It is a universally accepted fact that motherhood is no picnic. No amount of guidebooks, podcasts, support groups, or well-meaning neighbors can ready someone for the immense task it truly is. But what happens when you have the pressure of motherhood on top of your husband’s career in the CIA? Lillian McCloy experienced exactly that, rendering it expertly and winningly in the book (and birthday present!) her daughter helped put together: Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover and Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother. Phew. As if the school run wasn’t stressful enough!
If you’re still brainstorming Mother’s Day gifts for your own mother (no judgement) , you may want to consider transcribing, editing, and publishing her memoir, because that is exactly what Johanna McCloy did (don’t worry, flowers and chocolates work too!). The book is an insightful look into the colorful life Lillian shared with her husband, CIA officer Frank McCloy, under deep cover all over the world. For Lillian’s 90th birthday, Johanna shared the news that the intriguing memoir her mother had originally typed out on her Selectric typewriter would finally be published.
image via mccloy
The manuscript was represented by a New York literary agency in the late 90s, but the publishing climate at the time was far from optimal for the memoir, particularly as Lillian had presented it under a pseudonym. As a result, it became a sticky subject for publishers, who weren’t sure how best to market it. The journey to publication for Lillian’s memoir was brought to a beautiful conclusion by her daughter, a skilled freelance writer and editor herself. While the manuscript took a short retirement in a box, Johanna’s revival of the memoir changed everything. What began as an incredibly thoughtful birthday gift soon took on a life of its own, as the book has since garnered five-star reviews from top authors and critics (and maybe even CIA officials – but that’s classified).
Lillian’s memoir is filled with personal (and often hilarious) anecdotes about her life and past, as she traveled all over the world with the CIA, living in Spain, India, Japan, and Venezuela. The book chronicles the incredible secret she was keeping, all the while dealing with the usual pressures of motherhood, married life, and constant displacement. The McCloy family had to adapt to everyday life – but in the strangest of circumstances. As Lillian depicts the delicate balance between normalcy and the extraordinary, her humor and wit shine throughout, bringing such a wild story down to earth with a deeply-embedded sense of human nature.
Where other books depicting the lives of undercover officers are generally glamorous and fictional, Lillian’s is truthful and moving, showing just how dangerous a thrilling life of espionage can be, especially for the family behind the spy. It is an exciting read, and one that will have you, and your mother, checking the blurb to ensure it truly is not a work of fiction.
McCloy’s memoir beautifully captures what it means to be uprooted from all that you know, and to do so while maintaining some sense of normalcy for your three children. It highlights the lengths to which a mother will go for her family, even in the strangest of circumstances. The book is also the ideal quarantine read, perfect in equal parts as an isolation read-in-one-sitting, or as a casual companion for the coming weeks. With intrigue, charm, and a whole lot of heart, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant encapsulates the very essence of a mother, and if there was ever a weekend for giving it a go, it would be this one.