March 2024

In True Face

By Jonna Mendez
Review by
In True Face recounts Jonna Mendez’s experience rising through the ranks of the CIA, from disguising spies and planning special operations to grappling with gender discrimination.
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Jonna Mendez sums up her extraordinary 25 years at the CIA thusly: “It was a career I loved. I was doing work that mattered, work that made a difference—making history in some small way. It wasn’t a path I’d ever imagined for myself. I was, after all, just a girl from Wichita, Kansas, seeking adventure, never dreaming that would translate into a life that was both covert and trailblazing.”

But it was not easy. She tells her engaging and enlightening story of service, primarily during the Cold War years, in In True Face: A Woman’s Life in the CIA, Unmasked. The challenges of the work itself were great. And although against official policy, misogyny was the way of life in the agency, and Mendez’s experience with gender discrimination provides a look into that environment. CIA historian and journalist Tim Weiner wrote that “apart from the Marines, there is no branch of service in the United States government as hostile to women as the clandestine services of the CIA.” Despite the efforts of some men who went out of their way to undermine Mendez, she showed courage and fortitude, and, in time, she found male allies who were helpful and supportive.

Beginning as a secretary for her CIA agent husband, Mendez rose through the ranks of the organization. Her skills with photography and disguise eventually led to extremely important roles, including Chief of Disguise, in operations around the world. In True Face includes fascinating accounts of the wide range of her activities. She trained couples, usually married, for work as agents in Moscow; disguised a prime minister; and “match[ed] wits” with Russia’s KGB, East Germany’s Stasi, and Chinese and Cuban intelligence. Mendez, in disguise, even visited the White House to meet with President George H.W. Bush.

This consistently absorbing book is a wonderful memoir that offers more than simply a compelling life story. Mendez says discussions with other women in the early stages of the project convinced her that her experiences should be understood “in the larger context of women in the CIA and indeed, women in the American workplace.” So we have “two stories—one in the world of espionage, the other in the world of women.” And both of them are very well told.

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In True Face

In True Face

By Jonna Mendez
ISBN 9781541703124

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