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Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA

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Amaryllis Fox's memoir tells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world's most dangerous terrorists in sixteen countries while marrying and giving birth to a daughter.

240 pages, Roughcut

First published October 15, 2019

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Amaryllis Fox

3 books88 followers

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5 stars
2,478 (26%)
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4,036 (43%)
3 stars
2,316 (24%)
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386 (4%)
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69 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,012 reviews
Profile Image for Victoria.
412 reviews319 followers
June 4, 2020
About 30% related to the CIA, 70% self-reflection, personal history and point-of-view. I understand that much of what she worked on is classified, but I was hoping for more cloak and dagger, fewer intimate details of her life. The little bits she does share about the tradecraft were fascinating, but they were few and far between which made for rather a dull read.

I listened to this book read by the author and her deadly droning delivery grated to no end, but I persevered because this was a couple read with the significant other and he does not give up easily. In the end, even he had to admit this was not worth our listening time, but others have loved, so it may just be that our expectations differed.
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
431 reviews270 followers
October 24, 2022
3 ☆ a double life for the CIA exacted an emotional toll but provided a valued life lesson

In an October 2019 NPR article, “The War on Terrorism, Through the Eyes of 3 Women in the CIA,” this was one of the three books recently published and cited. I read Life Undercover because I was curious about not only on how does one become a spook but what does a foreign intelligence officer actually do? Has this position been glorified by me viewing too many James Bond and Jason Bourne movies?

Life Undercover began like a thriller novel as Amaryllis Fox recounted a mission in Karachi, Pakistan and ended chapter one with a cliffhanger. The memoir then commenced chronologically from age 7. Fox’s story encompassed her childhood, her gap year adventure in Southeast Asia, university, and finally her time with the CIA. She wrote lyrically about her childhood and family members as she grew up in both Washington, D.C. and London, United Kingdom. At age 18, she made her first foray into the international thriller milieu by conducting and smuggling out a highly contraband interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and political dissident who was then under house arrest in Burma.

Recruited by the CIA during her graduate studies, Fox described the hurdles of “current affairs exams, role-playing and language aptitude tests, psych batteries and polygraph machines” prior to the final stage of passing the security clearance process. Her double life began at age 22, as Fox received a provisional offer and began to gather and assess foreign intelligence during desk duty while stateside. She was to tell no one about her real employer’s identity. Once she completed her graduate studies, Fox was invited into the highly coveted Clandestine Services branch. With 50 other aspirants, Fox began an intensive 1-year CIA training program at “The Farm” in Virgina after receiving this welcome:
we’re facing a multi headed monster out there and the nation has never been more in need of your service

The intensive training program for would-be James Bonds was grueling as it seemed designed more to weed out future spies than not. Failing any stage meant being reassigned out of Clandestine Services. Fox had to master Field Tradecraft, which included how to elicit foreign intelligence by cultivating “assets” and evading surveillance measures. “The Farm” then became a simulated fictional foreign country under terrorist attack. Defensive driving, among other lessons, were also incorporated.

Fox soon began to understand the level of commitment demanded by the Central Intelligence Agency. She disclosed the impact working for the CIA had on her romantic relationships. The last 40 percent of Life Undercover described how her working life impacted her sense of self and ultimately led to her main takeaway life lesson when she felt that it was time to leave the Agency. Fox’s purpose in writing her memoir was made explicit in the last chapter and it was tied to her observation:
we all pretend to be fierce because we’re all on fire with fear

Her new work is to end conflict through vulnerable, honest human exchange. Fox wrote carefully throughout her narrative so her final purpose wasn’t a true surprise to me. She revealed some very personal stories that I could see many others would choose to hide - from the two marriages that were entered into because it was the pragmatic way of keeping the person within her secret CIA life to the very messy, less than ideal ways that these same relationships ended.

But it’s that part of “honest” exchange that I have some issues with once I finished her memoir. She is a public speaker and now a bit of a public figure, as she has married into the Kennedy clan (yes, that Kennedy clan) in 2018. In the news articles covering her wedding ceremony, they listed her daughter’s age as 8 years old. But in my careful reading of her timeline, her memoir mentioned her daughter’s birth while she was working in the Central Intelligence Agency, not after as the articles indicate. Having the additional responsibility and vulnerability of a child during dangerous work as a spook heightened the emotional intensity and impact of her memoir. If it’s false, well then, I feel manipulated and inclined to reduce the significance of her rhetoric (and I knocked off 1 star in my rating).

Controversy over Fox’s memoir also surrounds the fact that she published Life Undercover without receiving final security clearance from the Central Intelligence Agency. Fox did write that “names, locations, and operational details have been changed to safeguard intelligence sources and methods.” In interviews with other former CIA employees, they questioned some of her stories - in particular, the major one in which she approached a terrorist cell on her own without any form of back-up (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/nati...). If she felt that that disclaimer reasonably accounted for moving her daughter’s birth up by 2 years and for making other changes, then I guess that Fox was indeed a true spook. This would be a bit of a shame as I believe that there is incredible value in the main point that she tried to communicate - ending conflict through honest human connection.
Profile Image for Tammy.
512 reviews431 followers
July 9, 2019
More than likely this memoir will be a nonfiction bestseller in 2020. As a former CIA super spy, Fox has stellar media connections and it certainly won’t hurt that she is married to a member of the Kennedy family. The pace is a bit too brisk and the writing is rather pedestrian but she does succeed in providing a glimpse into her world during the time she was working within the most dangerous countries in the world. I will sleep a bit better knowing these spooks are on duty trying to make the world a safer place for all.
Profile Image for Margo Tanenbaum.
799 reviews21 followers
September 7, 2019
This new memoir is a well written account of what it's like as a young woman to be recruited by the CIA and then to serve as a top secret undercover officer. While I found the book engrossing, I found the author's attitude in the book to be very irritating--I wish I could have her confidence in the US strategies abroad. In reading her book, you might think that the US always takes the moral high road--we are good, the other guys are bad, etc. The world is not that simplistic. Ms. Fox is clearly a very smart individual so this single-mindedness bothered me, and frankly, frightened me. Also, she thinks very highly of herself and her CIA colleagues, who seem to almost form part of a cult of people who think they are smarter and know more than anyone else. I do wonder, also, how it is that the CIA grants people like Ms. Fox permission to divulge so many of their training methods--donj't you have to sign some kind of non-disclosure agreement? I much preferred as a CIA female agent memoir the book Blowing My Cover: My life as a CIA Spy by Lindsey Moran. She is not nearly as high and mighty as Ms. Fox.
169 reviews3 followers
August 18, 2019
The spy who prevented a nuclear attack with a bottle of clove oil...

This is the absolutely riveting story of a modern day spy, a real life James Bond, although, as she notes, Bond is ridiculous; in the real world of espionage, "one street chase and my cover is blown for life." This is the story of how Ms. Fox became a spy, what that life cost her and what it gained, and why she left.

This memoir exposes so many secret lives, all at once. Ms Fox talks about being recruited by the CIA while still in graduate school, getting up at 2 am, analyzing and preparing nuclear threat assessments for the President's morning briefings before biking back across DC for a full day of classes. She writes about being chosen for clandestine service, and how she recruited her first pretend asset, with a nod to Frank Sinatra and asking for a favor. She writes about how, in the most high stakes meeting imaginable, with a terrorist cell ready to unleash a nuclear bomb, the presence of clove oil in her backpack ended up being the prop that turned the tide.

Ms. Fox first encounter terrorism at the age of 8, when her best friend was killed in the Pan Am bombing. Her father showed Amaryllis newspaper stories about the attack, hoping that understanding the threat would make it less scary. Another time, he took apart a scary toy in the middle of the night to show her the batteries and blinking lights that made it work. Amaryllis came to believe that understanding something is the secret to being less afraid of it -- an approach that would both make her a unique kind of spy, a spy who believes that the secret to saving the world is not by destroying the enemy, but by understanding them.

I kept thinking, when reading this book, that I wanted more of it. It is 240 pages, and I wanted it to be three times the length, because I loved every single world that she created: her post-high school stint in Burma, where she ended up going undercover to smuggle out an interview with a political prisoner (she was EIGHTEEN years old!). Her double life as a CIA analyst and Georgetown student. Her training at the Farm, involving clandestine training missions all around the streets of DC, which should be its own series all by itself. And of course, her life in the field, where she created a double identity as an art dealer and arms broker, which covered her triple identity as a CIA spy. If this is not turned into a prestige TV series, I will REVOLT. This has more cinematic power than the entire Marvel universe.

But beyond all the spy craft and storytelling, there is something else, something more powerful, and more transformational. This is a book to make you afraid of how real the threats are, yes; how close we come to devastation, and the people who spend their entire lives working to prevent the next attack. (It will also make you furious at anyone who attacks our intelligence agents.)

But more than that, this is a book to make you hopeful, to follow you on Amaryllis' journey towards the belief that understanding (and clove oil) is the path towards a more lasting peace.
Profile Image for Ben.
968 reviews85 followers
October 26, 2019
It's a bit thin for a memoir. Already a short book, it is heavily padded with stories from her childhood. There's not enough from her time at the CIA. What we do get feels a bit simplistic, not introspective, especially her final epiphany. I'm a bit skeptical of some of the situations, too; are we really supposed to believe that nuclear arms dealers were dealing with an American woman in her mid-twenties, without guessing that she's a government agent? Maybe it was all a scam.

> Many of the deals we track are scams. Organized crime syndicates get rich selling harmless "red mercury" the way high school drug dealers make their pocket money peddling oregano. Even the technology that’s real is usually incomplete or broken by the time it passes hands. Or too complex to operate without a team of experts and a government cleanroom. But all it takes is one

> As operatives, he and I are on different sides of this struggle, fighting each other. As parents, we're on the same side, fighting for our kids' right to breathe. … I know he's thinking I've gone soft since I had my girl. And he's right. But what he doesn't understand yet is that soft works. Soft is how we end this war. The Agency taught me to fight terrorism by convincing my enemy that I'm scary. Zoe taught me to fight by taking off my mask and showing my enemy that I'm human.
Profile Image for Jasmine.
1,133 reviews41 followers
September 24, 2019

I was so pleasantly surprised by this book. Usually, with 'memoirs' surrounding war and violence, I find that I lose interest quickly either out of repetitiveness or because the events are tough to swallow. Life Undercover was nothing like that at all. It was very much about the strain that being an undercover agent had on Fox's relationships with colleagues, with men, and with her family.

It was moving in every way, particularly from the halfway point where she talks about her decision to start a family even in the conditions she worked in. Throughout the book, we hear stories about her journeys to wartorn countries, to places overrun with fear like Pakistan, and her life in America where she remained in fear of her life. The whole experience was emotional. 

Looking back on my reading experience, I know that I could never face those conditions. I know I could never leave my family without telling them the truth about where I was and what I was doing. I know I could never willingly put myself in a situation where I could die at any moment. I know I could never hold steady conversations with people who held my future in their hands. Every moment of this book, I thought of how much bravery it requires to work undercover, and how much bravery it requires to expose your identity to tell the world about your work.

I was so impressed by this book. I wouldn't be surprised if it made it on the non-fiction bestsellers list in 2020. I'm excited for this book to go out into the world, for people to see the things Amaryllis Fox had to go through and how she endured it. Life Undercover was amazing in every way. I'm particularly excited for this to be turned into an Apple TV series with Brie Larson! 

Thank you to Amaryllis Fox and to Ebury Press (Penguin) for sending me a copy for review. Life Undercover is due for release on 17th October 2019.
Profile Image for Liz.
752 reviews
December 1, 2019
Narcissism cloaked in a thin veil of patriotism and justice. It must be nice to single-handedly save the world from nuclear holocaust, hang up your spook hat after less than 10 years, move in with your wealthy parents, and write a book glamorizing your heroics. Noblesse oblige, indeed.
Profile Image for Olaf Gütte.
178 reviews69 followers
June 1, 2020
Wer hier spannende Agentengeschichten erwartet,
wird das Buch sicher enttäuscht beiseite legen.
Die Autorin schildert ihr ein Jahrzehnt dauerndes,
natürlich auch ungewöhnliches, mit Privilegien
ausgestattetes Leben als Mitarbeiterin der CIA.
Wie viel davon der Wahrheit entspricht, sei dahingestellt.
Profile Image for Ed.
Author 43 books2,693 followers
March 26, 2020
Rousing, thought-provoking story of a young lady's ten-year tenure at the CIA working undercover, often overseas in trouble spots. I liked reading about her processes and methods. I also admire her dedication and tenacity. The pace doesn't lag. I don't remember reading any long gross scenes.
Profile Image for Viola.
350 reviews49 followers
July 5, 2020
Kaut kā līdz galam nevarēju noticēt autorei. Likās daudz par daudz privātās dzīves momentu, bet arī spiegu spēles mani īpaši nesaista. Domāju tiem, kuriem tīk visādas slepeno dienestu shēmas, šī grāmata liksies interesanta.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,429 reviews2,510 followers
January 18, 2020
Very disappointing: Fox keeps things pretty shallow and isn't a natural writer (a bus is like a dragon, lots of her sentences start 'I' so that they don't flow with rhythm). The first 30% or so percent is her pre-CIA life and isn't especially interesting. Once she does get recruited, there isn't enough specific detail to make this worth reading. We're all pretty clued up these days about what goes on in the intelligence services so if you're familiar with le Carré and real accounts such as 'The Looming Tower' then this feels rather naive.

Of course, one of the hooks is that Fox is a woman in a male-oriented arena but even here the book doesn't really deliver. For example, Fox has to bring her overseas lover to the US, she meets him at the airport, tells him they're going to her apartment, drives him to CIA HQ where he's put straight into a lie detector machine *without even knowing she works for the CIA*, he doesn't protest for a moment and comes out saying, yeah, it's all cool... I mean, really? If so, it's just not a scenario I can relate to.

So I have to say I found this a messy narrative, lacking in the promised tension and excitement, but also light on details and without a real feel for a woman living life undercover. The lack of introspection and political naivety finished it for me.
270 reviews1 follower
November 6, 2019
This book drove me crazy. It was sloppy and full of things that were way beyond belief. ie. Her high school class went to Burma and when they were leaving she told the teacher she did not want to leave so she stayed by herself with less then $100 on her. She then went to meet with Aung Sun Suu Ki. She took a videtape and snuck it out in her snapper. Right....This reads more like a Forest Gump episode then anything else. I did wonder how the CIA would allow a book to get out with their secrets and this is the funniest part - she gives hints on how to follow people or how to detect if people are following you. You could have learned as mcuh watching an episode of Get Smart. Save your time and money unless you want to be taken for an idiot.
Profile Image for Anete.
428 reviews63 followers
April 10, 2021
Interesants un ļoti personisks stāsts. Amaryllis CIP nokļūst ļoti jauna – 21 gada vecumā, bet jau tajā vecumā ir visai neordināra un pieredzējusi persona pat izlikšanās arodā. Šī grāmata ir autores atmiņu stāsts par bērnību, jaunību, apmācībam CIP, dzīves līkločiem, un sevis saglabāšanu, pildot dienesta pienākumus CIP, kur tik bieži jāmaina sejas un vide. Ak jā, un Amaryllis Fox noteikti neiebilstu, ja viņu nosauktu par pacifisti.

Profile Image for Randal White.
794 reviews69 followers
November 17, 2019
Wow! I loved this book. How in the world did the author get it past the censors at the CIA?
Quickly moving, well written, intriguing story.
The author has an amazing story to tell. And tells it masterfully. So much better than the typical “I did all these great and dangerous things in my career, but due to national security, I can’t tell you about them” book of this type. No, she tells the stories, warts and all. And bares her soul, telling of her own struggles, mistakes, and misgivings. And the toll the CIA policies took on her and the people targeted.
Again, how did this get past the censors??? I am so glad that it did. The author has an important story to tell. And does it very well!
Profile Image for Kristīne.
556 reviews1 follower
May 1, 2020
Kad skatos spiegu/poliču seriālus - vispār, jebkurus profesionālos, vienmēr pieņemu visu ar daļu skepses, nu nevar tā taču būt īstenībā! Bet te memuārs, jābūt visam īstam, cik nu legāli autore varēja visu daudz pastāstīt. Un tāpat negribas visam ticēt. Pārāk daudz Foresta Gampa momentu. Visos sava laika svarīgākajos notikumos viņa ir bijusi klāt, tas viņu ir veidojis. Tā gan ir tikai retrospektīva, un reiz kādā filmā tika minēts, ja dod cilvēkam pietiekami daudz laika, visus punktus uz iespējams savienot.

Bija interesanti, uzzināju dažus spiegu knifus, kā sarunāt netveramas tikšanās, kā risināt ieroču tirgošanās pārrunas, ļoti noderīgi. Autore raksta labi, raiti, gudri, brīžiem pat pārāk labi, un sinemātiski, jo teksts, ja vietām neizskatās pēc romāna, tad uzreiz pēc scenārija. Filmēšanas tiesības jau ir pārdotas, Apple TV, neteikšu, kas tēlos Amarilli, man ļoti traucēja, ka tas jau tika atklāts uz grāmatas vāka.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
968 reviews101 followers
April 23, 2020
At the age of 21, Amaryllis Fox was ready to make a difference in the world. She had completed an undergraduate degree in international law and theology at Oxford. She then returned to the United States and enrolled at Georgetown University where she developed an algorithm which could predict the likelihood that a terrorist cell could attack anywhere in the world. Her work did not go unnoticed and, while still a student, she was recruited to work as a covert agent for the CIA.

Her assignments took her first to CIA headquarters where she analyzed cables and other information, and prepared briefs to be read by the President. Then after graduating from Georgetown, she was given assignments as a nonofficial agent in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North Africa.

In this fascinating and informative memoir, written with frankness and sensitivity, Amaryllis traces her nearly ten years with the CIA as she develops the knowledge and perspective of how challenging and important this work really is. Along the way she came to realize that vulnerability is a component of strength and that building trust with your adversaries simply works better than exerting force. Her courage, dedication to achieving peace in the world, as well as her formidable skills in assessing situations have earned respect from her colleagues and friends.

Well written and insightful, this book is a must read for anyone interested in world affairs - especially in this time!
Profile Image for Carmen Liffengren.
801 reviews33 followers
October 22, 2019
3.5 Stars

I wasn't exactly expecting Sydney Bristow and Alias or anything like that, but that's kind of what I got (minus the Rambaldi Device). Fox led a most impressive and unique life. At 21, she was recruited by the CIA and fast-tracked into ops training. I could almost see the film montage of that particularly grueling training. I was keenly fascinated by the chess-like maneuvering that Fox employs juggling intelligence, contacts, classified info, and targets. What I really wanted more of was her adjustment back to civilian life after the birth of her daughter. After years in deep cover, living under constant surveillance, within a "swirl of fiction," I wanted to understand the psyche of human endurance and how she uncoiled from her cover to let her true identity emerge. Did she know who she truly was after so many years in the field? Fox was just touching on this as her memoir was winding down. The CIA is endlessly fascinating to me and Fox's work was truly engrossing, but her memoir covers a lot of territory quickly and I wanted more of her more emotional story.
Profile Image for Skirmantė Rugsėjis.
Author 4 books64 followers
June 8, 2021
Anotacija ir viršelis žadėjo kvapą gniaužiančią dokumentiką. Serialą "Tėvynė" žiūrėjau su didžiausiu malonumu, man labai patiko Snowden'o knyga, o sužinoti daugiau apie terorizmą, rytų šalis ir pavojingiausias pasaulio grupuotes, tokios progos nepraleisčiau niekada.

Pradžioje nustebino vaikystės pasakojimas, kuris tęsėsi visus 40 puslapių (atmetus trumpą prologą) ir jo buvo smarkiai per daug knygai, kurioje tėra 258 puslapiai. Norėjosi nerti į tikrąją temą, bet autorė niekur neskubėjo, aprašinėjo kaip atrodo pastatai, kokios spalvos segtuvus gauna vienas ar kitas agentas, savo asmeninius santykius su kitais žmonėmis ir daug visko, kas niekaip nesisiejo su jokia operatyvine veikla.

Šiek tiek vėliau veiksmas persikėlė į Birmą, bet ir vėl, aprašomos bereikšmės scenos kaip kareiviai vežė, klausė, kratė, kelios smulkmenos kaip paėmė pasus ar kur slėpė juostas. Tokius "faktus" galima rasti internete, jų pilnos grožinės knygos, o čia juk biografija. Norėjosi žymiai daugiau, kažko savito, kitokio, tikresnio.

Deja, nebuvo. Be galo daug nereikšmingos informacijos, net gimtadienių ir balionų bei gimdymo aprašymas. Asmeniniai santykiai čia užėmė pusę istorijos ir niekuo nepadėjo įsijausti į tą "gyvenimą po priedanga".

O galiausiai sužinojau, kad tokia stipri ir kovoti norėjusi moteris pagimdžiusi netrukus persigalvojo ir išėjo iš darbo, jos prioritetai pasikeitė. Tai dabar sėdžiu ir mąstau kodėl buvo parašyta ši istorija ir apie ką ji? Moterį, kurios vertybės ir planai pasikeitė? Tai mes kiekviena tada galim parašyti knygą apie save. O gal tai kūrinys apie šnipę, slaptą agentę iš elitinio padalinio kaip skelbia anotacija? Tačiau, kodėl ši agentė negali normaliai papasakoti apie jokią operaciją, kurioje būtų buvusi svarbiausia? Čia pilna telegramų skaitymo ir popierių kilnojimo. O visos grupuotės virsta tik vardais, kuriuos bet kas gali užrašyti. Joje nėra jokio normalaus įvykio nuo A iki Z, tik pavieniai epizodai, o ji juose ne pagrindinė dalyvė, veikiau kito agento ar vyro šešėlis.

Tai ką naujo sužinojau, ko nebūčiau žinojusi? Svarstau... ir nerandu nieko. Tik daug reklamos ant viršelio. Skambūs pavadinimai slepia tuščią ir nuobodų turinį. Iš tiesų nusivyliau.
Profile Image for human.
640 reviews989 followers
Want to read
November 25, 2020
thank you, npr article, because this book sounds so incredibly interesting!
Profile Image for Lance Charnes.
Author 7 books90 followers
August 2, 2021
As a sometime writer of espionage tales, I'm drawn to spy memoirs not for nuts-and-bolts descriptions of tradecraft (there rarely are any) but to get an insight into how and why intelligence operatives end up in their jobs and how their minds work. It takes all kinds: the life-on-the-edge types who gravitate to fieldwork and the ever-present risk of exposure and worse; the techies and artists who build the sometimes outlandish gear the field operatives use or devise their false identities; and the analysts who can piece together hundreds or thousands of tiny pieces of information gathered from across the globe to form a picture that may have far-reaching consequences (a job I sort-of had at the end of my Air Force career). I read to find out who these people are and how they got that way.

Life Undercover fulfills this purpose admirably. The CIA recruited Amaryllis Fox, the author, out of grad school in Georgetown into their analysis shop, where she specialized in tracking nuclear proliferation and arms dealing. Then she entered the Agency's Clandestine Service, becoming a field operative under non-official cover (NOC), which is the intel world's version of doing acrobatics without a net over a swimming pool full of pit vipers. There she stayed until she couldn't take it anymore.

Fox writes engagingly about her experiences. Her recounting of her path to spookhood is lyrical and periodically lovely in its imagery. Once she reaches Langley, she pulls back a bit, perhaps knowing that there's only so much she can say about her work there before the Agency's censors turn her manuscript into ribbons. She talks about how her job colors her life and relationships, and discusses with some genuine feeling her two "Agency marriages" -- semi-manufactured nuptials designed to allow a mate to share her life without requiring her to lie to him all the time -- and the endings to both. She also successfully describes the claustrophobia and paranoia induced by living as a NOC in Shanghai with a housekeeper who is most probably a Chinese spy. As with the authors of Blowing My Cover and The Company We Keep , Fox finally pulled the plug on her CIA career because the all-consuming work finally threatened to crush her spirit if not her sanity.

Some of the reviewers here seem miffed that the author came from a privileged background and went to a top-shelf university. But that's where the CIA recruits its case officers -- there are a lot of very smart people at Langley with a lot of advanced degrees, and the Agency has the luxury of not needing to trawl for applicants at Pahrump Community College. Others seem disappointed that Fox didn't leave the service as a broken husk of a human being, an addict of one sort or another, or missing a major limb. Well, she had the sense to get out before that happened. The strung-out, washed-up, drunken spy who gets called in for one last mission is a good (if overused) plot device in fiction but makes for miserable humanity. My congratulations to her on her escape and on sticking the landing off the compound.

Life Undercover is the personal story of a bright, talented woman who for a while was in the shadowy end of our checkered War on Terror. If you want spy derring-do or a primer on fieldcraft, move along; this ain't it. But if you want to see how the Girl Next Door becomes a for-real Harriet the Spy, you could do a lot worse than this.
Profile Image for Bonnie G..
1,298 reviews188 followers
May 3, 2022
I might give this a 4.5 if that were an option. Fox is an exceptional writer who had lived an exceptional life. She is exactly the type of woman I would have expected to marry a Kennedy (side note -- she has a new baby - named Bobcat after her great grandfather Bobby Kennedy -- and I am so worried she will listen to her crazy antivax father in law and not get the baby her shots.) But I digress. This is a really unique coming of age story. It is about different types of patriotism, it is about putting the safety of others before your own--(a poignant message at this time when people are dying because Americans seem to think being told they need to wear a mask during a pandemic is an assault on their liberty.)

Fox has made me feel pretty good about the CIA and its operatives. but she also criticizes plenty. Her biggest criticism is that the agency refuses to understand Muslim countries, and as a result it is less effective then it could be, and that this willful ignorance ruins the lives of innocent people and not a thought is given to that injustice. Her stories on this subject are chilling. We need to do better. But most of the work that is done is noble and most of the operatives who are doing it are pretty badass, and pretty effective.

This is primarily about Fox discovering herself and forming her world view. It has a bit of Spy, Pray Love about it. That said, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (who has written novels I love, but whose memoirs I hate) Fox is not entirely self involved. Gilbert is a parody of white privilege (her "one from column A" approach to Eastern religions is SO disrespectful!), but Fox thinks of herself in terms of how she can use her exceptional intellect, education, and privilege to help others, including others she will never meet. Gilbert celebrates what is wrong with America, and Fox celebrates what is right.

People who come to this looking for a spy story are going to be disappointed. People who come looking for a personal growth story that also includes cool and sometimes really touching spy stories (where details like locations have been changed to protect operatives, informants, and the rest of us), and a tiny bit of strategy for devising framework within which America might come of age in a good way will find a lot to like. My only ding is that Fox spends a lot of time at the beginning talking about her family, and her siblings utterly disappear never to be heard from again. If her point is that she lost family relationships because of the lies she had to tell for 8 years, she should have been more explicit. Otherwise, the first 20ish pages seem extraneous.
Profile Image for Mrtruscott.
244 reviews13 followers
January 27, 2020
I must miss the series “The Americans,” about the suburban Russian spy couple. This book was a very PG version of that show. The book was short, it was a fast read, it was a C-.

I kept thinking “they’re babies!” about the author and her colleagues. Ahem. Well, they are! We like to recruit and draft the young and naive to fight our battles.

So despite the author’s hyper-educated credentials, I can attribute her earnestness and “kumbaya-parents will save the world with love for the children” to her relative youth.

Maybe I’ll go watch “Homeland.”
4 reviews
January 4, 2020
For such an interesting life, I was left incredibly bored and uninterested in the contents of this book. Her boring and childish writing style is an injustice to her interesting story. She fails to explore the CIA with any real depth which left me very disappointed. Giving it 2 stars for how interesting her life was, and she did a good job of just pushing the story on, just without any real depth. Really a shame.
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews34 followers
December 5, 2019
An interesting book about a very young agent of the Central Intelligence Agency. She is obviously very intelligent, well read and dedicated Makes me proud that such folks are selected for such duty. She left the work after a fairly short term and her ultimate message is one of peace and reconciliation. Very laudable.
October 30, 2019
Not up to the hype

No where as interesting as predicted. Writing not up making it suspenseful or gripping. Not worth the cost or the effort read.
Profile Image for Knygos aura.
128 reviews28 followers
October 19, 2021
„Terorizmas yra psichologinis eskalacijos žaidimas. Žmones baugina ne buvusi ataka. O būsimoji.“

Na, čia jau buvo tema, kurios tikrai stipriai neišmanau. Šnipai, CŽA agentai, informatoriai.. Žodžiai lyg iš veiksmo filmo apie agentus arba komedijos apie šnipų žaidimus. Bet ne, čia yra autobiografija! Aha, ir ją parašė jauna moteris, kuri 10 metų dirbo CŽA ir sukūrė algoritmą, leidžiantį nuspėti teroristinės grupės atsiradimo bet kuriame pasaulio kampelyje tikimybę! Ir šiaip ji ypatingai kieta!

Man buvo labai smalsu sužinoti, kaip tampama CŽA agentu, su kokiais pavojais susiduriama juo būnant, ką veikia aukščiausio lygio žvalgybos mokymuose, kurių metu net 6 mėnesius gyvenama simuliaciniame pasaulyje, kaip šis darbas derinamas su šeima bei draugais (nes jie negali prasitarti, kuo dirba)!

Po kiekvieno sakinio norisi dėti šauktukus, nes taip (!), ši istorija tikra (!) ir kiekvienas žmogus, minimas knygoje yra tikras (!). Ir taip, terorizmas yra baisi jėga ir man momentais net skaitant juodu ant balto buvo neaiškios tos schemos ir taktikos. Na, bet turbūt ne šiaip sau aš ir nesu CŽA agentė.

Ir taip, jie paprasti žmonės. Agentai, o ir teroristai taip pat. „Kas bus, jei papasakosiu pasauliui teisybę? Išklosiu tą pačią giliausią paslaptį: kad mes, kariai ir šnipai, visos ugnimi spjaudančios ir griaudėjančios karo mašinos, visos teroristinės grupuotės ir nedraugiškos valstybės tik apsimetame nuožmūs, nes mus degina baimė.“

O gražiausia, ką perskaičiau, buvo: „Tas, kas sodina sodą, tiki rytojumi.“ Ne į temą? Kai gyveni tokį pavojingą gyvenimą, dar ir kaip į temą.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books404 followers
November 13, 2019
Most of us know what little we know about the work of the CIA from novels. Of course, much of that, perhaps most of it, is fanciful. Former CIA officers do write memoirs from time to time, but often, as the Washington Post noted (June 4, 2012), they write to "settle scores about spies." And, as the New York Times revealed (March 15, 2005) in "Ex-Spies Tell It All," their portrait of the Central Intelligence Agency is sometimes "none too flattering." It's refreshing, then, to encounter a memoir without a particular axe to grind about the agency. The book, which is both engrossing and beautifully written, is Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox.

Awareness of the world at an early age

Amaryllis Fox awoke to awareness of the world at an early age. She was eight when her best friend died with her entire family on Pan Am Flight 103, bombed by Libyan terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. The next year, she writes, "I'm transfixed by images of a solitary student, standing his ground in front of a line of Chinese tanks in a place called Tiananmen Square." She was the privileged child of an aristocratic British mother, an actress, and an economist father who traveled the world to advise governments. Showing brilliance at an early age, she declined admission to the U.S. Naval Academy to study aerospace engineering and instead attended the University of Oxford, where she took up theology and law. Following a gap year working with Burmese refugees in Thailand, Fox enrolled in "a master's program in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service." The CIA soon came calling.

Life undercover in CIA's Clandestine Service

At the Agency, Fox began as an analyst, scrutinizing a flood of cables on a daily basis from officers overseas about emerging terrorist threats. As soon as she finished at Georgetown, however, Fox learned that "Clandestine Service wants you." After a year in training, she was sent overseas under Non-official Cover to begin recruiting new agents with connections who would turn up advance information about terrorist plots. But the terrorists in question are not teenagers in suicide vests. They're senior operatives in Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, and others pursuing the "Islamic bomb."

Chasing suitcase nukes: "the holy grail of terrorism"

Over what seems to have been seven or eight years, Fox lived life undercover in sixteen countries pursuing timely information about terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear materials. "There have been dozens of credible nuclear threats since 2001," she writes. The greatest threat seems to come from "the holy grail of nuclear terrorism: the much sought-after, man-portable, airline-checkable suitcase nuke. Only one fifteenth as strong as either of the atomic bombs dropped [in World War II], this tactical weapon would still claim a few hundred thousand lives over a few decades and render an entire city center uninhabitable. These bombs require no codes to operate, and at the very least, we believe that 150 to 200 of them are missing from the former Soviet arsenal." And that is one of the most terrifying facts I've come across in many years.

In Pakistan, she talked the terrorists out of setting off a dirty bomb

It was threats of that magnitude that propelled Amaryllis Fox into the Clandestine Service, and it's clear that her work helped the CIA and its allies to forestall tragedy on several occasions. She writes in detail about one such threat, a plan by terrorists in Pakistan to set off a dirty bomb in a crowded Karachi neighborhood. In that case, she simply talked the terrorists out of carrying through their plan.

"Assets want to be part of something important"

"Cheesy as it sounds," Fox writes, "I've found that deep down, most targets yearn to be part of saving lives or bringing liberty to their lands. Like anyone else, assets want to be part of something important, want their lives to have meant something, want to build some legacy, secret or not, to keep the terrors of mortality and insignificance at bay." And with that perspective guiding her work, she proved to be an exceptionally successful undercover officer.

Life undercover is about building relationships

Fox makes abundantly clear that "it isn't waterboarding or enhanced interrogation that uncovers the location of those lethal heaps of nails and explosives. It's slow, hard-won mutual respect." And that respect can take years to attain: it's all about building relationships in the interest of gaining actionable information. "In the movies, a Glock is a spy's best friend," she notes. "In real life, it's the humble index card, lined on one side for meeting notes, blank on the other for hand-sketched diagrams, schematics, and maps. These three-by-five-inch rectangles of sacred information are our reason for existence."

About the author

Amaryllis Fox is not yet forty years of age but she has already accomplished more than all but a handful of people achieve in a lifetime. Today, she is known best as a peace activist and television personality on CNN, and she famously married Bobby Kennedy III. But her earlier life is even more remarkable. As a child, she lived all over the world, moving nearly every year to a new country to follow her parents as her father's clients changed. At the age of eighteen she interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon for the BBC. As a graduate student at Georgetown, she developed an algorithm that helped predict where terrorism might break out. And that achievement led the CIA to recruit her at the age of twenty-one. After she excelled both in training and in her early work in Langley, the Agency assigned her to the coveted Clandestine Service. Her work undercover in sixteen countries is the centerpiece of her memoir.
Profile Image for miss.mesmerized mesmerized.
1,402 reviews31 followers
February 1, 2020
Jeder kennt sie, die Bücher und Filme über die Agenten, die für CIA, MI6, DGSE oder Mossad gefährliche Aufträge ausführen und die Welt vor den Schurken bewahren. Doch die schillernden Figuren der Unterhaltungsindustrie zeigen nur die eine Seite, auf der sie stark und unverwundbar sind und von einem Kampf in den nächsten ziehen. Ihre Zweifel sieht man selten und noch viel weniger weiß man darüber, wo sie herkommen und wie sie zu dem geworden sind, was uns beim Zusehen so fasziniert. Amaryllis Fox ist eine von ihnen, ein Jahrzehnt ihres Lebens hat sie in den Dienst der CIA gestellt, geheime Missionen unternommen, um ihr Land vor Anschlägen zu schützen. Ein Leben mit fremden Identitäten, die sie selbst vor ihrer Familie und Partner geheim halten musste.

„Einen Garten anzulegen ist der höchste Akt des Glaubens an ein Morgen.“

Dieses Zitat, das die Agentin schon als kleinen Mädchen an einem Schild im Nachbarsgarten gelesen hat, bringt ihre Motivation auf den Punkt: sie will die Welt ein bisschen besser machen, ihren Beitrag zum Frieden leisten. Sie wächst auf zwischen den USA und Großbritannien, der Vater ist beruflich viel unterwegs und Umzüge alle paar Jahre gehören zum Alltag. Schon früh beginnt sie sich für Politik zu interessieren und eine Schulaufgabe über Aung San SUU Kyi, damals gewaltfreie Kämpferin für die Demokratie in ihrer Heimat Myanmar, wird bestimmend für den Weg sein, den sie einschlägt.

Es braucht die Erzählung über ihre Kindheit und Jugend, um zu verstehen, weshalb Amaryllis Fox sich für diese Karriere und gegen die Arbeit bei Hilfsorganisationen entscheidet. Die Ausbildung ist intensiv und anstrengend, immer überschattet von der Angst, doch noch aussortiert zu werden, es nicht zu schaffen, den Anforderungen nicht zu genügen. Und doch können diese Monate und Jahre sie nicht auf das echte Leben vorbereiten, wenn plötzlich Beruf und Privatleben – und in ihrem Fall auch noch ein Kind – unter einen Hut gebracht werden müssen.

Fox schildert die Seite, die sonst verborgen bleibt. Die Angst, die omnipräsent ist und drohend über ihr und ihrer Familie schwebt. Sie stellt ihr Tun auch infrage und im Laufe der Jahre, insbesondere nachdem sie Mutter geworden ist, nehmen menschliche Aspekte zunehmend mehr Raum bei der Beurteilung einer Lage ein. Es ist ein Bericht aus dem Innersten der CIA, sie gibt Einblick in strategische Denkweisen und die bisweilen zermürbende Detailarbeit, die zu dem Job gehört, der in der Realität viel weniger glamourös ist als auf der Leinwand.

Sicherlich ist Amaryllis Fox eine ungewöhnliche Frau, mit nicht einmal zwanzig Jahren wurde sie rekrutiert und gehört allein schon wegen ihres Geschlechts zu einer absoluten Minderheit. „Life Undercover“ sind eine Art Memoiren, die keine Abrechnung mit dem Geheimdienst sind; sie hat sich aus nachvollziehbaren Gründen für diese Arbeit entschieden und daran ändern auch Jahre mit falscher Identität nichts. Ihre analytischen Fähigkeiten erlauben es ihr auch hier Emotionen unter Kontrolle zu halten, die sie in der Zusammenarbeit mit ausländischen Informanten braucht, um Beziehungen und Vertrauen aufzubauen, die bisweilen ihr einziger Schutz sind.

Spannende Einblicke in die Arbeit der CIA, die jedoch viel mehr die interessante Frage danach beantwortet, was diese mit den Menschen macht als dass spektakuläre Geheimnisse offenbart würden.
Profile Image for KC.
2,403 reviews
November 20, 2019
Recruited at a very young age, Amaryllis Fox reveals life undercover in the utmost elite clandestine unit of the CIA. Although she has a distinct talent for writing the written word, lyrical at times, the story often becomes choppy and segmented. Still, extremely interesting and engaging. She is a brilliant narrator if listening to the audiobook.
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