“Believe it or not,” he said, “The State Department published a directory of personnel attached to missions around the world, at least until Vietnam. Look up 1965 and 1966 and send me those pages.”
Sure enough, the directories were lined up like yearbooks in the reference section at the Chicago Public Library. I flipped to Ghana and saw dozens of names as meaningless to me as Arabic. I knew the answer was in front of me but had no way to decode it. I copied the pages, sent them to the Ambassador, and some weeks later, got a message back:
“Find Joyce White. She’ll know.”
Joyce White, one of the names in the directory, served as the human resource officer for the U.S. mission in Ghana. She solved problems and knew people’s messy secrets. Now retired, I found her in the D.C. phonebook. One afternoon at work, I snatched up the phone and dialed her up before I could think too hard about it.
“I know who you are!” she exclaimed in a warm Texas drawl. She filled in the blanks like she’d just been waiting to tell me the story of how I happened.
Mother: Martha Clark, raised in Chicago, Valparaiso University graduate. Employment: CIA, secretary and analyst, though all the CIA folks were listed under Army or State Department in the directory. Everyone called her Marty.
Fletcher Martin was the name of my father. He actually worked for the State Department. He was Black and she was White. I knew that by looking in the mirror.
With Chicago’s rush hour blaring outside my window, I closed my eyes and followed Joyce’s voice to 1966, to the hard-working, hard-partying Accra outpost where Marty and Fletcher hooked up. My whole body was humming, a low vibration like I had been plugged in. I tilted too far back in my chair and nearly fell on the floor.
I went to visit Joyce in D.C. not long after our call. We sat in her warm, sunny kitchen. Behind us, a floor to ceiling bookshelf exploded with cookbooks covering most of the world’s cuisines.
“See if you can pick her out,” Joyce said, handing me a photo.
A row of women posed on a stage beneath a banner for the 1964 Ambassadors’ Wives Fashion Show. Marty was dead center. She stood with one leg slightly in front of the other, animal print dress wrapped tight around her slender form, hand on hip. With her light brown hair flipped up perfectly at the shoulder, Marty looked straight at the camera. My thirty-year-old self looking at Marty at thirty was like plummeting into an alternate reality. The mouth, the puffy eyes, the legs: all the same.
“You can have that,” Joyce said with a cackle, and I released my death grip on the picture. It was the first time in my life I’d seen anyone who looked like me. That I was the brown version also tugged at my brain. I didn’t know what lurked in those details, but I imagined I’d find out.
Joyce and I conspired to track her down. Joyce had decades of adventures under her belt and seemed pleased to have a caper to keep her busy between travels. Though nearly seventy-five, Joyce was definitely more Scooby-Doo than Murder She Wrote.
This was the mid 90s, when a search required time, long-distance phone calls, and postage stamps. I mailed off a request with Marty’s name and rough details to a database research lab in California. I received back a dot matrix printout of Martha Clarks living on the east coast, in the right age range, with addresses and phone numbers. Joyce whipped up a pretense (Ghana Reunion!) and made calls until she found the right one.
Several months later, I’m visiting Marty in Delaware. Her house sat in a haven of open space bounded by creeks and inlets. She’d retired a world away from the D.C. Beltway. I pull into the driveway, hearing the blood drumming in my ears. Once I finally let go of the steering wheel, my hands were a shaky, sweaty mess.
Marty stood at the front door in a tidy outfit punctuated with discrete jewelry. She remained slim, with the same teeth and legs as me. Her skin, bunched here and there, appeared almost see-through, like onion paper. A lifelong smoker, the cancer that would take her in a few years was still tucked deep, biding its time.
Our hellos were awkwardly delivered at a distance, though cheerful enough. Once settled in the den, Marty’s first questions were about how I’d found her. She was glad we connected, she said. She had wondered about me over the years. The conversation felt stilted, almost professional. I wondered if her guard was up, ready for recriminations or expectations. I had none to give. Or maybe she was just as she appeared: delicate, opaque and flecked with gold, like she was encased in amber. Untouchable.
I spewed out details about my life: my childhood, my family, my work and life to date. She listened. She grew orchids and prepared taxes in her retirement. Precise, exacting things, I thought. For the most part, she was quiet. A clock ticked somewhere, marking silence by the second.
We passed the afternoon flipping through her family photo album. Hers was a clan of solemn South Dakota German Lutherans. Page after page of generations worn down by brutal crops, snow, and repetition. At some point, her parents moved to Chicago, where some of Marty’s siblings still lived out in the suburbs. Marty left home to go to college and then, kept going.
I was dying to know who this person was. How she thought and loved. What she cared about. Could I unearth some sliver of something in her I recognized in myself? I didn’t want to spook her, and I tried to ease into it.
I asked her how she’d ended up at the CIA.
“The Agency recruited at Valpo,” she replied. No elaboration.
Marty didn’t say much.
Early in 2021, I was snuggled up on my couch, absorbed in a novel called American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. The main character, a Black woman, is caught up in the CIA’s covert operation to overthrow a democratically-elected, progressive Black African President. She’s been asked by her bosses to copy documents (with a camera hidden in a lighter), to spread lies and discontent and to seduce the principal target. Our heroine grows increasingly wary of her mission and of the CIA.
Fuck me, I groaned aloud to no one, to the book now dropped on the floor.
Of course, the CIA was behind the coups. I knew these things, had studied them. At the School of Foreign Service. Where my concentration had been African Affairs.
I had chosen to study Africa because I was committed to Black power in all forms, to independence and democracy. My first arrest was protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy. My first election gig: registering Black voters. I was a true believer in self-determination and political change, raised on the South Side of Chicago.
At college, I’d learned harsher facts about power. During the 60s and 70s, the U.S., Europe, the Soviets and China competed over resources, power, and mindshare in a massive, multiplayer real-world game spread out across Asia, South America, and Africa. As Europeans moved out, reluctantly ceding independence, the neocolonial round of the game began. Updated versions continue today.
All this history—filed away on a mental shelf marked “College” and not “Birth Parent Backstory”—came roaring back to me on my couch with such force it hurt.
Marty had served in Ghana in 1966. The year the CIA encouraged, induced, and resourced the overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah by a military junta. Marty Clark, five months pregnant with me, administrator for the coup.
On February 21, 1966, Ghana’s first democratically-elected President, Kwame Nkrumah, boarded an airplane for visits to China and Vietnam. While there, his delegation hoped to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. He never made it to Hanoi. Three days later, still in China, he learned of the coup orchestrated in Accra by former military and police officials. In a photo taken the moment he was informed, Nkrumah sits crumpled like an old newspaper, head in his hands. He would never again set foot in Ghana, a nation he helped guide to independence from Britain fifteen years earlier. It was astonishing he was alive at all. He’d survived seven assassination attempts.
Nkrumah was part of the “Renaissance Generation,” Africans who dared to imagine a future under their own command. Educated in America and the UK, his cohort included the future elected leaders of Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and later, other activists including Barack Obama, Sr. Among his peers, Nkrumah was once called “Africa’s Brightest Star.” He mobilized workers and unions, gathered leadership for a Pan-African agenda, and was jailed for organizing nonviolent protests and strikes. As Nelson Mandela would do forty years later, Nkrumah left prison to take office in 1951 after he was elected Head of Government and Britain grudgingly began the transition process. In 1957, Ghana would be the first African nation to achieve independence from Britain.
“Independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with total liberation of the African continent,” Nkrumah pronounced in his inauguration speech. He declared a radical, bold vision of African unity and rankled against colonialism in any form, anywhere. U.S. government memos labeled him “hostile” and “provocative.” They bristled when Nkrumah called the US “racist.” In 1965.
“Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African,” wrote one of President Johnson’s advisors, once the coup was done. The U.S. and its European allies all wanted Nkrumah gone. And on February 24, 1966, gone he was.
Ghana’s new regime gave a press conference March 1, 1966. I found newsreel footage online recorded by the very elite-sounding British Independent Television News Service. The shots are jittery, sliding in and out of focus, and you can hear noise from the street and a slight click-click of film as it whirs through the camera, capturing the moment.
The main message of General Ankrah and his collaborators went something like this: It was a spontaneous effort, not instigated by outsiders. Definitely nothing to do with foreign influence. We were tired of Nkrumah. It was time to depose him. Really, it was our idea.
It looked like they were having a hard time maintaining Serious Government Leader faces while wearing very new-looking military outfits and shiny medals. When there is scattered applause, the generals laugh and beam. A man in the background holds a machine gun as though it’s his first day on the job.
This regime would soon receive the support the U.S. government denied Nkrumah. In turn, the generals would invite the World Bank and IMF to restructure its economy. Within months, multinational companies took over what had been lucrative Ghanaian enterprises. Ghana pivoted from a proud, independent nation to a pawn doing business with apartheid South Africa and expelling Russian and Chinese diplomats. In a memorandum to President Johnson after the press conference, national security advisers joked the new regime was “almost pathetically pro-Western.”
There are two brief moments in the newsreel when the camera cuts away from the generals at the head table and scans the crowd. You see reporters, Black Ghanaians, and several White men and women, looking on, snapping pictures, taking notes.
I smacked the pause button.
I rewound, running it back frame by frame. Was Marty there, a fly on the wall to keep tabs at the press conference?
Was I there?
Ever see those mothers-to-be playing classical music through headphones barely tethered to their round bellies? Or parents singing and talking to stimulate their unborn babies? Prenatal auditory experience, according to researchers, influences infant development. They’ve measured upticks in fetal heartbeats and physical movements in response to voices and sounds. I picture Marty, with a pregnant belly, listening intently while the general swore up and down there was no CIA involvement. Would my fetal heart react to the noise, to this Cold War lullaby? Did Marty whisper me stories of betrayal and spy craft on long, muggy nights, knowing her secrets would be safe?
I don’t catch her face on the film—and maybe she’s not in the room. I have no doubt, we are nearby.
“Inside CIA headquarters, the Accra station was given full, if unofficial, credit for the eventual coup,” wrote John Stockwell, a former CIA official spilling secrets in his 1978 book In Search of Enemies. Decades after the regime change, declassified State and White House memoranda, news stories, and several books exposed names and details.
Scanning through online records, I wondered if I would see Marty’s name or initials somewhere at the bottom of State Department and CIA briefings about Ghana. I didn’t find her initials. I did, however, spot another familiar name: Howard T. Bane.
The station chief for Accra, colleagues described Bane as “audacious,” “impatient,” and “egotistical,” traits he’d proven across south and southeast Asia and Africa. Then, between the summer of 1965 and mid-1966, the Ghana Embassy was conveniently absent an ambassador, leaving Bane unsupervised. “Give-it-a-Go-Bane” (a nickname fondly included in his Washington Times obituary) was handed a free pass to nudge local dissidents toward a coup, along with a deployment of ten or so undercover CIA case officers and a big budget.
The Accra station scattered money and assured the coup leaders that the U.S. was behind them. Case officers planted ideas, encouraged discord, and maintained constant contact with the plotters. Bane’s network was so entrenched, he was able to send Washington a heads-up 24 hours before the coup finally took place.
If Bane had gotten his way, the CIA would have sent paramilitary officers in blackface to raid the Chinese Embassy, kill those inside, burn it to the ground, and blame it on the coup. According to the New York Times, he was furious that CIA leadership “didn’t have the guts to do it.” As consolation, he did get $100,000 to buy Soviet intelligence and toys from Ghanaian military once they raided the Soviet Embassy. He then arranged for a covert flight to get the loot to CIA headquarters, including a functioning cigarette lighter concealing a camera.
Where was Marty in all this? Moving money around and coordinating arrivals and covers for case officers? Did she test out the camera before it got sent to Langley? Did she organize the secret plane it flew on? As administrator, it would have been her job to keep track of things and people without leaving a trace.
“The string was pulled, the problem solved, and there was nothing in CIA records to prove how it happened,” Stockwell wrote, summing up the Africa coup playbook. Perfect plausible deniability. If there’s no proof, you can’t say it happened, or who did it, or blame those up the chain. For his work, the tobacco-chewing, cigar-chomping Bane was promoted to Chief of the Africa Division and given the Intelligence Star.
During my pursuit of Marty back in the 90s, I had reached out to several people listed in the State Department directory for Ghana. One of them was Howard Bane. Joyce White, my Texas angel, said he had been Marty’s boss and got his number for me.
I had no concept of the coup back then. I just wanted Bane to tell me about Marty. Did he remember her? Did he recall when she was pregnant in Ghana? Was there anything he could tell me? His few words were memorable. Each one felt like at attack, like erasure:
“Of course, I remember. She had a boy.”
“He wasn’t adopted. She kept him.”
“I’ve met the child.”
Old habits die hard. Howard Bane misinformed, misdirected, and denied effortlessly, like breathing. I imagine he put down the phone, chomped his cigar, and smirked at another job well done.
Once more, with feeling: That motherfucker.
Spy craft is nothing like the movies: Fun! Sexy! Danger! Get the secret, the girl/boy, the cigarette boat, and an Aperol Spritz or martini afterwards. Chinese embassy notwithstanding, hundreds died during the Ghana coup. Recently declassified documents and books reveal CIA horror stories about unofficial and covert operations all across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Not that I held any illusions. What idealism I had was scrubbed from me before I left the School of Foreign Service. Still, it is not lost on me that I’m hardwired for some of this, having pursued international relations in the first place, and with obvious tendencies toward trail-following and dot-connecting.
I don’t know if I’m like Marty or not. I never got to know her really. How could I? I don’t know if Marty’s secretive nature was native and thus made her perfect for the CIA, or if working for the CIA means you are never open about anything.
What could I ask her? What was the most adventurous thing you did? The most interesting person you met? Who the hell are you? Any regrets? You can’t ask an agent any of these questions and expect anything resembling truth. Plausible sure. But not true.
Plausible deniability doesn’t just protect the government from being implicated in illegal or immoral activities. It insulates the agent to their own conscience, as though they are not responsible for what they’ve done. In the absence of consequences, who do you become?
What are you capable of?
I wanted Marty to tell me more, more about the relationship with my biological father, the adoption, and everything else. Finding Marty was one thing. Getting her to be forthcoming was beyond me.
“What happened?” ended up being the only question I knew to ask.
We were in Delaware, in the den. Her blue eyes stared through me, out past her garden.
“It was hard for everyone,” she finally said, before taking another sip of her drink. Truer words, never spoken.
For more information on Ghana and the CIA:
Blum, William. Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Zed Books, 2003.
Central Intelligence Agency. Intelligence Memorandum: The New Regime in Ghana. March 11, 1966.
Nkrumah, Kwame. Dark Days in Ghana. Lawrence and Wishart, 1968.
Prados, John (2006). Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Quist-Adade, Charles. “How did a fateful CIA Coup—executed 55 years ago this February 24 – doom much of sub-Saharan Africa?” Covert Action Magazine.
U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. Foreign Relations of The United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIV, Africa.