By Leslie Absher
Just prior to the 1967 Greek coup, fifty-five years ago, I arrived in Athens with my mother and CIA father. He was a young officer and Greece was his first field assignment. I was a toddler when we moved into a modest-sized house in Old Psychiko, the neighborhood of embassies and mansions.
It was a comfortable home, but as soon as I could walk, I left it for the yard. I spent entire afternoons chasing our scrawny cat through the rose garden and watching goldfish dart through the shadows of our pond. When I grew tired, I sat under the fig tree and listened to the wind rustle its leaves. Leaves as rough as sandpaper, as wide as a giant’s hand.
A year after we arrived, my sister was born. Mama lifted her out of the hospital bassinet—where a nurse had pinned a tiny blue evil eye to keep her safe—and brought her home. Evelyn was wrapped in a white blanket like all Greek babies, but her bald head and pink skin showed a lighter complexion. I held her soft living body in my arms. My world expanded just then. Before, I had my yard and Anna, my nanny. Now I had a sister.
But for others, life was perilous.
Greek military stage coup
Ten days after my sister was born, the Greek military rolled its tanks into the city center and took over the government. The world’s oldest democracy turned into a dictatorship overnight. A group of colonels—not generals as some had predicted—began arresting anyone who spoke out. They were sent to remote islands for years. Famous artists and composers were arrested and sent away too.
I didn’t know any of this then. I had no idea what took place down the avenues inside interrogation centers like the one on Bouboulinas Street. I was happy in my garden. Protected and privileged.
Often, during our Athens years, my parents threw parties. Guests strolled into our yard, men in crisp shirts and women in bright evening dresses. I walked around the yard in tight patent leather shoes and offered mezedes to men from the embassy, my father’s colleagues. I carried a small tray from one group to another. Everyone smiled down at me as they lifted dolmades from my tray.
I have many memories like this from Greece. Days spent inside the warmth of my garden.
The complicated history of Greece, US, and CIA
It wasn’t until later, as a young adult, that I learned about the complicated history between the U.S., Greece, and the CIA. And it wasn’t until the age of forty when I felt ready to know the truth of what my father knew and did during the junta.
I began by reading books, scrolling through microfiche, and meeting scholars. Many days I prayed not to learn anything incriminating about my father or the CIA.
Then one day, deep into my research, I came across a remark spoken at an Athens cocktail party during the junta. An offhand comment allegedly made by the then Chief of Station, about how easy it was to work with the colonels, and how pliable and compliant they were with U.S. interests. “Thank God for the Colonels. Those boys came right on time. Christ, I feel like a father to the sons-a-bitches.”
It stopped me in my tracks, this quote.
I thought back to my parents’ parties. We had cocktail parties in those years. Did I know for sure that this quote was accurate or that it was said at one of our parties? No. But that didn’t matter. The possibility that it might have been true was enough.
Suddenly, it was 1970 and I was five years old again. A group of embassy men stood in our yard near our small fish pond, talking and laughing. Maybe the Station Chief arrived at the group of men, someone patted him on the back, and then Dad rushed over with a drink. Maybe everyone laughed. And that’s when I imagine that I approached with the silver tray mama piled high with dolmades. I see my child self smiling dutifully up at the guests as I ask politely, “Thelete tipota?” Would you care for anything?
The moment I read this quote, my sweet memory turned cold. Darkness spread across the surface of my childhood. It spread across my years in Greece.
The coup and CIA involvement
Fifty-five years ago, Greek military tanks rolled through the city center, ushering in seven years of repression, imprisonment and torture for anyone who spoke out. We left Greece before the junta ended but we were there when it began. I was there. Greece was my first home. Today I remember what happened. The lives lost and the aftermath, the toll it has taken on ordinary people for decades.
As for me, my investigation into the junta has taken me on a long journey. One that included conversations with my dad—about family, his career, and why he joined the agency. Conversations that also entailed uncomfortable questions. I traveled to Greece and met people harmed by the junta. I visited the Polytechnic and the U.S. embassy and Bouboulinas Street, one of the downtown detention centers set up by the junta. I researched and followed my questions until I learned all I could.
I will never know everything about the coup and the CIA’s involvement. But I have learned enough. It wasn’t easy and it isn’t neatly tied up in a bow. But it is done. I learned what I came to learn.
Leslie Absher is an American journalist and writer. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl tells the story of her father’s role in Greece’s CIA-backed junta and will be published this fall by Latah Books. You can find more of her work at leslieabsher.com