Title: My Spy
Author: Bina C. Kiyonaga
Kiyonaga, Bina Cady (2000). My Spy: Memoir of a CIA Wife. New York: Avon Books
Date Posted: May 1, 2017
Reviewed by Jayne L. Bowman
(CNN) —Bina Cady Kiyonaga is as interesting as her name. A gifted narrator, she could make even the most mundane existence sound fascinating. But Kiyonaga has a remarkable story to tell.
In her new memoir My Spy, she chronicles her experiences as the wife of a CIA covert operative at the start of the Cold War. Add to this true-life intrigue the ethnic mish-mash of her marriage—Bina comes from Baltimore Irish blood, while her husband Joe was Japanese born in Hawaii —and the plot thickens considerably.
The storyteller is equal to the story, though she is loathe to share the spotlight. Interviewing this author felt much like reading her book—an experience all at once sincere, outrageous, thoughtful and wickedly fun.
Speaking from her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Bina (rhymes with “Dinah”) emphasizes that she wrote this book with a singular purpose in mind.
When he was dying of stomach cancer 23 years ago, Bina’s husband Joe summoned her to his bedside and asked her to write while he dictated the life he’d kept secret.
“He said he finally wanted to stand up and be counted,” she explains. “Joe was part of the greatest generation whose story has never been told. The silent soldiers. As his wife was I was happy to be part of that.”
The summer of 1947 changed Bina Cady’s life forever. She married Joe Kiyonaga, the very mysterious, very handsome and very tall Japanese student she’d met at the University of Michigan.
It was also the year Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency, which Joe joined in 1949. That decision gave Bina’s marriage—the foundation of her life —its defining momentum.
“It affected every facet of our lives,” she recalls. “I lived a lie. I couldn’t tell my friends, my children, what Joe did for a living.”
That secrecy was initially difficult for this self-described outspoken and willful Irish wife. And it was tough on the couple’s three sons and two daughters.
“Try explaining to a 10-year-old,” offers Kiyonaga, “that she can’t have a sleepover because Manuel Noriega might show up for a meeting in the middle of the night.”
Keeping faith through turbulent times
The fate of the former Panamanian leader provides an apt metaphor for the Kiyonagas’ life and the way society’s perception of the CIA has flip-flopped over the years.
When the family was acquainted with him, Noriega was a valued Panamanian contact who was gracious to Bina and kind to her children. Decades later, he was viewed as an international fugitive and an enemy to the American government.
In much the same way, the patriotism of Agency life was once a noble notion in America. Joe, Bina and their brood were willing to risk their lives and move themselves from continent to continent (four in total) for the sake of their country.
Then came the turbulent 60s and the term “patriotic” became a subtle synonym for “extremism,” or, at best, nationalistic naiveté. Bina’s frustration with the shift is palpable when she speaks of the part that faith played in her life with Joe.
“The key to a good partnership was that you had to believe … to trust in something higher than ourselves,” she explains.
A devout Catholic, the faith to which she credits the success of her life does not stop with religion. Her faith in her country and her husband were just as crucial to her keeping the family together through decades of covert life in other countries.
“We believed that we were in it together,” she recalls.
‘The reason I was born’
Though the scope of this book is huge in its politics, its culture and its religion, its core is simple. My Spy is a funny, beautiful and unique love story. It is a love letter to Joe Kiyonaga.
Speaking of him almost a quarter century after his death, Bina still gets teary. She sums up their connection simply: “When I looked across that room and first saw him, I realized he was the reason I was born.”
When she writes of Joe, Bina obeys the cardinal rule of effective writing: show, don’t tell. Her reactions to him, the effect he has upon her, his children and his colleagues better reveal him to the reader than any straightforward description ever could.
Her parents, initially fearful of their daughter marrying a Japanese man on the heels of World War II, change their minds upon meeting him. “He’s the only man who can handle you,” quips her father.
Joe’s integrity and intelligence allow him to transcend obstacles time and again. He was, after all, chosen to become part of one of the most confidential agencies in the United States at a time when the American government was incredibly wary of Japan.
But it is the love between Bina and Joe that makes this book—not to mention the woman herself—sparkle. They were an effective and responsible team; hardworking, traditional, cultured parents of five successful children. Yet it was in their playful moments that their relationship distinguished itself.
To borrow a term Bina uses to describe her childhood bond with her father, Bina was Joe’s “everlasting pal.” Together, they threw countless dinner and cocktail parties for social, as well as official “contact-making,” purposes. A friend later brought something to Bina’s attention.
Never once in those innumerable important parties, Bina recalls, did “Joe ever take his first sip of the night without finding me with his eyes and silently toasting me.”