“Have you ever kept a secret from your wife?” asked the polygraph examiner.
For almost two decades, I have been preparing myself to be the perfect candidate for one of the top intelligence agencies in the US government. These institutions demand absolute loyalty, which means you must keep their secrets, but not hide anything from them.
“Yes, I have,” I replied.
He sat up straight, nervously clinging to the plastic armrests of the chair. A black coiled cable was placed on my chest and another device on my fingertips. My heart was pounding so hard it almost drowned out all sound. I felt a bead of sweat roll from my armpit to the side, under my shirt.
This is what it felt like to tell the truth.
Even though every part of me was fighting to keep my secrets, I knew I had to be honest and answer her question.
In fits and starts, I explained that I had not told my wife about my family’s complicated past, that my father’s contacts had led to his being charged with terrorism-related crimes after the 9/11 attacks, and that I, as his son, had been placed on a list of suspected terrorists when I turned 18.
Although my father was eventually found not guilty of these charges in federal court (although he was convicted on a gun-related charge), the stigma remained. In fact, one of the main reasons I joined the military and sought to work in the intelligence community was to try to clear us of all that by building a long history of loyalty in the service of my country, a history that I have created and that I am proud of. with
I was interrogated by intelligence officers when I was in the Navy, but it was nothing compared to this. Then I sweated and cried, but I was innocent and I knew it. This was different. I was guilty of hiding things from my wife and not only about myself but also about my family’s past.
She and I had been estranged in our marriage for a long time, an estrangement that stemmed from a lack of communication. We met in Japan when I was there. At first I had good reason to be silent and cautious about my private life; It’s not very attractive to tell a new date that you were on a list of suspected terrorists or that your father was accused of having ties to terrorists. Once you get used to hiding your past, you tend to keep hiding in any way possible.
I had studied the polygraph and learned that the reason they wanted to know how we handled secrets we might be keeping from our loved ones was to find out how we would handle agency secrets. Can we protect the national security of the United States? Will we be susceptible to blackmail or coercion?
“Why did you hide this from your wife?” asked the examiner.
“I was afraid she wouldn’t love me the same way.”
That was the truth too. I’ve always been terrified of how people might react to the real me, so for most of my life I tried to present a version of myself that I thought other people wanted to see. As a kid in Oklahoma, I thought, “I’m black, ugly, short, and I have an Islamic name. How can anyone find me attractive? This attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It turned out that my struggle to free myself from the shame imposed on my family finally freed me from my inferiority complex.
“Have you ever been part of an organization designed to overthrow the United States government?” the examiner asked.
“I didn’t answer.
“What aren’t you telling me?” he asked.
I could start with my apologies. How losing my mother at the age of 3 caused me to seek invigorating affection from women and how that became a particular kind of weakness. But not. What sense would that make? He just had to say it: “I had an extramarital affair.”
It was something he hadn’t told anyone. And under normal circumstances, I believed that recognition would be the deciding factor for marriage or this job. This shows a lack of confidence and character in someone who is probably not a good fit for a job or a union.
However, when it came to work, the confession could work in my favor, as I would probably be less vulnerable to coercion or blackmail. But what would my confession mean for my marriage. That was much less clear.
I have to say, if it weren’t for this top-secret security clearance process, I probably never would have told my wife—or anyone else—that I cheated on her. And by taking full responsibility for my actions, I didn’t expect to be free from shame or criticism. I am a man who behaved badly but now takes responsibility for his betrayals and failures; so simple. Thus began the real process of accreditation, which consisted of requesting access to the marriage office.
“You passed the test,” the examiner told another officer with a thumbs up.
I was surprised that I passed the polygraph test, but later I realized that of course I did because I told the truth.
Interestingly, this didn’t mean I was given a full security clearance to begin with, although I did end up getting a full security clearance afterwards. Why? Maybe my family history had something to do with it, but I didn’t care. People are denied security clearance for a variety of reasons. For me, the biggest victory—and lesson—was not being denied a permit because of my polygraph test. He had told the truth and it didn’t hurt me.
Believing that I owed my wife the same honesty, I took the same approach to her. One night after dinner I handed him the file from my security clearance process; a stack of documents detailing every aspect of my life, including everything I had discussed during the polygraph exam.
She read every page.
By the time it’s near the end, I’m already carrying several glasses from a bottle of whiskey. I handed him the bottle across the table in case he wanted a relaxing drink.
Instead, tears welled up in her eyes. “I need time to think about it,” he said. He got up from the chair, wiping his eyes, just as I slid off the chair onto my knees.
He ignored me. He just walked into the room and closed the door.
The question most people ask is, “Why did you have an affair?”
At the time, my wife and I were separated, but we hadn’t realized we were seeing other people. The purpose of the breakup was to give us the distance we needed to consider our relationship, not the freedom to sleep with someone else. However, I soon became romantically involved with another woman. When my wife and I started working things out, I broke up with the other woman.
After my wife read my file, the days seemed surreal and passed slowly. We didn’t say anything to each other for a while, but eventually we started talking about small things again. She asked: Shall I buy cucumbers for a salad? Do you prefer a crispy oven-baked zucchini pizza? I voted for the zucchini chips.
We tentatively begin to find our way back to each other.
Then, weeks later, my wife gave me her own file, a few pages she had written about her life.
My wife is from Okinawa, where much of the island is occupied by American military bases. He flirted with US servicemen and had his first sexual experience with a Marine. He also told me that the same year we got married he had an affair with another soldier while I was away. Even though we weren’t married yet, she wrote on the pages that she thought it was karmic revenge for doing what she did and not telling me.
From there, more honesty flowed from each of us, and as a result we grew closer and closer, more accepting of our past mistakes, not less. Contrary to what I expected, our mutual disclosure of the truth, which was prompted by a completely unrelated polygraph test, did not end our marriage, but saved it.
Of course you didn’t know any of this when you gave me your file. Feeling confused, I simply asked, “What is this?”
“My secrets,” he replied.
Khalid Abdulkadir is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Kansas City, Missouri.