In an exhilarating and fast-moving memoir, Amaryllis Fox describes a life lived under extraordinary secrecy and stress. She depicts in well-developed detail her job as an agent of the most elite operations unit of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Fox was in her final year as an undergraduate at Oxford University studying theology and international law in 2002 when her writing adviser, Daniel Pearl, was captured and beheaded by ISIS. Her personal response to this heinous act was to enter a master’s program in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Her student work there included creating an algorithm that forecasts the likelihood of a terrorist cell forming any place in the world. At the age of 21, Fox was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency and quickly moved up the ranks. She was eventually deployed as a spy under nonofficial cover—the most complex and desirable job— and sent to infiltrate terrorist cells in Middle Eastern and Asian villages.
Fox was a CIA agent for nearly a decade, serving in 16 countries. She left the agency because she grew weary of that clandestine, lonely life, which required telling lies to family and friends in order to maintain her cover. She went through two marriages and divorces during her tenure, an indication of the stress put on family relationships due to the intense secrecy and unconventional nature of her job.
The former super spy masterfully describes how the CIA trained its agents to run a surveillance detection route; how spies established an identity and the protocol agents used to set up meetings with bad actors.
Some of the spy craft Fox describes is intriguing. For example, agents used Rolaids to mark signals on walls, “because it is less incriminating than chalk, in case of capture and search.” Starbucks gift cards were used as a signal for a meeting: A CIA officer would pass out the gift cards to his/her sources with the instructions, “If you need to see me, buy a coffee.” Each day the officer checked the card numbers by computer. When the balance on the card was zero, s/he knew to rendezvous.
Running parallel with her story as a CIA operative, Fox writes thoughtfully and emotionally about her family, especially balancing her espionage career with her marriages. While living in China trying to prevent the sale of weapons of mass distraction to terrorists, she learns she is pregnant. By her sixth month, when she feels the fetus hiccupping, it gives her pause. “Should a mom- to-be work to prevent the sale of WMDs to terrorists,” she asks? But then again she wonders, “How could a future mom possibly choose not to?”
There is a thrill a minute in “Life Undercover.” The author’s depictions of some of the tight spots she found herself in gets the heart racing. Fox writes intelligently, thought-provokingly and intimately. Her memoir is a true-life spy story, almost impossible to put down.
Fox says, “I wrote this book to share the lessons I learned in the field about peacemaking, and finding common ground. Many think of the CIA as adversarial and warmongering. My experience was very different. At its best, it’s an organization dedicated to the subtle and challenging art of building trust and nurturing relationships to save lives and prevent attacks.”
Amaryllis Fox presently covers current events and offers analyses for CNN, the National Geographic Channel, Al Jazeera and BBC. She is currently the host of the upcoming Netflix series “The Business of Drugs.” Alfred A. Knopf is the publisher of this 230-page book.