THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR officially debuts today, and I’m grateful to the many people who helped me along the way: librarians, archivists, cryptology enthusiasts, early readers, publishers, friends, family, and all of you who have cheered me on. Above all, I’m grateful to the extraordinary code breaker at the heart of the book. Elizebeth Smith Friedman fought the Mob and helped defeat the Nazis, but for decades she was all but forgotten. That’s changing, and I’m glad to help put her in the spotlight.
(photo courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA)
Elizebeth was a woman of many secrets, and sometimes I had to become a code breaker myself to crack them. It was exciting to discover new material about her childhood, courtship, marriage, and career – as well as a missing year in her life.
She made me think hard about the way we tell women’s stories. It’s good that we are doing more to celebrate women’s achievements, but Elizebeth herself was wary of hero worship, and I think she had a point.
In our efforts to show that certain women were heroic, sometimes we focus almost exclusively on their strengths and successes. That can make their triumphs seem almost inevitable, a matter of superhuman qualities. But that doesn’t serve anyone well.
To judge from the archive that Elizebeth left behind, she wanted to share a more complex story about her life. She had a brilliant mind, and she was rich in love and courage, and her papers certainly have a lot to say about her victories—which were even greater than we knew. But her papers also reveal the cracks in her life, her doubts and disappointments and frustrations, and at times even her despair.
These darker moments are part of her story, just as the triumphant ones are, and talking about both is important. We all face our own hard times, and it strengthens us to know that others have, too.
Painting a complex portrait of a woman doesn’t make her any less remarkable. If anything, it makes her triumphs all the greater—and more real. In the end, creating myths about strong women doesn’t make us strong. What makes us strong is sharing the truth about our lives.