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FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code Hardcover – August 24, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Conlon-McIvor was a Hoover-era FBI agent's daughter, and her diverting memoir tells her story from birth to adolescence while depicting her father as a man so taciturn that she became convinced his every word was code for something else. As a kid, determined to decipher his character and the other silences around her, the author cast herself in an ongoing dream life as a Nancy Drew–type agent. This made her somewhat withdrawn and silent herself, and at her Catholic school she became known as the shy girl. At home her mother and siblings livened things up, even though the condition of Joey, the youngest, born with Down's syndrome, made her father even more remote. Other relatives in the extended Irish-American family, especially Maura's New York uncle Father Jack, provided a sense of a larger world in a home where the picture of J. Edgar Hoover frowned down from the wall. When tragedy struck, playing at secret agent didn't help as it used to, and Conlon-McIvor finally grew into herself. She conveys her time (the 1960s) and setting (Los Angeles) with precision and detail; her feel for story, structure and understatement rightfully earns the poignancy of many moments.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Growing up Catholic in the 1960s, Conlon-McIvor's favorite religious figure was the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her favorite book character was Nancy Drew. Mysteries fascinated her, and no wonder; her father was an FBI agent, whose car trunk was filled with bullets. Her dream was to follow his path and crack "the code" that made his every glance and word so deliciously baffling. It took many years before Conlon-McIvor understood that her father's taciturn, moody behavior had little to do with his job; it grew from deep sadness and an inability to express emotion. In this touchingly honest memoir, always true to a child's point of view, the author remakes herself as the naive child and awkward teen she was, growing up in a family mostly held together by commitment to her youngest brother, born with Down syndrome. Memories of her long-suffering mother; her beloved uncle Father Jack; and, most of all, her father, whose "code" she finally cracks, blend beautifully in this occasionally funny, affecting account of family ties and personal growth. Stephanie Zvirin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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In fact, Conlon-McIver describes a remarkably functional family, bound together by an amazing generosity of spirit. Fascinated by her father's career and her Nancy Drew books, she remembers keeping a log that includes every neighbor's license plate. She wants her father to bring home stories of exciting crimes he solved.
Reviewers have focused Maura's father, Joe, who refused to talk about his work and in fact didn't talk much at all. However, linguist Deborah Tannen has written about the differences in male and female communication styles and John Gray reminds us that men are from Mars. Men just don't want to talk about "my day at work." Like Joe Conlon, they communicate through action.
Reading between the lines, Joe was trained as a lawyer. Although he carried a gun and badge, he probably worked in offices, pushing paper rather than chasing bad guys. He might have been assigned to white collar crime. Here's a clue: he came home regularly for supper nearly every day. So there probably weren't a whole lot of exciting stories to tell.
And we should note that he didn't brush off Maura's questions with ridicule: he just changed the subject. Once he even shared a "trick" of looking out the rear view mirror, probably acquired from another agent who was more active in actual criminal pursuit.
Joe took his kids out to play baseball on Saturday afternoons (another clue: bad guys don't work nine to five weekdays). He even built a ball field. He did chores around the house, apparently without complaint, everything from changing diapers to folding laundry and mowing lawns.
Most significantly, he didn't withdraw when his last child, Joey, was born with Down's syndrome. Joe not only remained a caring father, but also raised significant funds for a group home for other developmentally disabled children.
Maura's mother, a former beauty queen, never seems too tired or impatient to spend time with her five children. She's creative and playful, sensitive to Maura's need to attend public school rather than continue to an all-girls Catholic high school.
However, the mother's ideas seem more progressive than her cooking. The family dinner table seems more fifties than sixties. I have to admit I admired the way they managed to stay slim and healthy while eating endless servings of processed, high-carbohydrate food.
And the children seem remarkably unselfish, as they pitch in to care for Joey resisting stares and embarrassment. This family learned the joy of living with a developmentally disabled child in a time, place and social environment where those attitudes were hardly commonplace.
Even the nuns are remarkably benevolent; one fussy teacher who complains about Maura's E's in handwriting class, but she melts as she learns more about Maura.
Because the book focuses so intently on family, it's hard to get a sense of the role of friends in Maura's early life. She mentions being neglected by the popular girls but we don't get episodes of real meanness or of the close friendships young girls typically develop.
Now comes the challenge: How does Maura Conlon-McIver keep the pages turning while describing a happy childhood? She's not sticky or sentimental. She tells the story with crisp sentences, studded with original metaphors. Most importantly, Conlon-McIvor paces the story as if she were writing a novel, no easy task when writing a memoir.
Toward the end, she reports a tragedy that scars what should have been a happy climax to her grade school years. And she ends on a bittersweet note, growing aware of her talents but also her family's unspoken conflicts.
I once heard a psychologist speak about families on the basis of real research rather than myths. He claimed that families held together based on what they didn't say, rather than on openness. Perhaps it is the unrealistic expectation of free-flowing communication that harms families, rather than the actual silence. And maybe the Conlon household wasn't perfect, but I bet a lot of people would have gladly traded places with any member of that family.
It is a testament to Maura's parents that when their severely-retarded son Joey was born, they did not put him into an institution, which would have been common in the mid-1960s. Maura herself is fiercely protective of Joey, and believes that anyone without a Down's syndrome child in the family is missing something. This is an attitude shared by her father, who believes that the developmentally disabled are really the smart ones and the so-called "normal" people are ignorant. When you read about some of the reactions of the Conlon's neighbors (which range from shock, to avoidance, to guilty stares, to embarrassment and, occasionally, caring and compassion), you don't doubt that this is true.
Maura has a bigger problem, however, communicating with her father who, in her eyes, speaks in some sort of code. Joe Conlon obviously loves his five children, and his love is demonstrated by doing things, rather than talking (whenever Conlon does not want to answer a question, he changes the subject entirely.) Maura believes, incorrectly, that Joe Conlon's job as an FBI special agent precludes him from talking about anything substantive. In fact, as Maura discovers, Conlon's behavior was nothing learned at Quantico or ordered by J. Edgar Hoover.
The story warmly evokes 1960s Los Angeles. Maura Conlon lived with with her parents, sister and three brothers in an unidentified suburb of Los Angeles (20 minutes from Disneyland and 40 minutes from Hollywood.) The name of the suburb doesn't matter -- whether it's Downey or Fullerton or Los Alamitos or West Covina or Azusa, or any one of the other suburbs that run into one another in this part of the world, the story would be the same. It is hilarious, however, to read about young Maura playing Nancy Drew, writing down license plate numbers and desperately looking for high intrigue in this bland world of tract homes.
What is also relevant is Maura's religious Catholic upbringing, which provides Maura with a strong faith, a strict way to live, and more than a few interesting stories. A less salutory aspect is that Maura grows up strictly differentiating between "Catholics" and "publics," believing, among other things, that public school kids put drugs in the mustard and ketchup bottles. This belief is proven false when Maura herself goes to public school, with the backing of her former teacher, a nun.
Above all, this is the story of a painfully shy, highly imaginative girl who finally finds her own voice. Maura Conlon-McIvor has a compelling story to tell, which is well worth reading. As a contemporary of the author, I enjoyed the 1960s references, which took me back to my youth. Yet Maura Conlon-McIvor's story is unique. I think it gives a greater understanding of living with and loving the disabled than anything I've read thus far. Although it is somewhat less satisfying in addressing the author's father, it is definitely a worthwhile read.