My Life as a Spy

Investigations in a Secret Police File

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 29 illustrations Published: May 2018

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, European Studies > History of Europe, Politics > International Relations

As Katherine Verdery observes, "There's nothing like reading your secret police file to make you wonder who you really are." In 1973 Verdery began her doctoral fieldwork in the Transylvanian region of Romania, ruled at the time by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She returned several times over the next twenty-five years, during which time the secret police—the Securitate—compiled a massive surveillance file on her. Reading through its 2,781 pages, she learned that she was "actually" a spy, a CIA agent, a Hungarian agitator, and a friend of dissidents: in short, an enemy of Romania. In My Life as a Spy she analyzes her file alongside her original field notes and conversations with Securitate officers. Verdery also talks with some of the informers who were close friends, learning the complex circumstances that led them to report on her, and considers how fieldwork and spying can be easily confused. Part memoir, part detective story, part anthropological analysis, My Life as a Spy offers a personal account of how government surveillance worked during the Cold War and how Verdery experienced living under it.


"A memoir with the exciting elements of an espionage thriller. . . . This work of anthropological intrigue shows the author’s academic coming-of-age." — Karl Helicher, Foreword Reviews

"Fascinating, thoughtful and occasionally riveting." — James Ryerson, New York Times Book Review

"Coming from such a distinguished academic, Verdery’s brutally honest description of herself, including as a naive and careless young scholar, is stunning. Few books reflect so frankly and so powerfully on the nature and complications of an academic career." — Foreign Affairs

"This book raises provocative points about the effect of surveillance that will appeal to most readers." — Laurie Unger Skinner, Library Journal

"To read one’s police file is—suddenly—to have the curtain pulled open. The self you think you know becomes a mask, concealing a devious somebody else whose relationships are mere espionage fakes. . . . [An] unforgettable book." — Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books

"This book constitutes an excellent, detailed foray into the workings of a surveillance state in the Soviet bloc. But ultimately, this book’s strength emerges from its transparency concerning anthropological methodologies, an openness that comprises a foundational read for not only anthropology students but also for any social scientist working in post-socialist states." — Sabrina Papazian, EuropeNow

"Surely one of the finest and most thoughtful accounts of modern surveillance that we possess." — Mark Mazower, TLS

"Verdery’s My Life as a Spy offers an analysis of the documents one surveillance operation generated and the role played by both informers and officers. This postmodern approach is valuable, yet there are certain limits to this, as it is just one case and it would be quite difficult to generalise on her conclusions for all such documents. Verdery had the advantage of confronting some of the officers, which constitutes one of the most essential contributions of her book, as it helps us understand how the enemy of the regime was constructed during the second phase of communism and how the authorities dealt with them." — Vlad Onaciu, LSE Review of Books

"Joining a growing body of literature based on secret police archival documents, Verdery’s book stands out as she deploys her craft of anthropologist to examine the unexpected material. . . . By investigating one of its most elusive yet powerful apparatuses, the Securitate, Verdery creates an enthralling ethnography of the Communist state. . . . My Life as a Spy will teach anthropology, sociology, and history students much about methodology, and it is exemplary in exposing the dilemmas inherent in that methodology." — Irina Culic, American Ethnologist

"My Life as a Spy is Verdery’s masterpiece. . . . This is a book that should be read by all anthropologists and taught across the globe – a beautifully written, deeply engaged and engaging text that shows just what a wonderful and revelatory discipline anthropology can be when in the hands of committed and resourceful scholars." — Michael Stewart, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"A remarkable example of introspection, notable for its candour. . . . Katherine Verdery provides a unique contribution in English to analyses of the intrusion by the totalitarian state into the daily lives of its citizens and the methods employed to do so." — Dennis Deletant, Slavonic and East European Review

"This captivating memoir is like none I have read before. . . .  A masterpiece." — Kate Brown, Slavic Review

"[Verdery] explores how some individuals informed because of blackmail or compulsion but others because they were friends with some of the officers. This focus on human connections in surveillance, also of central importance to ethnographic study, is welcomed and may surprise readers at first, as surveillance in a Western context has often been equated with remote electronic forms. It enlightens readers to the idea that at the root of surveillance is the human connection. . . . A fascinating exploration. . . ." — Dennis Molinaro, Surveillance & Society

"My Life as a Spy is an extraordinary book and an engaging examination of what it means to be a scholar in addition to how we should understand the Romanian communist system. Bold, brilliant, dazzling, learned, and provocative: this is a work to be savored." — Stephen Norris, Anthropology of East Europe Review

"Every anthropologist should read this book." — Steven Sampson, PoLAR

"My Life as a Spy offers an incisive and nuanced exploration of state surveillance in socialism undertaken by someone who was a target of that surveillance.… Seasoned scholars working in Eastern Europe, graduate students preparing for field work (especially in authoritarian settings) and researchers in expanding surveillance studies, as well as anyone interested in the machinery of state socialism in Romania and elsewhere, would benefit greatly from reading My Life as Spy." — Gediminas Lankauskas, Anthropologica

"With fearless curiosity and a broken heart, Katherine Verdery takes us on a fraught journey into her secret police files, addressing issues of trust and betrayal in fieldwork with such vulnerability you want to hold her hand. A haunting and original mix of autoethnography and history, this book is certain to become a classic in anthropology." — Ruth Behar, author of Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys

“This fascinating and important book should be compulsory reading for all anthropologists and oral historians. There is nothing quite like it.” — Sheila Fitzpatrick, author of A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Katherine Verdery is Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania and Secrets and Truths: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania's Secret Police.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface  xi
A Note of Fonts, Pseudonyms, and Pronunciation  xiii
Acknowledgments  xv
Prologue  1
Part I. Research under Surveillance
1. The 1970s: "The Folklorist" as Military Spy  33
2. The 1980s: The Enemy's Many Masks  111
Excursus. Reflections on Reading One's File  181
Part II. Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance
3. Revelations  195
4. Ruminations  277
Epilogue  295
Notes  299
Bibliography  309
Index  315
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Winner, 2018 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing

Katherine Verdery is the recipient of the 2020 ASEEES Distinguished Contributions to Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Award

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