Parenting Advice from a Spy: CIA Spymaster Jack Devine on Raising a Family Undercover

With Father’s Day around the corner, author and CIA spymaster Jack Devine shares what it’s like to be both a father and a spy, with input from his children on the experience of growing up undercover in foreign lands. (Devine is the author of Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story.)

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Jack, how has working for the CIA influenced your parenting six children and now thirteen grandchildren?

While James Bond and George Smiley never had to function in the world of parenting, most CIA operators have spouses and children and have to confront this challenge daily. The added complexity for most CIA families is the fact that much of their lives take place in foreign lands while operating under cover.

Often, I have reflected on whether hauling children around the world from foreign post to post shortchanged them from living in the same community, and did it disadvantage them from the experience of a “normal’ upbringing stateside. Without exception, each of my children have told me that they cherish the experience and have no regrets about the nomadic lifestyle. They believe their experience abroad, as part of a CIA family under cover, provided them with a deep understanding of foreign cultures and languages and enhanced their ability to socialize easily with people from diverse backgrounds.

I’m sure they are sincere, but I remember the pain, for example that unfolded from pulling my two youngest daughters (Jennifer and Megan) out of high school abroad in Argentina and transplanting them to Wooten HS in Maryland in their senior and junior years respectively. Even with their seasoned social skills, it was a very difficult transition to come into a new school where most of the students had grown up together. There also is the consideration of putting your children in harm’s way. For instance, living through a coup in Chile in 1973 was extremely dangerous for all of them and Pat. During the coup, I was separated from my family for several days, nailed down in the American Embassy operating under a nationwide curfew. At the same time, there was widespread shooting in our neighborhood and two Chileans where killed adjacent to our home. Later that day, the family had to be evacuated from the house with the assistance of another courageous CIA officer who sped to the house and scooped them up in his personal vehicle.

Likewise, the experience of confronting the reality that two of the kids (Christiane and Amy) were robbed at knife point in two different cities where violence was rampant. The family also lived through a horrendous hurricane in the Caribbean, and in its aftermath, my oldest son Joe came down with dengue fever due to the swamp infested pools of water left by the hurricane. Pat also suffered from a serious case of typhoid while we lived in Chile.

Even when I remind them of these events, they stay firm on their collective view that they had an exciting upbringing with many precious memories. One may ask how did I manage it? The answer is simple, as the children would add quickly, — their mother (Pat) provided the security and ballast needed to function while I spent much of my time running spy operations and carrying out official embassy functions. Pat’s intense support, “can do” attitude and resourcefulness made it work. Not surprisingly, all of us remain very grateful for her heroism and talk about it whenever the clan gathers. Even on “Father’s Day”, she is what the Latins call “La que manda” — the one in charge!

Here’s a question for your children: What was it like to have a CIA spymaster as a father? A real-life Meet the Parents Robert de Niro character?

As the children of a spymaster, we have crossed oceans as if they were municipal creeks, visited historical sites as if they were local parks, and met some of the most influential people as if they were neighbors. The question we are most often asked by friends, family, and colleagues is “what was it like?” None of us have ever really thought of it until the publication of my father’s book, Good Hunting, and so for years we answered the questions with a simple answer – Normal.

We started our life abroad as very young children in Chile thousands of miles from home, and over the years lived in seven foreign countries. Nonetheless, from our point of view, it was a traditional childhood upbringing. In all of our travels, customs were practiced – a sense of family, community and celebration.

Part of the “normal” was celebrating American holidays. None of us can ever forget the Halloween party where our father showed up as Frankenstein – an unusually tall individual in ski boots with a Frankenstein mask– a very scary person indeed. As my father entered the party in the Frankenstein style, his children with a sense of glee ran towards him as the other 100 guests sprinted in fear in the opposite direction. When he pulled off the mask, the kids screamed louder — hardly the stuff of James Bond.

Customs, local or imported from the U.S., may not always have gone as expected, but we witnessed our parents embracing each one as an opportunity to learn, grow, and enjoy. This was our normal lifestyle. We spent many years thereafter in various countries in Latin America embracing the many different cultures and experiences and developing friendships with people from around the world. As family and friends visited, it would be safe to say, we climbed historical monuments with our foreign guests more times than the locals, we weathered natural disasters including hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, and we celebrated the victories of each countries. We experienced governments established, overthrown, stability created, and hope restored.

But life abroad had its hurdles as well—- where do two daughters find prom dresses in Buenos Aires? During an official trip back to Washington with the head of Argentine Intelligence, Dad, the spymaster, was given the shopping list for two proms dresses, coordinated shoes and the appropriate undergarments. He performed marvelously and surprisingly, but to reveal the mystery of his success, he decrypted how he put his tradecraft training to use shopping. On his shopping missions, he would stand still in the young women’s department with his list conspicuously in hand and conjuring up the most forlorn look possible, and wait. Sure enough within minutes, several sales ladies would rush to help this lost soul. If only they had known. And yes, even after my father’s book was published and the political and policy issues of his time aired, we still have etched in our mind a life of “normalcy”. So, as we think about it, it seemed routine to meet a president between dental appointments (we couldn’t be late for the dental appointment), meeting the Pope in a private mass, hiding in the wings while our parents entertained foreign dignitaries at home, and seeing a string of strangers drift in and out of our household late at night, especially in time of troubles. Through it all, we cried, laughed, and celebrated as every other family.

We witnessed our parents embrace the experience with a sense of respect for each culture yet retaining a sense of deep patriotism. We are Americans that traveled the world with a spy as a father and a mother that demonstrated by example a sense of adaptability, strength, and adventure. We blended many countries into an experience of lifetime. Is this Normal – I don’t know, but it was an experience we cherish and there is not a single one of us that would have it any other way.

3 thoughts on “Parenting Advice from a Spy: CIA Spymaster Jack Devine on Raising a Family Undercover

  1. ‘ living through a coup in Chile in 1973 was extremely dangerous’. That should read, ‘the CIA-orchestrated coup’ in which Devine was complicit, of course.

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