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FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code
By Maura Conlon-McIvor
Warner Books
HC, 306 pg. US$23/C$34
ISBN: 0-4465-3310-6

Cracking life's code

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 13, 2004

FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's CodeIf there is a natural gulf between parents and their children, it may be because of language. Although we use the same words to rage at and love each other, explore who we are and what we mean to one another, the meanings of those words often depends on where we are in life. Given their relative inexperience, it is often left up to children to try to divine the meanings of words.

For Maura Conlon-McIvor, it was her father's silence and spare sentences that needed parsing, a story she tells in her poignant memoir FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code. Chronicling her family's story during the late 1960s to early 1970s, Conlon-McIvor tells how she modeled herself as a junior FBI agent, studying her taciturn father Joe Conlon -- an agent in the bureau's Los Angeles office -- in a bid to understand him and her place in his world.

"The Irish are purported to be grand storytellers, but Joe Conlon didn't fit that mold. If there were ever a Stoic Clan, my father would have been chief. I didn't know much about him -- and I knew even less about his work. I read between the lines, relied on clues, spied upon his clockwork ritual of removing black tie, stashing badge and gun in top drawer, lighting up another cigarette."

Compared to many similar efforts in this genre, Conlon-McIvor's life was idyllic. Although the world around her was in turmoil thanks to the Vietnam War and the societal upheaval America was grappling with, her life was stable thanks to a loving Irish-American family. The Conlon's lived in a neighborhood that featured a Catholic church and private school and neighbors straight out of suburban America central casting. Her father came home every night in time for dinner though he frowned on conversation over the dinner table.

As Conlon-McIvor relates, her father's silences grew more prolonged with the arrival of her brother Joe Jr., born with Down's Syndrome. Although he breaks his muteness occasionally for some surprisingly tender moments -- often with Joe Jr. -- mostly, however, he stalks the house and declares that "I've never seen a house like this in all my life." It's an emotional remoteness that threatens to fracture the family even as it struggles to unite in an attempt to give Joe Jr. as normal a life as possible.

Complicating young Maura's life is her intense shyness. Voted Most Quiet Girl at her Catholic elementary school, it isn't until she enters grade 9 and participates in a stage presentation of Twelve Angry Women that she begins to develop her own voice. At about the same time Maura's mother is emboldened enough to discover hers and begins attempting to draw her husband out of his shell.

Most children might have given up on their fathers but Conlon-McIvor refuses to and along the way she discovers his hidden humanity. Beneath the stereotype of the severe suit and tie G-Man of few words is a person who is protective of his family and capable of profound insights, including one concerning Joe Jr. that he shares one day with Maura while the three are at a restaurant. In the hands of a lesser writer the scene would have turned into a maudlin mess but Conlon-McIvor treats the scene with the delicate respect it deserves.

Those expecting the typical from FBI Girl -- abuse, adultery and the like -- will be pleasantly surprised. Rather than the usual tell-all of a massively dysfunctional family that required prolonged therapy by the author and a book to "close that chapter" of her life, FBI Girl is a quiet and tender story of a young girl struggling to understand the mysterious language and world of adults. Conlon-McIvor's story is a unique one but also universal enough to remind each of us of the day when we finally cracked our own family codes and began to truly understand those around us and, just as importantly, ourselves.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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