Interview by Tim Gitzen
Tim Gitzen: You describe this book—and the process of reading your police file and writing the book—as part memoir. This is evident even in the title, My Life as a Spy. Can you unpack this title a bit more by way of introducing your book to our readers?
Katherine Verdery: The title came to me right after I began to read my file, and it stayed until the very end. Most of my other book titles have had more than one iteration. Originally I had “Spy” in quotation marks, but the press preferred it without. That’s a significant change, since the quote marks made it clear that I was standing aside from that description even as I wrote it, but their argument was that it would make more interesting to leave open the question of whether or not I was “actually” a spy, helping to draw the reader along.
Tim Gitzen: One of the most striking aspects of the book is your incredible attention to detail, and I think much of that is owed to your impressive fieldnotes. From an archival standpoint, I’m interested in your fieldnote-taking and storing process, but I also want to ask about why you decided to write the book the way you did. Here I’m thinking about not only the structure of the book but also how you write each chapter, carefully weaving the police file, your fieldnotes from that time, narrative, and analysis together.
Katherine Verdery: The structure changed several times. Initially it was in 3 parts with a Prologue and Epilogue: Fieldwork under Surveillance I, 1970s; Fieldwork under Surveillance II, 1980s; and Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance. Then I added the “Excursus” before Part III, to record some of my reactions to reading the file, but that left an awkward structure, so I put 1 and 2 into a new Part I (Research under Surveillance), divided the final chapter into two and made them Part II (Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance), and separated the new Parts with the Excursus. This gave it a symmetrical structure that I liked, a structure that also reflected my experience through time.
As for weaving the various bits of each chapter together (each one containing interviews, field notes, narrative, analysis, and parts of the file itself), I wanted the experience of reading it to be somewhat like my own process of doing it as a research project: you get bits from the file, it’s paired with narrative contextualization in the time of reading that file, then increasingly with analysis. In a way, I wrote it to defy the organization of the file itself, which was chaotic and non-chronological. The way I put things together helped me relate better to the self that was in that file.
When I was doing fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s, I kept detailed fieldnotes—initially handwritten, then typed—and when I was working on the book I also kept more summary notes of the conversations I had with people. Unlike my usual fieldnotes, these are dashed off by hand and unindexed, and whereas my usual fieldnotes are typed, used pseudonyms for people, were written in a kind of shorthand, and exist sometimes as a computer file, these final notes are scattered, handwritten, and pretty illegible. Since the officers seem to have had little difficulty in deciphering my shorthand, I cannot claim that my actual field notes are well protected. I will probably destroy the notes from this last “research” (2008-2016).
Tim Gitzen: You talk about the mixture of feelings and thoughts you had about confronting or seeking out informants from the file and even some of the Securitate officers. You mention how determined you were to talk to them about their experiences, part investigation but also part cathartic. Can you say more about this experience and your strategies for seeking these individuals out and writing about what they had to say?
Katherine Verdery: First, let me respond to your word “strategies.” This project took on a life of its own. It did not begin with a research proposal for funding: it began with my being handed this mass of paper about which I knew absolutely nothing. I did not “plan” this project, and “strategy” becomes an appropriate word only for my efforts to find the three officers I met at the end. Much of the time I was just feeling my way.
The two principal informers I interviewed were opposite in that one had already revealed her informing to me even before I had the file, whereas it took me a long time to figure out the other. With the first one, our conversations helped us to re-experience those moments in our friendship but also to show me what effects her encounters with the police had had on her. I think her aim in agreeing to talk about it was to exculpate herself as much as possible while still being believable and showing what the whole experience was like for her. Even now, she cannot think of herself as an informer.
With the second informer, my motivations were somewhat different. I found myself furious with him as I read his notes—so intrusive, so revelatory, so contrary to the spirit of what I thought our relationship was about. Basically, I wanted to tell him off. But I forced myself to start the conversation in a neutral mode, and it quickly became interesting as he described the process of his recruitment and his ambivalent relation to the officer he served. When we finished, we both felt huge relief—he because he had been able to explain himself and apologize, I because his account was very illuminating and I was grateful for the length of time he took with me.
I should note that I did not tape record either interview but took notes by hand as we spoke. The idea of tape recording was still too sensitive for people raised in that society.
Tim Gitzen: Perhaps one of the more surprising parts of the book is your candid discussion of sex and sexuality during fieldwork and how this was being monitored and even leveraged by the Securitate. In this era of the Me Too movement, I was hoping you could speak more to your strategy in writing and including these discussions in the book, the choices you made and reasons for making them.
Katherine Verdery: Here the word “strategy” is appropriate. Reading my file, I realized how unbelievably irresponsible I had been in the use of my body, and as the book progressed I began to see it as possibly a book about research methodology. Precisely because such works rarely talk about sex in the field, I thought it might be useful for students to hear what choices I made and why they were mainly a bad idea. It’s too easy for young people heading off to the field to put their sexual behavior in some compartment other than that of their work, yet it can have significant effects on the people who become implicated in it. So my reason for including that stuff was pedagogical. At this point in my life, I don’t have to maintain my dignity any more, so I thought I might just try to be useful to future researchers. But to the extent that I also saw this book as a record of my experiences in the field, that material was quite important to them.
Tim Gitzen: Throughout the book you allude to resonances the Securitate practices and your experiences have with contemporary security and surveillance practices. What are some of those connections? How do the logics, practices, and experiences you describe in your book speak to the broader security/surveillance-assemblage today? And what advice would you give those either working on topics of surveillance or faced with the possibility of their own secret police file?
Katherine Verdery: The resemblances are not particularly strong, if you think of Securitate surveillance practices as mainly “labor intensive,” whereas what we are experiencing now are “capital-“ or “technology intensive.” The former relies on making tremendous use of human relationships, the latter does not. It is a significant difference. I think the logics and the costs of the two styles are highly divergent. The main thing my experience shares with today’s is that both means of surveillance produce a much greater amount of information than can be meaningfully mined—more so in the case of high-tech surveillance. It’s the only thing that keeps me from wanting to slit my wrists.
As for people facing their own secret police file, one of the people I quote in my book is a Romanian historian, Radu Ioanid, who writes, “I don’t advise anyone to confront their Securitate file. It is an absolutely personal decision, difficult and not without consequences. For me, at least, reading my file was traumatic.” I can say from experience that a person standing on the threshold of reading their surveillance file has absolutely no clue what it will do to them. This book took me longer to write than any of the other seven books I’ve published, because arriving at a sense of clarity was so hard-won. Anyone thinking of doing this should read my book first!