“Have you ever kept a secret from your wife?” asked the polygraph examiner.
For nearly two decades I had been grooming myself to be the perfect candidate for one of the premier U.S. government intelligence agencies. These institutions require absolute loyalty, which means you are supposed to keep secrets for them, not from them.
“Yes, I have,” I replied.
I was seated upright, brown knuckling the plastic arms of the chair. A black coiled wire had been placed snugly across my chest and another contraption was attached to my fingertips. My heart thumped so loudly that it nearly drowned out all sound. I felt a bead of sweat roll from my armpit down my side underneath my shirt.
I was experiencing the telling of truth.
While every fiber of my being strained to keep my secrets, I knew I had to be honest and just answer his question.
Fumbling through my response, I explained how I hadn’t told my wife about my family’s complicated past, how my father’s associations had led him to be charged with terrorist-related crimes after the attacks of Sept. 11, and how I, as his son, was placed on a terrorist suspect list when I turned 18.
Although my father ultimately was found not guilty of these charges in federal court (while being convicted on a gun-related charge), the stigma remained. In fact, one of the main reasons I joined the military and pursued work in the intelligence community was to try to cleanse us of all that by creating a long record of loyalty in serving my country, a record I did create and that I’m proud of.
I had been interrogated by intelligence officers when I was in the Navy, but that was nothing compared to this. Back then, I sweated and cried, but I was innocent, and I knew it. This was different. I was guilty of having hidden things from my wife — and not only about me but my family’s past.
She and I had long been distant in our marriage — a distance that came from a lack of self-disclosure. We met in Japan when I was stationed there. Early on, I had good reason to be quiet and cagey about my personal life; it’s not exactly an appealing come-on to tell a new date that you were placed on a terrorist suspect list or that your father was accused of terrorist ties. Once you’re accustomed to hiding your past, you tend to keep hiding in all kinds of ways.
I had done research before the polygraph and learned that the reason they want to know how we deal with secrets we may be keeping from loved ones is to understand how we would behave with secrets between ourselves and the agency. Could we protect U.S. national security? Would we be susceptible to blackmail or coercion?
“Why have you kept this from your wife?” the examiner asked.
“I was afraid she wouldn’t love me in the same way.”
That, too, was the truth. I have always been terrified of how people might respond to my true self, which is why for most of my life I have tried to offer a version of myself that I believed others wanted to see. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, I would think, “I’m black, ugly, short and have an Islamic name. How could anyone find me attractive?” Having such an attitude could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As it turned out, it was my struggle to break free from the shame placed on my family that ultimately delivered me from my inferiority complex.
“Have you ever been part of an organization with the purpose of overthrowing the U.S. government?” the examiner asked.
“No,” I said.
“What is it you’re not telling me?” he asked.
I could have started with my excuses. How losing my mother at age 3 made me seek the nurturing affection of women, and how that became a particular kind of weakness. But no. What would be the point of that? I just had to say it: “I had an extramarital affair.”
This was not something I had told anyone. And under normal circumstances, I believed this admission would be a deal breaker for a marriage or this job. It indicates the untrustworthiness and overall lack of character of someone who was likely unfit for a job or a union.
When it came to the job, though, coming clean could work in my favor, as I presumably would be less vulnerable to coercion or blackmail. What my admission would mean for my marriage, however, was decidedly less certain.
I have to say that had it not been for this top-secret security clearance process, I probably never would have told my wife — or anyone else — that I had cheated on her. And in taking full responsibility for my actions, I wasn’t hoping to absolve myself from shaming or criticism. I am a man who behaved badly but now takes ownership of his betrayals and failures; it’s as simple as that. Thus began the real clearance process, which was seeking passage into the bureau of marriage.
“He’s good,” the examiner said, giving a thumbs-up to another agent.
I was surprised that I passed the polygraph test, but later I realized of course I did — because I had told the truth.
Oddly enough, this didn’t mean I was initially granted a security clearance, though eventually I did obtain full clearance. Why? Perhaps my family history played a part, but it didn’t matter to me. People are denied security clearances for all kinds of reasons. For me the biggest win — and lesson — was that I wasn’t denied clearance because of my polygraph test. I had told the truth and not been hurt by it.
Believing that I owed my wife that same honesty, I took the same approach with her. After dinner one night, I handed her the file from my security clearance process, a stack of papers detailing every aspect of my life, including everything I’d discussed during the polygraph examination.
She read every page.
As she approached the end, I was already a few glasses into a bottle of whiskey. I kept pushing the bottle closer to her from across the table in case she wanted to have a glass to take the edge off.
Instead, tears welled in her eyes. “I need time for this,” she said. She rose from her seat, wiping her eyes, just as I was sliding off my chair to my knees.
She paid me no mind. She just walked into the bedroom and shut the door.
The question most have asked is, “Why did you have an affair?”
At the time, my wife and I were separated, but we hadn’t agreed to see other people. The whole point of the separation was to give us the distance to consider our relationship, not the freedom to sleep with someone else. Nevertheless, I soon became romantically involved with another woman. When my wife and I started to work things out, I ended things with the other woman.
After my wife read my file, the days felt surreal and passed slowly. For a while we didn’t say anything, but eventually we began talking again about small things. Should she pick up cucumbers for salad? Or would I prefer baked zucchini pizza chips? I voted for zucchini chips.
Tentatively, we started to find our way back to each other.
Then, a few weeks later, my wife handed me a file of her own, several pages she had typed up about her life.
My wife is from Okinawa, where much of the island is occupied by U.S. military bases. She flirted with U.S. military men, having her first sexual experience with a Marine. She also told me that the same year we were married, she’d had an intimate relationship with another serviceman while I was away. Although we weren’t yet married then, she wrote that she believed this was karmic payback for her doing what she had done and not telling me about it.
From there, more honesty flowed from each of us, and as a result, we grew closer and closer, more accepting of the other’s past failings, not less. Contrary to what I expected, our mutual truth-telling, which had been spurred by a completely unrelated polygraph test, was not ending our marriage but saving it.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that when she handed me her file. Feeling mystified, I simply asked, “What’s this?”
“My secrets,” she said.