How To Academy: an evening with Amaryllis Fox

Former CIA clandestine service officer, writer and peace activist Amaryllis Fox was born in New York, the daughter of an English creative mother and American economist father. Following her CIA career that she left behind a decade or so ago, Amaryllis has covered current events and offers analysis for global news outlets like CNN, National Geographic, al Jazeera and the BBC. Now she also speaks at events and universities around the world on the topic of peace-making, importance of dialogue and non-violence. How To Academy hosted Amaryllis this week in London, where she was interviewed by the inquisitive freelance journalist and podcaster Hannah MacInnes.

An opportunity to listen to a former CIA operative doesn’t arise often and I was lucky enough to book a ticket and pre-order a copy of Amaryllis’s book “Life Undercover” in the summer. On a dark and cold Tuesday Hannah & Amaryllis emerged on the Conway Hall’s stage, slightly blinking at the bright stage lights. What followed was a fascinating, yet softly-paced conversation about intelligence gathering and training, distorted views that many movies give of intelligence work, family and raising children, terrorism threats and our inability to listen to each other.

“Every village needs an idiot,” the bullies laugh. Every genius is misunderstood.

Amaryllis Fox is tall and elegant, like a catwalk model, but also as sharp and thoughtful, as a scientist. Her life story is somewhat surreal, yet what you see in front of you is a deeply thoughtful woman with a gentle, captivating smile. She speaks in prose, but her words come together like poetic verses. Elegantly draped in loosely chic mac over the chair with self-assuredness that comes from knowing yourself, Amaryllis drew your eyes towards her, while captivating the ears as well. Below are a few snippets from the conversation she had with Hannah MacInnes, a skilful interviewer with a wonderfully attuned ability to listen before putting another question forward.

image courtesy of Jesse Stone
  • Amaryllis Fox was in her last year as an undergraduate at Oxford, studying theology and international law, when her writing mentor Daniel Pearl was captured and beheaded. Amaryllis hero-worshipped Daniel ( “I’d always been amazed by his easy-going strength of character, an Israeli-American writing compassionately about life in Pakistan”) – for his candid attitude to life, for respect, curiosity and pluralism. They have crossed paths a few times and he “offered gentle advice on my stories”.
  • Galvanised by the brutality of Daniel’s murder, Amaryllis applied to a master’s programme in conflict and terrorism where she created an algorithm that predicted, with uncanny certainty, the likelihood of a terrorist cell arising in any village around the world.
  • At twenty-one, she was recruited by the CIA and stayed with the company for a decade. Amaryllis was fast-tracked into advance operations training, sent from Langley to ‘the farm’, where she lived for six months in a simulated world learning how to use a glock, withstand torture and the best ways of to commit suicide in case of captivity. At the end of the training she was deployed as a spy under ‘non-official’ cover – the most difficult and coveted job in the field. As an art dealer, specialising in tribal and indigenous art, she was sent to infiltrate terrorist networks in remote areas of the Middle East and Asia.
  • Amaryllis moved a lot as a child, due to her father’s work. Her brother had learning difficulties and the impact of bullying was something that left a strong imprint on Amaryllis, as she was very close to her brother.
  • Following her departure from CIA (is there such a thing as former CIA operative I still wonder), Amaryllis wrote a candid memoire “Life Undercover: coming of age in the CIA” that is being turned into a new APPLE TV series. She will be played by Brie Larson.
  • Amaryllis believes that it is impossible to prevent violence through violence. Even considering that her best friend at school was killed by the Libyan terrorists while on the Lockerbie flight in Scotland. 9/11. Or observing the hardships of her Burmese friend Min Zin and the early plight years of Suu Kyi, exiled in her own home, but refusing to leave her homeland for the UK, where her husband was dying from cancer, while raising two of their sons

“Daylight Is The Best Disinfectant” Amaryllis Fox

  • Parents raised Amaryllis, her brother and two sisters by nurturing their hearts and spirits with knowledge, wisdom, poetry… and exposing them to realities of life through the evolution of their own personal relationship.
  • “We live in times of complete disintegration of ability to listen” (I think we, as audience, and Hannah, as experienced & thoughtful interviewer, did well in that respect on the night).
  • Amaryllis was taught by “the last cold warriors” but techniques have changed a lot since her own training, due to the vast speed of change in the society.
  • There is a vast difference between your social media relationships and relationships that you have with family, friends and colleagues in real life. Human contact, interaction and observation can’t be compared to the ‘cleansed’ palette of social media.
  • Operatives need to be authentic and truthful, even in their deception. Without it they won’t build credible contacts and professional relationships based on trust.
  • Movies often give a very distorted view of the life and work of the operatives. In real life operatives won’t dream of acting like Jason Bourne, as drawing attention to yourself through rooftop chases and running yellow and red lights can instantly blow up the cover you have been building for years.
  • One needs to understand scary forces in the world, as well as stop dehumanising the enemies, in order to deal with violence and prevent it, where one can. Building relationships with assets is slow, soulful and takes both time and effort.
  • Determined to stop the masterminds behind atrocities caused by terrorism around the world, Amaryllis’s quest almost destroyed her, until she realised that the only way to actually defeat the enemy is to have the courage to sit across from them… and listen in search for some sliver of common ground.
  • In times of AI, face recognition technologies & algorithms, the existence of human operatives is more important than ever to keep people and communities safe. Governments need to continue their commitment of extensive resources to intelligence – even though it is expensive.

As I queued to have my book signed, I started reading Amaryllis’s book (and continued as I took the tube home and before turning the light out at 2am). I observed Amaryllis’s interaction with people. Exchanging humorous and easy-going banter with her father, who was patiently waiting for her. As she signed my book, a smile never leaving her features, I asked her how difficult it was to leave her CIA work behind and get used to mondaine banality of the life most of us lead. She raised her eyes to me and said that it took no time at all, as she just wanted to focus on her family. After all, being an operative is a very lonely job. Amaryllis raised her hands in a sign of gratitude & namaste and we parted ways. I think she left as strong imprint on me, as Daniel Pearl did on her.

Amaryllis Fox: “Life Undercover: coming of age in the CIA”, Ebury Press, pp.230

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