The Geek Who Came In From The Cold

“I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word, in that I lived and worked undercover overseas, pretending to work in a job that I’m not, and even being assigned a name that was not mine…”
–Edward Snowden

My mantra when being interviewed about the Edward Snowden biography comic I wrote in 2014 was that “there is still so much we don’t know…there are parts of the established narrative that make no sense…that there are definitely revelations to come.”

I was shocked by how much just the idea of an Edward Snowden comic resonated with the mass media. Suddenly, my email inbox was filled up with interview requests. A number of them were from Russia. One was from the Alex Jones show, which somehow blew my mind more than NBC, TIME, and the Russian news services. I mean, freakin’ Alex Jones from the Richard Linklater movie Waking Life—how weird was that?

At the time I was being interviewed about the comic, I wondered if my continual questioning of the “official story” of Ed Snowden made me sound like some sort of paranoid “conspiracy theorist”—but Snowden’s subsequent declaration that he was trained as a spy for the United States started to fill in the gaps for me.

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I insinuated in the comic book that there was something a bit odd about his early career trajectory from high-school dropout to suddenly getting jobs from the CIA and NSA & being sent overseas.

“Sourcing out talent” among highly-skilled albeit “underachieving” young men and women by various agencies and interests is hardly a new thing.

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Here, let me give you an example from my own life.

I entered my local college with a perfect English and blah Math SAT score. I was considered a truant in high-school, and my best classes were Creative Writing and French. I had no big plans for higher education, and that’s the mentality I brought with me when I entered university.

Frankly, all I wanted to do was write stuff and read comic books.

But despite an unimpressive high-school record and freshman year, I was offered a substantial scholarship package for a “special” & elite program within the college. I didn’t even apply for this scholarship. They came to me, based on the recommendation of one of my professors. I initially turned them down.

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The program sought individual “experts” in different academic disciplines. Each person represented one skill-set, so they were sort of building a “team.” I was considered a very passionate and persuasive writer—that was my “skill.” I could manipulate words in such a way as to trigger very specific responses. I could make a good pundit, columnist, professor or propagandist speech writer.

We were trained to not only achieve the top academic scholarships like Rhodes & Fulbright, but to mingle and network with high-powered people in politics and the media.

This was all quite amazing to me. Here I was, someone who almost didn’t get a high school diploma—a slacker—suddenly being given all this money, attention, and access to famous people and politicians.

We were shaped to be the “future leaders of America.” Our first class, in the mid-1990s, was on “Utopias.” We were literally taught that we would be the co-constructors of a Utopian society, one in which the enlightened few could fix and direct the populace of a better, saner world. I’m not bullshitting, this was exactly what we were taught.

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We were also warned that a portion of the American public was highly manipulatable, uneducated about the issues and prone to be swept away by this or that fascist demagogue. You know: really farfetched stuff like that!

Truth be told, I had an excellent education through that program—I think I would have barely been able to afford regular college classes at that point, much less the amazing trips and experiences we received.

But there were also little things about the program that seemed…strange to me. And I began having really strange experiences. And my best friend, also in the program, began to have really strange experiences as well. We began comparing notes. And we both started getting a little bit paranoid.

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I began to feel I was getting in way over my head. I felt both flattered and, to an extent, manipulated. I felt like I was being pushed into places I had no preparation to go into; and that furthermore, there wasn’t really anyone in my life who “had my back” in case things started going pear-shaped.

At one point, I won a school-sponsored “contest” to go to England and study Shakespeare. There was only one other person participating in the contest, and I easily won. My mentor at the time, a professor who had “gotten me into” a number of different honor societies and the like, then offered to meet me at a “rendezvous” in London before the studies began. He said that as an amazing coincidence, he also would be in England the same time I was going, and there were a whole bunch of friends he wanted me to meet.

He would pay for the hotel and everything, personally. In fact, he already made the arrangements.

As the time got closer to the actual trip, I became really uneasy about meeting my mentor in London.

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My best friend told me that it seemed like I was being “set up.”

Maybe I was just caught up in the generalized paranoia that was rampant in Nineties culture, but I cancelled the “rendezvous.” However, I did attend the “special school” my new scholarship sent me to anyway—which in many ways seemed simply like a international version of the first one.

At one point, I was seated directly in front of Prince Charles at a play. I turned around in my seat and I saw Prince Charles and a woman I assume was Camilla Parker Bowles. I distinctly remember how ruddy his skin was.

When I got back to the states, my best friend was in the middle of apparently losing her mind. Both my mentor & another student at the university had—again, I’m not bullshitting you—introduced her to some fucked-up & half-baked versions of “occult practice.” I’m not talking Wicca or anything like that, but some sort of stuff that she picked up and “ran with” in her own direction.

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Now she was talking about deep conspiracies, UFOs, a massive psychic war of good vs. evil, and etc. She said that there was a truck parked across the street of her house that was monitoring her.

She was not the first student in this program to have developed something resembling a nervous breakdown while there. I remember how we were all at a party at one of the professor’s houses, and a classmate climbed on the roof and threatened to kill himself. And there turned out to be a whole line of mostly female proteges of my mentor, some of whom had nervous breakdowns; one of whom left her entire family including her children to be with him.

Now, maybe this was all the result of the ordinary pressures of college and maintaining high grades. Maybe I was ascribing something vaguely sinister to something that was just garden-variety kookiness in academia. Maybe I had watched too much X-Files.

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I just needed some perspective.

In desperation, I turned to another professor within the program for advice. He listened to my entire story, and then said, only half-kidding:

“Valerie, you know too much to live.”

That was it, as far as I was concerned.

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I didn’t care if it was all ultimately harmless, or a huge conspiracy, or whatever. I was done.

I returned to my original trajectory, comic book writing, at the end of my senior year—dumping the elaborate plans that had already been put into place for me regarding my future. I think my mentors at the program would have reacted better if I said I was quitting to work on dolphin porn.

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I knew that in Comics, I wouldn’t have to deal with any more of this labyrinthine weirdo shit—because they made books for kids about superheroes!

Anyway, when I researched Edward Snowden and read about his early career right out of school, my years in college immediately popped into my head, as well as an oft-heard saying: “you don’t get something for nothing.” And certainly, my sudden and fleeting volley into international press coverage also brought those memories back.

I occasionally wonder where I might have been now if only I stuck with that program in college. Maybe I’d have a million bucks and my own yacht. Maybe I’d be one of those talking heads you always see on cable news shows. Maybe I’d have my own TED talk. Maybe I would be stuck in Russia. Maybe I would have written this highly influential book on socks.

It’s not too late to write that book on socks.

More to read about on Butterfly Language:
The Nails
The Year Of The Mask: Geek Will Eat Itself
Space, Time, and Charlie Sheen