How I Told My Mom I Was in the CIA
Douglas Laux, author of 'Left of Boom,' reveals his identity and more
Book of the Month, Douglas Laux
The Book of the Month selection Left of Boom is inarguably one of the most entertaining Afghanistan war memoirs we've gotten since the beginning of the post-9/11 conflict. Not only does Douglas Laux, who just recently revealed his identity after writing under the pseudonym ""John Smith,"" take you to the front lines of the CIA counter-terrorism efforts, but he also brings you the personal struggles of a young man dealing with a high-stress, life-threatening job, unable to tell his closest friends, family, and girlfriends what he does for a living.
We asked Doug about his family's reactions to learning of his former profession, what he makes of SHOWTIME's Homeland, and adjusting to life after the CIA.
Read the full interview below or watch the videos. And remember, you can always add Left of Boom to your monthly box.
How does it feel now that your identity is fully revealed, both as an author and as a CIA agent?
Well it's been refreshing insomuch as telling my parents was the biggest anchor that I needed to get off my chest, because I've been totally keeping them in the dark for the past ten years. So that was number one, and I only just did that last week, in preparation for everything that was coming. The second most important one to me was - I'm a Big Brother for Big Brother Big Sisters, and I had to call his mother, because I've been his Big Brother for a few years. I was afraid, because some people have negative connotations with the CIA and they think of the waterboarding and all of that stuff, and I was afraid she'd be like, oh wait - I've let my son hang out with this CIA guy for the past three years - I'm a horrible mother. When I told her she started screaming and - not in agony, but like, 'Say what! You can not be serious right now.' She's like, 'I need to hang up.' She called me back five minutes later, and then she's like 'Hang up, I need to think about this.' Then finally, she's like, 'You know what, I think it's awesome. So keep on keeping on. And I look forward to you telling my son that you've been doing this as well.' So it's been pretty cool. All of that has been a tremendous weight off of my chest.
What was your parents' reaction?
Well, at the time, obviously it was a lot for them, to know that your son has been doing this. For my mom the hardest part was, 'Wow my son's been in harm's way for the past ten years.' So she took that really hard. But I said, 'Hey look, I'm here, you can touch me. I'm not scarred in any way. I'm alright.' My dad is a military guy though so he was like, 'Oh great, that's good to hear. I'm proud of you.' Lately though, it's been pretty hard for them, because the media likes to say what the media wants to say. So they've been dealing with all of that different publicity, which is new to them too. Seeing me on television, seeing me in the New York Times, they're like, 'That's our baby.' It's been interesting, but we'll all make it through.
Did they have any idea?
So I was shocked at how little idea they had. But the thing is, they live back in the Midwest, so for them, they didn't have as much continual contact with me. Close friends in the DC area - after a while there's only so many weird things you can do before they're like, 'Dude, just tell us.' But for them, they only saw me on the holidays, and I could prepare and be lock-tight with my story about living in Hawaii - and read the Hawaii Times every day before I met them. They were kept the furthest in the dark, and so it was the biggest wow factor for them.
What was the process of writing a book like?
It was my first time so it was a very interesting process, and I look at writing the book the same way I looked at joining the Agency and the same way I looked at leaving the Agency - do I really want to do this? Do I want to continue doing this? Each thing was so novel to me, and new, that I wasn't sure if it was the right path and the right thing to do. Even starting the book, there were many times when I was like, 'I'm just gonna hit delete. Nobody wants to read this stuff.' I'm a huge critic of myself, which you can see in the book. Then going through the clearance process and everything else with the book, it was very time consuming, and I don't want to say that it was any way stressful, but it was certainly a pain at times.
What have you been doing since you resigned from the CIA? Other than writing?
I've been getting it cleared, and everything that encompassed writing a book as a CIA Officer. Obviously there's a lot that goes into that, more than just getting an advance and then writing it, as a typical author might do, and then meeting deadlines. I had to work closely with Mark [Of St. Martin's Press], a lot, to say - I can't have a deadline - because the deadline is with the CIA. What are you gonna do? Tell them, 'Hey you've got a headline?' They're gonna go, 'Bye! OK, keep waiting, we don't care. We've got much bigger fish to fry than getting your book out by your deadline.' They had all the power with that. For the past three years I've also been an independent contractor for the Department of Defense, so I've been doing that on the side as well.
What was the reaction like from your friends and ex-girlfriends, who were all mentioned in the book?
When I say that I stopped contact with my ex-girlfriends, that's when it stopped, at those points in time in the book. And I haven't spoken to them since. So they're finding out in the New York Times, last Friday. I do feel bad about that, in that they know that it's coming out but they can't read it yet. So they've seen all of these precursors and they have to wait until tomorrow to order it. For some of them, I'm assuming, they'll probably take the day off work, [Laughs] and then try to hunt me down. So I'm gonna have to lay low. If there's anybody I have to worry about, it's probably them.
I have to say that when reading Left of Boom you reminded me of the character of Carrie Mathison in Homeland. Do you think her characterization is accurate?
Funny you should mention that. Just a month ago, my close colleague, who also just left the Agency, was telling me about Homeland, because I've never seen it. And I mention it also, because we don't watch a lot of TV. When you're in some of these Fifth World countries, they don't have the same shows, there is no Netflix, you can't just binge. So, it wasn't a possibility. Even still, over the past year since I left, I haven't really gotten a TV. I have internet, obviously, I'm not a caveman, but I've just always been deploying, and being out. So maybe that's what I should tell people my plan is - now that I'm done, is to watch a lot of Netflix. As for Carrie, I watched the first episode with my buddy, and we actually videotaped it, because we knew it would be hilarious. And the first thirty seconds, we're looking at each other like, 'Oh man.' The very first pilot episode, she meets an asset in public, right before she goes into a jail, and she's pulling out an envelope, and paying him in public, and I was like, 'Well he's dead, and so are you, and is there more than one episode? Like what's going on here.' We see that and go, 'Huh?' But then I finished the whole show and we just both talked about it, and we made funny comments throughout. Maybe I should throw that up on YouTube.
Have you had any lapses back into the vices that you were prone to while working for the CIA?
How am I now? Well, if I was on oxycontin right now I'd be sedated and unable to do this interview, so clearly I've kicked that, and thank god. I will say though, that period of my life, and that downward spiral thing - as I tried to explain the best I could - that was something that took over me because of the situation I was in, it was the first time I had ever seen that before. I'd had a job since I was 13. Continuously for my entire life up until that point. So now, I'm just sitting around, I've got a broken ankle, I'm already taking these pain pills, and I'm bored, and then I start drinking, and then that started to spiral. It started to snowball. I'm obviously embarrassed that I made those life choices, but it was also something I wasn't not going to include in the book, because it's real, and it shows the type of character and the type of toll this can take on you. I chose to self-medicate, I'm sure a lot of other people have chosen to seek help elsewhere. Maybe through their spouse, maybe through someone else, but for me, I took it so seriously and I was so on 11 the entire time, I didn't talk to anybody else. And I should have. I regret that I didn't. I'm fine now - at least I think. I don't know maybe my friends might tell you I'm still crazy, who knows.
What are your thoughts on the current geopolitical environment, how our administration is handling everything, and the recent ISIS bombings?
As a Case Officer, if you're a field guy, you're trained to be apolitical. Meaning, you're gonna do what you're told to do, regardless. Now I have been told that, I wasn't difficult to manage, it's just I wasn't easy to manage, which comes across. Because for me, you can tell me what you want to do, and I'm gonna do it, but you need to explain why. And you need to justify it to me. Telling me, 'Because I said so,' doesn't work. That never worked. As far as what's going on now, yeah I have opinions, anybody could, but political opinions one way or the other, for me, I don't think it's fair as a guy who was privy to such information as an apolitical guy, to start picking and choosing sides now. I was privy to that information because I was apolitical. And to come out now like some people do, and say, 'Oh I'm for Donald Trump. Or, oh I'm for Hilary Clinton, or oh, Barack Obama screwed up.' That's completely unacceptable for me. Because if you do believe that President Obama screwed up, you're only privy to that information because you weren't Democratic or Republican. So you don't have the right to now announce to the world that he screwed up. A lot of people have been painting me as though I said the President's Administration created ISIS. If they want to twist it, because that's what gets their clickbait, and sells papers, they can do what they want, but those words weren't written in my book.
Do you ever regret leaving the CIA?
I wouldn't say I regret it. I would say that I miss it, a lot. But I don't regret it. Because writing this book and everything that I've been doing is so unbelievably new to me, and it's a new adventure. I knew what I was getting when I was with the CIA, and quite honestly, I'd be right at my ten year mark, if I was still there. The past three [years] I've still been doing stuff really close to that. So it's been a decade of my life. And I'd like to put it on the shelf, admire it and say hey there it was, and then move forward in another direction. So I guess I really don't regret it. I'm proud of the book. I'm proud that I was able to actually get it out there because like I said, there were so many times I was just gonna hit delete. And it actually got published. And now it's your Book of the Month, so that's pretty awesome.
Was there anything in particular that made you keep writing?
I had a co-author, eventually, so he certainly helped. Obviously, once St. Martin's came around, then absolutely I was gonna continue - you've got a publisher now, this is awesome. So then that's kind of like the last step. Like OK great, we can move forward, and it's actually going to happen. I would say just from being so new and not understanding the process - the publishing world moved a lot slower, or in different directions, than what I was used to at the Agency. Not to say that the Agency didn't drag its feet on a lot of stuff sometimes, but I was sitting here going, 'Guys just give me a response, just yes or no?' And I might get one three weeks later, to a month later. I'm going, 'It took you three weeks to write two sentences to me?' So it was very frustrating for me being the go-forward, move, guy that I am. At those points, after two weeks, we'd go, 'Well they hate the book, I'm just gonna get rid of it.' And then you get, 'Hey actually we love it.' And I'm like, 'Why didn't you tell me that two weeks ago? My ego's bruised.'
What are your plans now?
Pay my taxes. That needs to happen. That's the first thing I'm going to do. I think I'm going to probably go back and just cut some wood with my dad in Ohio for a while. And then I haven't been to a beach for a really long time so I might find one of those. As far as occupational-wise, no plans.
This interview has been edited.