Request for Comments on “Playing Through the Pain”

by rthieme on July 7, 2016

Friends and colleagues:

I will speak for the 21st straight year at Def Con 24 in Las Vegas in August. My topic is below, and I want to nuance things correctly so I am inviting your input. If this is “orthogonal” to your interests, the delete key is to the right.

I will focus on the genuine trauma, cognitive dissonance, ethical crossroads and conundrums, and other challenges to security and intelligence professionals that are an inherent part of the work. Everyone faces these challenges these days, since the “national security state” permeates all of our lives, but they are obviously more sharp-edged and intense “inside.” Inside, the hyper-real IS the real.

This is serious stuff, but seldom addressed aloud. People did not talk about the consequences of concussions from football, not that long ago. The long-term consequences I am discussing are not trivial either. They need to be acknowledged and addressed.

This is a request for insights or shared experience. Do you have a comment you can share or an insight or suggestion? Email [email protected] or [email protected].

Many thanks.

Richard Thieme

Playing Through the Pain – The Impact of Secrets and Dark Knowledge on Security and Intelligence Professionals

Dismissing or laughing off concerns about what it does to a person to know critical secrets does not lessen the impact on life, work, and relationships of building a different map of reality than “normal people” use. One has to calibrate narratives to what another believes. One has to live defensively, warily. This causes at the least cognitive dissonance which some manage by denial. But refusing to feel the pain does not make it go away. It just intensifies the consequences when they erupt.

Philip K. Dick said, reality is that which, when you no longer believe in it, does not go away. When cognitive dissonance evolves into symptoms of traumatic stress, one ignores those symptoms at one’s peril. But the very constraints of one’s work often make it impossible to speak aloud about those symptoms, because that might threaten one’s clearances, work, and career. And whistle blower protection is often non-existent.

The real cost of security work and professional intelligence goes beyond dollars. It is measured in family life, relationships, and mental and physical well-being. The divorce rate is as high among intelligence professionals as it is among medical professionals, for good reason – how can relationships be based on openness and trust when one’s primary commitments make truth-telling and disclosure impossible?

One CIA veteran wrote: “I was for a while an observer to the Personnel Management working group in the DO. I noted they/we were obscenely proud of having the highest rates of alcoholism, adultery, divorce, and suicide in the US Government. I personally have 23 professional suicides in my mental logbook, the first was an instructor that blew his brains out with a shotgun when I was in training. The latest have tended to be senior figures who could not live with what they knew.”

Richard Thieme has for years listened to people in pain because of the compelling necessities of their work, the consequences of their actions, the misfiring of imperfect plans, and the burdens of soul-wrenching experiences. Thieme touched on some of this impact in his story, “Northward into the Night,” published in the Ranfurly Review, Big City Lit, Wanderings and Bewildering Stories before collection in “Mind Games.” The story illuminates the emotional toll of managing multiple personas and ultimately forgetting who you are in the first place.

The bottom line is, trauma and secondary trauma have identifiable symptoms and they are everywhere in the “industry.” The “hyper-real” space which the national security state creates by its very nature extends to everyone too, now, but it’s more intense for professionals. Living as “social engineers,” always trying to understand the other’s POV so one can manipulate and exploit it, erodes the core self. The existential challenge constitutes an assault on authenticity and integrity. Sometimes sanity is at stake, too, and sometimes, life itself.

We might as well begin our discussion with reality. Choosing unreality instead means we have to spend energy and time on a trek from unreality to reality simply to begin. This talk is about reality – the real facts of the matter and strategies needed for effective life-serving responses, a way to manage the paradoxical imperatives and identity-threatening pressures of our lives and work.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

reid October 12, 2016 at 3:26 PM

This was a seriously fantastic presentation — I make a habit of watching hacker con talks as background noise while I work, and this is up there with Trevor Paglen’s 30C3 ‘Six Landscapes’ among my favorites regarding this subject matter. A minor quibble — please make it less obvious you wrote your own wikipedia entry 😉

Sven Dirks October 14, 2016 at 4:06 PM

Very well put, thanks.

HP October 15, 2016 at 1:05 AM

Saw the link to your post on Metafilter. I work in a field where I’m exposed to traumatic events and material every day. I just wanted to give you the resource of Trauma Stewardship, a book by Laura van Dernoot-Lipsky, who also consults and does trainings for people experiencing vicarious traumatization through their work. Reading the book and seeing her speak was life-changing for me in being able to take care of myself and my sanity despite what I’m exposed to. Please consider looking into her book and trainings for folks in your field. Be well.

TomTrottier October 15, 2016 at 10:22 PM

Reality is a crutch.

rthieme October 15, 2016 at 10:27 PM

i didn’t write the wiki entry. it was written vetted and edited by others.

rthieme October 15, 2016 at 10:30 PM

thanks so much for this.,would like to discuss further if you’re available for that.

Lance October 16, 2016 at 10:38 PM

Issue 1: comparing CIA DO to your average secret squirrel who hides all his/her days in a SCIF is not a good way to go. Clandestine operatives have immensely more complexity than the average intelligence officer, but are a much smaller piece of the pie. It’s similar to comparing ER doctors and nurses to calmer parts of the medical world.

Issue 2: how do you account for the issues of dealing with exposure to war-related trauma vs. secrecy? That’s a hell of a confounder.

You may be interested in this book:

rthieme October 17, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Thanks for the reference and your comment. I’ll check out the book. re: Issue 1: I did not intend to say they were “comparable” as in equal but the many examples I provide are instances of traumatic and secondary traumatic impact in a variety of ways. They are stars in a large constellation of causes and impact people from the front lines all the way to journalists learning about them. It is a spectrum. re: issue 2: I think it is relevant that war-related trauma has a name that people know, has coverage in “news,” and has a visible organization – the VA – which deals with it. Knowing that all those things exist makes a difference. The trauma reinforced by secrecy, especially due to intelligence operations, have no such public airing, no coverage (at the moment – this will change, in part as a result of my speech), and the only organizations dealing with the issues are the ones that cause and cover for them. As I said in the talk, the agencies have a different agenda than someone committed to the human being AS a human being.

rthieme October 17, 2016 at 12:05 PM

Thanks very much for the book reference, I will definitely find it. And if you ever want to talk about the issues, please ping me.

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