It has the markings of a great thriller, but it’s not fiction. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery’s memoir, My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File is based on her experience as a researcher in Romania during the Cold War; a story that she did not fully come to know and appreciate until many years later.
In 1973, Verdery went to Transylvania, a region of Romania, to do field work on various aspects of village life. At that time and until 1989, the country was in the grips of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s totalitarian government. Neighbors had long ago learned not to trust one another as surveillance by the Romanian Securitate was a fact of life.
Verdery was not naïve to the work of the Securitate. Even when two friends told her that they had to report on her, she never anticipated that there was more to the story. She returned to Romania several times over the next two decades not suspecting that her every move was being documented, that her friendships were not what they seemed, and that the Securitate believed her to be an enemy of the state.
It was not until 2008 that Verdery had the opportunity to see her file from the Securitate’s archives. A staggering 2781 pages long, it consisted of photographs that included her in a state of undress in a hotel room; written reports by officials; and the most devastating, accounts of people that she had considered friends.
Appalled, shocked – it took Verdery years to process, not only what others had done, but what she had done to contribute to it. She had believed her effort to collect data, as an anthropologist, was transparent. Verdery, however, came to understand that she played an unwitting role in the narrative that defined her as a spy, an enemy to the very people that she had spent a good part of her life studying.
Katherine Verdery is the Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.